The man Russian President Vladimir Putin has cast as one of Europe’s potential new Adolf Hitlers is a little late for coffee on this Saturday morning.
Igor Mazur, or Topolya (Poplar) as he’s known because he’s 6’7”, is the leader of the Ukrainian Right Sector at Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square. The Right Sector are the radical nationalists of this Ukrainian revolution. There are others: the right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) party, for one, which has an actual political following -- 12 percent of the vote in the last elections. It used to identify itself as a national socialist movement, just like the Nazis.
Russian fear, however, seems to be aimed at “the thugs and fascists from Maidan.” That is aimed at the Right Sector.
Mazur is their leader. Putin insists they are part of the group now calling the shots in the Ukrainian government, pulling strings from behind a curtain. In Crimea, Russian-backed political billboards for Sunday’s referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine clearly equate the Right Sector to Nazis. One depicts a Ukrainian future as wrapped in barbed wire and stamped with a Swastika.
Never miss a local story.
Taras Berezovets, a political scientist and president of Berta Communications in Kiev, thinks Putin is making too much of fairly small group. Until recently, Right Sector had about 500 members. Today it may be 2,000. He said that it’s essentially attached to Svoboda, similar to what the Irish Republican Army was to the political Sinn Fein, at least in structure. But, he said, it’s far less dangerous.
“This is typical Kremlin propaganda,” he said. “Their influence is being vastly overstated.”
At the coffee shop, Mazur shows up looking like a revolutionary -- black pants, black long-sleeved shirt under black body armor, black jacket and black Nike jogging shoes (with a white swoosh and sole). He’s got a small black handgun strapped into a black holster. He takes the gun out to show that he’s serious about what’s going on, though almost immediately after posing with the gun says, “Please don’t post this photo to my Facebook page. My wife would kill me if she knew I had it.”
As he takes a seat in a Russian coffee house, he apologizes. He slept poorly.
“There were some troubles, we were up late,” he says, telling the story of a truck with two men showing up around 3 a.m. and looking suspicious. He says he and his men took the men for questioning. He raises an eyebrow as he reveals that they carried Russian military identification.
In any case, he was up much of the night. When he went to bed, he admits it wasn’t at home -- and hasn’t been for more than one night a month recently.
He’s living in an abandoned Ukrainian post office, just off Maidan. He sleeps on one of many mattresses that have been lined up in the back of the post office, in a room rank with the smell of too many people for too much time and no showers. He estimates that the Right Sector in Kiev has about 100 active members, though the number fluctuates.
“It was a long protest at Maidan, three months,” he explains. “Not everyone could get away from work or their families for so long. Some come only for the weekends. Others go home on the weekends.”
If this, as Putin insists, is the beginning of a new Nazi regime, for now at least it’s still a part-time gig. Yet Putin has put out a list of dangerous Ukrainians, and Mazur is prominently featured. Mazur takes pride in this.
“I must thank him,” he says. “It’s good advertising.”
Putin has reason to fear him, he reasons. He fought against Russians in Chechnya and Abkhazia, the breakaway region of Georgia. He says that the then independent government of Chechnya awarded him medals for valor for his role there. He says that while he arrived with only 14 others, the Russian press labeled his group “a battalion.”
But he insists his enemy was always the Russian military and secret police. He has nothing against ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, as long as they love Ukraine. Putin has insisted that the Right Sector is anti-Russian. Mazur says it’s more accurate to say he is pro-Ukrainian.
As for the notion that they are Europe’s new fascists, Mazur scoffs: “The Russians are Europe’s old fascists.”
And he finds any comparison to Nazis laughably off-base. Is he anti-Semitic?
“My son’s godfather is half Jewish,” he says. “How could I be?”
This is not to say he supports Ukrainian oligarchs, who he says are all Jewish. The oligarchs care only for their trans-national business empires, for making money. They don’t really care for Ukraine, he says, so he doesn’t really care for them.
When asked if all Ukrainian oligarchs are actually Jewish, he shrugs. When asked if Yulia Tymoshenko, one time Ukrainian prime minister and an oil and gas oligarch is Jewish, he says only, “We don’t know for sure. We think she has some Jewish blood in her.”
But he estimates that among the thousands nationwide who support the Right Sector, a full 1 percent are Jewish.
Beyond this, he notes that the Right Sector, which has its roots among soccer hooligan clubs, has no expansionist designs. They care only for Ukraine. And even inside Ukraine, he disputes the apparent Putin claim that he is pulling any strings in the government.
“I wish,” he says. He lists a few members of Parliament and some military leaders whom he says care about what he thinks. “But I’m afraid our liberal partners are in charge in Kiev.”
Not that he thinks that’s a good thing. Too much time has been wasted in “peaceful negotiations.” He says Ukraine’s failure to confront the Russian military has cost his country. They should have responded with force when as many as 38,000 Russian troops spread out from Russian bases in Crimea and occupied the Black Sea peninsula that is part of Ukraine.
He dismisses statements from Parliament and the ministry of defense that the Ukrainian armed forces only have 6,000 battle ready soldiers. This weekend alone, he notes, 12 members of his group were considering joining.
“We should have massed our forces on the border, and when the Russians strike, we should strike back twice as hard, air and artillery and on the ground. Once we have killed the first 100 Russian soldiers, their bravado will vanish. We could push them out of Crimea.”
Comments to the contrary give the Russians false confidence, and should be considered criminal.
Even so, his military strategy quickly turns to the need for Ukrainians to prepare for a guerrilla war against Russian occupiers. Many Ukrainians have weapons and know how to use them, he notes. He outlines a strategy of hampering Russian troops by blowing up bridges and rail lines.
At the Right Sector headquarters, he says they are not unprepared for a fight, and shows off a cabinet of ready-made Molotov cocktails. He points out that the cabinet, which reeks of gasoline smell, has a “No Smoking” sticker.
When asked if advocating such aggressive actions against the Red Army is wise, he pauses to think for a moment, then sums up the way he sees life.
“This is not being aggressive,” he said. “This is just being a man.”