By Richard Arnold
While the latest events in eastern Ukraine—in particular, the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by pro-Russia separatist forces—may have proven a step too far even for Vladimir Putin, for many in Moscow the problem lies not with the Kremlin’s activity in the conflict but its lack thereof. Infamous right-wing publicist and member of the Izbornii club (a right-wing think tank associated with Neo-Nazi ideas) Maxim Kalashnikov and sometime Kremlin ideologist Alexander Dugin have called on Putin to support the rebels in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas militarily—in other words, with a more overt military intervention (ru.krymyr.com, July 19). Nor has the pressure come entirely from forces outside the regime, as even Vladislav Surkov and economic advisor Sergei Glazyrev have voiced dissatisfaction with the government’s failure to act. Similarly, Moscow has seen popular rallies and the mobilization of huge stores of humanitarian aid to beleaguered forces in Ukraine (see EDM, July 16).
Some of the most active—not to mention fanatical—fighters in eastern Ukraine are Russian nationalists with ties to various Russian Neo-Nazi movements, such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (known by its Russian acronym, DPNI). And equally disappointed with what they believe is the Kremlin’s inaction, the DPNI recently re-initiated its anti-corruption campaign against Putin and the regime. For example, one article on the DPNI website posits that the regime is afraid to initiate a conflict due to the Russian oligarchs’ fear that their “umbilical cord” to the West—holiday homes on the Cote d’Azur and London boarding schools for their children—could be cut (DPNI, June 23).
Similarly, the National News Service, endorsed by a group calling itself “Russian Sector” (a play on the Ukrainian far right group “Right Sector”), posted an article decrying the involvement of modern-day “Chekists”—meaning the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)—in the Ukraine conflict and throughout recent Russian history, including in the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow that served as a casus belli for the second Chechen War. The article goes on to claim that “it is easy to comprehend that the chief commander of the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] is an FSB colonel, and the head of the DNR is an FSB general specializing in ‘delicate operations’” (rusnsn.info, July 14). The National News Service piece was authored by Vladimir Potkin, who also goes by the Internet name ‘Basmanov’ and is the younger brother of Alexander Potkin (a.k.a. Belov)—both men are leaders of the DPNI. Assuming the article represents the general viewpoint of Russian neo-Nazis on the conflict in Ukraine, their disenchantment with a hesitant Kremlin that has so far failed to unite the “Russian world” bodes ill for stability in Ukraine and in the post-Soviet space more generally.
Overall, it should not be surprising that the Putin regime’s perceived reluctance to pursue the nationalist cause has inspired such a renewal of criticism. Some analysts have argued that Putin’s opportunistic annexation of Crimea was an attempt to rebuild the popularity of a regime weakened by the 2011–2012 anti-corruption street protests, in which many Russian far right groups took part. In order to fortify itself, the regime incited nationalist fervor; and it now may be dangerous to try and contain these passions. If the regime wishes to harness the nationalist juggernaut, it may have to ride the train further than it had originally intended.