Vladimir Putin calls Ukraine fascist and country’s new law helps make his case

May 14, 2015
A member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) waits to depart to the frontline in eastern Ukraine, in central Kiev

A member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) waits to depart to the frontline in eastern Ukraine, in central Kiev, March 17, 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

As Ukraine continues its battle against separatists, corruption and a collapsing economy, it has taken a dangerous step that could further tear the country apart: Ukraine’s parliament, the Supreme Rada, passed a draft law last month honoring organizations involved in mass ethnic cleansing during World War Two.

The draft law — which is now on President Petro Poroshenko’s desk awaiting his signature — recognizes a series of Ukrainian political and military organizations as “fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century” and bans the criticism of these groups and their members. (The bill doesn’t state the penalty for doing so.) Two of the groups honored — the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) — helped the Nazis carry out the Holocaust while also killing close to 100,000 Polish civilians during World War Two.

The law is part of a recent trend of contemporary Ukrainian nationalism promoted by those on the extreme right to break with the country’s Communist past and emphasize Ukraine’s suffering under the Soviet regime. In addition to the moral problem of forbidding the criticism of Holocaust perpetrators, the law hinders Ukraine’s European ambitions — and validates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that the country is overrun by neo-Nazis.

The OUN was founded in 1929 as a revolutionary organization designed to liberate Ukraine from Soviet rule and create an independent Ukrainian state. Many OUN leaders were trained in Nazi Germany, and the group’s philosophy was influenced by Nazi racial theorists such as Alfred Rosenberg. OUN literature, for example, declared the need to “combat Jews as supporters of the Muscovite-Bolshevik regime… Death to the Muscovite-Jewish commune! Beat the commune, save Ukraine!”

The OUN fought both the Nazis and the Soviets, and many Ukrainian nationalists have argued that the OUN was primarily a national liberation movement. But while the OUN’s core goal may have been the creation of an independent Ukrainian state, along the way its members were responsible for terrible atrocities.

Starting with a pogrom in Lviv shortly after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, OUN militias — with the support of the Nazis — embarked on a killing spree in Western Ukraine that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. After the Nazis dissolved these militias, many of their members joined the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in German service, where they received weapons-training and became one of the most important instruments of the Holocaust in Belarus and Western Ukraine.

By 1943 the OUN had seized control of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary group, and declared itself opposed to both the retreating Germans and the oncoming Soviets.  Although no longer in Nazi service, the UPA nevertheless continued to target and kill Jews, herding them into labor camps for execution. The UPA also engaged in the mass ethnic cleansing of Poles during this time, killing nearly 100,000 people.

Even after the Red Army pushed the Germans from Ukraine in the summer of 1944, the UPA continued to fight a partisan war against Soviet forces well into the 1950s, before it was finally crushed by the massive power of the Red Army. It is this legacy of sacrifice that explains the Rada’s decision to pass a law honoring the OUN and the UPA.

This law echoes a recent trend of glorifying right-wing Ukrainian nationalist organizations with controversial pasts. Under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, a number of leading Ukrainian nationalists were honored with a memorial at Babi Yar — site of the single-worst massacre of Jews during the Holocaust. Yushchenko also bestowed the highest government honor of “Hero of Ukraine” upon the controversial former OUN leader Stepan Bandera — a step roundly condemned by the chief rabbi of Ukraine, the president of Poland and the European Union.

More recently, radical nationalists played a key role as “shock troops” on the Maidan, and the anti-government camp was full of OUN-UPA flags and cries of “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” — chants that originated with the OUN. Currently, a number of OUN-UPA apologists occupy important government positions, including the minister of education, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine and the director of the Ukrainian government’s Institute of National Memory. Even Poroshenko has gotten into the act, laying a wreath in honor of the OUN at Babi Yar last year.

The draft law has a number of downsides beyond the moral problem of giving the OUN and UPA a free pass for atrocious crimes. Most obviously, making criticism of Holocaust perpetrators illegal is not compatible with Ukraine’s European ambitions. It is natural that many Ukrainians would wish to define themselves in opposition to the former Soviet Union, but as a budding democracy, banning criticism of any organizations — particularly those with such dark pasts — is the wrong way to build national identity.

Kiev also must remember that its conflict with Putin’s Russia is taking place in cyberspace as well as the Donbass. Kiev has now handed the Kremlin “evidence” for Putin’s claim that Russia is facing off against fascists. Not surprisingly, Russian state-owned media outlets have had a field day condemning the law.

Perhaps the worst effect of this law is the way it would split the country. Eastern and western Ukrainians already possess widely diverging views on recent political events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Maidan revolution. The law would only exacerbate these regional differences. Historically, support for the “OUN-cult” originated primarily in the western Ukrainian regions of Galacia and Volhynia, where they are seen as heroic freedom fighters against Soviet oppression. Eastern Ukrainians, by contrast, grew up viewing these groups as Nazi collaborators to be feared and condemned rather than celebrated.

The Rada’s passage of this law has already greatly harmed Ukraine. It is now up to Poroshenko to mitigate the damage by vetoing it.

32 comments

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Thank you, Josh for the truth. I am so disappointed to read west media coverage of the Ukrainian crises, that I stopped to do that. Your article gives a hope that not all west world became crazy

Posted by odessa-mama | Report as abusive

Fascists looking to break Minsk II.

Posted by demiboone | Report as abusive

Putin is lier.

Posted by azmawer | Report as abusive

Ukraine is one of the many situations faced by the United States around the world in which the goods guys are bad guys, too.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Good article from an ex-USAID officer.

USAID’s workings to have fomented this conflict that claimed 6k lives to-date, followed by standard rhetoric/sanctions by-the-book, funneling billions of US tax-payer dollars into the corrupt nation, putting NATO and US troops on Russian border – and now this moral high-ground that the ex-NAZI’s OUN/UPA’s are bad – why not recognize the former actions are equally bad as well?

Selective morality and group-thing that’s gone wild?

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

“Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov or Wlassow… was a Russian Red Army general who collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II…

Vlasov claimed that… he affirmed his anti-bolshevism, believing Joseph Stalin was the greatest enemy of the Russian people,[4] and there is evidence that suggests Vlasov may have changed sides in a bid to give his countrymen a better life than the one they had under Stalin.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrey_Vlas ov

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

UauS,“Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov or Wlassow… was a Russian Red Army general who collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II…”

В России никто не героизирует Власова. Напротив, он признан преступником.

Posted by O.Warvar | Report as abusive

Vladimir The Righteous and RT were right at the end.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Putin dresses his men in Ukraine like ISIS jihadists. Proud soldiers don’t wear black hoods over their heads. Putin is a terrorist worm.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

A breath of fresh air. But as usual some can’t handle the truth.
Ukraine shelled the civilians in the East because of language and ethnicity. Its own citizens. How can anyone accept that. The East didn’t start the war, ironically Eastern Ukrainians gave aid and donations to help Western Ukraine during flooding in the past.
Shame on the Western powers when aid from Russia sat for ten days, because no one would inspect the trucks from Russia, which was in a secure area in Russia. International organizations of any one nation or organization could have, you could have taken the trucks apart and reassembled them in ten days. Finally the Russians drove the aid over the border to help as people were left to suffer by Western inaction. Putin was the only one sticking up for a civilian population shelled by its own countrymen. Where is the rational thought process in that? Because of ethnic differences? I guess Russian lives don’t matter in the Western eyes.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Nazi collaborators can’t be at the same time freedom fighters. As for the methods of these Ukrainian “freedom fighters”, even the Nazis were appalled at the level of atrocities they’ve routinely committed.

Posted by Nagant | Report as abusive

Ukrainian leaders want to join EU and 21st century, except they cannot shake off and leave behind their dark 20th century history and nationalistic views and habits. This is in contrast to Germany and Japan both of which recognized – and took responsibility – for their dark past and emerged as human right and economic leaders today. What a shame that we – the “West” – align with and support this behavior and views today. We cannot support what is wrong just to fight another wrong.

Posted by USAIsGreat | Report as abusive

There are definitely hard core right wing elements in their government as there are in a lot of Western governments too. The real test will be to see if this gets made into law. This sort of action will destroy any support they hope to build, even with countries that have hawkish

Posted by Vexxed14 | Report as abusive

It’s sad that here in America there writers who are willing to promote Soviet turned Russian Federation propaganda. Had the author done even a little real research rather than repeat propaganda he would have noted that Igor Kolomoisky, who is president of the European Jewish Union and a leading Jewish Ukrainian philanthropist is strong follower of Stephan Bandera. Perhaps because he came to understand that both the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) had many leading Jewish members and that these organizations did not target Jews as Soviet turned Russian propaganda often repeat. Bandera was a defender of the Ukrainian nation as is Igor Kolomoisky. For more accurate and leading information on the issue of modern Jewish Ukrainian relations read: http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/ alexander-j-motyl/trading-barbs-putin.

The Poles and Ukrainians have had several wars in the last century. Both ethnic groups have reconciled and are best of friends today. Poles live without fear in Ukraine and several hundred thousand Ukrainians have recently found refuge in Poland.

Posted by PolyFilaman | Report as abusive

Couldn’t get past the first paragraph. If the author actually knew the history of the UPA, and the history of Ukraine’s fight for independence this article would be very different. And reading a definition of fascism wouldn’t go amiss either. This kind of ignorance is inexcusable, and for Reuters to publish this is frankly unbelievable.

Posted by ActuallyInUA | Report as abusive

Everyone want’s putin’s blood money, right Josh Cohen?
I was hoping that Thomson Reuters is responsible for what their “journalists” publishing, but looks like nobody cares about truth now.
For many years soviet propaganda destroyed evidences, killed people and distorted truth about their enemies or anyone, who can be a threat to their total power. A lot of scary tails were created, and millions of people were raised on that lies. No wonder, that many people in post-soviet space still belive in all this. European and USA citizens will be very surprised if they know about what soviet propaganda said about them in the past and what russian propaganda sais about them today…
Author should first try to read some books, before start writting drivel like this. Shame that someone really believe this…

Posted by Saruum | Report as abusive

A great hero of West-Ukraine Nationalism is General Vlasov a Red Army traitor who began working for Nazi Germany and formed the SS ROA. The West brags of his fighting ability against the Red Army but he fought them only once in Feb 1944 and was crushed. On May 6, 1945, Vlasov received a request from the commander of the first ROA division, General Sergei Bunyachenko, for permission to turn his weapons against the Nazi SS forces and aid Czech resistance fighters in the Prague uprising. Vlasov at first disapproved, then reluctantly allowed Bunyachenko to proceed. On May 8, 1945 the Germans surrendered unconditionally so ,in fact, the ROA fought the Germans for only one day. The West-Ukraine’s myth is that he fought a long sustained battle against Nazi Germany but I would hardly consider one day enough time to put together a strong resistance.

Posted by demiboone | Report as abusive

Josh Cohen and a lot of Europeans are preconceived with Ukrainian history. It is simple – they get information from Polish and Russian sources. Both countries have claims on Ukraine’s lands. And no one mention existence of concentration camps in Poland (Bereza Kartuzska) and Russia (GULAG) where millions of Ukrainian were kept and killed. So, There would be no massacre in Volhyn for example, if Poland followed Entente obligation to give Ukrainians autonomy.

Posted by Bohdan_Volhynia | Report as abusive

So basically what this article is saying is that some nationalists are trying to pass nationalistic laws celebrating history (of course this has nothing to do with current events, you do realize) while Putin basically does even worse in Russia. So how does this ‘validate’ Putin in anyway? By claiming that Ukraine is behaving like Putin-lite in this one instance?

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

The problem with free speech is that you give even fascists the right to speak. During the last parliamentary elections the extreme right wing won 1.5% of votes. That is the proportion of Ukrainians who believe in them. Ukraine is hardly a fascist state, just a free-speech state.

Posted by M.CH | Report as abusive

I understand why this “expert” is a former one. The use of Soviet cliches in regards to the Ukrainians and its fight for freedom tells a lot about the “expertise” as such.
And the most ridiculous comment about different perception of the events between Western and Eastern Ukrainians. One more Soviet era cliche aiming to divide Ukrainians. You failed Josh together with your sponsors.

Posted by justname | Report as abusive

“never again”!

Posted by purplehaze77340 | Report as abusive

Once again – quite reasonable article. A historical erratum is in place here, though. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was founded in 1929 in Lwow, then Poland, primarily to liberate the West Ukraine from the Polish rule. OUN was a revolutionary terrorist organization, engaged in killings and terror, which culminated in killing the Polish Interior Minister. Here is the relevant quote from Wikipedia,

the OUN accepted violence as a political tool against foreign and domestic enemies of their cause. Most of its activity was directed against Polish politicians and government representatives. Under the command of the Western Ukrainian Territorial Executive (established February 1929), the OUN carried out hundreds of acts of sabotage in Galicia and Volhynia, including a campaign of arson against Polish landowners (which helped provoke the 1930 Pacification), boycotts of state schools and Polish tobacco and liquor monopolies, dozens of expropriation attacks on government institutions to obtain funds for its activities, and assassinations. From 1921 to 1939 UVO and OUN carried out 63 known assassinations: 36 Ukrainians (among them one communist), 25 Poles, 1 Russian and 1 Jew.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

I understand Ukraine is trying to give credence to history to make their identity and bring their culture to their world stage. Whether you are soviet, Ukrainian, Nazi, Imperial Japan, USA, Communist china or Muslim people have collaborated with all the persons that make this world a dump.

Posted by Cyberblunt | Report as abusive

Suppose they shot down Flight MH 17 ??? Didnt think so, so easily forgotten

Posted by FTM | Report as abusive

Here are core tenets of Fascism according to Wikipedia: Nationalism, Totalitarianism, Single-party state, Personality cult, Dictatorship, Militarism, Direct action, Imperialism,….. sound familiar? Sieg Heil Putin!

Posted by Engineer2005 | Report as abusive

Putin is an incapable leader. His economy is sinking, and is now slightly smaller than that of Italy. Italy! The largest country on Earth has an economy the size of… Italy. Boo. Russian GDP per capita is now smaller than Czech republic. Into the toilet Russia heads, as more investors pull out each week.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

If they could only honor the good parts, while preserving the everlasting right to criticize and denounce the bad parts….

Posted by DennisMyers | Report as abusive

A great hero of West-Ukraine Nationalism is General Vlasov a Red Army traitor who began working for Nazi Germany and formed the SS ROA. The West brags of his fighting ability against the Red Army but he fought them only once in Feb 1944 and was crushed. On May 6, 1945, Vlasov received a request from the commander of the first ROA division, General Sergei Bunyachenko, for permission to turn his weapons against the Nazi SS forces and aid Czech resistance fighters in the Prague uprising. Vlasov at first disapproved, then reluctantly allowed Bunyachenko to proceed. On May 8, 1945 the Germans surrendered unconditionally so ,in fact, the ROA fought the Germans for only one day. The West-Ukraine’s myth is that he fought a long sustained battle against Nazi Germany but I would hardly consider one day enough time to put together a strong resistance.

Posted by demiboone | Report as abusive

I think Josh, you wrote the article about something you have no knowledge of. Its not, (OUN) and (UPA) helped to carry Holocaust but you cooperating with fascist Russia yourself now.
There was some individuals guilty of crimes against humanity, a lot of them were Jewish themselves and many countries cooperated with Nazis including Russia, Finland and many more European countries… does not mean they they helped to carry Holocaust. OUN and UPA cooperated to fight Soviet Union, please read the true history before showing off your stupidity.
What you did, – you just copied and paste Putin’s propaganda to discriminate Ukraine.

P.S. Just wonder now, who wrote this article for you?…
May be soon you’ll read article about yourself, exposing you and your true employer. And please, don’t remove my comment…comrad

Posted by Seriously_ | Report as abusive

While there is a lot of truth in this article, the OUN/UPA celebration does not justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the annexation of Crimea. The current Ukrainian far-right received only negligible support in last year’s elections, so OUN/UPA are not political players today. The Russians would dearly love for Poland to retake Western Ukraine while Russia absorbs the rest of Ukraine, but that just won’t happen. In all of Eastern Europe, the partisans who kept on fighting the Soviets after WWII are being celebrated today as heroes, even though many of them did unspeakable things. Tragically, the Soviets did much worse things to the millions living there, and hence the praise now being given to those who opposed the Soviets is understandable, though misguided. The process of coming to terms with the past had been progressing well in all of Europe and in Russia, until Putin and cronies decided to play with the fire of nationalism. Hence the unfortunate glorification of long-ago defeated militias in Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere, and apologia for Stalin and the NKVD in Russia.

Posted by czarnajama | Report as abusive

bull

Posted by pa55wird | Report as abusive