Armed Nationalists in Ukraine Pose a Threat Not Just to Russia

KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian political activist and militia member sat before his party’s flag leaving little doubt about his readiness for action. The flag depicted two axes crossed against a field of red.

Yes, Yuri Hudymenko said, he is ready to take up arms, but not necessarily against Russia. As the leader of Democratic Ax — one of dozens of right-wing or nationalist groups that represent a potent political force in Ukraine and are fiercely opposed to any compromise with Moscow — his anger will be directed at Ukraine’s government if it grants too many concessions in exchange for peace.

“We’ll deal with Russia one way or another later,” Mr. Hudymenko said. With a flair for the dramatic, he added: “If anybody from the Ukrainian government tries to sign such a document, a million people will take to the streets and that government will cease being the government.”

Moscow has massed more than 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, threatening an invasion unless its demands to rule out NATO membership for Ukraine, and for a rollback of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, are met.

It remains unclear whether Western leaders and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia can negotiate a settlement of the crisis. But any resolution seems likely to force Kyiv to accept politically perilous concessions that could be destabilizing domestically. Earlier this week, for example, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, proposed the “Finlandization” of Ukraine that would leave it neutral between Russia and NATO, like Finland during the Cold War.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has few cards to play in any talks with Moscow. Perhaps his strongest is the threat of an insurgency by nationalist groups like Democratic Ax and the even more influential Right Sector in the event of a Russian invasion. Recently, the government has even urged the nationalist parties to arm themselves more heavily.

But the groups are a two-edged sword, threatening not just the Kremlin but also the Ukrainian government, which could be rocked and possibly overthrown by them if Mr. Zelensky agrees to a peace deal that in their minds gives too much to Moscow.

Ukraine’s foreign minister and defense minister have both said in recent days that the greatest risk the country faces is internal destabilization under the threat of a Russian invasion, not an actual attack.

And in a country whose citizens have twice taken to the streets in the post-Soviet period and unceremoniously booted out governments seen as doing Moscow’s bidding, this is no idle threat. Analysts say that Mr. Zelensky would be taking extreme political risks even to entertain a peace deal, which is why he is so careful not to talk about possible avenues for negotiations.

“Macron wants to sacrifice Ukraine’s sovereignty to calm Russia down but doesn’t understand that it will not work,” said Oleksandr Ivanov, director of a group called Movement Against Capitulation, which plans a street protest in Kyiv on Saturday.

“Diplomats do not understand Ukraine,” he said. “Civil society here has a bigger influence on politics than actual political parties.” For Mr. Zelensky, he added, “the threat of war is actually only a threat, while signing compromises is guaranteed to bring protests.”

He will get no argument from Mr. Hudymenko, whose office walls are decorated with several axes and a crossbow, a reminder that his party provides paramilitary training for its members. He stressed that any protests against a potential settlement would be peaceful, but he left little doubt they would end with the ouster of Mr. Zelensky.

Even mainstream Ukrainian political parties are opposed to making concessions to Russia, and have said they would call for protests if Mr. Zelensky should bend too far.

“All actions of Macron are done with his head facing April elections in France,” said Volodymyr Ariev, a lawmaker with the European Solidarity party of Mr. Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro O. Poroshenko. “I understand, but we shouldn’t follow French interests, or Macron’s interests,” he said. “We should follow Ukraine’s interests.”

Mr. Zelensky, a political outsider and former comedian, won a landslide victory in 2019 on a promise to pursue peace negotiations with Moscow over a grinding, eight-year war in eastern Ukraine with Russian-backed separatists that has claimed about 14,000 lives.

Yet, it is far from clear what such a peace deal would entail.

Mr. Macron has embraced a strategy of reviving talks over the war in eastern Ukraine as a step toward a broader settlement, which would also include negotiations on Russia’s demands for an overhaul of the European security architecture to diminish the role of NATO.

Under one scenario, a settlement deal in eastern Ukraine could rule out future NATO membership for the country. Mr. Zelensky might also forgo NATO membership in exchange for other security guarantees from Western nations, a suggestion he raised last month.

So far, there is no indication any of these ideas have slowed Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine’s borders. Just on Thursday, Russia began joint military exercises with Belarus to the north of Ukraine while to the south the Russian navy declared large swaths of the Black Sea closed for live-fire artillery drills. Those naval maneuvers close sea lanes to Ukraine’s major port of Odessa in an effective blockade.

In Ukraine, nationalist opposition complicates any diplomatic agreement. The risk from the nationalist groups came into focus last fall when Mr. Zelensky accused Democratic Ax of planning an armed protest on Kyiv’s Independence Square as part of a coup plot. But no serious crackdown on Democratic Ax followed. If it were really a coup, “wouldn’t they arrest somebody?” Mr. Hudymenko said.

That put the party, founded by a group of bloggers who chose the ax symbol as a traditional Ukrainian implement used both in peacetime and as a peasant weapon in war, at the center of worries over whether the policy of encouraging military training of civilians was also raising the risk of internal instability.

Mr. Hudymenko, a 34-year-old former journalist and advertising consultant, once spent two months in jail on accusations of blowing up a statue of Stalin in his hometown of Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine.

Sipping from a can of Red Bull in an interview in his office, he said he acts strictly within Ukrainian law, which guarantees citizens’ rights to protest peacefully. “We have a protest culture, a riot culture,” he said.

But he emphasized that there could be no political reconciliation with Russian-backed separatists before Russian troops pulled out of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow fomented the war starting in 2014. That is, in fact, the central demand of Ukraine’s government and the stated position of Mr. Zelensky.

To do otherwise, in an effort to ease tensions and potentially avert a major war in Europe, would only encourage Russia to mass troops again in the future, Mr. Hudymenko said.

“Maybe because we are neighbors with Russia, we understand something difficult to understand for people far away,” he said. “We understand this war is just part of a very big war that lasted centuries. Whenever Russia has internal cohesion, and an opportunity, it always attacks Ukraine.”

Mr. Hudymenko said he keeps a Kalashnikov rifle at home and trains with it regularly, preparing to fight the Russians. He said he would use his rifle at a protest only if police opened fire on the crowd, as happened during protests in 2014 in Kyiv.

Mr. Zelensky and his government may be under pressure from both Ukrainians and Russia, Mr. Hudymenko said, but in the final analysis, “they fear the Ukrainian people more than they fear the Russian army.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.