Western cheerleaders for the war in Ukraine have sought to deny the complicated relationship between Ukrainian nationalism and neo-Nazi groups, calling any discussion of a Nazi past or present in Ukraine a “Putin talking point.” But the truth can only be suppressed for so long, and it recently burst forth in what should have been a sleepy session of the Canadian Parliament.
In the midst of introducing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy for yet another address to the House of Commons, Speaker Anthony Rota recognized 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka as a Ukrainian war hero for fighting the Soviet Union during World War II, apparently unaware that Hunka had volunteered for the Waffen-SS Galicia division, a Nazi military unit notorious for horrific war crimes.
An entire roomful of MPs, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a fist-pumping Zelensky, rose in a standing ovation for Hunka. Rota has effusively apologized for his mistake, but the embarrassing spectacle reveals some of the flaws in Western thinking about this war.
The Virtue-Signaling Imperative
First, the incident shows how the virtue-signaling imperative to support Project Ukraine supersedes all other values and considerations. The logic works backwards as follows: Ukraine is good, therefore Ukrainian nationalism is good. If someone is a Ukrainian nationalist, therefore, they must be good. Inconvenient facts such as Junka’s service in the Waffen-SS or even that the father of Ukrainian nationalism, Stepan Bandera, was a Nazi collaborator, are mere historical details to be swept aside or airbrushed out, as Western media sometimes do to the photos of Ukrainian soldiers displaying Nazi symbols on their uniforms.
Stripping away all of the present conflict’s historical context and complexity creates a simplistic binary: one must support either Ukrainian nationalism or the invader’s brute conquest. As this framing is reinforced over and over by the mainstream media and online partisans, any effort to seek a greater level of understanding becomes suspect. Do you have any deeper questions about the causes of the war or the potential paths to peace? You must be “pro-Russian.” For most liberals, and certainly Canadian politicians, it is safer to indulge in historically ignorant virtue signaling than to risk being called a Putin apologist – even if it results in the occasional moment of humiliation from cheering a Nazi.
Of course, the reality is more complicated than the simplistic binary. Most Ukrainian nationalists are not Nazis. But the presence of Nazi ideology in Ukraine is well documented, and the most ardent ultra-nationalist groups in Ukraine retain the race ideology of their patriarch Bandera. This is why Nazi insignia often appear on Ukrainian uniforms. This is why white nationalists flocked from all over Europe to fight on the Ukrainian side at the beginning of the war. This is why some streets in Ukraine are named after Ukrainian Nazis who participated in war crimes. This is why watchdog groups have been concerned about the rise of hate groups in Ukraine for some time.
The Role of the Ultra-Nationalists
Despite all this, we have closed our eyes, covered our ears, and labeled Ukraine’s “Nazi problem” a Putin talking point. This reveals a second and more disturbing flaw in the thinking of U.S. foreign policy: we have made common cause with the ultra-nationalists. Any sensible U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine (assuming we saw a need to become involved at all) would have endeavored to keep these people at bay. Instead, we cultivated them.
They participated in the U.S.-backed Maidan coup in 2014, and once a civil war broke out in reaction to the coup, far-right groups like Right Sector and the infamous Azov Battalion began killing separatists in the Donbas, running up a death toll of thousands. Instead of suppressing these efforts, the Kiev government incorporated these militias into the military command structure to continue their work.
The U.S. could have supported the Minsk Accords between 2015 and 2021 to peacefully resolve the conflict, but our policymakers were seduced by the idea that nationalist fervor in Ukraine would serve our interests. A Rand Corporation study showed how Ukraine could be used as a proxy to destabilize Russia. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard explained that Ukraine was a hinge state; if it could be brought into the orbit of the West, Russia would no longer be a great power. We therefore rationalized aligning with groups who would never compromise with Russia and turned a blind eye to their troubling politics.
A Tragic Refusal to Negotiate
As Zelensky has constantly reiterated, the Ukrainian position remains that every square inch of territory (including Crimea) must be returned to Ukraine or there will be no peace. But Moscow will never agree to this, particularly when it is winning a war of attrition. Now that the counteroffensive has failed to take back any meaningful amount of territory, there is no viable plan for evicting Russia from Ukrainian territory. The intransigence of Zelensky and his supporters in refusing to negotiate does not serve the long-term interests of Ukraine, which is presently being destroyed, but it is consistent with the agenda of the ultra-nationalists.
The tragedy is that in 2019 Zelensky was elected on a peace platform – he was supposed to make peace with Russia under the auspices of Minsk II. But far-right groups threatened him with violence if he did, and he backed down. By 2021 he had changed course and was supporting resolutions to take back Crimea and increasing the shelling of the Donbas. With an ardent Ukraine supporter (Biden) in the White House, and a new strategic agreement from the U.S. promising weapons, economic aid and future NATO membership, Zelensky was emboldened to pursue a hardline policy instead of the peace platform he was elected on. With both the U.S. and Ukraine’s far right aligned in favor of this position, it must have appeared suicidal to resist.
A Better U.S. Policy
A far better U.S. policy would have been to recognize the right of self-determination for all the people of Ukraine. But that would have meant acknowledging the loss of Crimea (which is mostly Russian) and granting regional autonomy to the Donbas as Ukraine agreed to do in Minsk II. Doing that, and taking NATO membership off the table, would have achieved peace and left Ukraine intact. But peace wasn’t the objective of State Department strategists, who wanted to weaken Russia and saw Ukraine as a pawn on their Grand Chessboard.
Giving a standing ovation to a former Nazi soldier is a moral stain, but sacrificing Ukraine in a geopolitical game while pretending to be its savior is a far greater one.