Has The War In Ukraine Moved To A Second Front?
Women walk toward a Ukrainian government soldier searching for members of Right Sector in the village of Bobovyshche, near Mukacheve, on July 13.
If Ukraine’s east is a combustive mix of languages and loyalties, its west can be even trickier.
In Transcarpathia, many residents live within shouting distance of four EU countries. Inhabitants speak not only Russian and Ukrainian but Hungarian, Romanian, German, Slovak and Rusyn. Many of its 1.3 million inhabitants hold more than one passport.
It’s a region, in short, where loyalties don’t necessarily lie with Kyiv. So when armed violence broke out on July 11 between police and Right Sector nationalists in the Transcarpathian city of Mukacheve, it was an eerie echo of the Kremlin’s insistence that Ukraine’s problem is not outside influence, but internal strife.
"[The Right Sector] has a thousand-strong military wing and its own command, but it does not report to the government, " the pro-government news channel Russia Today stated in its coverage of the Mukhacheve shoot-out, which left two people dead and several more wounded.
Sputnik International, a second Kremlin-backed outlet, ran articles describing Right Sector militants running amok, lowering EU flags in Lviv, hacking the Twitter account of the National Security and Defense Council , and heading en masse toward Kyiv.
Right Sector -- a heavily armed militant organization branded by Russia as "neo-Nazis" and "fascists" for their ties to World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who cooperated with German forces to fend off Soviet troops -- is estimated to have as many as 10, 000 members serving in volunteer battalions in the Donbas war zone and elsewhere in the country.
A sometimes uneasy ally of last year’s Maidan protesters, the group has since grown critical of the government of Petro Poroshenko, in particular for cracking down on volunteer units. But one member, while confirming the group’s intention to protest in Kyiv, said they would not do so "with assault rifles and machine guns."
The group has also sought to portray the weekend violence as fallout from the group’s self-described anticorruption efforts. Oleksiy Byk, a Right Sector spokesman, said police were to blame for the bloodshed.
"If we had started shooting first, there would have been many police among the victims, " Byk said during a July 12 press conference.
Dmytro Yarosh, the head of Right Sector, said on Facebook that his group was cooperating with the Ukrainian Security Service to stabilize the situation in Transcarpathia.
"I am asking you to ignore fake reports, which are disseminated to discredit Right Sector and provoke Ukrainians to shed blood, " he said.
Poroshenko, addressing an extraordinary meeting of the National Security Council’s military cabinet, appeared unswayed. Accusing Right Sector of undermining "real Ukrainian patriots, " the Ukrainian leader on July 13 suggested that fresh tensions in Donbas "have been mysteriously synchronized with an attempt to destabilize the situation in the rear -- and not just any rear, but in a place 1, 000 kilometers away from the front line."
A KGB Favorite
Local reports suggest the Mukhacheve violence may have been the result of a business dispute. Cross-border smuggling of cigarettes and other contraband is said to be worth billions of dollars in Transcarpathia, with its easy ground access to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.
The region’s customs officials have been suspended in the wake of the violence, and at least one authority -- parliamentary deputy Mykhaylo Lan, who has been accused of ties to smuggling networks -- has been called in for questioning.
But it remains to be seen whether suspicions will trickle up to powerful local authorities like the so-called Baloha clan -- revolving around Viktor Baloha, a former emergency situations minister and current parliamentary deputy -- which is said to rule Transcarpathia with near-complete autonomy.
Some observers have suggested that the July 11 violence was little more than a battle for influence between Lan and Baloha.
Others say they suspect Russia of stirring the pot. During the Soviet era, Transcarpathia -- with its mix of languages and nearby borders -- was of special interest for the KGB, who used the region as a "window" to the west and the entryway for its armed invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
In an opinion piece for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, analyst Petro Kralyuk said little has changed since the Soviet collapse.
"The FSB has successfully picked up the baton, " he wrote. "For Russia, Transcarpathia and its surroundings remain an important region. Taking into account the blurred identity and ethnic diversity of the local population, the field of activities for these agents is quite fertile."
The weekend unrest, with its threat of gang-style violence spilling over the EU’s eastern border, has put Ukraine’s goal of visa-free EU travel at immediate risk. With the involvement of Right Sector, Kralyuk says, the clashes have given Russia "a wonderful gift."
Transcarpathia, which during the 20th century was alternately ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary before being claimed by the Soviet Union, leans heavily on largesse from its western neighbors.
Budapest in particular has provided passports and special benefits to residents with proven Hungarian roots. The country’s pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has set Ukraine on edge with professed concern for Transcarpathia’s Hungarian minority, which many see as shorthand for a Russian-style separatist conflict.
Moreover, the region has long shown an affinity for pro-Russian parties. In the 1990s, Transcarpathia was a solid supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Viktor Medvedchuk, the pro-Kremlin strategist with close personal ties to Vladimir Putin. Before the Maidan protests, it put its weight behind Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, rather than pro-democratic "orange" candidates.
Political analyst Viktoria Podhorna says government negligence has only added to Transcarpathian exceptionalism. Poroshenko, who earned atypical support from Baloha, appears to have responded by involving himself only minimally in Transcarpathian issues.
"There’s some kind of trade-off between the central government and regional authorities, who are basically owned by local princelings, " Podhorna says. "And this is the foundation that can lead to conflicts like those in Donbas."