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Putin plays Nazi card to marginalize Ukraine’s revolution

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In the propaganda war raging over Ukraine’s revolution, Russia is playing up claims of neo-Nazi involvement in the protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, alleging the far right is on the rise in the former Soviet republic and was crucial in the Ukrainian president’s downfall.

The allegations have stirred up memories of the ugly complicity of some Ukrainians’ with German pogroms of Jews in World War II in which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews died. Russian propagandists -- including President Vladimir Putin -- point to roles of the ultra-nationalist political party Svoboda and neo-Nazi faction the Right Sector in the revolution as evidence.

"We've seen lots of people, you know, with those signs -- armbands with swastikas," Putin said Tuesday. "There could be some unknown personality who could grab the power who could have serious consequences."

"We've seen lots of people, you know, with those signs -- armbands with swastikas. There could be some unknown personality who could grab the power who could have serious consequences."

- Russian President Vladimir Putin

Four ministries in the interim government, including the defense ministry, are now being run by Svoboda members. The Kremlin-controlled television channel Russia Today has been at the forefront of the broadcasting of the allegations, headlining one report, “West sides with neo-Nazis.”

And the Russian Foreign Ministry, in its defense of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine’s Crimea, has accused Washington and European allies of turning a blind eye to the participation of Russophobes and anti-Semites in the protests in Kiev’s Independence Square that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.

“The U.S.A. and its allies have closed their eyes to the excesses of the radical fighters on Maidan, the bullying of political opponents and ordinary citizens, as well as anti-Semitism and militant Russophobia,” the ministry said in a statement.

Independent analysts and observers acknowledge that neo-Nazis and Svoboda members were among some of the most organized elements that fought off Yanukovych’s riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square. But they say the ideological makeup of Ukraine’s interim government and of the protesters camped still in Independence Square, known as the Maidan, is complex.

To define the revolution by its more fringe elements is to misunderstand, they say, how the downfall of Yanukovych came about because of widespread anger at the cronyism and corruption that marked his rule and his refusal to draw Ukraine closer to Europe and away from Russia.

“By and large this was a revolution for democracy,” said Brian Bonner, the chief editor of the English-language newspaper Kiev Post. “Of course there are some extremists here who react strongly about Russia, which is understandable after centuries of what Ukraine has endured under Russian domination and repression. And you see that in some ultra-nationalist groups.”

He adds: “But this was a revolution to throw off Russia and to join if not the European Union, at least the European family of democratic nations.”

Ukraine’s Jewish leaders also warn against exaggerating the role of neo-Nazis in the overthrow of Yanukovych and the turning away from Russia.

They worry that a flurry of recent attacks on synagogues and the scrawling of swastikas on them is not the work of Ukrainian far right groups, but vandalism carried out by Russian provocateurs, and purposely done to provide grist to the Russian propaganda mill and to discredit Ukraine.

A Jewish leader in Simferopol, Rabbi Michael Kapustin, issued a statement last week saying:  “The city is occupied by Russians. Apparently Russians intend to take over the Crimea and make it a part of Russia. If this were the case I would leave the country since I want to live in democratic Ukraine.”

The rabbi of a synagogue in Crimea that was attacked just hours before Russian troops started their land-grab has urged Jews to show solidarity with Ukraine. And Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich, president of the Jewish Federation of Ukraine, backed other Ukrainian religious leaders in calling on Russia not to act aggressively against Ukraine.

The appeal fell on deaf ears. Putin highlighted the involvement of “fascist hooligans” in the Ukraine revolution before asking the Duma, the Russian parliament, for approval to deploy Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil. Duma members took up the cue, with several condemning Ukrainian fascists. 

Not that liberals and Ukraine’s Jews are not concerned with the presence of the Right Sector and the role other ultra-nationalists are playing. Jewish legislators like Aleksandr Feldman have called on Maidan protesters to shun anti-Semites. But he insists the neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists are a minority among those who helped oust Yanukovych.

Some analysts worry that further Russia-driven turmoil will boost the far right, but for now they say there is a danger on that role being exaggerated, pointing out that several prominent opposition politicians, including one of the front-runners to become president in elections slated for May, are Jewish.