I am happy to share another guest post from Gin & Tonic to help round out our understanding of not only current events, but also the history of Russia and Ukraine.
On Assasination as Statecraft
by Gin & Tonic
I was looking for a unifying element for another guest post, and yesterday (Sunday, 27 March) I saw reports, I think still unconfirmed, that another hit squad going for Zelensky had been taken out somewhere in Hungary or Slovakia. So I thought, huh, political assassinations as a frequently-used tool by Russia. Sure, I know, assassinations have been a tool of statecraft forever, and surely the well-informed jackaltariat knows about Litvinenko (polonium), Politkovskaya (hit squad), Nemtsov (hit squad), Viktor Yushchenko (unsuccessful, dioxin), Skripal and Navalny (unsuccessful, Novichok). But I want to go back in history a bit and focus on Ukraine, so if you’re interested, follow me after the jump.
⚡️Another attempt on the life of #VladimirZelensky failed.
This time, a military group of 25 people led by the Russian special services was captured near the Slovakia-Hungary border. Their goal was the physical elimination of the #UkrainianPresident. pic.twitter.com/Vp0vDEIZnK
— KyivPost (@KyivPost) March 28, 2022
(break here so we can put the full post under the fold)
The Full Post
I was looking for a unifying element for another guest post, and yesterday (Sunday, 27 March) I saw reports, I think still unconfirmed, that another hit squad going for Zelensky had been taken out somewhere in Hungary or Slovakia. So I thought, huh, political assassinations as a frequently-used tool by Russia. Sure, I know, assassinations have been a tool of statecraft forever, and surely the well-informed jackaltariat knows about Litvinenko (polonium), Politkovskaya (hit squad), Nemtsov (hit squad), Viktor Yushchenko (unsuccessful, dioxin), Skripal and Navalny (unsuccessful, Novichok). But I want to go back in history a bit and focus on Ukraine.
So let’s go back to before WWI. Western Ukraine, largely the area known as Halychyna (Galicia), the major cities of which are Lviv (aka Lwow or Lemberg) and Stanyslaviw (now Ivano-Frankivsk), was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following the Russian Revolution, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was declared independent, but the period from 1917 to the early 1920’s was, to say the least, turbulent, and the Republic didn’t last. There’s a lot of history here, but it’s not really germane, so I won’t go into it. It’s enough for now to end with the 1921 Peace of Riga, which ceded Galicia to Poland. Poland had a long history there, and there were Galicians who had preferred the relatively benign Austro-Hungarian rule – but the Habsburg dynasty was over – or, obviously independence. This lead to the formation of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which started out as a political movement devoted to driving Poland out of Galicia and establishing some form of independent state.
The OUN in the 1920’s consisted of a mix of older Galicians who were veterans of various army formations – Tsarist, Austrian, Ukrainian – and a group of younger activists who had no experience of arms but were more interested in “kinetic action.” A tale as old as time: an organization of old men writing manifestos and young radicals wanting to throw bombs, with many of the older men in exile throughout Europe while the radicals were mostly in Galicia. The one leader who could bridge the divide and hold the factions together was Evhen (Yevhen) Konovalets. So, in a masterstroke of strategy and a tragedy for the cause of Ukrainian nationalism, the NKVD assassinated him with a bomb in Rotterdam in 1938. You can read about it, if you’re interested, in Special Tasks by Pavel Sudoplatov, the NKVD man who carried it out.
After this assassination, the OUN started to break into factions, the OUN(m) for Andriy Melnyk, representing the old guard (and perhaps not coincidentally brother-in-law of Konovalets) and OUN(b) for Stepan Bandera, perhaps the most radical of the radicals. As I’ve noted before, the OUN had even earlier allied themselves with the Nazis, first as a means of driving the Poles out of Galicia, and then also as a means of driving the Soviets out of other areas of Ukraine. This was an enemy-of-my-enemy strategy primarily – while there certainly was anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the Ukrainians, as Slavs, were untermenschen themselves and couldn’t be Nazis, but they were Nazi-adjacent. After Operation Barbarossa, though, they became no longer useful to the Nazis and had the temerity to declare independence for Ukraine (on June 30, 1941), so much of the OUN(b) leadership was promptly arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Many of those who remained became the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which I will refer to as UPA, for the Ukrainian initials of the name. The primary motive of the UPA was to drive the Soviet (i.e. Russian) invaders out of Ukraine. As it turned out, the war, as they say, did not develop to the best interests of the Ukrainian nationalist movement.
Post-war, much of western Ukraine, especially Galicia, scattered to the four winds. Some stayed, particularly the hard-core UPA members. You could say at that point that the OUN was the “political wing” while the UPA was the action wing. Yes, by current definitions a terrorist organization, like Irgun was. The Russians attacked it on both fronts.
On March 5, 1950, the Russians killed Roman Shukhevych, the supreme commander of the UPA in Ukraine. Various stories exist of the circumstances of his death, so maybe not strictly an assassination, but clearly Russia was still worried about him even in death, as they took his body out of western Ukraine, cremated it and scattered the remains so nobody could create a shrine. His mother and his wife were exiled to Siberia, and his son and daughter were sent to an orphanage. His son spent most of the next 30 years in prison camps.
The UPA continued sporadic activity for a few more years under the leadership of Vasyl Kuk, but it was really spent as a fighting force, and, like the OUN, was riddled with Soviet agents. Nevertheless, the Russians continued pursuing OUN(b) members in exile. In 1957 in Munich, the KGB assassinated Lev Rebet, leading political theorist of the OUN(b), by means of a gun that shot cyanide, so the death would mimic a heart attack. For more on this read Serhii Plokhy’s The Man With The Poison Gun. The same method was used two years later to assassinate Bandera himself, also in Munich. This pretty much ended OUN activity, except for essentially powerless holdout emigres in Europe and North America, who wrote turgid, lengthy essays in journals with circulation in the hundreds, and thought they were plotting a rebirth of an independent Ukraine.
Bandera was, to put it mildly, a controversial figure, in my opinion entirely out of proportion to his post-war power, but even in death he was a thorn in the side of Soviet Russia. Any Ukrainian nationalist leanings were attributed to “Banderites” (Бандерівці in Ukrainian) – a term which even gained currency among the hard left in the West, people like Stephen Cohen or old friend of the blog BiP, who wouldn’t recognize Bandera if they sat next to him on the subway. And while Adam has repeatedly said, accurately, that to Putin anyone opposed to Imperial Russia is by definition a Nazi, the fact that the OUN sided with Germany before and during WWII gives that claim a sheen of plausibility with people who think they are more objective.
The OUN/UPA members were venerated by many, especially in western Ukraine, much more publicly after independence. There are streets named after nearly every one of the men I mentioned in Lviv, and both Shukhevych and Bandera were named “National Heroes of Ukraine” by President Viktor Yushchenko, at least partly as a bone to his primarily western constituency (said designation rescinded by Yanukovych.) This also certainly pissed off the Putinist Russians, who viewed them all as traitors/Nazis.
But a boogeyman can only last so long. It’s over 70 years since Shukhevych was killed, and over 60 since Bandera was killed. You can’t keep railing against Banderites forever. So, enter the new boogeyman, to entertain the heirs of Cohen and the tankies, the new fellow travelers like Blumenthal and Tracey and Mate: the Azov Battalion.
But I’ll leave that for another post, if I have the energy…
I surely hope you do have the energy, Gin & Tonic, and I think it’s fair to say that we all greatly appreciate these posts. At the same time, we all understand why and how your energy is being sapped. Thank you.