Analyzing Ukrainian far-right veterans declaration to Spain and against Catalonian separatism
This week, dozens of Russian and pro-separatist news sites shared a video of three Ukrainian men pledging their support to Spain and its king against Catalonian separatism. This was not just a pledge of moral support — the speaker stated that 300 men, who were veterans of the Ukrainian Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), were ready to go to Spain to defend its “unity”.
While this story initially appeared suspicious, it is not a fabrication and is linked to a group of far-right Ukrainian ultranationalists who were active in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Origin and initial spread of the video
The message was published in both Ukrainian and Spanish languages. Since its original publication, the announcement was widely distributed through a few particular Ukrainian organizations. In particular, three groups amplified the sentiment.
The All-Ukrainian Union of Veterans of the ATO, a civil organization assisting ATO veterans and “countering anti-patriotic and separatist manifestations” in Ukrainian society.
The St. Mary Battalion, a Ukrainian volunteer battalion formed in 2015 that has received international criticism for ultranationalist positions and religious fundamentalism. The St. Mary Battalion is an official partner of the aforementioned All-Ukrainian Union of Veterans of the ATO and widely shares its videos. Members of the St. Mary Battalion staged demonstrations in Kyiv in support of the Spanish government.
Worldwide-Brovary Television, a small internet-based channel based out of the Kyiv suburb of Brovary, aired a number of videos focused on the St. Mary Battalion’s support for Spain, which included a demonstration staged outside of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The common link
A man named Vitaly Chorny is the central connection between these three Ukrainian groups spreading pro-Spanish government content last week. Chorny is the bearded man who delivers the message in the video; he is also a staff member at the All-Ukraine Union of Veterans of the ATO, an editor at Worldwide-Brovarska Television, and a former member of the St. Mary Battalion. In a 2015 Al Jazeera piece, Chorny was described as an “ideological officer” of the battalion, which is the military wing of the far-right Bratstvo Party. Chorny worked as the Bratstvo Party’s press officer in 2014.
Both the Bratstvo Party and the St. Mary Battalion emerged from Dmytro Korchynsky, a far-right provocateur and political figure who has been active since the 1990s. While Bratstvo and the St. Mary’s Battalion have always been focused on Christian fundamentalism and Ukrainian nationalism, this emphasis heightened after the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, where Korchinsky played a notable role. Korchinsky formed the St. Mary Battalion in 2015 and mostly worked out of “Sektor M,” near Mariupol and the Azov coast in eastern Ukraine.
Chorny and the St. Mary Battalion faced international scrutiny due to their far-right and fundamentalist positions, including calling themselves the “Christian Taliban”. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Chorny said:
“We are creating the Christian Taliban here. Our main ideology is faith, and this is the advantage we have (…) The enemy — the forces of darkness — they have all the weapons, they have greater numbers, they have money. But our soldiers are the bringers of European traditions and the Christian mindset of the 13th century. We represent the side of light against the dark side. Putin supporters are representatives of the devil.”
While the St. Mary Battalion is relatively small with only a few hundred members, many of its leaders are tied to other extreme far-right Ukrainian volunteer groups including Pravyy Sektor (Right Sector) and the Azov Battalion. The St. Mary Battalion does not pretend to be anything other than nationalist and far-right, but just how far right they are remains unclear — a matter that is not made easier with a photograph on Vitaly Chorny’s Facebook page showing a man in a Nazi uniform walking with a gun-toting Jesus.
“Una, Grande y Libre”
The St. Mary Battalion may have the manpower to send a number of Ukrainian veterans of the Donbas war to Spain, though 300 men may be a bit optimistic. On the surface, it is clear why a Ukrainian military group, which fought extensively in the Donbas conflict, vocalized support Spain: a perceived kinship between the Spanish government facing a separatist uprising, similar to the events of 2014.
However, there are more ideological links than just a parallel between Catalonia and the Donbas — the European far-right, including in Ukraine, still fervently supports Francisco Franco. Indeed, the St. Mary Battalion is not the only far-right military group in Ukraine that expressed solidarity with Spain. In Kharkiv, the far-right Azov Battalion created a mural using the Francoist motto “España Una, Grande y Libre,” or “Spain is one, great, and free,” in support of Spanish unit.
The primary reason why the St. Mary and Azov Battalions have lent their support to Spain is a feeling of solidarity of 21st-century struggles with separatism. Yet there is also a historical parallel present — in the minds of some Ukrainian ultranationalists — between the current Spain-Catalonia situation and the Spanish Civil War. Just as with Spanish ultranationalists today, these Ukrainian nationalist groups still hold a torch for Francisco Franco’s authoritarian rule, especially in his victory over left-wing and Communist forces in the Spanish Civil War.
The St. Mary Battalion should not be mistaken for a mainstream force in Ukrainian society or in the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF)— it, like Pravyy Sektor, the Azov Battalion, and the Svoboda party — is a fringe group that is out of step with the great majority of Ukrainians. For reference, the largest far-right parties in Ukraine, Svoboda (Freedom) and Pravyy Sektor, garnered 4.71 percent and 1.8 percent (respectively) of the vote in Ukraine’s 2014 parliamentary elections, which were conducted during the height of the Donbas conflict in October.
However, with the lack success of the second Minsk agreement in reducing violence in the Donbas, the the boldness of the St. Mary Battalion and the larger Bratstvo Party poses issues for Ukraine’s government and civil society. Vitaly Chorny and other members of the Bratstvo Party, for example, helped organize and participated in the siege of the Kyiv studio of Inter TV. Placing a domestic television studio under siege is a domestic matter, but organizing the deployment of hundreds of veterans to participate in a potential conflict is a potential international fiasco.
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