by Gordon M. Hahn
Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist volunteer battalions are raising their ugly heads again undermining the country’s territorial integrity and increasingly failed effort to stabilize its political system and salvage what remains of democracy. The leader of the ongoing blockade of the Donbass, ultra-nationalist Self-Help Party deputy in the Rada and former Donbass volunteer battalion founder and commander Semen Semenchenko, is now calling for an equally divisive blockade of oligarchs (www.ng.ru/cis/2017-05-29/1_6997_ukraina.html). Semenchenko’s military-political activity has been neither Ukraine-friendly nor freedom-friendly. Yet he continues to be supported within the powerful Ukrainian diaspora and US democracy-promotion circles in Washington.
Semenchenko was feted in Washington in September 2014 at the International Republican Institute (where he wore a camouflage uniform), International Democratic Institute and other US governmental, quasi-governmental and private democracy-promotion institutions during his trip to secure training for Ukraine’s volunteer battalions dominated by nationalist, ultra-nationalist, and neofascist fighters ( http://www.voanews.com/a/ukraine-donbas-battalion-commander-seeks-us-support/2452051.html and http://censor.net.ua/resonance/311810/semen_semenchenko_budem_deyistvovat_dobrym_slovom_i_musornym_bakom). By October 2014 his Donbass Battalion, consisting of volutneer nationalists and ultra-nationalists, was receiving training from the U.S. military (http://vesti-ukr.com/donbass/70508-batalon-donbass-budet-trenirovatsja-pod-rukovodstvom-amerikanskih-instruktorov).
Semenchenko is close to other radical former and present volunteer battalion commanders like recently turned parliamentarian Andrei Teteruk (http://korrespondent.net/ukraine/3444047-semenchenko-rasskazal-chto-on-y-druhye-kombaty-delauit-v-vashynhtone).
Semenchenko and Teretuk, left and center, respectively
Teteruk is recently most infamous for physically attacking a female parliamentarian ala Zhirinovskii, sending her to the hospital with a concussion after belting over the head with a bottle just off the floor of the Rada in session at the time after a dispute at the podium between the two. The Rada, with its large neo-fascist, ultra-nationalist, and national chauvinist contingent, voted not to punish Teteruk (http://video.vesti-ukr.com/politika/5176-video-draki-teteruka-i-kuzhel, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ2DoyqfPCE, and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/12/21/ukraines-parochial-differences/). The ultra-nationalist Teteruk, as can be seen in the photo below, is also a beneficiary of US government assistance through USAID-sponsored fora if nothing else.
Semenchenko and the Ultra-Nationalists’ Blockade of Donbass
For his part, Semenchenko has been instrumental in the nationalist Self-Help Party’s effort to blockade transport and trade with Donbass, which has achieved little other than to further alienate the breakaway republics from Kiev and drive them further into Russia’s embrace. Semenchenko’s partner in leading the transport blockade is the notorious neo-fascist Volodomyr Parasyuk (http://vesti-ukr.com/strana/230556-privedet-li-blokada-donbassa-k-polnotsennoj-hranitse-mezhdu-ukrainoj-i-ldnr). He led the neo-fascist unit that initiated the 20 February 2014 snipers’ massacre that Western and Maidan media succeeded in pinning on President Yanukovych leading to his overthrow (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/03/09/the-real-snipers-massacre-ukraine-february-2014-updatedrevised-working-paper/).
The Donbass and Aidar battalions have implemented the Self-Help-led blockade on all transport and trade between Donbass and the rest of Ukraine begun in December 2016. President Petro Poroshenko flip-flopped in his position on instituting the blockade. He initially opposed it, charging it would lead to Ukraine’s loss of Donbass and was nothing than a political play by Self-Help Party leader and Lviv mayor Andrei Sadovoi to raise his popularity rating. However, by March 2017 the weakness of the regime and Poroshenko’s disastrously low popularity rating led the present Maidan top leadership to eventually coopt the blockade effort by ‘legislating’ it in order to prevent the ultras from seizing the upper hand (http://vesti-ukr.com/politika/230047-poroshenko-vvel-transportnuju-blokadu-donbassa). Days later, Poroshenko himself was forced to acknowledge that, according to 112 Television, “as a result of the blockade Ukraine has lost influence over its own territory” and “(a)t the same time the fatherland’s energy and metallurgy industries and the budget have taken a blow.” According to Vesti Ukrain, he acknowledged: “(A)s a result of the blockade Ukraine has lost the last sphere of influence on this territory” (Donbass) (http://vesti-ukr.com/politika/230511-poroshenko-priznal-chto-ukraina-poterjala-vlijanie-na-donbass).
The weakness of the increasingly divided Maidan regime before the ultra-nationalist element that helped to found it, that has infiltrated it and that continues to blackmail and/or threaten it with an ultra-nationalist coup, was clear for all to see. Incidents in which police attempted to break up the blockade by firing shots over the heads of battalion members enforcing it almost led to gun battles. By March, regime efforts to rein in the transport blockade of Donbass almost led to violence as members of the Donbass and Aidar battalions demonstrated outside numerous regional administration buildings in nationalist western Ukraine, threatened to storm them, and were preparing for a storm against their positions by law enforcement. In the town of Shcherbinovka they hijacked a train and absconded with its parts (http://vesti-ukr.com/strana/229659-uchastniki-blokady-aktsii-pod-oha-proba-sil-mozhem-i-zhestche).
Semenchenko describes a worst-case scenario of the kind that almost unfolded at the time and still hangs over Ukraine as having been avoided barely in the confrontation between battalions and law enforcement over the initially illegal spontaneous blockade led from below: “The police shoot over the heads of (blockade participants), and a (veteran serviceman participating in the blockade) in response sprays them in the face from a gas canister. Thank God, he did not shoot at them, because if he shot, then they could really have shot him. Then servicemen of the battalions would have run to help (a fellow) serviceman… And what would have followed? A wave of protests around the country. Soon everyone is armed, Poroshenko would runaway after a few days, power would be taken soon by the corrupt officials and mafia structures on the police organs…and a series of their psuedo-patriotic patronage clients. And in parallel an offensive would begin on Ukrainian positions in the Donbass (www.ng.ru/cis/2017-05-29/1_6997_ukraina.html). The fragility of the regime described be Semenchenko explains its failure to beat back the blockade and decision instead to join and lead the blockade. Poroshenko soon reversed course and backed the blockade, replacing the volunteer battalions with military units.
As a result of the transport blockade, Kiev has lost all control over, and ties with the Donetsk and Lugansk regions’ numerous coal, metallurgy, industrial and other enterprises, including the Alchevsk Metallurgy Plant, the Yenakievsk Metallurgy Factory, and the large coal enterprises in Sverdlovsk, Antratsit Krasnii Luch, and Krasnodon. Such enterprises until then had been not only trading with Ukrainian entities but had been functioning according to Ukrainian law and paying taxes to Kiev while helping to finance the Donbass separatists and their breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR). Pro-Kiev and more neutral oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov benefitted from the transport, trade, kickbacks, contraband and what might be called a common ‘democracy of corruption’ extant across Ukraine. Therefore, the two sides continued to trade as both sides profited from the trade and accompanying kickbacks even as they waged revolution and war against each other. Until the blockade only the latter served as occasional hindrance; Kiev otherwise stood aside and let the profit-taking persist (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/03/02/71660-ekspropriatsiya-ili-voyna?utm_source=push).
In response to the transport blockade, the DNR and LNR ‘nationalized’ or expropriated their rump regions’ respective major enterprises. Other regions began to look for partners abroad. According to economists and Politkom, the loss in GDP for Ukraine from the cutoff of trade from the LNR alone is 1.6 percent. As Donetsk is even more robust, the overall loss is likely near 4 percent. To this must be added the added burden for Kiev of now needing to purchase more coal from abroad, including even more than hitherto from Russia, making Ukraine even less self-sufficient and even more dependent on Moscow for its electrical energy. Even if such enterprises return to the Kievan fold in future their economic vitality will have been eroded by loss of profits and clients, something that also hurts the breakaway regions (http://politcom.ru/22440.html). The mutual hit taken renders sides less robust, interdependent, and more likely to go their separate ways, and even re-escalate the presently slow-burning war.
Semenchenko and Other Hardline Ultra-Nationalists
Semenchenko has a long history of ties to thuggish, ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist elements that populate an all too large portion of Ukraine’s political spectrum. Members of the neo-fascist Right Sector, including its then lader Dmitro Yarosh. fought alongside or under the banner of this battalion (www.youtube.com/watch?v=SadSxC-zgdc#t=177). On the eve of President Poroshenko’s pivotal 30 June 2014 talks with ultra-nationalist Defense and Security Council chief Andriy Parubiy, MVD chief Arsen Avakov, and other hardliners at a pivotal Defense and Security Council meeting that was to decide whether or not to extend a truce in Donbass initiated by the then newly elected president a week earlier, Semenchenko and members of his battalion led a several thousand-strong demonstration backed by two other ‘volunteer’ battalions, the ‘Dnepr’ and ‘Aidar’ battalions (http://slon.ru/russia/pyat_prichin_neizbezhnosti_voyny_ili_chto_poroshenko_delal_proshlym_vecherom-1121407.xhtml?utm_source=slon&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20140704). The demonstrators demanded that Poroshenko end the truce, declare martial law, and destroy the eastern rebels or they would remove the president from power “like Yanukovich.” At the demonstration a journalist was beaten up and stun grenades were thrown seriously injuring several demonstrators. One demonstrator claimed he saw MVD officers hand the stun grenades to members of Avakov’s Kiev-based paramilitary group ’17+ Sotny,’ who threw the grenades. Although Avakov condemned the violence the next day, no one was arrested (Olga Omelyanchuk, “Pod Kabminom nachali vzryvat’ granaty,” Vesti.ua, 1 July 2014, http://vesti.ua/kiev/59088-pod-kabminom-vzorvali-granaty).
These actions would bring Semenchenko’s first success in intimidating the Maidan regime into submission before his policy preferences. Before the June 30th council meeting, President Poroshenko had said he intended to extend the truce after its June 30th deadline in accordance with the wishes of Brussels and Moscow. However, after the four-hour long meeting he emerged to announce an end to the truce and ordered a new offensive to wipe out rebels. The Donbass Battalion and its ilk had prevailed over the great powers of Europe and Russia.
By February 2016 the Maidan regime began to retaliate for his oppositionist stance, putting him under investigation for illegally holding people, using falsified documents, and other unidentified crimes (http://vesti-ukr.com/strana/135685-protiv-semenchenko-vozbudili-rjad-ugolovnyh-del.). The regime’s attempt to intimidate Semenchenko obviously failed.
Semenchenko also backed members of the notorious Tornado Battalion who in 2016 were put on trial in summer 2016 by Kiev for murder and rape in conducting its war against Donbass separatists. Semenchenko told U.S. government-funded RFE/RL that the charges against Tornado were “fabricated” and led protests outside the courthouse, calling on supporters to storm the building. In August 216 a resulting scuffle involving dozens of police and protesters in front of the courthouse put several officers in hospital. “Threats, intimidation, and violence outside and inside the courtroom have plagued this trial and, if continued unchecked, leave no hope for justice,” Tanya Cooper, head of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Ukraine office, said. “Such violence seriously undermines the integrity of the proceedings” (www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-tornado-battalion-rogue-paramilitaries-kyiv-trial-crimes/28205795.html).
Semenchenko’s Blockade 2.0: The Blockade of the Oligarchs
With successes in forcing the regime to abandon its summer 2014 ceasefire and to adopt his 2016 blockade policy, Semenchenko and ultra-nationalist volunteer battalions now are proposing a new blockade – this time of oligarchic interests and enterprises, including those of leading Maidan regime officials. In other words, the ultras are now targeting the enemy within their very own Maidan regime camp, threatening the delicate alliance that hijacked the Maidan revolution of dignity and turned it into the revolution of state and societal dissolution.
It is Semenchenko who has announced the anti-oligarch blockade, as he did the transport blockade less than a year ago. In particular, he stated: “I am now absolutely confident that the country is occupied…It is occupied politically, economically, and informationally. We have television channels, the majority of which propagandize a policy which the aggressor needs… This is being done so that we (I have in mind the people) lose the will to resist and we surrender. For the oligarchs and those who are robbing the country in the highest state offices, no war is even felt, their eternal passion is money-making” (www.ng.ru/cis/2017-05-29/1_6997_ukraina.html).
The anti-oligarch blockade is likely to include entities of President Poroshenko himself. Indeed, Semenchenko’s announcement came on the three year anniversary of Poroshenko’s election, and Semenchenko mentioned Poroshenko among the corrupt oligarchs benefitting from the status quo of frozen conflict in Donbass. He also claimed many in power in Kiev have ties to the Russian intelligence services, and the oligarchs not the Rada decide everything. Promising more details in an upcoming press conference, he gave some insight into the ultra-battalions’ plans: The next stage will be broader than a blockade. We will create a headquarters and propose a new format of unifying efforts for civil society. Further, we will create tasks in each direction and achieving a small victory, draw in people, who will see that something is being attained, and we will strengthen their organization and go on to the next victory.” It remained unclear whether the tasks would involve nationalization of enterprises, arrest of oligarchs, and/or a takeover of power by ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists or be limited to exposing, as he put it, the failure of oligarchs to fulfill certain “conditions” having “taken the people’s property” and nullify the relative privatization contracts or make it otherwise impossible for the offending oligarchs to control their holdings (www.ng.ru/cis/2017-05-29/1_6997_ukraina.html).
The potential for a crisis in which the ultra-nationalists ride of wave of populist discontent with the present disorder of things is high. The blockade and potential confiscation of oligarch holdings — a repeat of the Donbass response to the transport blockade — could force the oligarchs to call out the police and or army to halt the volunteer battalions’ actions. Unlike in March, this time, as Nezavisimaya gazeta notes, “the situation could end in the very scenario which, in Semenchenko’s words, was avoided miraculously in the period of the unsanctioned blockade of Donbass. As in winter (during the dispute over the transport blockade), the average citizen could support the position not of the authorities but the actions of the homegrown robin hoods. After all, one of the principally important demands of Ukrainian society on the eve and in the period of the Maidan was the removal from power of the oligarchs and the destruction of the old oligarchic system of order of all the state organs and institutions (including the courts and law enforcement organs)” (www.ng.ru/cis/2017-05-29/1_6997_ukraina.html).
To the Semenchenko’s and Parasyuk’s oligarch blockade can be added a recent demand by neofascists for a blanket amnesty for all veterans of Kiev’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (ATO) against Donbass. Andriy Biletskiy threatened that if Kiev did not institute such an amnesty, then his forces would begin storm oblast government administration building (http://vesti.lv/news/glava-azova-gotovim-shturmy-po-vsei-ukraine?utm_source=ngru&utm_medium=news-widget&utm_campaign=Links-in-partner-sites). Biletskiy is a Rada deputy for the National Front, chairman of the neo-fascist Social-National Assembly party and commander of the notorious Azov volunteer battalion, which has been accused of war crimes during the Donbass ATO by human rights organizations. Earlier this week Biletskiy and his associates crashed a session of the Lviv (Lvov) city council to demand they send a letter to President Poroshenko in support of amnesty for ATO vets (https://censor.net.ua/news/442089/budem_prihodit_i_v_drugie_oblsovety_biletskiyi_o_shturme_lvovskogo_oblsoveta). Members of Biletskiy’s Azov also crashed a Kiev city council vote this week forcing adoption of a law giving veterans’ status to members of neo-fascist volutneer battalions like Right Sector’s Ukrainian Voluntary Corps (www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/kyiv-city-council-approves-veteran-status-volunteer-fighters-scuffle.html). Ultra-natinalist and neofascist groups have been intimidating government bodies and courts ever since Maidan.
In sum, the oligarch-ultranationalist Maidan regime is increasingly divided between its founding oligarchical and ultra-nationalist elements. Democratic republicans play a still small role and find themselves embattled by the noted non-democratic elements. Although many of the ultra-nationalists attack the oligarchs for their corruption, they themselves are often mired in criminal activity. While the ultra-nationalists support a military solution to the Donbass frozen conflict, the oligarchs prefer the status quo since it affords opportunity to steal from the state and continue profit-making, part of which had been based on trade with the Donbass. Indeed, the transport blockade was justified by the ultras in terms of the need to fight the oligarchs and Russia. The latter are seen by the ultra-nationalists as being in a symbiotic relationship at least in terms of trade in coal and other goods despite the ongoing, if more subdued civil war in Donbass, at most in terms of a clandestine alliance between Maidan oligarchs and nefarious Kremlin oligarchs and siloviki.
With tie Kiev-Donbass/Russia ties broken, the temptation in Kiev to move towards a military or some other coercive solution becomes greater, risking a restart of the Donbass war in earnest. Moreover, further loss of Donbass supports arguments for a coercive solution. Together these factors will complicate the European-sponsored Minsk 2 peace process with Moscow and Kiev, which is gravely stalled already. Should the oligarch blockade develop into a creeping ultra-nationalist coup against Poroshenko and other moderate, if corrupt figures in the Maidan regime, then there will be no Minsk process. Instead there will be a war process that could escalate into a NATO-Russian conflict.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and former Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; a member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.