Pieter Stockmans volgt het mondiale optreden van de Europese Unie, het Europese vluchtelingenbeleid, de evoluties in Midden-Europa en de regio ten oosten van de EU.
On the Ukrainian frontline with the European New Right
Radicalised Westerners who want to take up arms against NATO or the US fight with the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. MO* followed them on the only European frontline.
Every day, a nun maintains the roses at the destroyed Svyato-Iverski monastery in Spartak, a completely destroyed village next to the Donetsk airport. After the abandoned football stadium of Shakhtar Donetsk, the busy roads full of cars, advertisements and propaganda panels abruptly change into a post-apocalyptic scene.
Olga is sitting on a bench with three friends. The swing in the yard is swaying back and forth in the wind. In the shed, her granddaughter Victoria is doing her reading exercises. ‘I am afraid at night, when they are bombing’, Victoria says. ‘Once, we woke up and our goat had been killed by a bomb.’
A missile landed on Olga’s top floor, but she laughs off the misfortune: ‘After the war, we will demine the whole place and when everybody returns, we will throw a big vodka party.’ The grannies burst into laughter. In the distance, artillery can be heard.
‘We have been sleeping in the basement for two years now’, Olga says in the stuffy room of three by five metres. ‘I don’t know what this war is about, or who is attacking or defending us. Neither do I know who those Western Europeans are.’
An international battalion of French volunteers led by former French soldier Erwan Castel fought near the Svyato-Iverski monastery. For 15 years, Castel was an officer in the French military intelligence. He observed the countries of the Warsaw pact, the Eastern European counterpart of NATO during the Cold War.
‘The images of Inna Kukuruza’s body in Luhansk on June 2, 2014, stirred something in me. After a bombing by the Ukrainian Army in the middle of the city, she asked, with blown-off legs, if she could use a phone. And then she died. That day, I decided to go to Eastern Ukraine, where NATO and the US drew an artificial line through the continent.’In the preceding years, Castel radicalised. ‘When the Berlin Wall fell, I was still serving in the French army. But along the way, I started to feel that there was something else besides the so-called free West and the dark Soviet Union.’
Euro-Russian alliance against the US
Castel became influenced by the ideas of the New Right, a pan-European movement founded by Alain de Benoist in the 1960’s. This French philosopher drew on the Conservative Revolution, a movement prominent in Germany between both World Wars. The movement opposed the Enlightenment, liberalism and Marxism.
De Benoist envisions a multipolar world of relatively ethnically pure countries and continents which can develop as equals, rather than mixed continents which are the result of the exploitation of the poor South by the rich North
‘I am fighting the American occupation of Europe on the front line in Eastern Ukraine.’
He opposes Islamophobia, racism and anti-Semitism because he considers all cultures to be equal. According to him, only by division the world cultures can be protected against the levelling effect of immigration, globalisation, consumerism and capitalism.
According to De Benoist, the dominance of the American culture in Europe threatens the European identity and is still a consequence of the post-war world order.
‘At this frontline in Eastern Ukraine, I am fighting the American occupation of Europe since World War II, embodied by NATO’, Castel says. ‘Europe has to take its fate in its own hands. In Donetsk, a war is being waged for an independent Europe, and thus an independent France.’
Castel also refers to the Belgian Robert Steuckers, who sees benefits in a Euro-Russian or Eurasian alliance against the US. Steuckers used to write for the New Right think tank, which strongly influenced the ideas of rightist movements in Europe.
Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, they developed contacts with Russian intellectuals who interpreted the fall of the Soviet Union as a plan of the Western “new world order”. In the same period, Steuckers founded the Belgian branch of the New Right. At that moment he was already a member of the Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Blok/Vlaams Belang and its Francophone counterpart.
Still today, far-right intellectuals, politicians and activists are invited to Russian and even Syrian television stations. Last week, in an interview with the Russian press agency Sputnik, Vlaams Belang chairman Tom Van Grieken said that “the Netherlands already has experience with anti-EU campaigns, since a majority of the Dutch people voted against the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. A majority would thus vote for a Nexit (exit of the Netherlands out of the EU).”
Today, radicalised sympathisers of the New Right are putting those ideas into practice. In the expressions of solidarity by American politicians to protestors on Maidan square in Kiev, they saw an attempt to profit from the frustrated masses in order to bring strategic Ukraine into their sphere of influence.
‘We are fighting for the abolition of the EU and an alliance between Europe and Russia.’
‘When the US saw that President Yanukovych proposed reconciliation, they panicked’, Castel says. ‘People had to die and the protestors needed to believe that Yanukovych was responsible. Snipers shot at least 100 people. I thought: “Bingo, this is a false flag operation”. The dividing line through Europe, making a Eurasian alliance impossible, needed to be fortified. And right now, that line runs straight through Ukraine.’
‘Now that the US’s power is collapsing and Russia is becoming a world power under Putin, we need to fully commit to the abolition of the EU and the formation of a historical alliance with the Eurasian Economic Union.’
After one month in Donetsk, Castel fought with the fourth battalion of the breakaway republic. It had been 15 years since he took part in a military operation and he had never before undergone bombardments. Later he went on reconnaissance missions between the two front lines.
Castel is not a fan of political labels. ‘Radical leftist movements such as Podemos and Syriza as well as some fascists make the right analyses, but both offer solutions that I do not agree with. Does that mean we should throw away the child with the bathwater? I am referring to both Marine Le Pen and Belgian journalist Michel Collon, member of the Parti du Travail de Belgique.’
The Dutch opponents to the integration of Ukraine in the EU were not by chance the rightist party PVV and the leftist party SP. Both accuse centre parties of defending the interests of the neoliberal establishment.
‘Many people share my ideas, but I brought them into practice with a gun’, Castel laughs. ‘Now I am experiencing an intellectual orgasm here by contributing to a new republic that embodies my ideals.’
Car breaks down on the frontlines
Our military escort is driving to the front line in a bright red Russian Lada and a camouflaged East German Wartburg. In the destroyed main street of Spartak, we pass by three soldiers who are aimlessly wandering through the streets. ‘If you don’t get rid of that alcohol immediately, I will report to your superior officer’, Malish, the hefty soldier who is accompanying us, yells.
At a kilometre from the front line, on a desolated motorway overgrown with trees on both sides, the Wartburg suddenly breaks down. It is perilous to stand still here for too long. Malish apologises for the somewhat tragicomic situation.
A marketplace is still marked by the bomb that fell there in May 2015. School children in uniform are walking the streets. Almost every house bears the traces of grenade shrapnel. At the military base, soldiers are walking around and smoking cigarettes on gas pipelines. Russian music is blasting through the speakers.
To Syria or Donetsk?
We meet Christelle Néant at the Lenin statue on Lenin Square. She is wearing a military uniform. Néant is a young française who lived in Belgium for 11 years. She used to work as a webmaster for an IT company in Luxemburg and is now a media activist in Donetsk.
Inspired by French anti-establishment politicians and activists such as François Asselineau and Etienne Chouard, she had been following what she calls the alternative media for a while.
Asselineau is the leader of a small French anti-EU party leaning towards the Front National, but he explicitly takes a stand against Islamophobia and racism. He often appears on Russia Today and visited the Crimea after the Russian annexation in 2014. Through his party, Néant met Xavier Moreau, a French pro-Russian analyst who often stays in Donetsk.
Chouard, on the other hand, is a leftist, anarchist alterglobalist who campaigned in 2005 against the Treaty of Lisbon, which was to lead to a European Constitution. Néant then voted “non” in the referendum.
For a while, she considered going to Syria to fight alongside the Assad regime.
‘The chemical attack in Syria of August 2013 was a turning point’, Néant says. ‘The French media wrote that President Bashar Assad was responsible. On Russia Today, I heard that it was a false flag operation of the opposition to provoke foreign intervention. That sounded more credible to me. I had not yet forgotten the lies about weapons of mass destructions to justify the invasion of Iraq.’
For a while, Néant considered going to Syria to fight alongside the Assad regime. ‘But I identify less with the Syrian way of life, so I chose Donetsk. During my boring job in Belgium, I was following the developments in Ukraine by the hour.’
French Foreign Legion
DoniPress, a new medium founded by Finnish activist Janus Putkonen has its offices in the building of the Ministry of Information. From a pro-Russian perspective, they cover political and military developments in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict.
Néant works there full-time, but, for the time being, she is only paid a part-time salary. She considers it an investment in the future of the People’s Republic and DoniPress. ‘Our ambition? To become the Russia Today of the Donetsk People’s Republic’, Néant says.
For this purpose, she gave up everything besides her dog and 50 kilograms of belongings. Three months ago, she stepped into her car with Belgian license plate and drove 3500 kilometres from Paris to Donetsk.
Néant gave up everything, stepped into her car with Belgian license plate and drove 3500 kilometres from Paris to Donetsk.
This was not a rash decision. ‘I was about to trade in my family and a well-paid job in Belgium for an insecure existence in a distant war zone. But I never found my place in Western society.’
Her contacts with a Russian volunteer in Donetsk, who spoke French because he had served in the French Foreign Legion, were decisive. She also communicated with Laurent Brayard, a French journalist working in Donetsk. From Belgium, she was soon managing DoniPress’s Facebook page and providing translations into French.
‘That is how I got involved’, she says. ‘I had never been to the Russian world, but I can find myself in its traditional values that got lost in our society.’
We are driving to Zaitsevo, a village right on the 500-kilometre-long frontline that is cutting the province with 5 million inhabitants in half. Néant’s French GPS wants to send us via the highway between Donetsk and Gorlovka, but it has been destroyed in bombings by the Ukrainian Army.
The soldiers at the checkpoints notice the car with Belgian license plate, but do not find it suspicious. ‘They recognise my car’, Néant says. ‘I often pass here to deliver humanitarian aid.’
The accompanying soldier in the car reverses the roles: ‘What do people in Belgium know about our People’s Republic? What do they think about a possible Ukrainian EU membership? What is their opinion on Brexit?’ The questions of the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebel elicit malicious pleasure. Néant joins in by saying that France should leave the EU.
‘There is no use in voting, in the EU’, she says. ‘The choice between Sarkozy and Hollande was one between cholera and the plague, and after the no-vote in the Greek referendum of July 2015, the government was forced to back down. Yanis Varoufakis dared to oppose the financial dictatorship of the EU and the IMF, but it resulted in failure.’
Néant started to believe in the radical-militarist option.
‘Me, a fascist? That is ridiculous.’
Also Nuit Debout, the French protest movement in her own city of Paris against the socio-economic policy of the Hollande administration could no longer convince her otherwise.
‘Nuit Debout is not a counterforce. They do not understand that we should abolish the EU and enter into a partnership of equals, like the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia and some post-Soviet states. They label François Asselineau as far-right, but we are the ones who want to avoid the return of ideological fascism to Europe by combating neoliberalism as well as mass immigration.’
‘I am a fascist? That is ridiculous. I am here to fight against the fascists. The ideological fascists of France are fighting with far-right Ukrainian battalions such as Azov, who explicitly adhere to Nazi ideology.’
Civilians from one Western European country are fighting on both sides of the Ukraine conflict. This is a European conflict.
Civilians from one Western European country are fighting on both sides of the Ukraine conflict. This is not just a distant war, but a European conflict in the heart of Europe. It shows the polarisation within the foreign volunteers’ countries of origin. ‘That is why I am here’, Néant says. ‘I am taking a stand. What is happening here, is crucial for our entire continent’s history.’
The Crimea incidents of August 7, 2016 are already leading to a new military escalation in Eastern Ukraine. The incidents occurred one month after the NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland. July 2016 had already been the most deadly month of the year, even though the frontline did not move a single centimetre.
The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, was also in Kiev that month. Ukraine expects more support from NATO, but neither NATO nor Russia want to provide their allies on the battlegrounds with decisive support. Both sides keep exchanging fire without being able to eliminate the other. The main victims are the civilians. In total already 9,500 people have died.
New world order, or bread on the table?
In Zaitsevo we get out of the car at the destroyed town hall next to a Soviet monument. Néant is filming the damage to the houses next to the dirt roads. Exploded windows have been nailed shut, walls have been blown apart. Children are playing with remnants of missiles. Commander Zhelezny looks on while activists are photographing the scene.
Suddenly, an angry woman comes up to the commander. ‘No pictures!’, she yells angrily. ‘Journalists on both sides lie in order to use us to their benefit.’
It is unsure whether the local inhabitants see the war in their villages and cities through the same prism as the foreign volunteers. Radicalised Westerners want to do something tangible for the founding of another world order. Local inhabitants are mainly concerned about having something to eat the next day. They are surprised to see French people on the streets with the military uniform of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Russian Foreign Legion
‘We are guilty of hope’, David Simpson, an American volunteer in Donetsk, says. ‘We gave up our lives for an ideal that is not shared by the people here. And the local leaders are satisfied with the status quo that gave them a new power position. Proof: they are not trying to modernise the government. Even Putin will not recognise the People’s Republic.’
‘If Russia were to capitalize better on frustrated Americans and Europeans who want to combat the new world order, they would be able to attract many Westerners for a Russian Foreign Legion.’
In his twenties, Simpson, who is now in his fifties, used to work for the CIA in the post-Soviet Union countries, in the arms trade, among other things. ‘Europe is only the battleground where the US and Russia are fighting a war’, he says. ‘I am one of those rare Americans who literally went over to the other side.’
‘What made me cross the line was the leaked phone call between Undersecretary of State, Victoria Nuland, and our Ukraine ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt.’
The recording gave a rare insight in the machinations of American foreign policy and fed the radicalisation of disappointed Westerners. The US wanted a regime change in Ukraine and showed themselves prepared to pay a heavy toll.
Simpson has lost all his credibility in the US and was unable to rebuild it in Donetsk. He wanted a job as an advisor in the Ministry of Defence or Foreign Affairs of the Donetsk People’s Republic. State Security laughed in his face.
‘I sacrificed my American civil rights to contribute here’, he says. ‘But I am doing nothing but staring at the ceiling in a dirty, cheap apartment’. Under the American Patriot Act, he can be accused of treason and terrorism.
He hopes Donald Trump wins the presidential elections and declares an amnesty for everyone who went over to the enemy in the Ukrainian war.
Simpson hopes Donald Trump wins the presidential elections and declares an amnesty for Americans who went over to the enemy in the Ukrainian war.
Castel and Néant do not consider returning home. ‘I plan on staying here until victory’, Castel says. ‘According to French law, I have not committed a crime. I serve in the army of an unrecognised republic. Is that terrorism? I earn 200 Euros a month here. Does that make me a mercenary? I could return, but I would almost certainly be questioned by the police.’
Néant is a media activist and has never taken up arms, but she is not at ease: ‘France has taken a dictatorial turn since the terror attacks, you never know whether they can accuse me of terrorism.’
During a press conference, Néant asked Donetsk People’s Republic’s President, Alexander Zakharchenko, whether foreign volunteers, soldiers as well as media activists, could get a copy of the new People’s Republic passport. ‘Yes, the foreigners just need to share the values of the republic’, he answered.
‘Good news!’, Castel cheers in the hotel lobby where we met him and David Simpson. ‘The Austrian elections need to be held again. Now, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party can still become president. He is far-right? Well, the only parties who allow European citizens to express European patriotism are far-right, unfortunately.’
This article was written with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism and is part of the series “On The Ukrainian Frontline” (www.mo.be/dossiers/op-de-oekra-ense-frontlijn, written in Dutch).
Translated by Ayden Van Steenlandt.