Men carrying far-right Svoboda flags wait in front of the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev on February 27.

Editor’s Note: David C. Speedie is senior fellow director for the U.S. Global Engagement Program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, an educational, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that produces lectures, publications and multimedia materials on the ethical challenges of living in a globalized world.

Story highlights

Russian President Putin says violent far-right groups are behind coup d'etat in Kiev

David Speedie: Far-right activity might be exaggerated, but EU has condemned them

Speedie: The far-right party Svoboda holds key posts in the new Ukrainian government

He says the far right must be marginalized to attain a democratic, peaceful Ukraine

CNN  — 

Russian President Vladimir Putin says neo-fascist far-right groups are firmly behind the putsch – coup d’etat – in Kiev and questions the democratic credentials of “men with black masks and Kalashnikovs” who became the poster children of the Maidan for Russians.

Does this assessment have any truth to it? In the fast-moving and chronically complex course of events in Ukraine, the issue has been debated from the beginning: the role of the far right in the events that led to the toppling of the Viktor Yanukovych government and in the present and future disposition of political power in the country.

David Speedie

There are some known facts: First, far-right, anti-Semitic, anti-Russian and openly fascist groups have existed and do exist as a blight on modern Ukraine. A 2012 European Parliament resolution condemned the main – but by no means most extreme – ultra-right party, Svoboda, as “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic.”

This extraordinary EU resolution contains 18 points of concern over policies embedded in laws of the Ukrainian Rada, or Parliament. A key paragraph reads that the EU “is concerned about the rising nationalistic sentiment in Ukraine.” The Parliament stresses that “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views go against the EU’s fundamental values and principles.”

The resolution also appeals to pro-democratic parties in the Rada “not to associate with, endorse or form coalitions with this party.”

As if to endorse the sentiments of the EU resolution, the leader of Svoboda (or “Freedom”), Oleh Tyahnybok, is on record saying that Kiev is governed by “a Jewish-Russian mafia” and has said Ukrainians bravely fought Muscovites, Germans, Jews “and other scum” in World War II.

This unsavory constituency, including the “ultra” Right Sector movement, manned the barricades in the Kiev uprising, providing “security” to the mainstream political opposition leaders and matching the pro-government forces in violent tactics that led to the dozens of dead in and around the Maidan.

These rightist-nationalist forces were in large part responsible for the collapse of the agreement signed in February that called for early parliamentary and presidential elections and a return to the 2004 Ukrainian constitution, which harks back to the “Orange Revolution” that brought a pro-West government to power in Ukraine.

In backing away from this face-saving compromise, one that was negotiated with the approval of the French, German and Polish governments, and which surely would have resulted in the removal of Yanukovych, moderate opposition leaders essentially capitulated to the far right.

The Russian position is also somewhat bolstered by the fact that Svoboda holds key posts in the interim government in Kiev, including that of deputy prime minister. Andriy Parubiy, the commander of the “Maidan self-defense,” has been appointed the head of the National Security and Defense Council, and the leader of the Right Sector ultras, Dmitro Yarosh, is expected to become his deputy chairman. Svoboda controls the prosecutor general office and the ministries of ecology and agriculture.

At very least, the interim government has made bedfellows of some highly suspect and divisive forces.

But it is also true to say that many of the specific details of far-right activity and influence are anecdotal and perhaps contradictory.

On the one hand, there are reports of Jewish homes in Lviv and the western part of Ukraine being daubed with anti-Semitic slogans; on the other, Ukraine’s head rabbi has weighed in with the opinion that anti-Semitism is “not on the rise.” A group of Jewish groups sent an open letter to Putin that said, in part, “Your certainty of the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine also does not correspond to the actual facts.”

It is also true that far-right forces are on the rise across Europe, including in the “respectable” democracies of the West, and that their targets range from Jews to Roma to gays to any “out” group, including the miscellany of new immigrants who are encouraged under European Union laws of free movement.

Finally, it is true that the long reach of memory evokes images from 70 years ago, those of robust support in western Ukraine for the fascist side during World War II. This is especially true in the east and south of a divided country, those regions that look to Moscow rather than to Washington or Brussels.

But these various points do not alter the fact that the European Parliament undertook the extraordinary measure of singling out Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, nor do they gainsay the role of its most influential exponent, Svoboda, in the new interim government.

In this context, and even as they may disagree on specific measures to be taken the path toward a prosperous, peaceful, united, democratic Ukraine, sober observers agree that this can be achieved only with the marginalization of the far right.

Unfortunately, the appointments of ultra-rightists to the interim government place this in serious question. Looking ahead, we must hope that the meeting in Brussels of the European foreign ministers, including Russia – the first, we assume, of several – may create a blueprint for Ukraine based on cooperative solutions rather than confrontation.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Speedie.