Beware Ukraine's Rising Right Sector

"With ample weapons and new recruits, Right Sector is not likely to disappear soon."

As tensions continue to rise under the fragile ceasefire in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the central government must now redirect its energy to a domestic issue in the west.

On July 11, violence broke out in Mukachevo, just east of the Slovakian and Romanian borders. The dispute began when local police accused the ultranationalist Right Sector group of smuggling cigarettes. Right Sector members are no ordinary citizens—they have military-grade weapons and serve independently on the front lines against Russian-backed rebels. The conflict remains unresolved, with Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh accusing Kiev of attacking its own, rather than focusing on the war in the east. As Right Sector surfaces once again, it is helpful to revisit the group’s origins to examine the impact the group may have on the conflict in the Donbas.

In February 2014, after a month of violent protests in which ultranationalist groups played an active role, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych faced impeachment and ultimately chose to flee the country. The ouster followed Yanukovych’s controversial decision to renegotiate Ukraine’s potential membership in the EU. As he responded to protests with draconian legislation and violent reprisals, momentum grew not just among moderate nationalists, but also increasingly within the far right. Extremist and outright fascist organizations, such as the “Patriots of Ukraine” and “Trident,” united under the name “Right Sector.” As conditions grew more violent, Ukrainians overlooked ideological differences and joined forces with Right Sector against the pro-Russian government as a common enemy. As their numbers swelled, Right Sector became the catalyzing force that eventually helped to remove Yanukovych from power. Following the revolution, Right Sector formed a political party, which is now represented in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

Since the Maidan Revolution, Right Sector has maintained only marginal public support. Currently, the party holds just one seat in the parliament of 422. Recently, however, as the group has become more outspoken against the current Petro Poroshenko administration, its numbers have risen. From 1.8 percent in October, the group’s popular support now stands at 5.4 percent. Dmytro Yarosh addressed a crowd of over 5,000 on July 21, calling for a nationwide no-confidence referendum against President Poroshenko, who, along with his prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is steadily losing public support. There is little traction for the referendum, but it still calls to mind the former success of Right Sector to help unseat President Yanukovych through sheer force and persistence.

Despite having minimal representation in the Verkhovna Rada, let alone influence, Right Sector has played a significant role in providing paramilitary support for Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. The group is the last militia force to operate in the east independent of the government-controlled army. Right Sector militants fight for their own doctrine, one of ultranationalism and conservative values. Over the past year, Right Sector battalions have earned the respect and support of Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas. Their assistance is important for government troops who often find themselves ill prepared for battle, due to the inefficiencies and economic burdens of the central government.

With ample weapons and new recruits, Right Sector is not likely to disappear soon.

Though many perceive them as extremists, they represent a bloc of anti-Russian hardliners that regard any concessions in the east as a defeat for the Ukrainian nation-state. The small but consistent foothold that Right Sector occupies in Ukraine should make its allies apprehensive. The Ukrainian government is reliant on the military support of a controversial right-wing group. Right Sector officially rejects xenophobia and fascism, claiming to be open to anyone that supports the Ukrainian State. However, Russian media exploits the group’s rhetoric, exaggerating and outright fabricating evidence to the contrary. For Russia, amplifying and embellishing Right Sector’s rhetoric and influence provides justification to protect ethnic Russians in the Donbas. Beyond issues posed by Right Sector’s misrepresentation in Russian media, violence in Mukacheve and resulting standoffs with Kiev suggest a more critical issue at stake for the Donbas conflict.

Ambiguity in the Minsk II protocol, coupled with differing objectives of Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, continues to stall a lasting ceasefire or meaningful reforms in the Donbas. As contact groups continue to negotiate implementation challenges, it is more important than ever to ensure that the marginal progress achieved so far is preserved. Right Sector has serious potential to derail a moderate resolution to the conflict in Ukraine, but not necessarily because of its ideology. The group poses a threat to conflict resolution because it combines radical ideas with a highly functional militia outside of government control. Right Sector is useful to Kiev, but only as far as its goals align. This can potentially pose a major dilemma for U.S. objectives in the region.