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Discerning Volodymyr Zelensky

Originally published: Naked Capitalism on March 8, 2022 (more by Naked Capitalism)

“‘Not A Very Nice Person At All,’ she read. ‘I wonder what kind of person would put that on a wallet?’ ‘Someone who wasn’t a very nice person,’ said William.” –Terry Pratchett, The Truth

In this extremely short and simplistic post, I will do what it says on the tin: Scrape away the already deeply impacted layers of wartime propaganda.1 I propose to do this in the old-fashioned American way: By following the money. (I was inspired to write this post by Gonzalo Lira, former NC contributor (!), streaming from Kharkiv (!!). His video, “Who Is Zelensky? A Puppet—and Here’s Why,” is perceptive, lucid, and convincing, albeit NSFW. I recommend you listen to it, on the off chance that the more hits this video has, the more of a public figure—hence, safer—Lira will be.)

As a caveat: I’m going to be looking at the dealings of a billionaire, the armed militants he funds, and a politician he funds. All these relationships are so complicated and intricate as to make, say, The Clinton Foundation look like a child’s scribbled drawing. All these relationships are deeply rooted in the history of Ukrainian nationalism as well, with plenty of heroism and villainy to go around. By taking a transactional approach (“follow the money”) I abstract away from all that. (For example, Watergate exploded because it involved cash payoffs, not because of the often bizarre personal histories of the participants.)

With that, let’s begin with the money man.

The Billionaire: Igor Kolomoyskyi

Long-time Naked Capitalism readers will recall that our own Richard Smith introduced us to Igor Kolomoyskyi2 eight years ago, in 2014:

Kolomoyskyi is one of the oligarchs charged with holding down the Eastern provinces of Ukraine,3 and recently mocked Putin, reputedly sensitive about his height, as a “schizophrenic shortarse” (apologies for the English intonation: American alternatives are invited); definitely a bridge-burning moment. Putin, meanwhile, shut down as much of Kolomoyskyi ’s bank as he could, in Crimea and Moscow. I’m not sure who started it, but we can certainly mark it down as a first-rate spat.

While that was brewing up, Kolomoyskyi might well have wanted something that looked an American protector, and got it, in the form of the VP’s son[, Hunter Biden]. Another guess: Kolomoyskyi is far too ebulliently Jewish to look like a neo-Nazi. A U.S. connection with Kolomoyskyi might play well in circles keen to counter Russian complaints that the interim Kiev regime is dominated by “Fascists”.

No, I’m not going down this Hunter Biden rathole; those are not the transactions I am interested in now. I will note in passing that Kolomoyskyi ‘s style could be considered — let’s just go ahead and say it—crude. Kolomoyskyi and his running buddy, Gennadiy Bogolyubov, were business partners and founders of a thing called Privat Group:

Kolomoyskyi and Bogolyubo]fostered strong reputations as corporate raiders in the mid-2000s, becoming notorious for a series of hostile takeovers. Hostile takeovers Ukrainian style, that is, which often included the active involvement of Privat’s quasi-military teams. These schemes included, among others, a literal raid on the Kremenchuk steel plant in 2006, in which hundreds of hired rowdies armed with baseball bats, iron bars, gas and rubber bullet pistols and chainsaws forcibly took over the plant.

As of this writing, Kolomoyskyi was #1750 on the Forbes billionaires list, with a real time net worth (assuming Forbes didn’t outsource the data gathering to CDC) of $1.8 billion. Kolomoyskyi has also fallen out with the United States, amusingly including the Atlantic Council, but I assume all these tiresome bureaucratic obstacles will at some point be swept away, so that’s another rathole I’m not going down. Suffice to say that Kolomoyskyi still has his billions, which I expect go farther in Ukraine than they would here, and isn’t at all shy about funding thugs. Kolomoyskyi, like any billionaire, holds a portfolio of projects in the political field. I don’t know how many he has in toto, but there are at least two. Let’s look at them.

The Banderite Fascists: The Azov Battalion and Right Sector

Here is a photo from Ukraine on January 1, 2022. Nice torches!

The caption: “Activists of various nationalist parties carry torches and a portrait of Stepan Bandera during a rally in Kyiv… The rally was organized to mark the birth anniversary of Stepan Bandera, founder of a rebel army that fought against the Soviet regime and who was assassinated in Germany in 1959.” And further from The Times of Israel:

During World War II, Bandera led the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose men killed thousands of Jews and Poles, including women and children, while fighting alongside Nazi Germany against the Red Army and communists.

Bandera’s supporters claim that they sided with the Nazis against the Soviet army in the belief that Adolf Hitler would grant independence to Ukraine.

Expressions of admiration for Bandera and other collaborators have increased in scope and status following the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, which toppled the regime of Viktor Yanukovych amid claims that he is a Russian stooge, and triggered an armed conflict with Russia.

The History News Network gives more detail on Bandera:

Historian Karel Berkhoff, among others, has shown that Bandera, his deputies, and the Nazis shared a key obsession, namely the notion that the Jews in Ukraine were behind Communism and Stalinist imperialism and must be destroyed. “The Jews of the Soviet Union,” read a Banderist statement, “are the most loyal supporters of the Bolshevik Regime and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in the Ukraine.” When the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941 and captured the East Galician capital of Lvov, Bandera’s lieutenants issued a declaration of independence in his name. They further promised to work closely with Hitler, then helped to launch a pogrom that killed four thousand Lvov Jews in a few days, using weapons ranging from guns to metal poles. “We will lay your heads at Hitler’s feet,” a Banderist pamphlet proclaimed to Ukrainian Jews.

Bandera’s ideology lives on today, specifically4 in the Azov Battalion, originally a paramilitary organization, but now incorporated into the Ukraine National Guard. WSWS summarizes:

The Azov Battalion was founded by the anti-Semite Andriy Biletsky in 2014. It incorporated many members of Biletsky’s former ultranationalist, white supremacist organisations, Patriot of Ukraine and the Social-National Assembly (SNA). These tendencies trace their political roots back to the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), headed by Stepan Bandera, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)….

In 2015-2016, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights connected Azov with war crimes, including mass looting, unlawful detention and torture.

Since Yanukovych’s ouster, the U.S. and its allies have ensured that the Ukrainian regime, particularly its far-right paramilitaries, remain a significant and threatening force. Billions of dollars have been spent supporting the government and supplying and training its armed forces.

In April 2015, nearly 300 members of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade were sent to Ukraine to train Ukrainian soldiers, including members of the Azov Battalion. They were joined by British, Canadian and Polish soldiers in Operation Fearless Guardian.

Hence the designation, Banderite. We’re using the term Banderite Fascists partly for the sake of accuracy, but also to avoid confusing our own cosplaying soi-disant “Neo-Nazis” with the the real deal in Ukraine. And no, I don’t think “fascist” is off-point, either. Readers wlll recall Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim- hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

That rings a lot of bells with me, especially the “redemptive violence” part.

After this build-up, you will unsurprised to learn that Kolomoyskyi funded the Azov Battalion:

Before becoming part of Ukraine’s armed forces, who funded Azov? The unit received backing from Ukraine’s interior minister in 2014, as the government had recognised its own military was too weak to fight off the pro-Russian separatists and relied on paramilitary volunteer forces.

These forces were privately funded by oligarchs–the most known being Igor Kolomoisky, an energy magnate billionaire and then-governor of the Dnipropetrovska region.


[Ihor Kolomoyskyi] also allegedly funds the Azov Battalion….. Meanwhile Norwegian channel TV2 presented footage yesterday of the Azov battalion flying flags with the symbols of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi party–Patriot of Ukraine.


Some of Ukraine’s private battalions have blackened the country’s international reputation with their extremist views. The Azov battalion, partially funded by Taruta and Kolomoisky, uses the Nazi Wolfsangel symbol as its logo, and many of its members openly espouse neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic views. The battalion members have spoken about “bringing the war to Kiev,” and said that Ukraine needs “a strong dictator to come to power who could shed plenty of blood but unite the nation in the process.”

(There’s that “redemptive violence” thing.)

And besides funding the Azov Battalion, Kolomoyskyi is funding somebody else, seriously and for some time.

The Politician: Volodymyr Zelensky

That would be the current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.5 From the BBC:

[I]n the Ukrainian political television dramedy Servant of the People, Volodymyr Zelensky plays a teacher who becomes president after a video of him ranting against government corruption goes viral. It’s typical of the programme’s slapstick take on the country’s struggles with oligarchy and overindulgent bureaucrats during its 18 years as an independent, post-Soviet nation. But scenes like this one have taken on a new significance now that Zelensky has become the real president of Ukraine, thanks to his popularity as a fictional leader.

Ironic, history. More:

Servant of the People premiered in Ukraine in 2015, starring Zelensky–then known as a comic actor–as a regular guy-turned-president named Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko. The show ran for three seasons on the country’s 1+1 channel

In terms of quality, Servant of the People holds its own against any internationally known prestige comedy, which likely contributed to its effectiveness in both pointing out such corruption and crowning a real president. It falls somewhere between Armando Iannucci’s dark, cutting political satires, The Thick of It and Veep, and the sunny American take on local politics, Parks and Recreation. Servant of the People hits close to the bone at times, but offers a ray of hope too, packaged in smooth production, tight writing, fine performances, and laugh-out-loud sequences.

It’s little wonder that such a series, coupled with Zelensky’s winning performance as a smart, moral everyman, added up to a presidential victory that exceeded the show’s fantasy version of election night: on Servant of the People, he won 67% of the vote; in real life, he won 73.2%.

And the kicker:

[Igor] Kolomoisky owns 1+1, which broadcast Servant of the People and ostensibly helped to bring Zelensky to power.

“Ostensibly” is doing more work there than any mere adverb should every have to do. And Zelensky fits into the West Wing-shaped hole in the liberal Democrat brain. A telling detail on the 2019 election:

With the Ukrainian economy stalled and Poroshenko’s approval rating approaching single digits, it seemed likely that the 2019 presidential election would be a repeat of the 2014 contest, with the incumbent facing Orange Revolution veteran Yulia Tymoshenko. Instead, more than three dozen candidates entered the race, and Zelensky emerged as one of the front-runners virtually from the moment of the declaration of his candidacy. That announcement was made on 1+1 on December 31, 2018, preempting Poroshenko’s annual New Year’s address. The provocative move raised questions about the involvement of 1+1 owner Kolomoisky in Zelensky’s campaign.

I’ll bet!


I realize that in the current climate of fevered hysteria, anything less than wide-eyed hero worship of Zelensky will be seen by the more delusional engaged as somewhere between kicking a sad-eyed puppy and an act of high treason. And I freely admit that I haven’t tried to work out causalities, or disentangle feuds between fascists, or battles against corruption, let alone geopolitics, or anything like that. I have only looked at transactions: billionaire Kolomoyskyi funded Banderite fascists; billionaire Kolomoyskyi funded Zelensky. Doesn’t that seem odd to you?6

It seems odd to me. Perhaps the press should dig into it. Let’s transpose the situation to the United States. Suppose your candidate was an honest, independent outsider running for President. Then you follow the money. You find out that an oligarch paid your candidate a big advance to (say) write their book, and that same oligarch was also funding (say) the Proud Boys. Wouldn’t that set of transactions make you think twice? About the outsider’s honesty and independence? You might even decide your candidate was “Not A Very Nice Person At All.”


  1. This from Bush-era Iraq war brain genius Frum is more subtle than most:


  2. ‘”The transliteration of Ihor Kolomoyskyi’s name into English has numerous variants including Igor, or Ihor for his first name, and Kolomoyskyi, Kolomoysky, Kolomoisky, Kolomoiskiy, or Kolomoyskiy for his surname.”
  3. Kolomoyskyi was forced to step down as governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region in March 2015.
  4. Ukraine has has a lot of militias, and a lot of fascist militias (if you use Paxton’s definition). See here and here. This is a rat warren I am not going to enter.
  5. Zelensky has moved quite a lot of money offshore. This is a rathole I am not going down.
  6. Pause here for the expected special pleading.
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