It is not very often that a documentary film can set a new paradigm
about a recent event, let alone, one that is still in progress. But the
new film Ukraine on Fire has the potential to do so – assuming that many people get to see it.
Usually, documentaries — even good ones — repackage familiar
information in a different aesthetic form. If that form is skillfully
done, then the information can move us in a different way than just
reading about it.
A good example of this would be Peter Davis’s powerful documentary about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Hearts and Minds.
By 1974, most Americans understood just how bad the Vietnam War was,
but through the combination of sounds and images, which could only have
been done through film, that documentary created a sensation, which
removed the last obstacles to America leaving Indochina. Ukraine on Fire has the same potential and could make a
contribution that even goes beyond what the Davis film did because there
was very little new information in Hearts and Minds. Especially for American and Western European audiences, Ukraine on Fire could
be revelatory in that it offers a historical explanation for the deep
divisions within Ukraine and presents information about the current
crisis that challenges the mainstream media’s paradigm, which blames the
conflict almost exclusively on Russia.
Key people in the film’s production are director Igor Lopatonok, editor Alex Chavez, and writer Vanessa Dean,
whose screenplay contains a large amount of historical as well as
current material exploring how Ukraine became such a cauldron of
violence and hate. Oliver Stone served as executive
producer and conducted some high-profile interviews with Russian
President Vladimir Putin and ousted Ukrainian President Viktor
The film begins with gripping images of the violence that ripped
through the capital city of Kiev during both the 2004 Orange Revolution
and the 2014 removal of Yanukovich. It then travels back in time to
provide a perspective that has been missing from mainstream versions of
these events and even in many alternative media renditions. A Longtime Pawn
Historically, Ukraine has been treated as a pawn since the late
Seventeenth Century. In 1918, Ukraine was made a German protectorate by
the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. Ukraine was also a part of the
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 signed between Germany and Russia, but
violated by Adolf Hitler when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in the
summer of 1941.
German dictator Adolf Hitler
The reaction of many in Ukraine to Hitler’s aggression was not the
same as it was in the rest of the Soviet Union. Some Ukrainians welcomed
the Nazis. The most significant Ukrainian nationalist group,
Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), had been established in
1929. Many of its members cooperated with the Nazis, some even enlisted
in the Waffen SS and Ukrainian nationalists participated in the massacre
of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar ravine in Kiev in September 1941.
According to scholar Pers Anders Rudling, the number of Ukrainian
nationalists involved in the slaughter outnumbered the Germans by a
factor of 4 to 1.
But it wasn’t just the Jews that the Ukrainian nationalists
slaughtered. They also participated in massacres of Poles in the western
Ukrainian region of Galicia from March 1943 until the end of 1944.
Again, the main perpetrators were not Germans, but Ukrainians.
According to author Ryazard Szawlowksi, the Ukrainian nationalists
first lulled the Poles into thinking they were their friends, then
turned on them with a barbarity and ferocity that not even the Nazis
could match, torturing their victims with saws and axes. The documentary
places the number of dead at 36,750, but Szawlowski estimates it may be
two or three times higher.
OUN members participated in these slaughters for the purpose of
ethnic cleansing, wanting Ukraine to be preserved for what OUN regarded
as native Ukrainians. They also expected Ukraine to be independent by
the end of the war, free from both German and Russian domination. The
two main leaders in OUN who participated in the Nazi collaboration were
Stepan Bandera and Mykola Lebed. Bandera was a virulent anti-Semite, and
Lebed was rabidly against the Poles, participating in their slaughter.
After the war, both Bandera and Lebed were protected by American
intelligence, which spared them from the Nuremburg tribunals. The
immediate antecedent of the CIA, Central Intelligence Group, wanted to
use both men for information gathering and operations against the Soviet
Union. England’s MI6 used Bandera even more than the CIA did, but the
KGB eventually hunted down Bandera and assassinated him in Munich in
1959. Lebed was brought to America and addressed anti-communist
Ukrainian organizations in the U.S. and Canada. The CIA protected him
from immigration authorities who might otherwise have deported him as a
The history of the Cold War was never too far in the background of
Ukrainian politics, including within the diaspora that fled to the West
after the Red Army defeated the Nazis and many of their Ukrainian
collaborators emigrated to the United States and Canada. In the West,
they formed a fierce anti-communist lobby that gained greater influence
after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Important History
This history is an important part of Dean’s prologue to the main body of Ukraine on Fire and
is essential for anyone trying to understand what has happened there
since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For instance, the
U.S.-backed candidate for president of Ukraine in 2004 — Viktor
Yushchenko — decreed both Bandera and Lebed to be Ukrainian national
Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist and Nazi collaborator.
Bandera, in particular, has become an icon for post-World War II
Ukrainian nationalists. One of his followers was Dmytro Dontsov, who
called for the birth of a “new man” who would mercilessly destroy
Ukraine’s ethnic enemies.
Bandera’s movement was also kept alive by Yaroslav Stetsko, Bandera’s
premier in exile. Stetsko fully endorsed Bandera’s anti-Semitism and
also the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Stetsko, too,
was used by the CIA during the Cold War and was honored by Yushchenko,
who placed a plaque in his honor at the home where he died in Munich in
1986. Stetsko’s wife, Slava, returned to Ukraine in 1991 and ran for
parliament in 2002 on the slate of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party.
Stetsko’s book, entitled Two Revolutions, has become the
ideological cornerstone for the modern Ukrainian political party
Svoboda, founded by Oleh Tyahnybok, who is pictured in the film calling
Jews “kikes” in public, which is one reason the Simon Wiesenthal Center
has ranked him as one of the most dangerous anti-Semites in the world.
Another follower of Bandera is Dymytro Yarosh, who reputedly leads
the paramilitary arm of an even more powerful political organization in
Ukraine called Right Sektor. Yarosh once said he controls a paramilitary
force of about 7,000 men who were reportedly used in both the overthrow
of Yanukovych in Kiev in February 2014 and the suppression of the
rebellion in Odessa a few months later, which are both fully depicted in
This historical prelude and its merging with the current civil war is
eye-opening background that has been largely hidden by the mainstream
Western media, which has downplayed or ignored the troubling links
between these racist Ukrainian nationalists and the U.S.-backed
political forces that vied for power after Ukraine became independent in
1991. The Rise of a Violent Right
That same year, Tyahnybok formed Svoboda. Three years later, Yarosh
founded Trident, an offshoot of Svoboda that eventually evolved into
Right Sektor. In other words, the followers of Bandera and Lebed began
organizing themselves immediately after the Soviet collapse.
The neo-Nazi Wolfsangel symbol on a banner in Ukraine.
In this time period, Ukraine had two Russian-oriented leaders who
were elected in 1991 and 1994, Leonid Kravchuk, and Leonid Kuchma. But
the hasty transition to a “free-market” economy didn’t go well for most
Ukrainians or Russians as well-connected oligarchs seized much of the
wealth and came to dominate the political process through massive
corruption and purchase of news media outlets. However, for average
citizens, living standards went down drastically, opening the door for
the far-right parties and for foreign meddling.
In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base was strongest among
ethnic Russians in the east and south, won the presidential election by
three percentage points over the U.S.-favored Viktor Yushchenko, whose
base was mostly in the country’s west where the Ukrainian nationalists
Immediately, Yushchenko’s backers claimed fraud citing exit polls
that had been organized by a group of eight Western nations and four
non-governmental organizations or NGOs, including the Renaissance
Foundation founded by billionaire financial speculator George Soros.
Dick Morris, former President Bill Clinton’s political adviser,
clandestinely met with Yushchenko’s team and advised them that the exit
polls would not just help in accusations of fraud, but would bring
protesters out into the streets. (Cambridge Review of InternationalAffairs, Vol. 19, Number 1, p. 26)
Freedom House, another prominent NGO that receives substantial
financing from the U.S.-government-funded National Endowment for
Democracy (NED), provided training to young activists who then rallied
protesters in what became known as the Orange Revolution, one of the
so-called “color revolutions” that the West’s mainstream media fell in
love with. It forced an election rerun that Yushchenko won.
But Yushchenko’s presidency failed to do much to improve the lot of
the Ukrainian people and he grew increasingly unpopular. In 2010,
Yushchenko failed to make it out of the first round of balloting and his
rival Yanukovych was elected president in balloting that outside
observers judged free and fair. Big-Power Games
If this all had occurred due to indigenous factors within Ukraine, it
could have been glossed over as a young nation going through some
painful growing pains. But as the film points out, this was not the
case. Ukraine continued to be a pawn in big-power games with many
Western officials hoping to draw the country away from Russian influence
and into the orbit of NATO and the European Union.
Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
In one of the interviews in Ukraine on Fire, journalist and
author Robert Parry explains how the National Endowment for Democracy
and many subsidized political NGOs emerged in the 1980s to replace or
supplement what the CIA had traditionally done in terms of influencing
the direction of targeted countries.
During the investigations of the Church Committee in the 1970s, the
CIA’s “political action” apparatus for removing foreign leaders was
exposed. So, to disguise these efforts, CIA Director William Casey,
Reagan’s White House and allies in Congress created the NED to finance an array of political and media NGOs.
As Parry noted in the documentary, many traditional NGOs do valuable
work in helping impoverished and developing countries, but this
activist/propaganda breed of NGOs promoted U.S. geopolitical objectives
abroad – and NED funded scores of such projects inside Ukraine in the run-up to the 2014 crisis. Ukraine on Fire goes into high gear when it chronicles the
events that occurred in 2014, resulting in the violent overthrow of
President Yanukovych and sparking the civil war that still rages. In the
2010 election, when Yushchenko couldn’t even tally in the
double-digits, Yanukovych faced off against and defeated Yulia
Tymoshenko, a wealthy oligarch who had served as Yushchenko’s prime
After his election, Yanukovych repealed Bandera’s title as a national
hero. However, because of festering economic problems, the new
president began to search for an economic partner who could provide a
large loan. He first negotiated with the European Union, but these
negotiations bogged down due to the usual draconian demands made by the
International Monetary Fund.
So, in November 2013, Yanukovych began to negotiate with Russian
President Putin who offered more generous terms. But Yanukovych’s
decision to delay the association agreement with the E.U. provoked
street protests in Kiev especially from the people of western Ukraine.
As Ukraine on Fire points out, other unusual occurrences
also occurred, including the emergence of three new TV channels – Spilno
TV, Espreso TV, and Hromadske TV – going on the air between Nov. 21 and
24, with partial funding from the U.S. Embassy and George Soros.
Nazi symbols on helmets worn by members of Ukraine’s Azov battalion. (As filmed by a Norwegian film crew and shown on German TV)
Pro-E.U. protests in the Maidan square in central Kiev also grew more
violent as ultra-nationalist street fighters from Lviv and other
western areas began to pour in and engage in provocations, many of which
were sponsored by Yarosh’s Right Sektor. The attacks escalated from
torch marches similar to Nazi days to hurling Molotov cocktails at
police to driving large tractors into police lines – all visually
depicted in the film. As Yanukovich tells Stone, when this escalation
happened, it made it impossible for him to negotiate with the Maidan
One of the film’s most interesting interviews is with Vitaliy
Zakharchenko, who was Minister of the Interior at the time responsible
for law enforcement and the conduct of the police. He traces the
escalation of the attacks from Nov. 24 to 30, culminating with a clash
between police and protesters over the transport of a giant Christmas
tree into the Maidan. Zakharchenko said he now believes this
confrontation was secretly approved by Serhiy Lyovochkin, a close friend
of U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, as a pretext to escalate the
At this point, the film addresses the direct involvement of U.S.
politicians and diplomats. Throughout the crisis, American politicians
visited Maidan, as both Republicans and Democrats, such as Senators John
McCain, R-Arizona, and Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut. stirred up the
crowds. Yanukovych also said he was in phone contact with Vice President
Joe Biden, who he claims was misleading him about how to handle the
The film points out that the real center of American influence in the
Kiev demonstrations was with Ambassador Pyatt and Assistant Secretary
of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland. As Parry points out,
although Nuland was serving under President Obama, her allegiances were
really with the neoconservative movement, most associated with the
Her husband is Robert Kagan, who worked as a State Department
propagandist on the Central American wars in the 1980s and was the
co-founder of the Project for the New American Century in the 1990s, the
group that organized political and media pressure for the U.S. invasion
of Iraq in 2003. Kagan also was McCain’s foreign policy adviser in the
2008 presidential election (although he threw his support behind Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race). Adept Manipulators
As Parry explained, the neoconservatives have become quite adept at
disguising their true aims and have powerful allies in the mainstream
press. This combination has allowed them to push the foreign policy
debate to such extremes that, when anyone objects, they can be branded a
Putin or Yanukovych “apologist.”
Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland
during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, on Feb.
7, 2014. (U.S. State Department photo)
Thus, Pyatt’s frequent meetings with the demonstrators in the embassy
and Nuland’s handing out cookies to protesters in the Maidan were not
criticized as American interference in a sovereign state, but were
praised as “promoting democracy” abroad. However, as the Maidan crisis
escalated, Ukrainian ultra-nationalists moved to the front,
intensifying their attacks on police. Many of these extremists were
disciples of Bandera and Lebed. By February 2014, they were armed with
shotguns and rapid-fire handguns.
On Feb. 20, 2014, a mysterious sniper, apparently firing from a
building controlled by the Right Sektor, shot both police and
protesters, touching off a day of violence that left about 14 police and
some 70 protesters dead.
With Kiev slipping out of control, Yanukovich was forced to negotiate
with representatives from France, Poland and Germany. On Feb. 21, he
agreed to schedule early elections and to accept reduced powers. At the
urging of Vice President Biden, Yanukovych also pulled back the police.
But the agreement – though guaranteed by the European nations – was
quickly negated by renewed attacks from the Right Sektor and its street
fighters who seized government buildings. Russian intelligence services
got word that an assassination plot was in the works against Yanukovych,
who fled for his life.
On Feb. 24, Yanukovych asked permission to enter Russia for his
safety and the Ukrainian parliament (or Rada), effectively under the
control of the armed extremists, voted to remove Yanukovych from office
in an unconstitutional manner because the courts were not involved and
the vote to impeach him did not reach the mandatory threshold. Despite
these irregularities, the U.S. and its European allies quickly
recognized the new government as “legitimate.” Calling a Coup a Coup
But the ouster of Yanukovych had all the earmarks of a coup. An
intercepted phone call, apparently in early February, between Nuland and
Pyatt revealed that they were directly involved in displacing
Yanukovych and choosing his successor. The pair reviewed the field of candidates with
Nuland favoring Arseniy Yatsenyuk, declaring “Yats is the guy” and
discussing with Pyatt how to “glue this thing.” Pyatt wondered about how
to “midwife this thing.” They sounded like Gilded Age millionaires in
New York deciding who should become the next U.S. president. On Feb. 27,
Yatsenyuk became Prime Minister of Ukraine.
President Petro Poroshenko shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine
Geoffrey Pyatt as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 7,
2016. [State Department Photo]
Not everyone in Ukraine agreed
with the new regime, however. Crimea, which had voted heavily for
Yanukovych, decided to hold a referendum on whether to split from
Ukraine and become a part of Russia. The results of the referendum were
overwhelming. Some 96 percent of Crimeans voted to unite with Russia.
Russian troops – previously stationed in Crimea under the Sevastopol
naval base agreement – provided security against Right Sektor and other
Ukrainian forces moving against the Crimean secession, but there was no
evidence of Russian troops intimidating voters or controlling the
elections. The Russian government then accepted the reunification with
Crimea, which had historically been part of Russia dating back hundreds
Two eastern provinces, Donetsk and Lugansk, also wanted to split off
from Ukraine and also conducted a referendum in support of that move.
But Putin would not agree to the request from the two provinces, which
instead declared their own independence, a move that the new government
in Kiev denounced as illegal. The Kiev regime also deemed the insurgents
“terrorists” and launched an “anti-terrorism operation” to crush the
resistance. Ultra-nationalist and even neo-Nazi militias, such as the
Azov Battalion, took the lead in the bloody fighting.
Anti-coup demonstrations also broke out in the city of Odessa to the
south. Ukrainian nationalist leader Andrei Parubiy went to Odessa, and
two days later, on May 2, 2014, his street fighters attacked the
demonstrators, driving them into the Trade Union building, which was
then set on fire. Forty-two people were killed, some of whom jumped to
their deaths. ‘Other Side of the Story’
If the film just got across this “other side of the story,” it would
provide a valuable contribution since most of this information has been
ignored or distorted by the West’s mainstream media, which simply blames
the Ukraine crisis on Vladimir Putin. But in addition to the fine work
by scenarist Vanessa Dean, the direction by Igor Lopatonok and the
editing by Alexis Chavez are extraordinarily skillful and supple.
Screen shot of the fatal fire in Odessa, Ukraine, on May 2, 2014. (From RT video)
The 15-minute prologue, where the information about the Nazi
collaboration by Bandera and Lebed is introduced, is an exceptional
piece of filmmaking. It moves at a quick pace, utilizing rapid cutting
and also split screens to depict photographs and statistics
simultaneously. Lopatonok also uses interactive graphics throughout to
transmit information in a visual and demonstrative manner.
Stone’s interviews with Putin and Yanukovych are also quite
newsworthy, presenting a side of these demonized foreign leaders that
has been absent in the propagandistic Western media.
Though about two hours long, the picture has a headlong tempo to it.
If anything, it needed to slow down at points since such a large amount
of information is being communicated. On the other hand, it’s a pleasure
to watch a documentary that is so intelligently written, and yet so
remarkably well made.
When the film ends, the enduring message is similar to those posed by
the American interventions in Vietnam and Iraq. How could the State
Department know so little about what it was about to unleash, given
Ukraine’s deep historical divisions and the risk of an escalating
conflict with nuclear-armed Russia?
In Vietnam, Americans knew little about the country’s decades-long
struggle of the peasantry to be free from French and Japanese
colonialism. Somehow, America was going to win their hearts and minds
and create a Western-style “democracy” when many Vietnamese simply saw
the extension of foreign imperialism.
In Iraq, President George W. Bush and his coterie of neocons was
going to oust Saddam Hussein and create a Western-style democracy in the
Middle East, except that Bush didn’t know the difference between Sunni
and Shiite Moslems and how Iraq was likely to split over sectarian
rivalries and screw up his expectations.
Similarly, the message of Ukraine on Fire is that
short-sighted, ambitious and ideological officials – unchecked by their
superiors – created something even worse than what existed. While
high-level corruption persists today in Ukraine and may be even worse
than before, the conditions of average Ukrainians have deteriorated.
And, the Ukraine conflict has reignited the Cold War by moving
Western geopolitical forces onto Russia’s most sensitive frontier,
which, as scholar Joshua Shifrinson has noted, violates a pledge made by
Secretary of State James Baker in February 1990 as the Soviet Union
peacefully accepted the collapse of its military influence in East
Germany and eastern Europe. (Los Angeles Times, 5/30/ 2016)
This film also reminds us that what happened in Ukraine was a
bipartisan effort. It was begun under George W. Bush and completed under
Barack Obama. As Oliver Stone noted in the discussion that followed the
film’s premiere in Los Angeles, the U.S. painfully needs some new
leadership reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, people
who understand how America’s geopolitical ambitions must be tempered by
on-the-ground realities and the broader needs of humanity to be freed
from the dangers of all-out war. James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on
the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of
that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are of sole
responsibility of the author(s). The Centre for Research on
Globalization will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect
statement in this article.
ROLAND SAN JUAN was a researcher, management consultant, inventor, a part time radio broadcaster and a publishing director. He died last November 25, 2008 after suffering a stroke. His staff will continue his unfinished work to inform the world of the untold truths. Please read Erick San Juan's articles at: ericksanjuan.blogspot.com This blog is dedicated to the late Max Soliven, a FILIPINO PATRIOT.
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