Why one Spaniard sold his car to go fight in Ukraine


A pro-Russian rebel walks in a market damaged by shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. (Mstislav Chernov/Associated Press)

It's clear that the conflict in Ukraine is escalating dangerously. Authorities in Kiev now claim that their country is being invaded on multiple fronts by Russian forces. The evidence, despite Moscow's denials, seems to point to the presence of Russian military equipment and personnel — perhaps thousands of soldiers — on the wrong side of the border.

Joining the incursion, according to a few reports, is a small contingent of European leftists who are on something of a quixotic mission. They have rallied under the banner of the "International Brigades" — the foreign battalions that fought alongside Spain's Republicans in their losing struggle against the forces of fascist Gen. Francisco Franco eight decades ago. Their homage to Novorossiya (New Russia) is cloaked in the language of anti-imperialism and anti-fascism. Here's what Rafael Muñoz, a 27-year-old Spaniard, told France 24 earlier this month:

I decided to sell my car and head for Donbass to help this population that has fallen victim to the arrests, killing and bombardments carried out by the regime in Kiev. That’s what other freedom fighters did to save my country in 1936. At this time, the powers looked elsewhere and my country finished by having to put up with 40 years of the Franco dictatorship. I’m fighting for social justice and freedom for the people.

YouTube videos show Muñoz and a comrade explaining in English their reason for journeying to Ukraine. Another video involves a similar conversation with a handful of French fighters who claim to be former soldiers in the national army and decry the "cronies" and "oligarchs" calling the shots in Kiev.

In his testimony to France 24, Muñoz said he was opposed to the European Union, which, in his view, has deepened "inequalities" and enabled "fraud and institutional corruption."

In the past year, the Kremlin's propagandists have repeatedly pointed to the reactionary, even fascist forces behind the authorities in Kiev, which came to power after months of protests against a government helmed by pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych.

To a certain extent, they are not wrong: A hard core of far-right Ukrainian nationalists has mobilized against Moscow, espousing, in some instances, neo-Nazi iconography and rhetoric. As my colleague Adam Taylor wrote last week, they have been joined by a number of foreigners who hold beliefs that could be considered fascist and racist.

But as Russia peddles this narrative of anti-fascism, it has attracted pronounced support from Europe's far right as well, including prominent politicians who lead xenophobic, Euro-skeptic parties. It's hard to imagine someone like Russian President Vladimir Putin — an unabashed conservative nationalist who has the strong backing of the Orthodox Church — could ever inspire latter-day George Orwells or Ernest Hemingways.

And that's probably fitting. As Orwell chronicled in his stirring reportage of the Spanish civil war, Moscow's ruthless meddling then was as much a thorn in the Republican side as the advances of the fascist enemy.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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Adam Taylor · August 28, 2014