Ukraine and the Oligarchs - Denis Pilash pt 1/2

The Oligarchs of Russia and Ukraine are destroying the country and the wealth they stole from the people should be expropriated. First, Russia must withdraw its troops, and Ukrainians will fight until they do.  Imperialism in all its forms must be fought, says Denis Pilash on

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to As you can see, I have a kind of screwy setup. I’m not in my studio. I’m out visiting with Daniel Ellsberg in California, but I’ll do my best to make this work. I’ll be back in just a few seconds. We’re going to talk to a Ukrainian member of the Socialist Left in Ukraine about the current situation and ask him some of the questions people have been asking here in North America and around the world. Be back in just a few seconds.


The considerations when one talks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine are different. If you’re in Ukraine and you’re dealing with an aggressive invader, or you’re in North America, or United States, in particular, where you’re facing the center of the Empire, which has its finger on everything. Although, perhaps, not as much as, or in control of as much as they would like to be or as some of the American Left and others think they are, but we’re going to get to that in just a bit. First, we’re going to talk with our guests about what the conditions are now in Ukraine, and then we’ll get into some of the other questions.


So now, joining us from western Ukraine, I’m not going to say what city it is out of his own safety concerns is Denis Pilash. He’s a political scientist, a historian, and a translator. He’s an activist of the Ukrainian Democratic Socialist Organization, the Social Movement. A member of the Commons: Journal of Social Criticism, he’s on the editorial board, and he’s co-author of the book Europa: The Left Europe. Thanks very much for joining us, Dennis.

Denis Pilash

Thank you for inviting me.

Paul Jay

So you’re in western Ukraine, which you’ve told me is relatively safer than certainly most of the rest of Ukraine. First of all, what’s it like for you? What are you doing day-to-day? Then tell us a little bit about what you know is happening in the rest of the country.

Denis Pilash

Now, we are deeply into the war, and it has affected tens of millions of lives. Thousands of civilians have been killed, and millions had to relocate. Many of them have already crossed the border into Poland, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, and so on. Many millions more are relocating within Ukraine to safer places. Actually, I would say that now we have an existential horror when you are thinking about the plight of those people who are now under the shelling and the airstrikes in Kyiv and Kharkiv, in smaller cities, towns, and villages in the eastern, northern, and southern parts of Ukraine. So many people couldn’t leave their homes. They couldn’t leave their elder relatives. They couldn’t leave their relatives with disabilities, and they couldn’t leave their pets. Actually, in some places, the situation is really bad. Some of the towns have been destroyed almost completely, like Kalynivka, Donbas, and Schastia. Some of Kyiv’s suburbs, like Rubizhne, Hostomel’, Bucha, and the city of Mariupol’ are now under siege. There are certain humanitarian disasters there, and there is estimates of thousands of civilians who have perished in this catastrophe. 

As for me, the first days were really horrific. It was really terrible when trying to track where your friends were and whether all of them were in safety. Then you start to get news that someone you used to know has been killed—for instance, an anarchist guy in Kharkiv and a physicist near Kyiv.


So now I’m in one of the western cities of Ukraine, where we have relatively less air alerts, and you aren’t living in constant fear of being attacked and bombed, but you still feel there is a war going on, and you have thousands of refugees fleeing to the west. Also, you have an influx of humanitarian aid coming through the city. Now I’m trying to volunteer at the local University to help transport and disseminate this aid for the refugees, the relocated people, the people near the frontline, and the people who, in one way or another, are trying to resist.


Actually, we had hundreds of thousands of people who enlisted in this voluntary tutorial, self-defence units. You actually have millions of essential workers and volunteers, humanitarian volunteers, people who are trying to aid others who tried to escape and who are trying to survive. We have to give huge respect, especially to the healthcare workers who are working relentlessly to save human lives. The transportation workers, again, are also risking their lives. Some of them have been killed. For instance, the employees of the state-run railroad companies managed to evacuate an enormous number of people. They are one of the biggest heroes of this situation. You have lots and lots of these people who are working-class people who are usually not so visible as the frontline, people essential for the resistance and for survival, but they are the ones who keep things running.

Paul Jay

So what is the role of the Left, the workers’ movement, and trade unions? What role are they playing in the context of this invasion? Also, what about this law that was just passed by the Ukrainian government outlawing various parties, including some Left socialist parties? And was your party affected at all?

Denis Pilash

I would probably start with the general context. In Ukraine, like almost everywhere in Eastern and Central Europe, the so-called post-socialist States, you have a rather poor situation for the Left and the progressive forces in the labour movement. A lot of things are playing into this situation, starting with this really wild capitalism that was unleashed in the ’90s and the market reforms that led to the impoverishment of people and the dismantling of social safety nets. Also, of course, part of this comes from the discreditation of the leftist, socialist and communist ideas through the experience of colonialism, i.e. hunger, repression and so on. Obviously, it’s not something that is boosting a progressive alternative here.


Actually, in central-eastern Europe, you have several countries where the new Left parties have been prominent, like Litija in Slovenia or Poznań in Poland, but in the rest of these places, usually, you have difficult conditions for the Democratic Left. This was the situation for Ukraine as well. Our group, called Sotsialnyi Rukh, the social movement, is a leftist organization that was organized to bring together people from trade unions, the student movement, the feminist movement, the ecological movement, from other social movements and to try to articulate a Democratic socialist agenda, an anti-capitalist agenda and to constitute real grassroots political subjects that would be a voice for the working-class people.


We felt the necessity for this after we experienced in Ukraine a number of mass protests, usually called maidan due to the biggest square in Kyiv. Well, actually, they were really popular movements joined by a huge number of people. These people were driven by the same problems that are usually protested throughout the world, starting with poverty, inequality, lack of political representation, police brutality and so on. Every time the only result was some change in politicians, some change in geopolitical orientations, but never the change in the system. That is a system of nefarious oligarchic capitalism that flourished in Ukraine and elsewhere in our region. So we felt that we needed to propose this kind of alternative and challenge this oligarchic system— actually, all mainstream political parties are rooted in these oligarchic, financial, industrial groups, and they represent them.


So that was the reason why our group then called the Left [inaudible 00:11:53], then the Assembly for Social Revolution, and ultimately we created this NGO social movement with the perspective to become a political party. In Ukraine, we have more than maybe 300 registered political parties, but they are no more than some kind of electoral vehicle that is sometimes bought by capitalist actors and then resold after the elections. So they lack any kind of ideology and philosophy. They don’t really represent social groups besides, of course, the capital that runs them. So this was the prerequisite for the establishment of our group. Now in these conditions, we are trying to do our best to both help the people who are in need and also to prevent cuts to social and labour rights. Of course, in any situation, any government operating this neoliberal shock doctrine will grab the opportunity to somehow have the rights for the majority, especially the social and economic rights, to benefit the ruling class. So it was again the same.


Now here we have some neoliberal members of Parliament who tried to actually pass a law that is still waiting for the signature of the President. We are calling [inaudible 00:14:03] a law that makes it easier to sack workers, and it’s quite cynical in the situation when workers are the backbone of the resistance today. So again, they are thinking of this purely, of course, in categories of what’s good for the business and not what’s good for the workers.


So then we have the situation with the trade unions in Ukraine. Again it’s like elsewhere in the region; it’s a bit complicated. So we have two big union entities: the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine and the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine. The first one is a continuation of the official pro-governmental old Soviet Union. In many cases, it was perceived as an ally to the management and something that is not representing its membership at all. The second one emerged from the big Miners Movement at the end of the ’80s. So it was one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The workers were protesting and had economic demands, and they felt that the system that calls itself the working class was actually run by bureaucracy and not by the people. They emerged as independent unions, and they are smaller, but now we have the situation wherein both these entities, you could find bureaucrats aligning with management, and at the same time, you can see militant branches. 

In our organization, we have organizers and people who are active in both federations, the people who work with construction workers, crane workers, and miners. This independent miners union, especially in the city of Yenakijeve, that’s kind of the industrial heart of Ukraine; it’s in the center of Ukraine. It’s an extremely long city with ore mines and ore refineries. Interestingly enough, it’s also the birthplace of the current President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy. Many of these people are now involved in all kinds of activities. Many workers enlisted for the military resistance, and many are doing their jobs to keep things going.

Well, now again, we try to gain more international tension and solidarity, especially for the plight of Ukrainian workers in the situation of war, and to also find international solidarity for the demands that would benefit the working class in Ukraine. Starting with an obvious one, we need to stop the war and withdraw all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory. Continuing with the specific ones, the need to recover Ukraine after this ravaging war. So we need to cancel the Ukrainian external debt and get the country out of this vicious circle of debt of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] austerity policies and so on. Again, we need to confiscate as much assets and property from the oligarchy, both Russian and Ukrainian, because this war has shown that the class war has no ending and no truth. Even in situations when you have an international war, you could see the Ukrainian oligarchs who were fleeing from the country prior to the invasion and who tried to rob the people in a way that made them pay for the damage caused by the war.


Of course, you have the Russian ruling class that was robbing its own people and other people throughout the post-Soviet space. They were concentrating their enormous wealth and placing it off in safe havens, buying property in London, the Netherlands, Switzerland and playing an organic part of the global ruling elite. Of course, Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs are the same as any other capitalists. They do the same thing, and they are the same way, criminals. In our case, they are usually also criminals in a direct sense because it was how this accumulation of capital in the ’90s was conducted, with criminal activities, literally.


To turn all this money towards the reconstruction of the economy, infrastructure, rebuilding apartments and providing help for the people who were displaced by this war. We will go back to these specific demands, but I will also comment on the question about this decree that banned a faction of political parties. It was about temporarily stopping the activity of several political parties that are deemed as pro-Russian. So, the biggest pro-Russian parties, one of them is one of the main oligarchic parties in Ukraine. Another one is the personalized party of a YouTube blogger who, like many YouTube bloggers in this part of the world, made his name with lots of hate speech and things against each other. There are also a number of parties that have the word socialist or something like that in their name, and well, the majority of them don’t even exist. There are some mutual entities.

For instance, once it was well known and once it was respected, the Socialist Party of Ukraine. In the ’90s, it emerged as some kind of hope for the Democratic Left here, and it was a principal opposition against the regime of President [Leonid] Kuchma, who was the architect of this Ukrainian oligarchy capitalism. The Socialist party was one of the main forces behind the protest against it. Then it started to sell off to different groups of the local bourgeoisie, either pro-Western or pro-Russian, and it became very discredited. At some point, it was hijacked by some very strange people. The last of them was a curious case, a guy who started as a far-right activist and he was an aide and advisor to Minister [Arsen] Avakov, the Minister of Interior who was again used to be a patron of the Ukrainian far-right. This was a very brutish guy from the police who was notorious for his remarks against no separatism, and he was promising to kill drug addicts and so on with his rhetoric. Then at some point, he becomes one of the most pro-Russian [Vladimir] Putin members of Parliament, and now he’s outside the country, and he’s leading the Russian invasion. So this guy, with the support of the Minister of Interior, hijacked the party and threw out all the remaining real activists from it.


So you can say that these parties weren’t actually really Left. For instance, the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine was more about being some kind of right-wing populist. It was deep into some conspiracy theories about how some plots against the Orthodox Christian civilization and our values and so on. They were of no significance, and they aren’t somehow being some big obstacles for the existence of Ukraine. 

So I think that this decision— it was not just that these facts were unnecessary and stupid, but it was also setting a dangerous and Democratic precedent when the activity of political parties and organizations is stopped, not by the decision of the court due to some due process, but by unilateral decision by the central authority. So again, we can say that we have no sympathy towards its parties, and they are not representing the real Left at all. The way they were outlawed, at least for the time of war as it was declared, is worrying because it can be used against any other political group. You just need to message them and say that they are somehow unpatriotic.

Paul Jay

So let’s deal with sort of the main argument that Putin has been giving for why this invasion was necessary. There are certain sections of the Left in the United States, and I guess other places that have some sympathy for this argument. Essentially the Ukrainian government, since 2014, has been launching attacks on the Russian-speaking people in Donbas, and there was a sort of progressive character, to some extent, of the forces that emerged in Donbas and eventually declared independence. Over the last few years, since 2014, as many as eight to ten thousand people may have been killed by the Ukrainian government forces in Donbas, and for Russia to defend the people of Donbas, which Putin says is his main mission, I believe. It was necessary not just to protect the people of Donbas by having 150,000 troops on the border, but they had to actually quote “demilitarize Ukraine.”


Now, I’ve talked to some friends on the Russian Left who apparently are also split on this question, and there’s a section of the Russian Left that sympathizes with this need to defend Donbas. Certainly, in the earlier years, some members of the Russian Left even volunteered to go defend and fight in Donbas. There was a feeling of apprehension leading up to this recent conflict that the Ukrainian government was planning some kind of assault on Donbas. There’s a lot of questions all in there, I know. So break it down, but let me just start with this. Is it not true that thousands of people were killed by Ukrainian forces in Donbas? And then two, was there a reason to believe this massive military build-up over the last year? Assuming that’s correct because I don’t know exactly who to believe about anything these days. The Americans and NATO countries had put a lot of weaponry into Ukraine, which created a legitimate sense, they argue, the Russians and some of the Left that they were in fear of an imminent attack on Donbas. So what’s your take on this?

Denis Pilash

First of all, I would say that almost all of Putin’s words are cynical lies. Even if we start with the war in Donbas, there were around 14,000 people killed. There were people killed from all sides. Actually, if we break down who killed more, we can find that, first of all, the number of military casualties is bigger than the civilian one. Then again, this view that it was just the Ukrainian Army unilaterally shelling the cities of Donbas it again is not true. It was done by both sides, and actually, just a part of these people were killed by the Ukrainian forces while you have a big part of the responsibility on Russia and its proxies.


So actually, there was a lot of mythology, and I would say some kind of romanticizing of what was happening in Donbas. What was particularly striking is that the Kremlin didn’t even try hard to paint itself as some kind of anti-fascist force, but it was bought so easily by large sections on the Left. Again, if we speak about the nature of Putin’s regime in Russia, it’s a conservative right-wing authoritarian regime that is serving the interest of this Nexus. It’s a Nexus of the oligarchs, the [foreign language 00:31:11] that are like the people from the security services and in general bureaucrat bourgeoisie. All this together constitutes the Russian ruling elite. While Russia was and is not just an authoritarian and non-Democratic state, increasingly authoritarian, especially after this invasion started, they passed a number of legislations that are outlawing even calling this a war. You can get fined, and then you can get imprisoned for many years for not calling it a special military operation.


It was also deeply anti-social. It conducted neoliberal reforms from monetization of some benefits to education reforms and to pension reforms. Even faster than many of the countries that are seen as more Liberal in Eastern Europe, definitely faster than in Ukraine. So again, there is nothing progressive and nothing socialist in Russia, and modern Russia has become a beacon for the far-right in Europe. I would say that the majority of Europe and the far-right were really modelled after this Putin system that is the best in Europe and possibly in the world. So Russia was supported by the majority of far-right parties in Europe, from Marine Le Pen in France to [Chrysí Avgí] Golden Dawn in Greece and first Jobbik’s and Fidesz in Hungary.


So really, you could see how much Putin is an anti-fascist from the way he was building up to this invasion and his notorious war-mongering speeches where he was constantly attacking the Russian revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks and [Vladimir] Lenin for the mere existence of Ukraine as a separate republic and separate entity. He was clear that he was continuing this tsarist imperialist grand Russian chauvinist narrative. He was meeting with such prominent anti-fascists, Jair Bolsonaro from Brazil and Viktor Orbán from Hungary, just prior to the invasion. So actually, nothing anti-fascist at all, but they were extensively using and trying to somehow accommodate this legacy of the victory against fascism and nazism in the Second World War as something that is legitimizing official Russian propaganda.


So again, many in the West and generally abroad tend to associate everything linked to the Soviet Union and the victory in the Second World War just with Russia. So I have to remind you that it was the Soviet Union. It was a Federation, at least nominally a Federation of lots of Republicans, and only half of its population was Russian. If we speak about, for instance, 27 million Soviet citizens who perished in the horrors of the Second World War, they were not just Russians. They were Ukrainians, Belarussians, Luhansk, [foreign language 00:35:24] people, Caucasus, Siberia and Central Asia. Again in the Red Army, you also had a proportion of these people, and from a quarter to a third of the Red Army and of the Soviet casualties, they were actually coming from Soviet Ukraine. So it was again a contribution of all the people of the Soviet Union, not just Russia, and Russia cannot just—

Paul Jay

Let’s go back to Donbas for a second. I want to ask you about something you said. At least a significant number of people in areas of Donbas, if they don’t want to be part of Ukraine, don’t they have that right? Shouldn’t the Ukrainian government, from my understanding, originally in 2014, the demand was a kind of federal system. Later there was the Minsk Agreement for allowing autonomy. Shouldn’t the Ukrainian government have actually lived up to the Minsk Agreement? Wouldn’t that have helped to avoid this situation?

Denis Pilash

To speak about the Donbas conflict, it was very complex on several levels. So, yes, you had a popular sentiment behind the anti-maidan local movement in 2014. It was really a tragedy that the people protesting in central and western Ukraine and people protesting in the eastern part of Ukraine were driven by the same problems and demands. Still, they were given this opposing agenda in terms of some kind of identity, language, etc. This made it possible to pit these people against each other. Actually, a worker in Kyiv, Donetsk and Lviv have the same grievances, and it is the same problem. So again, these questions that were artificially cracking the Ukrainian people, like the language, geopolitical orientation, and others, were used by the local and foreign politicians for their own sake. This brought a lack of understanding between different regions of Ukraine. It was an unfortunate tragedy.


At other levels, you also had a play of local elites and oligarchs who tried to preserve their control of these regions. You also had some intentions of Russia, obviously, that started this. They kicked the conflict with the annexation of Crimea. One cannot argue that it’s not like a real referendum when you have armed people occupying the Peninsula, and everything is done under the barrel of the gun even if lots of people there were really eager to switch to Russia. Again, it was also ignoring what the others in the local population, for instance, the Crimean Tatars and other people who had been deported during [Joseph] Stalins’ time, how they felt about being annexed by Russia.


Now we turn to Donbas. So, yes, you had different views on the local population and how to live afterwards. Again, it wasn’t that there was an overwhelming majority for breaking with Ukraine. Instead, you can check how many people left the region due to the war. There were a lot of them who went to Russia, and there were a lot of them who went to other regions of Ukraine. So it was like a million and a half IDPs, internally displaced persons, inside Ukraine. So, again, obviously, these were people who were more comfortable with staying in Ukraine than going to Russia, for instance.


In any case, neither of the then authority that was this post-Maidan Ukrainian authority nor those Russian and pro-Russian forces who tried to start a violent confrontation— there were people like Igor [Ivanovich] Strelkov and [Igor] Girkin, who is a former Russian Special Services guy with a monarchist worldview from this riot guards nostalgia and so on. He was a very important player in starting the military escalation in 2014 in Donbas. He, with his unit made of so-called Russian volunteers from Russia itself, they took a local city Slovensk and then started this military confrontation with the Ukrainian state.


So we could say that there were lots of wrong steps from both sides. At the same time, you had a clear intention of Russia and some Russian nationals to stir up a real conflict there. Actually, for many of these people, the people in the Kremlin and people like this adventurer Strelkov, they didn’t care about the population of Donbas. They cared about their own imperialist ambitions, and it was so easy for them to sacrifice the lives of the local population. Now we can say that this conflict led to the cleavage between that part of Donbas that is now controlled by this pro-Russian.


I’ll go back to the nature of these so-called republics and the Ukrainian authorities who control the other part. These eastern Ukrainian cities were under Ukrainian control until they were occupied this month, in this year, you could see that there is an almost complete rejection of the Russian invaders. The local people who are primarily Russian speaking, who used to vote, primarily for the parties deemed as pro-Russian, are the same people who are now going to the streets and standing up to these armed Russian soldiers and saying, “we are not inviting you here. This is our city, this is our land, and you are the occupiers. Go back, you say that you are liberating us, but actually, we see you as fascists. You brought more war to us.”


The tragedy is that these days— we have had less than a month of this war now, especially in the Donetsk region. In the same Donetsk region where you have the city of Mariupol’, the number of civilian casualties is bigger than it was throughout these eight years of this protracted war in Donbas. This is a result of a unilateral decision made by the Russian leadership, who is steering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Paul Jay

So I don’t want to minimize what I think is not just a violation of international laws; this invasion of Ukraine is a war crime. I don’t want to minimize that. That being said, shouldn’t Ukraine have allowed a referendum in Donbas and let the people decide what their fate would be?

Denis Pilash

So now let’s get to, for instance, the issue of the Minsk Agreements. So the Minsk Agreement has been violated by both sides because they were written in a way that each side was somehow reading it in its own way. So, for instance, there was a big dispute on whether the new elections⁠— this special status for Donbas had some kind of autonomy⁠— whether it had to be inducted after the control over the border would be resumed by Ukraine or by some kind of international peace-keeping force or something else. The sides would agree to this or say first, we have elections, and then we have the returning of this control.


Again, there were arguments on both sides and, for instance, we cannot have free and fair elections in these so-called people’s republics because, again, if we speak about these⁠— Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics were actually some kind of top-down military dictatorships because they didn’t allow any kind of independent activity, independent organizations in trade unions. Even the political parties that they sanctioned, there were some political groups that had no real entities. What they claimed to be an election was just made up. So it was a complete falsification. 

Even if we spoke about the problems that we have with the electoral process here and even with Russia⁠— still, in Russia, you have some control, but there are bodies that are not ruling; they are oppositional. In these regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, there was no kind of emulation of a proper political process. The current leadership of these so-called republics got into power through another military coup. They had killed the previous leader in Donetsk, somehow chased off the leader in Luhansk and installed new people who were direct members of the ruling party in United Russia. A lot of people who have no reputation among local people. 

So the problem is they were arguing that we cannot have real elections there until we have this kind of Russian military control over this land. So this was what Ukraine was arguing. Russia was arguing that if we close the borders and send people back to Ukraine, then Ukraine will do some kind of cleansing. So, again, both sides weren’t really into—

Paul Jay

Given the strength of the far-right in Ukraine and even the armed far-right, if I understand it correctly, with a certain strength in the armed forces, wasn’t that fear of some kind of cleansing of Donbas have some merit?

Denis Pilash

Actually, while the Ukrainian side was clearly sabotaging some parts of the political agreement of Minsk, the Russian side and the pro-Russian side were committing a lot of violations of the security part of the Minsk Agreement. They didn’t even [inaudible 00:49:54] demilitarize what was described by this agreement. All of the parts of this front is what we call [inaudible 00:50:07]. Again, there were a lot of violations from both sides, but ultimately, it was the Russian side that completely destroyed Minsk by acknowledging this Republic prior to the invasion. Now to get to the issue of the far-right.

Paul Jay

But hang on, let me just say, I got to give a counter-argument here. They’re saying Minsk was already dead by that point.

Denis Pilash

Minsk wasn’t dead at that point. I think that many thought that with Russia’s power-building prior to the invasion, many people argue that it was some kind of pressure to get some concessions and then to have some type of negotiation. Ultimately, when everyone thought that, okay, now will have some negotiations, then Russia went on a full-scale invasion. So again, it seems like an irrational decision that would really pressure—

Paul Jay

Okay, let me follow up, and again, I’m going to keep saying this because I’m pushing you on issues of what Ukraine could have done, and I don’t, in any way, want to mitigate the crimes and horror of this invasion. There were voices in Ukraine leading up to the invasion when the Russian forces started gathering. There are significant voices in Ukraine saying to take NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] off the table and declare neutrality now. The truth is, as far as I understand the politics of NATO, yes, there’s that Bucharest agreement, but I think many NATO countries have made it clear decades before Ukraine would ever be allowed into NATO, meaning probably never. Why didn’t Zelenskyy just declare neutrality before the invasion?

 Denis Pilash

I don’t think that it was really a question about NATO. Well, actually, for Zelenskyy, it was part of his political platform that he would do a referendum on such issues, including this NATO membership. Though he inherited this from the previous President [Petro] Poroshenko, who had already, under his leadership, this membership in NATO was engraved in the Constitution. It was in some amendments that Ukraine was aspiring for Euro Atlantic integration. Actually, I think that it could easily become a part of some kind of deal if Russian leadership did really want to contact Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy, for two years, was trying to get on the presidential level, personal negotiations with Putin to discuss these questions as well. However, he had no chance because the Russian side said that they were not going to speak with him; they were only going to speak with Washington. 

Again, this is some kind of very imperial thinking, that big grand imperial powers get to decide the fate of smaller ones. I don’t think that Zelenskyy was sticking to this issue of NATO membership. Now, he’s clearly also saying that we understand. We understood back then, and we understand now that many NATO member states don’t want Ukraine in NATO. So we can speak and negotiate on this issue, but why don’t you go on these direct negotiations? So, I wouldn’t say that it was oppression. 

Back to this issue of the far-right, the question, as you put it. Well, again, the far-right is a pressuring issue for Ukraine. We have two main imperatives, which are too simplistic. The first one is if you read Western scholars, usually they are downplaying the importance or the influence of the far-right in Ukraine. They are rightly [inaudible 00:54:55]. Electoral is a coalition of the major far-right groups. It has just like 2% on the election; like the last presidential election, they were maybe a percent and a half.

Paul Jay

So they’re very weak electorally?

Denis Pilash

They are weak electorally as they are not popular among the population. So actually, the population is rejecting this kind of very nationalist rhetoric. It’s saying that in the previous presidential elections, when the incumbent President Poroshenko was defeated, he was running on an increasingly nationalist conservative platform. At the same time, Zelenskyy, he was actually an empty signifier. He had no clear platform at all. Still, he was perceived as some kind of uniting figure who came from the city of Kryvyi Rih. He comes from a family of Soviet intelligence, some rather cosmopolitan figure, Russian speaking, who has this message of uniting and inclusive vision of Ukraine instead of some kind of nationalist ideas like Poroshenko that were army, language, and face. So this was his triad in the elections. While Zelenskyy was really speaking about uniting everyone, including bringing peace to Donbas. Actually, after his election, the ceasefire in Donbas was much more effective. There were less violations of the ceasefire and less casualties, you could say. Actually, he had this mandate from the people to try and force some kind of deal on this.


Here we have the issue of the far-right. When they are done playing them, they say only about the electoral results, but we understand that the real power of the far-right here is not in their elections; it’s in their armed resource. In countries like France, when some kind of Le Pen and [Éric] Zemmour get 20% and 30% of votes or in Italy with [Matteo] Salvini and Lega or some alternative for [inaudible 00:57:44] and so on. These far-right parties have no military means. They obviously have no armed groups.


Here we come to another view that Ukraine is synonymous with fascism. All Ukrainians are fascists, and the only thing you know about Ukraine is the Azov Battalion. It has not been a battalion for many years, but it is now a regiment. By the way, not in the army but in the Ministry of Interior, the National Guard, many again spoke about this link between the original leader of the Azov Battalion, that was [Andriy] Biletsky, who comes from a real neo-nazi group school, a very small organization. With his link to former Minister of Interior [Arsen Borysovych] Avakov, I would say that yes, we have this huge challenge on how to deal with the existence of this armed group.

Paul Jay

How strong are they in the military?

Denis Pilash

I would say that Azov is probably connected with some groups; it was called a national militia, Natsionalni Druzhyny. It’s several thousand people with weapons. Compared to the entirety of the Ukrainian armed forces, they are again only a small faction, but they also have this kind of mythology that surrounds them. They were so efficient as defenders of Mariupol’ so this, of course, boosted their legitimacy. For instance, it made it not so easy for political leadership to have enough political will to say we have to disband this battalion or regiment because it’s dangerous for the citizens of Ukraine and it’s dangerous for the public image of Ukraine. It was clear that many politicians here seemed completely blind to this problem, but internationally everyone was speaking about this problem. So in order to somehow disarm it and disperse it, it wouldn’t be easy. Now, this so-called nazification intervention by Russia, it would be even less possible because it gave them new justification for their existence and new legitimacy.


In any society, the majority of people don’t want to wage war. It’s this tiny group of the far-right who are really eager for war and who dream about getting to Valhalla. There’s some kind of specific mindset. They see war as an opportunity. You could see that it was not just this one battalion and some splits from it that benefited from this war but also other far-right groups both on the Ukrainian and the Russian side. So you could see that many international far-rights came to the war in Donbas and some training camps, on both sides, as an opportunity to take part in a war and to get some training. So you had a number of, for instance, Scandinavian or Croatian far-rights coming to Azol, and you had Serbian, Scandinavian, and some other European far-rights coming to fight for the separatist side, the pro-Russian side.


There were, again, you mentioned that there were some Russian Left who went to defend Donbas. There is a lot of mythology, for instance, around one of these warlords in Luhansk, [Aleksey] Mozgovoy, that he had under his command a unit with communists. Under the same command, there was a unit of far-right like the Russian neonazis from Rusich. You have, of course, lots of far-right among different mercenaries and the Wagner group that are Russian government-affiliated. So if you see the tattoos on some Azolv and some Wagner militants, it would be pretty much the same. So these are people —

Paul Jay

One on Ukrainian Right and one on the Russian Right.

Denis Pilash

Yeah, and they are really parasitic in this war and parasitic on the tragedy of an enormous number of people. These people see this as an opportunity. I’m afraid that with this invasion, we got, of course, nationalist hysteria throughout the region, and it will only increase. It’s increasing here, of course, as any war brings this, and it’s increasing in Russia. You can even see literal Nazis doing some events with the Russian National Unity, the neonazi group. There is a lot of dehumanization talks.


We are in a more dangerous situation now. I would say that the majority of the Ukrainian society, including the majority in the Ukrainian armed forces, again, if you listen to the current commander of the Ukrainian Army, in the previous months leading up to this invasion, constantly making the point that in no case Ukraine should wait for Donbas and try to reintegrate it in a military way. The only option is some kind of peaceful and civic solution. So I would say that the majority of the people could stop these far-right groups from doing some atrocities. In the case when you have another escalation and a more confrontational situation, this amplifies the voices of the extreme, and it really waters down the voices of the reasonable majority.

Paul Jay

Alright, so we’re going to do a part two for this interview where we’ll talk more about the role of the United States, NATO expansion, the bigger picture of the geopolitics and this moment, and the crisis of global capitalism because that’s really what this fundamentally is about. I don’t think we should ever stop talking about how this is a manifestation of what I would say is sort of an uneven development of capitalist countries, which is precisely what happened before World War II. I’ll sort of use this in my introduction, but I’ll just tease it a little bit now. You can’t expect the country the size of Russia— when I say you, I mean the United States— not to have regional power. To think that a country that size is just going to play ball and not be a regional power is ridiculous. On the other hand, if you like to sell arms, it’s pretty good to try to stop them from being a regional power and for many other reasons. None of that justifies the invasion. That being said, there’s a lot of onus on U.S. policy within the context of how global capitalism works.

So we are going to talk about that in part two. Denis, thank you very much and thanks to everyone watching

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Denis Pilash is a political scientist, historian, and translator. He’s an activist of the Ukrainian Democratic Socialist Organization, the Social Movement. A member of the Commons: Journal of Social Criticism, he’s on the editorial board, and he’s co-author of the book Europa: The Left Europe. theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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  1. This fella is not just factually wrong about many things, his analysis is lacking any depth what so ever. Russia was liberalized even faster than Ukraine? I wonder why? Could it be because at the time Russia was grand prize? Which nation has the vastly larger economy? Uh, yeah of course Russia was the priority after the Soviet system imploded. That’s not some indictment on Russia, much less Russia today. Putin is hated in the West precisely because he worked to undue most of that and establish a new nexus of control under the state, with power seemingly heavily concentrated in himself.

    1. Ofc they are. What do you happens when you have gangs of gladio era fascists running around a literal warzone. This guest is a clown and full of shite. The UN itself contradicts his claims about the nature of the conflict in the Donbass for the past 8 years.

  2. Russia is hardly engaged in “Imperialism” in Ukraine. I’d suggest perhaps it’s the power which is interfering in what would otherwise be perfectly normal and perfectly peaceful bilateral relations between European nations half way around the world. There is no real problem in Europe except for problems which the the US likes to create. Chicago boys turned Russia in another Saudi, Putin’s a bad guy cuz he doesn’t enable this agenda. They’re all corrupt, but there’s such a thing as scale in global geopolitics. What’s notable to me is the power of influence campaigns. Honestly it’s not even the fact that I don’t find these analysis presented by recent guests to be compelling but just strategically speaking I think more of this kind of content is a fast track to irrelevancy. Paul is a charismatic, compelling guy who capable of worthwhile analysis and presentation on his own. I wanna know what kind of Atlantic flavored kool aid these European soc-dems are drinking.

  3. If anything is clear, it is that Russia is adhering to it’s plan, and will achieve it’s objectives. Putin is not ‘mad’, ‘bad’ or a similar description. He is a deep thinker, planner and chess-player who told us what he is doing, and the facts are that he is achieving his objectives. I don’t think he is ‘stupid’ enough to try to hang on to the Ukraine. I think he will get out after he has reorganized it. Most of the West is decrying his invasion into the Ukraine without putting it into the context of the NATO/US reckless and unrelenting push ever eastward. Nobody has reiterated Russians fundamental fear of NATO/US on it’s doorstep, with missiles within a few minutes of Moscow. The US/NATO would never accept missiles lining the Mexican border. This renders them hypocrites. I think the US is on the verge of internal chaos. The American political class are inept and distracted by neo-con fantasies.

    I am a European. I have been raised after WW2 in close proximity to Russia, and l fully understood them, their Revolution and their fears of encirclement and being militarily threatened. The USSR was almost destroyed by the Nazis. It took the whole of the Cold War to rebuild, and they are understandably determined not to be in that position again. Contrast that with the infantile world-view of the average American, who lost only 400,000 in WW2, fighting in somebody else’s country. The American people know nothing of war, and their characterization of Putin as ‘mad’ or whatever is infantile, a state l have always though Americans to be in simply because they have never been bombed or invaded. The US military is unusable because it was forced to rearm according to the weapons manufacturers need to ‘loot’ the taxes which should be spent on the people. Lastly, the US/NATO say nothing about the people in the Donbas, who have been shelled by mostly Nazis for 8 years, inflicting nearly 15,000 dead and countless more injured. Being ethnic Russians, and Russian speakers, the Ukrainian government was trying to inflict cultural genocide upon them. The US/NATO and it’s media has said nothing about them.

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