Ukraine held together for almost a year and a half. But political violence last week showed Kiev’s power is growing more fragile than many thought. Our own photographer’s face is proof.
The protest was a battle over a vote granting more regional provincial autonomy, directly helping the pro-Russian breakaway statelets in East Ukraine’s Donbass. On one side were the revolutionaries who, during the 2014 Maidan revolution, brought down the pro-Russian government and had joined the new government’s security forces. On the other: these same revolutionaries—the ones who had instead formed paramilitary militias.
Delaunay, the photographer, had arrived late. The Svobada (Freedom) Party was leading the fight against the police and National Guard in front of parliament. The Right Sector party had been fighting alongside Svoboda but fled as soon as the grenade went off.
These are wide boulevards, perfect for street brawls. Delaunay saw about twenty people scuffling, started snapping shots, then smack—blasted by a rock to the head. He’s unsure whether the rock was thrown at him because he was a photojournalist. Regardless, he spent the night in the hospital and received some stitches.
It was a depressing moment for Ukraine, and a major victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin had been warning that “right-wing fascists would destroy Ukraine” from day one. Now, he looked to be right. But he was strangely quiet as his dream came true. Putin was likely too busy bringing a “hybrid-war” to Syria.
Over the last month, I traveled the part of Ukraine that is not at war with Russia. Sadly, the fascist menace Russia touts is real. From Kiev to Lviv and Odessa, the entire state is far more fragile than when I arrived in May. Modern states can collapse quickly. Ukraine dissolving into Balkan-omic warlordism represents just as dangerous of a scenario as the Eastern proxy war between Cold War powers. This fall may be when the future of Europe’s largest nation is decided. But summer did not feel foreboding—quite the opposite.
Late on a June night, Detroit techno DJ Carl Craig performed on a river island in the middle of Kiev. Unlike many DJs who rely on set track lists, Craig creates his sets on the spot based on the mood of the crowd. At this holiday festival, a few thousand pulsed inside a tent. Kiev being a post-revolutionary wartime capital, Craig may have expected a less carefree crowd. But escape seems essential when collective trauma has visited a society.
Craig’s set ended early in the morning. I crossed a footbridge back towards town. The rising sun dreamily lit the river and park hills like a Hudson River School painting, the low-lying Podil neighborhood’s Orthodox Church’s domes blessed in blinding gold.
“Kiev’s Hipster Revolution” was the headline of a recent story about this place. True, there are a couple bourbon bars/barber shops, upscale burger stands, steam punk salons, speakeasies without signage, but “hip” is not the majority look. The city’s mainstream fashion is nationalism.
Kiev is a wonderland of hills, parks, boulevards and distinct neighborhoods split by the Dnieper River. Officially home to around three-and-a-half million people, hundreds of thousands of the war’s 1.4 million internally displaced have also come to the city. Greater Kiev is now home to 10% of the 45 million people in Ukraine. The city is not experiencing a wartime boom. With the influx of war displaced people, rent is higher than ever. The currency is down by 65% against the dollar. There are fewer jobs for less salary. Most recently, an IMF debt default was narrowly avoided.
Put simply: Russia is attempting to destroy Kiev.
In spring 2014, the Maidan revolution removed Putin’s man President Viktor Yanukovych. A pro-European government came to power. The new regime led by President Viktor Poroshenko is slowly making reforms to the judiciary, customs, police force and governance. Ukraine consistently ranks as the most corrupt nation in Europe. Change is not happening quickly enough, and Poroshenko went to Brussels in late August trying to explain to the European Union that it’s all Russia’s fault, which is only partially true.
Two Russian-led wars have caused general instability. Last spring, Putin outright stole Ukraine’s main sea lane, the Crimean Peninsula. He then pushed for rebellion in the Donbass region, eastern Ukraine’s industrial center, providing money, weapons, soldiers and strategic command to the breakaways. Donbass is now a deadlocked war, split in two between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels. Putin continually ups tension via outlandish web, print and televised propaganda.
America—and the West as a whole—is not invested in Ukraine like Russia is. But the U.S. Army is training the National Guard of Ukraine. The Department of State continues to prop up dozens of NGOs and a“Ukraine crisis press center.” Total post-Maidan aid has topped $300 million.
No war in the Internet epoch has been more propagandized than this one. You can read the Russian version on Sputnik News and the NATO version on the Kyiv Post—both funded by their own sides. Dozens of other print, web and TV outlets play PR. In reporting this series, I’ve been accused of being pro-Russian despite considering Putin the Slav Saddam with actual WMDs.
In an objective look at the war for the East, most signs point to a long and lasting (but limited) conflict. Ukraine’s parliament passed the aforementioned bill giving greater autonomy to the provinces and its high court approved self-rule for the breakaways. The death toll remains unknown, but is well above 10,000 and rises daily.
The West is not idle. France, Germany and Ukraine met in late August on Ukraine’s Independence Day to discuss the failed Minsk II ceasefire and President Barack Obama called his German counterpart Angela Merkel two weeks ago to discuss the crisis. A new ceasefire went into place on September 1st. It lasted for two days. But overall violence does seem to have slowed.
While everyone was preoccupied with the East, the rest of Ukraine was seeing fringe revolutionaries take more visible actions. They may have little public support and be small in size, but they have weapons and are not afraid to use them. The scary part is what the paramilitaries and the general public agree on: the current government is nearly as corrupt and bad for Ukraine as the one that Maidan outed.
One summer afternoon walking through Maidan, the large public square where the revolution began, I spotted the Azov Brigade preparing a memorial for fallen comrades. Azov shares the uber-nationalist ideology of Svoboda and Right Sector, but they have merged fully with the government security forces. This nationalist militia is currently fighting about 400 miles away, alongside Ukraine’s army. Maidan remains the public squawk box. Every day some group holds some event. Today was Azov’s turn.
Minutes later, twenty men in uniform unfurled more Azov flags—Ukrainian yellow and blue with the Nazi Wolfsangel logo—and got into formation. Around them, a mix of members and supporters in both uniform and street wear gathered. The kids in their street clothes looked like hardcore punks about to mosh at a show, not shoot Russians with Howitzers. Many had dubious t-shirts and tattoos, swastikas included. Being Jewish, it’s not really possible for me to respect Nazism.
Seeing photos of dead young men reminds me that all around Ukraine, people would be dying over politics in the days to come—not just in the eastern war. A new front flared that same July week in West Ukraine, between the Right Sector and the central government.
It was midday on a Saturday when the convoy pulled up on a government sports complex. Twenty armed men, including a pick-up truck with a mounted heavy machine gun, demanded control of the complex, which was a hub of cigarette smuggling. When the government denied access, the militants opened fire. For the next few hours, guns blasted and grenades shattered. Two government security forces were killed, nine injured.
The Right Sector declared war on the government. A standoff ensued between the state and the militants. Tensions soon eased, but protests spread across western Ukraine to the capital. Right Sector, also known as Privay Sektor, a group of soccer fans, right wing politicians, nationalists and criminals, formed during Maidan’s revolution. They hold one seat in parliament. Their main base is the city of Lviv in West Ukraine.
Until the Great War, Lviv was an eastern outpost of the Hapsburg Empire. It is now the largest city in Western Ukraine. The Austro-Hungarian cafe cultural spirit endures. Grand architecture stretching from the 12th to the 19th centuries with hundreds of bars and restaurants strung along cobblestone streets makes the city of 700,000 a walking-tourism paradise.
The Right Sector’s headquarters sit on one of the city’s main squares. A few weeks ago, I visited their airless fourth-floor offices on. The walls were lined with pictures of wounded men in red and black uniforms. Right Sector prefers their own colors to Ukraine’s. Mortars, shells and other artillery were being presented to a Portuguese media team in a conference room.
Olena Zhykov works alone in a back office. Zhykov, 29, is a trained lawyer but looks like a model—a striking 6’1 blonde with distinct facial structure. She is the viceroy of Right Sector in Lviv Oblast, or province. This hard woman works long hours running a politburo of militant men. Her dedication recently broke up her marriage. “He cried more than me,” she said with a slight grin. She now keeps an 18-year-old boy toy intern.
Zhykov described the sports complex attack as “direct action against corruption.” Earlier in the week the head of the group, Dmytro Yaros, the member of parliament, bowed to Kiev with a peace offering. Of course, that only lasted until they attacked the parliament last week. Not like Zyhkov cares about Yaros’ political plays in Kiev.
“That was the other area of Ukraine,” Zhykov defiantly said. “It’s not like we don’t work with the government at all. We are always working with the army in the East. And television does not show how many of us are dying together in war.” Zhykov wants to revoke the Minsk II ceasefire and take back Donabass.
The Right Sector also has a rep for Neo-Nazism, but Zykov shrugs it off. “Look, we are a group of people, we don’t put Nazi images up here in our office. I can’t control what the younger kids do.” Later, my photographer and I noticed a pink grenade adorned with a swastika on her office shelf.
On democracy her views are equally scary: “We have no interest in joining the government.” She admits Right Sector is a paramilitary group who answers to no one. “Some laws we follow, the ones we don’t like, no. The Constitution says we have a right to defend our land. We are like the Forest Brothers of Estonia,” an insurgency that fought the Nazis and Bolsheviks for decades.
Zhykov claims not to take a salary. She drives a humble little car, noting “my last boyfriend gave me a Porsche but I gave it back.” However, Right Sector is not poor and are likely making money from the very border smuggling they fought the government over earlier in the summer.
The next day we visited Zhykov’s family in the country, where they run a traditional Ukrainian restaurant on a humble estate, with a small indoor tavern area and a series of vine-wrapped outdoor bungalows. Chickens ran wild. Swans floated in a vernal pond.
Zhykov’s 13-year-old nephew was visiting from Brooklyn. He nearly cried tears of joy when upon learning another New Yorker was on site. He told me the best quip I heard in Ukraine: “Being a politician is positive because you’re rich. The downside is you may die.”
Later, we went to a birthday party for a high-level Right Sector member. The house was roughly the size of a Manhattan tenement building, but it looked like a log cabin and had a sauna/spa complex in the backyard. The driveway was filled with Range Rovers, Mercedes and Porsches.
The guys sat in a gazebo and wore shorts and pants colored Nantucket red—an homage to the RightSector flag, but unintentionally New England WASPy in style. They shared the attitude of Andover grads. They made fun of me for meeting the “Ruskis” despite having never gone to the front themselves. They vowed to never join the government. They chugged liquor, frat boy style.
The Right Sector yuppie politicos expressed nationalism with the absolution of fascism. It was like the Young Republicans merged with Colombia’s FARC. Their pig roast left me scared for Ukraine’s future (a fear that proved correct just weeks later). Mentioning I was scheduled to meet the American military the next day, they demanded, “We want Javelin missiles! Tell Obama! Javelins! Javelins to destroy tanks…”
Twenty miles outside Lviv by the border of Poland, the US Army is working with the National Guard of Ukraine. The base stretches for a dozen miles. In the middle is a quadrant reserved for the US-Ukraine exercise know as Fearless Guardian. Earlier in the summer a 19-nation exercise called Rapid Trident took over the base. Currently NATO’s Sea Breeze naval exercises are occurring in southern Ukraine. The US Army in Ukraine is press friendly. Emails are returned fast, with a stamp stating “Army Strong! Strong Europe!” One wonders if these military sloganeers moonlight as tabloid headline writers.
On base, we had an escort called a Public Affairs Officer (PAO), who drove us around in a big VW van. He was a nice kid, a tall basketball player from South Carolina, and maybe the laziest soldier I’ve ever met, joking about avoiding high-ranking officers and wanting a job at the Pentagon. He was a good flack, though, declining to be named.
We met some guys from the 173rd Airborne leading a training mission who gave the expected talking points like, “this has been interesting” and, “we’re learning from each other.” I watched the Ukrainians stage a fake raid on a village, then get fake attacked in the woods.
Joining some officers at mess, I saw hundreds of Canadian soldiers who didn’t share the battle-ready look of America’s infantry. “They’re engineers,” our PAO said. “Not exactly in fighting shape but they sure build stuff fast.” The entire “Town,” as the command center’s half dozen buildings is known, was being rebuilt by our northern neighbors. If the brand new everything means anything, it’s that there’s no near-term end to the neo-Cold War.
One Ukrainian officer was staring at us. Our main interview, the PAO said. Colonel Karpeljushnj Sherif is in control of the US Army-National Guard of Ukraine training program. He was in his 50s and wore battle dress. His face sagged with bureaucratic fatigue.
Fearless Guardian currently trains 235 men over three-month sessions, he said. This is the second phase. America has roughly the same amount of troops on base. He was unsure of the budget: “My main duty is to be the head coordinator. In Ukraine we do not look in the pockets of others. But it is at least ten million dollars.” Obviously, he wants the program to expand.
Vetting who exactly is being trained has become a major issue. After reports surfaced that America was training Neo-Nazis, Congress passed an amendment banning them from the program. “Only contracted soldiers are allowed to come. Legally contracted—no conscripts, volunteer battalions,” Colonel Sherif clarified, vaguely.
Fully unassured the US was not training any Neo-Nazi fascist types, I headed to the beach. Ukraine’s Independence Day was coming up.
Just above my head, a small bird fluttered branch to branch—it’s colored like Ukraine’s flag, bright yellow and blue. I was wandering the woodlands above Odessa’s long beach. I’d been to this same beach now fifty-odd times over the past few months and have never seen this tropical-looking nationalist bird. Being Independence Day, I wondered if the bird was a dove-like peace sign.
Odessa was decreed a city in the 18th century by Catherine the Great simply because she wanted a free port. It was designed by French Duke of Richelieu on a grid layout, wrapped by parkland that steeply tumbles to the Black Sea beach.
If Ukraine’s prettiest city is Lviv and the most cosmopolitan is Kiev, Odessa is its most interesting. It is the Miami of the Black Sea, a beach town of a sex and culture anchored by the most corrupt port in Europe. There’s a museum for everything, not just smuggling but three unique literary museums. Before the Holocaust, Odessa was the largest Jewish capital of Europe. Over a third of its million resident were Jews who were either killed by war, or fled to New York.
Since Russia Anschlussed Crimea, Ukraine’s former main tourist destination, Odessa has seen a boom. Five million people visited this summer. Twice as many as last year. It is the only place in Ukraine I saw scores of high-rise hotel/condos being built.
For three days in late August, the OK Odessa Hotel is the site of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) “Radiation Safety and Control Improvement” conference. OK Odessa is located right next the Russian Consulate, and one Ukrainian noted the OSCE is fully coopted by Russian intelligence agency.
About a month ago, rumors of “dirty bomb” being constructed by rebels surfaced in a media report. OSCE’s press representative Irina Yarema told me she hadn’t heard of the Donbass dirty bomb but would find me the experts who would know such things. Then she said that since the OSCE staff here were not media-trained reps like her, I should not use their names, even though they all wore name tags.
OSCE’s attention has been more focused on nuke traffickers in West Ukraine. Earlier this month, a gang was busted trying to sell some uranium. A seminar about the arrests and preventing similar crimes was about to begin. The scientist leading the seminar said there is no evidence of Eastern rebels with radioactive material.
Alas, it turned out that the yellow and blue flag-colored bird was no sign of peace. Next door to the OK Odessa, a large luxury tower caught fire. The Odessa fire department had no way to control it. For the entire day, the building burned.
The next day, Kiev went off. Delaney, my photographer, is out of the hospital, but still receiving injections to his stitched up head. Ukraine has dispatched a military battalion to its streets. The nationalists are threatening an intervention to free their fighters.
The sole good news is that the Eastern front is quieter than it has been for months. Concern has moved away from the Russian aggression and back to Kiev. Ukraine teeters again. All anyone hopes now is that more blood is not spilled.