Three people were killed and at least 13 wounded in the western Ukrainian town of Mukacheve (Mukachevo), on July 11, as members of the nationalist paramilitary group Right Sector (RS) attacked local police near a local sports club with machine guns and grenades. RS claimed they wanted to prevent smuggling but were then attacked by police. However, RS themselves are suspected of smuggling and racketeering in Transcarpathia province and Mukacheve in particular. The incident prompted Kyiv to reshuffle the local government and open several criminal cases. Yet, RS has openly challenged Kyiv, undermining government authority (Liga.net, Channel 5, July 11–22; Gazeta.ua, July 14).
After the shooting, about a dozen RS militants left Mukacheve, easily repelling feeble attempts by police to stop them, and dispersed in the Carpathian Mountains. Two of them surrendered, but the search for the rest has brought no results. Meanwhile, RS leaders in Kyiv claimed that their fighters in Mukacheve only wanted to prevent smuggling operations by the “clan” of a local people’s deputy, Mykhaylo Lanyo, while “corrupt” police interfered on his behalf. RS threatened that its fighters could move to Kyiv. However, RS itself has been accused of involvement in smuggling and racketeering, while Lanyo claimed that the powerful local Baloga family, which is represented in the Ukrainian parliament by at least four people’s deputies, used RS in Transcarpathia as their private militia (Liga.net, July 23; Pravda.com.ua, July 12).
Saddled with a poorly equipped conscription-based army, Kyiv early in the war last year was constrained to use volunteer “battalions”—some with a far-right or even xenophobic reputation—in repelling Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. Of late, Kyiv has been trying to integrate these battalions into the regular army, with mixed success. The government has had particular trouble in the case of RS, whose members insist on taking orders only from their leader, Dmytro Yarosh, who was elected to parliament last fall.
Yarosh and RS have been enjoying wide coverage on Russian state TV, used by Vladimir Putin as a propaganda and political mobilization tool. The mythical threat that RS posed to ethnic Russians in Ukraine was used by Moscow among the justifications for Crimea’s annexation and to stir unrest in other Russian-speaking areas in 2014. However, RS’s contribution to the original Maidan revolution and ensuing resistance to Russia has been overly hyped up in the media. RS is not as numerous and influential as it may seem. Only a few, if any, RS members were among the “Heavenly Hundred,” who were shot on the Maidan in winter 2014 (Lenta.ru, March 10, 2014), and an RS spokesman revealed recently that only two of RS’s 20 or so “battalions” were deployed in the war-affected area in eastern Ukraine (Liga.net, July 12)—though RS members did play a well-documented role in Ukraine’s efforts to defend Donetsk Airport (Radiosvoboda.org, January 17).
President Petro Poroshenko traveled to Transcarpathia in the wake of the incident to replace the local governor, Vasyl Hubal, with his strongman Hennady Moskal, who until this appointment governed Luhansk, the province worst affected by the war with Russia. The local heads of law enforcement agencies were reshuffled. A furious Poroshenko accused two local “clans,” which he did not name, of involvement in smuggling. He noted that the events in Mukacheve, “discrediting real patriots,” were suspiciously synchronized with an increase in tensions along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine (ICTV, July 13). The United States’ ambassador to Ukraine, Jeoffrey Pyatt, who visited Transcarpathia to meet with the newly nominated Moskal, said that the use of force should be the prerogative of the government only (UNIAN, July 21).
In response, RS reacted by organizing anti-government rallies across Ukraine and even setting up self-styled checkpoints on highways to prevent the army and police from sending reinforcements to Transcarpathia. Yarosh demanded Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s resignation and claimed that Poroshenko was not fit to remain president (Interfax-Ukraine, July 17). Furthermore, addressing several hundred supporters at a rally in Kyiv, on July 21, Yarosh called for a referendum of no-confidence in the government and for the cancelation of the February Minsk agreements on settlement in eastern Ukraine (Apostrophe.com.ua, July 22). The United States and the European Union have been insisting on the implementation of the agreements, while Russia has been constantly accusing Ukraine of dragging its feet on the implementation. Once again, RS has played, inadvertently or not, into Moscow’s hands.
Transcarpathia’s smuggling problem is endemic. Statistically quite poor and divided from the rest of Ukraine by a mountain range, Transcarpathia is located in the backyard of Ukraine’s four comparatively affluent EU members, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Cigarette smuggling has been helping ordinary Transcarpathians to survive and local powerful men to enrich themselves for decades. As long as cigarettes continue to be cheaper in Ukraine than across the border, a campaign against smuggling conducted by Moskal will likely prove to be a mission impossible, especially if the EU does not help stem the flow on its side of the border.
Finally, self-styled Robin Hoods arguably pose an even more serious risk to a country torn by war. Apart from terrifying locals and scaring foreign investors, they represent an armed opposition to the government from within Ukraine, while Kyiv’s hands are full with rebels and Russia in the east. The Mukacheve incident raises questions about Kyiv’s ability to maintain law and order even in areas far from regions directly affected by war with Russia. RS fighters, chanting patriotic slogans and openly traveling armed to the teeth across a country with strict gun regulations, continue to play right into the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.