When Nothing is Left: How the Absence of a Real Left is Allowing Conflicts to Spiral
April 20, 2024
  • Leonid Ragozin
    Riga-based independent journalist, coauthor of En Eiropeisk Tragedie, a book about Russia and its aggression in Ukraine published in Norway
Publicist Leonid Ragozin writes about the increasing political shift to the right across the world and how it is affecting the direct and indirect participants in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Adding to the horror of the March terrorist attack at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, videos of arrests circulated on social networks showing the suspects, all of them from Tajikistan, being subjected to horrible torture at the hands of security agents. One suspect had his ear cut off and stuffed into his mouth.

A far-right military blogger, Yevgeny “Topaz” Rasskazov, published exclusive visuals from the scene that had been provided, as he claimed, by an agent responsible for this specific act of unwarranted sadism. He also announced an auction for the blood-stained knife that allegedly featured in the gruesome scene.

In his original post, the blogger added a zoomed-out picture of the patch on the agent’s uniform which depicted the Black Sun, a Nazi symbol. Rasskazov is the PR person for the neo-Nazi Rusich unit, which fought in Ukraine and Syria as part of the Wagner Group. Rusich fighters would often sport Black Sun patches.

This episode highlights the extent to which neo-Nazi ideology has become a part of the subculture which developed within security bodies in Russia and many other countries. It also illustrates the overlap between security officials and various “volunteer” mercenary groups, which the former use for the purposes of deniability on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Having studied the subject for a decade, I believe that the role of the unholy alliance between far right groups, security bodies and the military-industrial complex in the Russia-Ukraine conflict deserves far greater attention than it gets now. One of the reasons for this neglect, in my view, is the virtual absence of a systematic left-wing critique, caused by a global shift to the far right, as manifested by the rise of Donald Trump, British Brexiteers and some of regimes in Central Europe.

The disappearance of the genuine Left, rooted in working class politics and the peace movement, as opposed to self-discrediting “wokes” and virtue-signaling champagne socialists, leaves whole nations with massive blind spots, which prevent them from correctly diagnosing their ills. It also leaves far-right populists, aided by oligarchic and securitocratic elites, footloose to foment conflict, including full-out wars.
The Russia-Ukraine war is a larger than life example of the unchecked Right going on a rampage.
Mercenaries with a cause

For Alexei Milchakov, who founded Rusich, mutilation is part of personal branding. His initial claim to notoriety came decades ago when he, still a teenager, posted photos featuring himself holding a beheaded puppy.

When the Maidan revolution broke out, Milchakov was not sure which side to take, so he traveled to Kyiv and watched the revolution unfold as a curious spectator. But when in the wake of the Maidan, Russia invaded Ukraine, Milchakov chose to stick with Putin and formed Rusich. One of the first stories about his participation in the war featured him cutting off ears of dead Ukrainian soldiers. Rusich was eventually incorporated into Wagner, the Kremlin’s “private" army.

Milchakov's close friend Roman “Zukhel” Zheleznov was previously involved with the Kremlin-friendly neo-Nazi movement Occupy-Pedofilyay which engaged in honey trapping and torturing gay people on camera, accusing them of pedophilia. Zheleznov also headed for Ukraine around the same time, but chose the other side. He joined a Ukrainian militia force initially known as the Little Black Men and later the Azov Brigade.

The reason for their choices would be clarified later in 2015, when Zheleznov invited Milchakov to take part in a debate with another Kiyv-based Russian far-right personality, Denis Vikhorev, on A-Radio, an online platform associated with Azov.

In a long, academic-sounding debate, Vikhorev argued that Putin is an heir of the Bolshevik regime, while Ukraine was infinitely closer to the ideals of white supremacy. Milchakov insisted that a Russian nationalist should fight on the side of his country no matter who is in charge.

Rusich remained a fairly compact unit, but the far-right subculture was dominant within Wagner Group, whose military commander Dmitri Utkin sported Nazi garments and tattoos. It was allegedly his idea to name the unit after Hitler’s favorite composer.

The Azov Brigade, meanwhile, evolved into a huge network of brigade-level military units, militias, youth and veteran organizations, as well as the political party National Corps (which, however, has never made it to parliament). Its leaders and ordinary members typically refer to it as the Azov Movement.

Prior to Russia’s full-out invasion, there was a coordinated, but unconvincing attempt by Ukraine’s sympathizers in the West to prove that Azov, a regiment at the time, had been “de-politicized” and fully disconnected from its extremist, neo-Nazi roots.

But the masks came off after February 2022, when Putin launched a full-out invasion of Ukraine. The political leaders of Azov, Andriy Biletsky and Maksym Zhorin, were put in charge of the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, whose core was comprised of Azov veterans and whose far-right ideology is apparent from its own online propaganda.
Russian Volunteer Corps. Source: Wiki Commons
Many well-known Russian neo-Nazi figures who had been associated with Azov resurfaced at the time in the newly created Russian Volunteer Corps, or RDK (see Russia.Post about the RDK here), formed under the auspices of Ukraine’s military intelligence, the HUR, to launch “deniable” incursions into Russian territory. But they often appear in battles waged by the 3rd Brigade, like the battle of Avdiivka.

Hitler’s fan in Stalingrad

It was often claimed, not unreasonably, that far-right extremists were a marginal force that does not play an independent political role in either Russia or Ukraine. During peacetime, ultra-nationalists are primarily used by lobbyist groups or the special services to foment polarization and conflict. Their pressure translates into specific policies or the failure of others, as in the case of President Zelensky’s failure to facilitate the Paris agreements with Putin reached at the end of 2019.

During the war in Ukraine, they have become recruitment engines for various desperados, from football hooligans to prison inmates, who are attracted by the aura of heroism, quasi-fascist aesthetics and death porn visuals circulated by far-right militants on Telegram.
But the far-right's biggest impact is in how they transform the overall political culture in their countries.
Residential buildings in Avdiivka after Russian airstrikes, November 2, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
They serve as trendsetters who make the entire political system shift to the right. That shift is accompanied with the erosion of freedoms and the rule of law under the pretext of various perceived threats – real, imaginary and grossly exaggerated – that turn into self-fulfilling prophesies as long as you keep provoking the adversary.

The culture of football ultras and ultranationalist marginals has crept into the political mainstream, as happened with the slogan “Glory to Ukraine!”, which is now used by the Ukrainian president and Western politicians, while prior to the Maidan revolution of 2014 it was firmly associated with World War II Nazi collaborators and avoided by the mainstream in Ukraine itself. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the far-right agenda in Ukraine has since extended far beyond slogans and translates into policies of squeezing out the Russian language from the public sphere and erasing vestiges of Russian culture, which significantly contributes to escalation and makes it easy for Putin to justify his brutal aggression against Ukraine with the Russian audience.

Putin himself also embodies the right-wing shift with his obsession with “traditional values” and history. One example of that is the proliferation of multimedia exhibitions, known as history parks – slick multimedia exhibitions displaying the Kremlin’s current view on the Russian history, from the Viking rulers of Novgorodian and Kievan Rus’ to the rise of the country’s current ruler.

This reading of Russian history contrasts sharply with what Putin or the author of this piece studied in Soviet schools. Political figures whom the Communists branded as reactionary and retrograde are celebrated, while more liberal and reform-minded ones, such as Alexander II or the Decembrists, favored during Soviet times, would be ridiculed and denounced.

Ivan the Terrible is portrayed not as a mass murderer but merely the victim of the “first information war,” referencing pamphlets spread around Europe at the time.

Unsurprisingly, the exhibition provides an extremely unsympathetic interpretation of the role of Lenin, whose inculcation of proletarian internationalism and condemnation of Russian nationalism makes him unacceptable for Russia’s current regime and who is therefore depicted as a psychopathic mass murderer. Stalin, on the other hand, is presented as a mass murderer who at least partly atoned for his sins by defeating the Nazis.

The exhibition is populated with pennants displaying quotes by the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, whose works were banned in the USSR because of his adoration of Adolf Hitler. Ilyin’s multiple quotations look particularly shocking at the history park in Volgograd, the site of the battle of Stalingrad.

This vision of history supplements Putin’s drift in the direction of the far right in 2012, which was his answer to the Bolotnaya protests that rocked his regime at the time.
Huntingtonian Lens

But these views on history also reflect the worldview of the securitocratic class, which hijacked the Russian state in the early 2000s as a result of the war in Chechnya and the gradual breakup with the West.

Russia’s rightward shift did not happen in vacuum. It went in parallel with post-9/11 securitization and jingoism in the US. The invasion of Iraq as well as the persecution of Julian Assange made it easier for the Russian securitocratic elites to move their own red lines – if America can invade a faraway country for no good reason, why can we not do the same in our backyard?

The start of Putin’s rule, when he was still seeking rapprochement with the West, was marked in the Western world by a shift from globalization idealism, open borders and expansion of democracy to realpolitik and cynicism, which inevitably led to tribalism and conflict. Putin sensed and masterfully surfed this new wave.
Both Russia and the West tend to look at their confrontation through a right-wing lens, picturing the other side in essentialist terms – as a force that has always been hostile, inherently evil and intent on global domination.
Orthodox Christian activists protesting against homosexuality. Moscow, 2010. Source: Wiki Commons
They both describe it as a clash of “civilizations” that have distinct moral characteristics, one being the force of civilizational light and the other the force of darkness. The racist framing of the conflict, like “Western civilization versus Russia’s Asiatic horde,” is also not uncommon.

The essentialist agendas stem from lobbyism of the beneficiaries – securitocratic elites, the military-industrial complex (both the weapon producers and private armies) and a multitude of people and organizations involved in information wars and increasingly sophisticated social engineering, lately with the use of AI.

Very little makes sense in the Russia-Ukraine conflict when you look at it through this Huntingtonian lens of clashing civilizations. It is especially hard from the perspective of anti-Putin Russians, who are being constantly westsplained about their “imperial mentality” and urged to repent for all of Russia’s real and imaginary sins during the last five centuries.

The West’s tacit support of militant ethnonationalism in Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries does not make sense. This is primarily because it strengthens Putin’s regime (which feeds on Eastern European and Western Russophobia). But it gives nothing to those countries, apart from undermining democracy and the rule of law or pushing them toward conflict with Russia. Sanctions pertaining to freedom of movement, designed as a collective punishment of ordinary Russians with seemingly no other aim than revenge, do not add up either for the very same reason.

But things begin to make more sense when you look at war industry operatives, such as the US businessman and former Ukrainian politician Andriy Artemenko.

Once an owner of an airline specializing in military cargo, he emerged in 2014 as a self-proclaimed sponsor of Right Sector – an alliance of far-right militants who played a crucial role at the turning points of the Euromaidan revolution. Right Sector would later evolve into a military unit that would eventually become Ukraine’s 67th Mechanized Brigade. A splinter of Right Sector would grow into Azov.

In 2021, Artemenko was outed by Time magazine as the business partner of Eric Prince, the founder of the military firm Blackwater, now Academi. Together, according to the magazine, they wanted to invest $10 billion in the creation of a military aviation consortium and a private army in Ukraine. Earlier, Artemenko featured in a major scandal involving Donald Trump’s election campaign, which revolved around a peace plan for Ukraine that appeared favorable for the Kremlin.

The stories of far-right militants and war industry operatives, whose interests and alliances transcend frontlines and geopolitical rifts, form the texture of this conflict, while the tale of rampaging Russian imperialism (as well as the Kremlin’s mirror story of Western imperialism) provides a mythological cover for them. The conversation may one day shift from this mythological cover to substance, but perhaps only once the pendulum of history swings back to the left.
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