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Ukrainian State Security Chief Alleges ‘Russian Hand’ in Attack on Roma

A Roma man wounded in an attack by right-wing assailants near Lviv, Ukraine.
Vasyl Hrytsak

Vasyl Hrytsak

Head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)

“We understand that Russia could definitely be behind this (I cannot say 100%). The Russians are always trying to play with international issues.”

The claim Russians were behind a deadly attack on a Roma camp is very weak.

On June 23, a group of far-right youth carried out an attack on a Roma camp near Lviv, Ukraine. A 24-year-old Roma man was stabbed to death in the attack, while a mother, her ten-year-old son, and two other young men suffered knife wounds.

Police intervened to stop the attack and detained eight young men who claimed to belong to an organization known as “Sober and Angry Youth.” The group is known to have operated several pages on the Russian social media site VK, as well as YouTube and Telegram channels.

A picture from "Sober and Angry Youth" on depicting a Nazi soldier
A picture from "Sober and Angry Youth" on depicting a Nazi soldier

While Ukrainian authorities have strongly condemned the attack, on June 25 the head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) Vasyl Hrytsak implied that it could have been the work of Russians. In a joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (who roundly condemned the attack), Hrytsak said preliminary investigation found that an organization “similar” to the one involved in the attack had been created in Russia.

There have been several attacks on Roma camps in recent months, all carried out by far-right organizations (though not the one involved in this most recent attack). In some of the earlier attacks, police refused to intervene and no criminal cases were opened against the attackers. A group behind some of the prior attacks, known as C14, was recently found to have received money from the Ukrainian government to fund youth activities.

Roma camp in Lviv after an attack by right-wing groups. Lviv, 24 of June, 2018.
Roma camp in Lviv after an attack by right-wing groups. Lviv, 24 of June, 2018.

Given the earlier attacks and the passive behavior of the police and other authorities, some Ukraine watchers have suggested that the June 23 fatal attack was an inevitable consequence of allowing far-right groups to victimize Roma settlements with little consequence.

Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group noted that the response of police and local authorities has been significantly different in this most recent case.

‘This was the fifth such attack, and only the first where the police behaved adequately,’ Coynash told via email.

Unlike in earlier cases, the organizers of the latest attack are charged with intentional homicide.

Ukraine -- The suspect in organizing an attack on the Roma camp, Lviv, 26Jun2018
Ukraine -- The suspect in organizing an attack on the Roma camp, Lviv, 26Jun2018

“The way forward now seems to be to ensure that this case is properly investigated and that lessons are learned about the dangerous impunity that many of these far-right activists have obviously felt they enjoyed,” Coynash said following the attack. “There is a real problem which needs to be addressed, and the response from both (Lviv Mayor Andriy) Sadovy and the National Police yesterday were steps in the right direction.”

However, she dismissed Hrytsak’s attempt to blame Russia.

“Hrytsak’s comments are a distraction and, in my opinion, unhelpful,” she said.

Coynash pointed out that the perpetrators used a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian when talking to each other via Telegram, something which is normal throughout Ukraine. According to her, the language one typically uses in Ukraine does not necessarily indicate one’s political alignment. As an example, she cited Ruslan Kotsaba, a pro-Russian blogger who was jailed in Ukraine for treason and who usually speaks Ukrainian.

On June 26, the open source intelligence group Bellingcat concluded an investigation into “Sober and Angry Youth” and found that the group was a network of informal clubs with chapters in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Rather than espousing Russian or Ukrainian nationalism, the group spreads a kind of Pan-Slavic neo-Nazism, said Bellingcat. After the attack in Lviv, a message appeared on the largest of their VK pages, distancing the organization from the individuals involved in the attack. That page was founded by “Svyatoslav Popovich,” a Ukrainian based in Ukraine.