For months, the most prominent meme pushed by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin as it wages Special War against Ukraine has been that the country is a nest of fascist vipers, and that Jew-hating Neo-Nazis are in power in Kyiv. As such, Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine is therefore defensive, indeed a replay of the Second World War, rather the Great Patriotic War that Russia continues to misrepresent for current political purposes. Just today, according to Interfax, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law, stated that the problems of Nazism and anti-Semitism are “the most pressing ones” in Ukraine now. This meme has become pervasive among many in the West too, despite its fraudulence. A good guide to judging how close a person is to the Kremlin position on Ukraine is how often and how loudly s/he informs you that “fascists” are running that country.
In keeping with the Ukraine-Is-Fascist theme, we have an interesting new piece of propaganda from the Strategic Culture Foundation, a Russian far-right think-tank established in 2005 which is prone to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which explicitly compares the war being waged in eastern Ukraine today with Spain in the 1930s. “The International Brigades in the Donbas: Like Spain in 1936 – only volunteers!” is authored by Nikolay Malishevsky, a Belarusian who is a frequent contributor to SCF and possesses the ultra-nationalist views fused with Orthodox spirituality that are all the rage in the Kremlin these days. The article itself is pure agitprop, complete with vintage propaganda images from the Spanish Civil War – it should be noted that SCF has been warning about rising “fascism” in Ukraine long before the current war started – but it reveals several things about the not-so-secret secret war being waged by Russian intelligence in eastern Ukraine.
According to Malishevsky, the self-proclaimed Donbas People’s Republic has hailed the the establishment of new International Brigades to defend its territory against Ukrainian “aggression,” and its “Prime Minister” Aleksandr Boroday has said that the parallels with Spain in the 1930s are “obvious” and his government is “ready to accept the service of volunteers from all countries, without exception, in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.”
This, Malishevsky makes clear, is a deeply inclusive appeal to: “Men and women. Natives of Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. Socialists and conservatives. Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims … all united in military brotherhood and the desire to stop the brown plague of the 21st century.” He is at pains to note that volunteers are not coming solely from Orthodox countries like Russia, Belarus, and Serbia, but from many places.
The reader is shown a purported picture of an unnamed Czech volunteer, while Malishevsky claims that a unit of Poles showed up to defend “Russian Donbas” in late May, led by one Bartosz Becker, a group of “free Polish people who object to the basing of NATO terrorists in Poland.” The author asserts that among the “antifascist volunteers” there is a Hungarian unit calling itself the “Legion of Saint Stephen,” made up of ethnic Hungarians and “traditionalists” who are fighting for “a New Europe, in which Hungary could become a key partner for Russia and Poland.” Given known ties between Russian intelligence and Hungary’s far-right, this is an interesting statement, if true. Malishevsky claims that some “antifascist” Italians are supporting the Donbas People’s Republic with humanitarian aid, but not (yet) with fighters.
There is allegedly also a unit of twenty Israelis serving with local Donbas militia in the “Aliya” Battalion, veterans of the Israeli and Soviet militaries, while there is a unit of German volunteers serving in Novorossiya calling itself the Ernst Thälmann Battalion (which, not coincidentally, was the name of the German unit in the International Brigades in Spain, circa 1936-39). Its leader is Alexander Kiefel, said to be a veteran of East German special forces, including a tour in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and according to Malishevsky the Germans are there as volunteers, not mercenaries, and more are coming to defend “free” Ukraine. There is also a unit of Serbs commanded by one Bratislav Živković.
According to Malishevsky, these volunteers are fighting under the command of the Donbas mystery man and “Defense Minister” Igor Strelkov, who is known to be an an officer of Russian military intelligence (GRU). The author waxes romantically about recreating the International Brigades of “heroes like Hemingway” in Spain, adding that soon there will be more volunteers – “Russians, Serbs, Belarusians, Poles, Israelis, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Canadians and many others.”
In truth, these new International Brigades seem to have hardly more than a handful of fighters of dubious provenance. But you can expect to hear more about them and their struggle against “fascism” in Ukraine in the days ahead. So far, the only obvious similarity between this effort and the iconic International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s is that both are the creation of the Kremlin’s intelligence apparatus, and fully under its control.