The False Promise of Petro Poroshenko

"The picture is more complex than the White House, the Congress and many pundits would lead us to believe."

Further, there have been ample reports coming out of Europe that cast a rather less-than-heroic light on Ukraine’s freedom fighters. In the UK, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the BBC and the Independent have all reported on the neofascist character of many of the volunteer battalions who—though they fall under the purview of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry—are largely funded by private donations. According to a report in the Telegraph, Andrei Biletsky, a leader of both the Azov battalion and the far-right Patriots of Ukraine (which has joined Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s newly formed People’s Front coalition), has written that “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival…a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.”

Yet if any of this was the cause of disquiet among Mr. Poroshenko’s legions of fan on Capitol Hill, you’d never know it. Likewise, pundits from across the political spectrum have labored mightily to paint Vladimir Putin as Hitler’s rightful heir. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, George F. Will noted that what really worried him about Putin was that his “fascist mind” possessed an “ethnic-cum-racial component” that renders it “Hitlerian.” Mr. Putin’s animus toward the West makes him “more dangerous than the Islamic State.” Former Deputy Secretary of State and the current CEO of Brookings Incorporated, Strobe Talbott, wrote in Politico that “what’s new about Putinism” is “the ultra-nationalist proposition that Russian statehood should be based on ethnicity.” Talbott concluded that Russia under Putin “is a potential threat to world peace.” And in a much discussed essay for The New Republic, Timothy Snyder opined that fascist ideas “are on the rise in Russia” and that “people can say what they like in Russian in Ukraine, but they cannot do so in Russia itself.”

These claims should be evaluated in light of several recent developments in Russia. In early September, Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council proposed changes to a 2012 law requiring NGO’s to register as “foreign agents.” On September 8, a Moscow city court ruled that the election monitoring organization Golos was not required to register as a “foreign agent” under the act. This weekend roughly 20,000 protesters took to the streets of Moscow to protest Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. Some waved the Ukrainian tri-color and while others held signs mocking Putin and the Kremlin. Other, smaller, antiwar (they could also fairly be characterized as anti-Putin) rallies took place in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The day of the rally, the former oligarch turned dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky announced his return to Russian political life. In an interview in Le Monde he announced his intention to relaunch his political foundation, Open Russia, and discussed his willingness to return to Russia run for the presidency “in case it appears necessary to overcome the crisis and carry out constitutional reform." A longtime Russia-watcher blogged: “Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not a modern day Alexander Herzen. His isn’t The Bell. And Russian society today is not asleep, awaiting the White Prince. On the contrary, Russia is a beehive of activity and of free debate.” [Emphasis added].

All of this is certainly not to say that Russia is a model liberal democracy, that it has no far-right politics, or that the Russian government’s actions throughout the Ukraine crisis have been praiseworthy. It is to suggest, though, that the picture is more complex than the White House, the Congress and many pundits would lead us to believe. It would be closer to the mark to say that there is a party to the Ukrainian conflict that is at risk of backsliding into fascism. It just happens to be the one we’re supporting.

James Carden is a contributing editor of The National Interest.