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Mystery of Ukraine’s disappearing Nazis

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LET’S cast our minds back to the build-up to the Euro football championship in 2012, co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland. There was only one story in the mainstream media then: both countries were hotbeds of Nazism and anti-Semitism, said the BBC’s investigative documentary Stadiums of Hate, andneither of them should have been allowed to host the tournament. Fans were warned by ex-England footballer Sol Campbell to stay at home or ‘you could end up coming back in a coffin’. The story gathered momentum among other Western media, provoking last-ditch efforts by footballing nations to have the tournament moved. There was ‘the creep of extremism reminiscent of the 1930s’, declared Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph

Over the following years Poland was generally spared the worst opprobrium from the Western media and political establishments, merely having to endure the label of ‘extreme religio-nationalist’ in its battles against EU wokism. Ukraine was afforded no such latitude. Spearheading this assault was the BBC. A 2014 film on the Maidan Uprising noted that Ukraine represented an increasing ‘neo-Nazi threat’ given, what it claimed, the leading role played by fascist groups such as the Azov Battalion in the riots on Maidan Square which overthrew the pro-Moscow Yanukovych government and replaced it with a West-leaning alternative. A follow-up a year later sought to confirm this claim, exposing the growing ranks of paramilitaries brandishing Nazi banners and insignia blithely parading through city centres to the chants of Sláva Ukrayíni (Glory to Ukraine) made notorious by Ukraine’s war-time Nazi collaborators. So pernicious were these groups that in 2018 the BBC raised the alarm again, tracking the ‘toxic racism’ and violence of the Azov Battalion and other groups with ‘Nazi overtones’ as they threatened businesses with Russian connections and intimidated elected deputies who refused do their bidding. ‘None of this could happen’, noted Oleksander Radutskyi, a deputy from Cherkasy, ‘without government approval’ in what reminded him of 1930s Germany.

Other news outlets and organisations followed suit. A Guardian documentary in 2017 reported on Nazi youth summer camps. A year later the human rights group Freedom House concluded that ‘Far-right political forces present a real threat to the democratic development of Ukrainian society’. The FBI declared the Azov Battalion the centre of a white supremacist international network Rundo Criminal Compalint – DocumentCloud whose arming was subsequently prohibited by the US Congress. Only last year Time magazine highlighted Azov’s role in global terrorism. 

This snapshot of an extensive media catalogue on the growing social and political influence of Ukraine’s Nazi-fascist groups paints a picture of a Ukraine as an outsider and a danger to itself and to others. Yet since the start of the Russo-Ukraine conflict, coverage of this issue, with a few notable exceptions such as TCW, has either vanished or has gone into reverse to whitewash what hitherto had been considered deplorable. It’s as if a hierarchy of ideological aversions is in play with disdain for Russia trumping concerns about Ukraine’s Nazis lest continued pontification about the latter gives succour to Putin’s war aim of de-nazifying Ukraine.

Having spent much effort and money convincing the world of the dangers of Ukrainian neo-Nazism, the BBC has recently been at pains to dismiss such claims as a mix of ‘falsehoods and distortions’ designed to further Putin’s war aims. It concluded that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish heritage and the collapse of the electoral fortunes of the far-right Svoboda Party proved that ‘there is no evidence that [Nazi and White supremacist sentiment] is widespread and that the search for imaginary Nazis ‘will continue to be in vain’ as the ‘neo-Nazis and the far right do not play the role in Ukraine that Russia falsely describes. They didn’t in 2014, they don’t now’. A similar conclusion was reached by France 24 whose ‘fact checkers’ said images of a Nazi presence in Ukraine were ‘shared out of context’ to discredit Ukraine’s cause. Such reporting was sufficient to convince Facebook to modify its anti-hate speech policy to allow not only praise for Azov but calls for the death of Russian and Belorussian leaders and soldiers. For the London Times, Azov’s evolution towards respectability was complete with its abandonment of Nazi Wolfsangel insignia, which had been ‘exploited by Russian propagandists’.  

To claim that most of Ukraine is Nazi-fascist is hyperbole. To claim that some of Ukraine maintains an unsavoury attachment to Nazi ideology is not, as indeed mainstream western media did until very recently. And what is striking about Ukraine’s far-right which is far less evident in Western corresponding circles is its undiluted Nazism that successive Ukrainian governments either were unwilling to challenge due to their reliance on its military capabilities, or were too feeble to do so given its political influence within Ukraine’s military and political structures. The attendance by several government ministers including the Prime Minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, at a 2019  music festival organised by openly neo-Nazi bands and re-naming Kiev’s streets in honour of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators Stefan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych certainly doesn’t help to dispel such an image.

It is through such ‘extra-parliamentary presence [that] is aggravated by the overall weakness of Ukraine’s liberal civil society’, as noted by Leftist Ukrainian academic Dr Volodymyr Ishchenko, that Ukraine’s far-right exercises its powers, and to claim otherwise is to misunderstand its role. It is a position unique ‘in the whole of Europe [where nowhere else] do radical nationalists control large politically loyal armed units relatively autonomous from the official military and law enforcement structures’. With few elections to worry about, they do not need to temper their radical views which celebrate the atrocities of Ukraine’s war-time Nazi collaborators, especially given that it is these views that appeal to an increasingly radicalised society, irrespective of whether the president is Jewish or not. Western media can pretend that there is nothing to see here by normalising Ukraine’s Nazis as ‘ordinary residents’ while ignoring the swastika tattoos on their arms. But the current conflict will end, after which Ukraine’s emboldened and heroised Nazis-fascists will demand payback for their military exploits. The goal of these groups, writes global terrorism expert Rita Katz in the Washington Post, is not to defend Ukraine as we know it – a multi-ethnic, democratically minded society led by a Jewish president. Rather, it is to establish a shared vision of an ultranationalist ethno-state and export this model around the world.

A post-war Ukraine, economically defunct, devoid of much of its industrial base and most of its ports, as looks increasingly likely, as well as awash with all kinds of weaponry thanks to Western aid, and host to numerous recriminations, can only be a recipe for social instability.

In its haste to see Russia weakened, in Lloyd Austin’s words, hasn’t the West inadvertently created an Afghanistan on Europe’s doorstep? Unless, of course, there is a sudden demand for tattoo removal services.

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Dr Gregory Slysz
Dr Gregory Slysz
Dr Gregory Slysz writes and lectures on history and current affairs. His PhD was on Russo-Ukrainian relations during the Soviet era.

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