Six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, my family and I snuck out of our apartment in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov with what few possessions we could carry. My parents were terrified by rumors of pogroms from ultra-reactionary Ukrainian groups. Today, Jews who have remained in what is now Kharkiv are once again hunkering down in fear of Ukraine’s far right. I find myself grateful to be in America, worried about family back in Kharkiv, and baffled to see Washington and most of the US media ignoring the same radical elements that led my family and thousands of other Jews to flee.
To many Americans viewing the upheaval in Kiev and Crimea, Vladimir Putin is plainly the villain, and the protesters who ousted his ally Viktor Yanukovych as Ukrainian president the obvious heroes. Yet the new ruling coalition includes some disturbing elements, most notably the Svoboda Party. Last month, members of this far-right nationalist group, known until a decade ago as the Social-National Party, were among the demonstrators in Kiev’s Maidan movement. But on Jan. 1, about 15,000 Svoboda members had taken to the streets of Kiev to celebrate the birthday of Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator. In recent years, one Svoboda leader has frequently quoted top Nazi figures; another has called the Ukrainian-American actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess.”
For its part, Moscow has used Svoboda’s activities to its political advantage, portraying the whole Maidan movement as “fascists”; the crux of Putin’s excuse for invading Crimea is protecting Ukraine’s Russian population from fascism.
This justification is, of course, ludicrous. The mere existence of a fascist party does not grant one the right to invade a sovereign nation. The majority of Maidan is not fascist; it contains an almost implausibly diverse mix of Muslims, Jews, western and eastern Ukrainians, and Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers. But it also contains Svoboda. And just as it would be foolish to swallow Moscow’s rationale for invading Crimea, no one should just write off the radicals in Maidan.
So far, the West has largely dismissed concerns about Svoboda — those are Putin’s talking points, after all. The US State Department maintains that “far right ultra-nationalist groups . . . are not represented in the Rada [Ukrainian parliament]. There is no indication that the Ukrainian government would pursue discriminatory policies.” Yet the deputy prime minister, Oleksandr Sych, is a member of Svoboda. So is Oleh Maknitskyy, the prosecutor general. How can their roles be minimized? Imagine if the US vice president and attorney general belonged to the Ku Klux Klan or a neo-Confederate group. Would that not cause concern? Is it any wonder that many eastern Ukrainians, such as Muslims, Russian-speakers, and some Jews, distrust and feel threatened by the new coalition?
On March 1, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Donetsk, Odessa, and Kharkiv. Many waved Russian flags. Some are doubtless in favor of Putin; some, like my friends and family in Kharkiv, are afraid of Moscow, but terrified of the radical parts of Maidan. Yet when Hillary Clinton likens Vladimir Putin to Hitler, as she did in a March 4 speech, she makes all those eastern Ukrainians appear to be Nazi sympathizers. And when Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain stand alongside Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok — who once sought an investigation into “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” control of Ukraine — they throw American support behind the very reason why a third of Ukraine is turning toward Russia in the first place. Surely the international community can acknowledge those Ukrainians’ wariness even as it opposes Putin’s actions.
One of the biggest mistakes of US Cold War policy from Latin America to Central Asia was the use of broad labels that allowed little room for complexity. Everyone who opposed the Soviet Union — be they freedom fighters, dictators, or, as in Afghanistan, future members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban — was America’s friend, and anyone who disagreed with those friends was a Communist.
This paradigm, while convenient, ignored the fact that most nations do not split cleanly into teams of good guys and bad guys. It also sowed the seeds of future conflicts. If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of history, a good place to start would be dispensing with sweeping Cold War assumptions — and being careful in Ukraine.