Nazis in Ukraine’s Military May be Fringe. That Doesn’t Mean They Should Be Ignored.

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a story on Russian disinformation that specifically used Nazis in Ukraine as a narrative for justifying Russia’s invasion. The article cites data that, while telling, is presented by The Times as though it is disinformation on the basis that the media collected in it mentions Nazis in Ukraine at an inorganically high rate. As The New York Times’ Charlie Smart describes:

“A data set of nearly eight million articles about Ukraine collected from more than 8,000 Russian websites since 2014 shows that references to Nazism were relatively flat for eight years and then spiked to unprecedented levels on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. They have remained high ever since.”

Unprecedented spikes are telling of propaganda, certainly. But the narrative presented in Russia’s information and disinformation warfare isn’t dissected here, it’s just assumed. What is dissected, instead, is a source of American perception of Nazism in Ukraine:

“The Azov Battalion, a regiment of the Ukrainian Army with roots in ultra-nationalist political groups, has been used by the Russian media since 2014 as an example of far-right support in Ukraine. Analysts said the Russian media’s portrayal of the group exaggerates the extent to which its members hold neo-Nazi views.”

This is the article’s sole mention of the explicitly white supremacist Azov Battalion, the militant wing of the neo-Nazi Azov movement (The word Azov is not explicitly hateful, both the political movement and the battalion are named for the Azov sea that boarders Mariupol and Russia). The Azov Battalion was absorbed by the Ukrainian National Guard and became the Azov Regiment — officially titled Azov Special Operations Detachment — in 2014, but it is still sometimes referred to as the Azov Battalion.

The narrative that neo-Nazis in Ukraine get undeserved attention is not new and not one without foundation. Canada’s own National Post published an opinion piece titled “No, Ukraine does not have a neo-Nazi problem on May 1 by Adam Zivo, a journalist who was on the ground in Ukraine. To their credit, the Post included quotes from Ukrainian activists in queer communities, which are historically targeted by far-right hate.

Neo-Nazis do take up a disproportion amount of media attention for the size of their movement. But, that doesn’t mean we should downplay the significance of the media attention given to Ukrainian Nazis during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. In fact, contrary to the idea that media overblows the threat of Nazism in Ukraine — a line that some believed the New York Times column supported — media often downplays the role of Nazism in the history of the Azov Regiment. The New York Times themselves called the Azov Battalion Nazis as recently as 2019, just not in Smart’s recent column.

Though the Azov movement is often characterized primarily by its ultra-nationalism rather than its Nazism, the two are not mutually exclusive, and the regiment especially has a strong penchant for Nazi symbols and white power messaging. Both of their previous insignias before the adoption of their current one bear strong resemblance to the 2nd Panzer Division of the Nazi SS. One also incorporated the Nazi Sonnenrad or “Black Sun” — a symbol that’s first known appearance was as a motif in renovations commissioned by the SS under Heinrich Himmler. The Black Sun has been the most emblematic symbol of certain neo-Nazi movements since a spike in popularity in the 1990s. It has no popular use outside of Nazism.

Third most recent insignia of the Azov Regiment. In its next iteration, the insignia lost the Black Sun, but kept the centred Wolfsangel, a Germanic symbol favoured by Nazi Germany. Kraftwerkvs, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Canada Knows

As David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen has reported, Canada’s own military has faced scrutiny for allegations of training neo-Nazis in Ukraine. In October of last year, the Department of National Defence launched a review in response to allegations. In November, Pugliese revealed that, according to documents obtained by the Citizen, Canadian government officials were briefed by Azov Battalion leadership in 2018, long after Canada’s Joint Task Force Ukraine produced a brief acknowledging the Azov Battalion had “links to Nazi ideology”.

Azov Regiment worship, evidently a theme in English media, is especially alarming, as the Azov movement is not solely a part of the National Guard, but also a wider ultra-nationalist, extreme far-right movement with roots in the same strict white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies that the Azov Battalion championed.

In April, Azov commander Maksym Zhorin told Intercept reporter Seth Harp that, “It might sound weird, but the actions of the Russian federation have been beneficial for us.”

Ultra-nationalist tendencies are bred well under pressure, and there’s a wide range of neo-Nazi ideologies that purport to have simple solutions to complicated modern problems. Radicalization requires desensitization and Nazis are particularly effective at mythologizing their history of warfare, even in the modern era, when the history of the Holocaust is common knowledge and libraries have been written on the war crimes of the ideology’s originators. Even in 2018, the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee had to give statements on demonstrations celebrating the 75th anniversary of the 14th Waffen Division of the Nazi SS. As Times of Israel noted at the time, the demonstrations came after a string of antisemitic incidents that included a firebombing of a Holocaust memorial monument and an instance of vandalism that included the words “Heil Hitler” and “Death to the k*kes” on a memorial to Holocaust victims.

The Russian Government Wants it Both Ways

None of these change the facts of the invasion of Ukraine or say anything about Putin’s disinformation campaign, other than that ‘denazification’ was a particularly effective line of branding to go with. It might have been a more effective line if the same state pushing it didn’t also promote influential American white supremacist Nick Fuentes (himself a staunch supporter of Adolf Hitler) on state media Russia Today/RT News to attract Fuentes’ base in the early days of the invasion. (Though some white power activists like Fuentes are attracted to Putin’s imperialism, white supremacists around the world sometimes support Ukraine and sometimes neither, for reasons including the belief that both are Jewish-controlled states.)

It would have also helped this excuse to avoid promoting antisemitic conspiracies in the years between first invading Crimea and the present day war. Putin himself indulged in quite blatant antisemitism on air in 2018 when he opined that Jews may have been behind the 2016 U.S. election interference that his administration was being accused of.

RT News has also pushed antisemitic conspiracies to English audiences. In 2018, former Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC journalist Rick Sanchez went into conspiratorial narratives on air about enforcing what Sanchez described as a mandatory “loyalty oath to Israel” for U.S. citizens. For a Canadian audience, RT News also platformed antisemitic writer Yves Engler in stories that described the invasion of Ukraine as a “military conflict”. Engler has been scrutinized for allegedly promoting antisemitic tropes and for lamenting that “there is little discussion of Canadian Jewry’s actual place in Canadian society”. In 2016 he wrote a series of articles that argued Jews had “a sense of victimhood far out of proportion to their Canadian experience” and stated: “Inward looking and affluent, the Jewish community is quick to claim victimhood”. Engler has also penned pieces arguing that antisemitism itself is “The most abused term in Canada today” and “cover for white supremacy”.

It’s tempting to think of countries in absolute terms. But, people are complicated, and mass populations are even more complicated than that. Ukraine can indeed have a Nazi problem while having a prime minister with Jewish roots. Ukraine can have Nazis fighting Russia just as it can, and does, have queer fighters and anarchists fighting Russia. Ukraine’s military is not a monolith, and in fact fascist movements more often than not position themselves as a ‘necessary’ response to diversity itself. Though Nazis in Ukraine are a fringe, they are not non-existent. As the invasion of Ukraine continues, treating far-right extremism in Ukraine as a non-issue sets a dangerous precedent of undeserved tolerance, both for hate movements abroad and at home.

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