It should be a priority for the incoming Donald Trump administration to reexamine America’s role in the Ukraine crisis. Over the past year, Washington has focused solely on Kiev’s failure to tackle Ukraine’s endemic corruption, while ignoring another fundamental obstacle to Ukraine’s democracy: the country’s far-right forces.
In Ukraine today, power is split between Kiev and heavily armed ultranationalist battalions, which have a long record of not only clashing with Kiev but also defying the will of the EU and Washington.
The ultranationalists’ influence via a policy of veto-through-violence is best exemplified by their continued derailment of the Minsk Accords, the agreement for settling the conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Minsk is also the key to lifting the anti-Russian sanctions that are hurting European economies and fomenting resentment in countries like France and Italy. It’s no surprise that Paris, Berlin, and the UN have repeatedly stressed that Minsk remains the only solution to the Ukraine conflict. For Ukraine’s far right, however, the accords—which require Kiev to grant Donbass special status, including the right to use the Russian language—are anathema. Accordingly, whenever the West nudges Ukraine to fulfill its Minsk obligations, the far right steps in, often with violence.
In July of 2015, the US State Department took extraordinary pains in urging Kiev to implement the special-status law required by Minsk: Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland flew to Kiev and, together with then-Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, watched as the parliament introduced the bill. A month afterward, during the first reading, ultranationalists killed four guardsmen and injured over 100 others in a grenade attack outside the parliament building; the special status law has remained in legislative limbo ever since.
Nearly a year after, leaders of France and Germany, whose economies have suffered as a result of Minsk-related sanctions, attempted to breathe life into the peace process by telling Kiev to conduct elections in Donbass (another provision in the road map). This time, the far right didn’t wait for a vote. Andriy Biletsky, the commander of the 3,000-strong Azov Battalion, publicly warned that his forces will remove the entire parliament if it allows the elections to take place, as 10,000 men marched through the capital to underscore the threat. Needless to say, the election provision wasn’t brought to a vote.