Ukraine has become a cauldron of dissimulation and provocation. Pro-Russian and pro-coup agitators are engaging in an open brawl, nudged by respective supporters and factions from East to West. The recent annexation of Crimea has put the authorities in Kiev on guard – what next? Certainly, anti-government forces seemed to be gaining the upper hand, seizing control of official facilities and buildings in Donetsk. The Crimean copybook was being pursued.
In an effort to stave of Putin’s next extensive chess move, four-party (US-EU-Ukraine-Russia) talks in Geneva were held. On April 17, a somewhat ill-formed US Secretary of State, John Kerry, decided to turn the tables on the pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk. The anti-coup protesters operating in the east of Ukraine were the only authentic neo-Nazis in the nationalist melee. Those in the pro-coup camp were, well, so inconsequential to Kerry as to not worth mentioning.
His source of inspiration was a rather odious flier that had been circulating, one suggesting that Jews register for a cost “on pain of deportation”, bearing striking similarity to German leaflets distributed during 1942-1944. The document, purportedly printed by the People’s Republic of Donetsk, directed all Jews over the age of 16 to pay a fee of $US50 and register with the newly installed authorities or face the prospect of expulsion or loss of citizenship.
For Kerry, “this was not just intolerable; it’s grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities , from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of, there is no place for that. And unanimously, every party today joined in this condemnation of that kind of behaviour.”
Such a tense situation was bound to spawn a few propaganda nasties, an incarnation being Kerry’s cited example. There was only one crucial problem: it was a fraud. A range of sources immediately called the leaflets out. Israel’s Haaretz noted that the signature of the pro-Russian separatist leader in Donetsk was of similar quality. As Denis Pushlin, head of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk sought to clarify, “Some idiots yesterday were giving out these fliers in targeted areas” (Haaretz, Apr 18). Little surprise that those areas were, in the main, synagogues.
The US Anti-Defamation League had little time for the fliers. They were “sceptical about the authenticity”. Julia Ioffe of the New Republic (Apr 17) could only observe that Kerry had been had. From the snapshot of one of the fliers taken by a passerby, to its dissemination in Israel, to its embrace by Kerry after a social media storm – the sirens of mindless publicity had nabbed the Secretary of State with effortlessness. There was little prospect of “Holocaust 2.0 just yet.”
Donetsk Jewish community representatives only found room to see the documents as an attempt to stoke the fires. According to Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia and Global Affairs, “It’s an obvious provocation designed to get this exact response, going al the way up to Kerry.”
Similar efforts have been made in other parts of the east. According to Ioffe, these have spluttered largely because of firmness of purpose from individuals such as Dnepropetrovsk’s regional governor, Ihor Kolomoisky.
None of this suggests the purity of motives, or a monopoly of anti-Semitism. Behind an extreme fraud, ill-lit truths can be found. Such fliers suggest what might be happening with anti-Maidan alternative, a set that is not all that attractive either. Many of the agitators would happily find mirrors in the opponents they wish to repel.
It also notable that Russian politics, and its followers within Moscow’s tetchy “sphere of influence” are far from immune in terms of playing the oversized race card. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cultivation of ultra-nationalism in the form of groups such as Nashi (“ours”), a youth movement given over to the ceremonial of camping ritual and embodying rallies, doesn’t leave much room for other groups to cosy up to them. It’s all of us against the rest of them.
It is also clear that Putin has made a conscious move in shifting the ethnic slant of late, using the Crimean annexation as a turning point. The term Rossisskii, an all-encompassing term that would include other ethnicities, be they Ukrainian, Tatar or Chechen, was omitted from his address to both houses of Parliament in March. “Crimea is primordial ‘Russkaya’ land, and Sevastopol is a ‘Russkii’ city.” As for Kiev, it was the “mother of ‘Russkie’ cities” (Washington Post, Mar 18).
Lukyanov’s words tend to be a sober point of reference in the tormented sea. “I have no doubt that there is a sizeable community of anti-Semites on both sides of the barricades, but for one of them to do something this stupid [releasing the fliers] – this is done to compromise the pro-Russian groups in the east.”
Nationalism is a terrible toxin, and one that can overdose the political body. Authorities tend to be careful with administering it – hate can go a long way, in small doses. Kerry seems oblivious to the process, and negotiated in Geneva with vast, self-imposed blinkers. Having called on pro-Russian groups to disarm, he has celebrated the use of military elements by Ukraine’s coup government against unruly forces. He might well have detected that nationalism is at issue – but it is a savage sword that cuts both ways.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com