• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Extremists could tip crisis in Ukraine into all-out war

AT face value there is a sense that things may be settling down in Ukraine.

The threat of all-out war appears to have momentarily receded to be replaced by a bitter diplomatic stand-off between Russia and the West.

Seen from Washington's ­perspective this is currently aimed at bringing a semblance of foreign policy credibility back to President Barack Obama's administration. It once again finds itself out-manoeuvred and at a loss in responding to Moscow's revival as a global player.

From the Kremlin's point of view, meanwhile, it is all about consolidating its recent gains in Crimea while President Vladimir Putin burnishes his reputation as a leader not to be messed with.

These respective takes on the crisis were all too evident ­yesterday, as Mr Obama made much about ordering the freezing of US assets and a ban on travel into the country of those involved in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Russia, for its part, was ­doubtless enjoying the news that MPs in Crimea have asked Moscow to allow the southern Ukrainian region to become part of the Russian Federation, making way for a referendum on the issue next month. So is it all over bar the shouting? The short answer to this is simple - far from it.

Throughout the course of this crisis, perhaps one of its most sinister aspects has been the role played on both sides of the divide by extremist and paramilitary groups, be they pro-Russian or Ukrainian ultranationalists.

At their most benign some of these groups have been little more than opportunist thugs, the sort any conflict brings to the surface. Take the so called Night Wolves, Russia's largest and fiercely ­patriotic motorcycle gang who believe that "wherever the Night Wolves are should be considered Russia".

Despite their avowed anti-Soviet views after they were formed during Perestroika in the 1980s, Mr Putin, it seems, has a soft spot for the group's leader, Alexander Zaldostanov, a man nicknamed The Surgeon.

It was Mr Zaldostanov and his Night Wolves who during the current crisis organised a mass ride from the north-east of Ukraine through the Russian-speaking eastern regions to the Crimea, handing out supplies to pro-Russian militia forces there.

The Wolves said they were ­determined that the "Nazis and bandits" who seized power in Kiev should not do the same in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, insisting that if they had to fight they would do so "with everything we can get our hands on".

There are other sinister ­pro-Russian groups too, like the armed men who hounded senior United Nations envoy, Robert Serry, outside the naval ­headquarters in the Crimean city of Simferopol earlier this week.

All this is nothing new of course. Even before the current tensions boiled over in the region, shadowy Moscow-leaning groups stood behind Viktor Yanukovich, the now deposed Russian backed President of Ukraine.

For the past year supporters of Mr Yanukovich, in the shape of pro-government vigilantes known as "titushkos", have been a highly visible presence in Ukrainian politics. Notoriously confrontational, the titushkos are generally thought to have been hired in predominantly Russian-speaking parts of eastern and central Ukraine, where support for Mr Yanukovich is stronger.

At the height of the recent clashes in Kiev's Independence Square, Ukrainian opposition activists claimed many ­titushkos were bussed into the city to make up the ranks of pro-government fighters.

But before anyone gets the idea these shadowy extremist and paramilitary groups are all Russian leaning, lets not forget the potency of Ukraine's own ultranationalist cadres.

It was last November when protests began against President Yanukovich's decision to walk away from a partnership agreement with the EU that Ukraine's Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, really surfaced. Though they themselves oppose EU influence, it was Russia's ­influence over Mr Yanukovich that primarily provoked their political wrath.

According to one Right Sector leader, Andriy Tarasenko, when the organisation was set up its ranks were swelled by other fervent nationalist and small ultra-right groups, among them Trident, Patriot of Ukraine, White Hammer and Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self-Defence.

For its part Right Sector's ­political agenda is driven by the desire for a truly independent Ukraine, something unlikely to emerge in light of recent events. Which brings us back to the ­question of what happens now and whether the respite from violence is just temporary.

For the time being Europe and Russia will continue to dispute Ukraine. On one level this struggle is being played out at the highest diplomatic and military level where, at least, there are some checks and balances. But lurking in the wings on both sides are those extremists for whom such niceties only stand in the way of satisfying their own political ambitions.

"We are at a very dangerous point," said former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky yesterday. Mr Pavlovsky went on to say there is now a greater danger of shots being fired that would push a political crisis in the direction of a military situation. Unfortunately, within the extremists' ranks, there remains no shortage of those more than willing to pull the trigger.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

217520