On March 18 Russia’s Prosecutor General announced the launch of a criminal case involving the participation of a number of Ukraine’s leading radical nationalists as mercenaries in the war in Chechnya. All those charged, including leading ultra-nationalists Dimitro Korchinski and the late Anatoli Lupinos, were members of the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People’s Self Defense Organization (UNA-UNSO). The UNA-UNSO members are alleged to have fought alongside Chechen forces during combat actions in 2000-2001. The Russian Security Service (FSB) is running an ongoing investigation in Chechnya (Itar-Tass, March 18; Interfax, March 18).
The UNA-UNSO has its origins in the turbulent days of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The UNSO was created as a paramilitary “patriotic” organization intended to defend the nationalist ideals of the UNA and oppose “anti-Ukrainian separatist movements,” especially in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine (both home to a large ethnic Russian population). UNSO street fighters quickly gained attention by military-style marches and attacks on pro-Russian political meetings throughout Ukraine.
The movement’s literature often refers to the Middle Ages, when Kiev rather than Moscow was the cultural and political centre of the Slavic world. The power base of the UNA-UNSO is in western Ukraine, the traditional home of anti-Russian nationalism that took its most virulent form in the formation of a Ukrainian SS division that fought Soviet troops in World War II. In public rallies UNSO members don black uniforms under their banner of a black cross on a red field.
Although UNSO members were sent to Lithuania and Moldova’s Transnistria region in the early 1990s, significant UNSO military operations began with the dispatch of a small group of fighters to Abkhazia to defend Georgian sovereignty in the summer of 1993. Under the command of ex-Soviet officer Valery Bobrovich, UNSO’s “Argo” squad of roughly 150 men found themselves in the thick of the fighting. Russian and Ukrainian security forces declared that UNSO members were acting as mercenaries.
As war clouds gathered over Chechnya in 1994, UNA-UNSO leaders Anatoli Lupinos and Dimitro Korchinski began to lead Ukrainian delegations to Grozny to meet with Chechen leaders. This was followed in 1995 by the arrival of UNSO fighters organized as the “Viking Brigade” under the command of Aleksandr Muzychko, though their numbers (about 200 men) never approached brigade size. Besides fighting in the battle for Grozny some UNSO members (veterans of the Soviet Army) were employed as instructors. Their contribution to the struggle for independence (including 10 KIAs) was acknowledged with the issue of Chechen decorations after the war. While the Ukrainian government claimed that it opposed the participation of Ukrainian nationals in Russia’s “internal affair” it proved unable or unwilling to prevent it.
UNSO members have also been active in the anti-Lukashenko opposition movement in Belarus, participating in demonstrations and riots. In 2000-2001 the UNA-UNSO was prominent in opposition to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who was under suspicion of ordering the death of a leading Ukrainian journalist.
The UNA’s political program appears to an outsider to be full of contradictions. Despite close ties to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a general view that Muslims (“the Turks”) are an anti-Slavic threat, the movement supports Chechnya’s Islamic resistance. While supporting the separatist Chechens, the UNA strongly opposes any sign of separatist sentiment amongst Ukraine’s Crimean Tatars. Despite the UNA’s participation in Ukrainian elections, the party maintains an anti-democratic stance, agitating instead for direct presidential rule. Like many populist-based movements, UNA-UNSO aims are often dependent upon the political winds or even the composition of a speaker’s audience.
Ukrainians in the Current Chechen Conflict
According to Russian charges, UNA-UNSO members were active in Chechnya’s Kurchaloi, Vedeno and Nozhai-Yurt districts during 1999-2000. The official UNA position was that the movement would not take part in military operations during this second war, but would assist the separatist government by creating Chechen information centers. Pressure was much stronger this time from the Ukrainian government to keep Ukrainians out of the conflict, and the Foreign Ministry promised that any would-be volunteers would be arrested. Korchinski confirmed the presence of UNSO members in Chechnya at a Kiev rally in March 2000, but complained that the cost of transporting more volunteers had become prohibitive (Itar-Tass, March 24, 2000). As recently as March 2005, Ramzan Kadyrov (leader of Chechnya’s pro-Russian government) denounced the continued presence of Ukrainian “mercenaries” in Chechnya, but did not provide any details (Strana.ru, March 28, 2005).
In December 2001, Russian Communist Duma deputy Viktor Ilyukhin alleged that Ukraine’s nationalist groups were helping Osama bin Laden organize on Ukrainian territory while the Ukraine government supplied Chechen rebels with weapons and other military equipment (Interfax, December 10, 2001). No evidence was presented to substantiate these claims. At the same time, the trial of flamboyant but inept Chechen warlord Salman Raduev heard evidence that 20 Ukrainian nationalists were active participants in the warlord’s terrorist activities in 1997-98 (RIA Novosti, November 30, 2001).
Less credible were reports from Russian military sources regarding Ukrainian women fighting in the Chechen front line. Soon after the second Chechen war began in 1999 Russian accounts began to provide details of a Ukrainian unit of ski-borne women athletes/snipers fighting on the Chechen side. Known as “the White Tights,” these elusive fighters were at other times described as Latvians or Estonians. This bit of battlefield mythology was a survival from the 1994-1996 Chechen war.
In November 2002 the UNA-UNSO organized rallies at three Russian consulates in the Ukraine to protest the storming of Moscow’s Nord-Est theater where Chechen militants had organized a mass hostage taking. During the crisis UNA-UNSO made a public appeal to the militants to release the Ukrainian nationals, reminding them of UNSO support in the first Chechen war. The appeal was ignored and a number of Ukrainian hostages where killed when Russian special forces used gas to immobilize the militants.
UNA-UNSO might be best characterized as an influential fringe movement. Its high visibility belies its limited numbers, with a membership of roughly 8,000, of which only a fraction are involved in UNSO paramilitary activities. Under its present leader Andrei Shkil, the UNA-UNSO continues with a provocative political agenda. Efforts to make inroads in the Ukrainian armed forces have been largely unsuccessful. In late 2004 the movement’s leaders issued an appeal to Ukrainian troops serving in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition to “‘turn your bayonets against U.S. troops and join the rebels” (UPI, November 12, 2004). The movement is frequently accused of pursuing anti-Semitic and fascist ideologies.
The timing of the Russian charges, which are unlikely to result in the extradition of Korchinski or his associates, is probably related to the elections in Ukraine, where the UNA-UNSO forms part of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc of political support. Tymoshenko is also a populist politician, and has cited inclusiveness as the reason for including radical nationalist organizations in her coalition, despite heavy criticism.
The Kremlin is disturbed by Tymoshenko’s promise to renegotiate the natural gas deal made with Russia last January. If the charges were an attempt to embarrass Tymoshenko through renewing the controversy over her ties to UNA-UNSO, they appear to have had little effect. Tymoshenko’s party appears to have emerged from the elections stronger than ever. As for Russia’s charges of mercenary activities in the ultra-nationalist movement, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly declined to investigate on the grounds that such charges are too difficult to substantiate. Dimitro Korchinski now leads his own nationalist party, Bratstvo (Brotherhood), and remains well-connected in Ukraine’s political establishment. As Tymoshenko appears ready to translate last week’s election results into a coalition government, it seems unlikely that the Ukrainian government’s remarkable toleration of UNA-UNSO activities will change anytime soon.