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Azov, the neo-Nazis doing the West’s dirty work in Ukraine


PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin was wrong to invade a sovereign state and the suffering that he has caused Ukrainian refugees is, and continues to be, terrible. But the current conflict in Eastern Europe is not quite as simple as ‘Russia bad, Ukraine good’. In between the horrors of war, whole swathes of information have been driven out of the discourse. 

The mainstream media and social media giants, run by the progressive Left, are shaping the narrative on the conflict virtually unchallenged. Having sharpened their repressive skills disseminating climate change propaganda and then the pandemic narrative, they were well primed to extend it to their new crisis. For alternative information and a different view of the political landscape, the astute reader must turn to the smaller platforms, including this one.  

 When Putin announced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at dawn on February 24, he justified the ‘special military operation’ as having the goal to ‘denazify’ Ukraine, claiming that neo-Nazis were on the rise. This was dismissed immediately as being without truth or justification. Putin was guilty of peddling ‘debunked claims about why the war started’. The fact-checkers were also quick to say Putin’s claims were baseless, a propaganda narrative without any basis. 

Other outlets admitted that ‘even though Putin is engaging in propaganda, it’s also true that Ukraine has a genuine Nazi problem — both past and present’. In the Guardian, Jason Stanley wrote ‘justification is not tenable, but it would be a mistake to simply dismiss it.’ He hardly could. In 2014, his paper reported the Azov Nazis as Ukraine’s greatest threat. 

But by far the most disingenuous example of today’s Nazi denial is Facebook. After years of demonising President Donald Trump’s supporters as ‘far Right’ and censoring criticism of woke politics in the name of ‘hate speech’, having specifically declared Azov a ‘dangerous organisation’, banning it alongside the Ku Klux Klan and Isis, this social media platform performed a complete U-turn to become a cheerleader for Ukraine’s neo-Nazis. Anyone supporting these groups was (at least nominally) banished from its platform until last month when suddenly, and suspiciously, it began to allow users to praise the neo-Nazi Azov battalion as ‘defenders’ of Ukraine,  giving some credence to the ‘horseshoe theory’. 

Formed in May 2014, the Azov battalion originally consisted of the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang and the neo-Nazi Social National Assembly (SNA). Both groups are xenophobic and adhere to neo-Nazi ideals. Its members wear the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel symbol, a black swastika. Since the Ukrainian revolution in 2013 they have been fighting Russian separatists in the East

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), which monitors global anti-Semitism, has described the Azov battalion as a neo-Nazi movement and a danger to Jews. 

Azov is virulently racist too. During a football game at Kiev stadium in 2016, its activists beat up black Chelsea fans who had travelled to Ukraine to watch their team play.

Nor are these neo-Nazis overly fond of Muslims. In a display of gross xenophobia, Azov fighters were shown covering their bullets in pig fat to be used against Muslim Chechens fighting for Russia. The terrorist attack at a New Zealand mosque in 2019 was cheered on by Azov members

In 2018, Human Rights Watch accused Ukraine’s authorities of not responding adequately to the growing number of violent attacks and threats promoting hate and discrimination the country by members of violent radical groups. Roma, LGBT people, feminists, and human rights activists were all targets.

Local authorities were reported to have recruited these neo-Nazis to patrol any marches protesting against such attacks on minority groups. The Ukrainian offices of Amnesty International and Freedom House were also attacked and threatened by far Right extremists. The police mainly ignored these acts of violence, refusing to arrest even those who claimed responsibility on Facebook. 

Fast forward to March 2022 and reports that Azov has expanded to become part of Ukraine’s armed forces, a street militia and a political party, and involved in training civilians through military exercises in the run-up to Russia’s invasion and its emergence as the defender of Ukraine. In fact, Azov was officially integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine on November 12, 2014, and, as a battalion, the group has been fighting ever since on the front lines against pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, the eastern region of Ukraine where it has been accused of inflicting inhumane treatment on civilians, using them as human shields, and torturing prisoners in the Donbas region. 

The Ukrainian government has both welcomed this neo-Nazi movement and ignored its violent attacks. Azov forms part of its armed forces and has been entrenched in Mariupol fighting Russian forces. The battalion trains civilians in military exercises and is installed in the country’s power structures

Andriy Biletsky, a former Azov battalion commander, is an MP in Ukraine’s parliament, and leader of the ultra-nationalist National Corpus party, Azov’s civilian and political wing. In 2010, echoing Nazi Jew hatred, Biletsky declared that Ukraine’s mission was to ‘lead the white races of the world in a final crusade . . .  against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans]’. Biletsky also leads the National Militia, part of the National Corpus. Founded in 2016, it has been responsible for violent attacks against migrants and students and demonises ethnic minorities and LGBT people. 

Only four years ago, 600 of its members marched through Kiev wearing battle fatigues, threatening to use force to ‘clean up’ Ukraine.

Azov has been accused of being a magnet for foreign far Right ideologues and neo-Nazis. Since 2015, more than 17,000 have joined the battalion and many have been welcomed by Ukrainian authorities and given citizenship. Facebook, the main channel used by Azov for this recruitment, was exposed in an alarming investigation by Time magazine in 2021: ‘How a White-Supremacist Militia Used Facebook to Radicalize and Train New Members’. It tracks a link between Azov and terrorism in the US.

In 2016, under the leadership of President Barak Obama, the US Congress inexplicitly repealed its ban on funding Azov. This meant that the battalion could now legally receive American aid. The SWC accused the US of ignoring the glorification of Nazi collaborators, and Israeli politicians said that the first target of these neo-Nazis would be the Jewish community. 

According to the Daily Beast, the US went one step further and started training parts of Azov, giving them $19million in 2017. It is ironic that Biden administration, once professing horror at the very idea of white supremacists, is now in effect supporting the neo-Nazis of Ukraine and silencing any objectors by labelling them ‘Putin sympathisers’. 

This is a group that aims to take power in Europe, with the help of far Right coalitions. Thanks to Western governments and Facebook, it has unrivalled access to weapons and a peerless recruiting campaign. The world should be shuddering in horror at the thought that a violent, far Right, anti-Semitic neo-Nazi organisation in Eastern Europe is being given a free pass.

It should be quite possible to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine without denying Ukraine’s internal neo-Nazi threat. But the war in Ukraine is proving not only to be a territorial war but an information one too. So far, the neo-Nazis have done very well out of it.

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Karen Harradine
Karen Harradine
Karen is an anthropologist and freelance journalist. She writes on anti-Semitism, Israel and spirituality. She is @KarenH777on Twitter.

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