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No doubt the Russian ruling class had other motives than “de-nazification” for the invasion of the Ukraine – beating back NATO encirclement, according to some and land-grabbing according to others – but it cannot be said that the smoke is entirely without fire. Not when nine hundred paramilitary nazis are part of the official Ukranian Army and prominent boulevards of Kyiv are named after Ukrainian nazis.
The Azov Battalion is a far-Right paramilitary organisation that was incorporated into the Ukrainian military in 2015. The number of the unit’s fighters is generally estimated at 900 and the mildest description of their ideology is “far Right”. They are in fact nazi, homophobic, white supremacist, anti-Roma and anti-semitic – and they are an integral part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Founded from far-Right Ukrainian nationalist groups in March 2014 as Azov, they were from the beginning engaged in actions against ethnic minorities including the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas region and Roma, as well as against socialists and LBGT groups. Then-President Petro Poroshenko said at an awards ceremony in 2014: “These are our best warriors …. Our best volunteers.”1
In 2014 Azov were active in overthrowing the elected Ukrainian government of President Yanukovych. That government was characterised as friendly towards Russia and for that reason unpopular with the West; however it was trying to negotiate with both Russia and the EU, with the latter for its agricultural sector and with the former for its industrial sector but the EU insisted on an exclusive agreement in total. When it did not get what it wished the EU, under its Irish President at the time, and the USA supported the overthrow of the government in a coup d’etat.
In that coup, Azoz also carried out attacks on socialists and communists and, despite a highly-politicised debate around the facts there is no doubt that 43 people who took refuge in a trade union building from anti-Russian elements were killed when the building was set on fire.
From November 2015 to February 2016, according to a 2016 Report by the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner of the UN, Azov was responsible for incidents in which they had embedded their weapons and forces in civilian-occupied buildings, displaced residents and looted civilian properties. The report also accused the battalion of raping and torturing detainees in the Donbas region.2
Also in 2015 the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the World Jewish Congress condemned the decision to name central boulevards in Kiev after Nazi collaborators and attempts to re-write the history of Nazi collaborators in Ukraine during WWII.34
In January 2018, Azov rolled out its street patrol unit called National Druzhyna to “restore” order in the capital, Kyiv. Instead, the unit carried out pogroms against the Roma community and attacked members of the LGBTQ community. In April of that year there was a march honoring Ukrainian Waffen SS units which massacred thousands of Jews during World War II.5 In May, Azov marched through Odessa claiming that the Ukraine belongs to Ukrainians, not to Jews and that they would be ridding the country of the latter.6 In June, Ukraine’s chief military prosecutor Anatoli Matios said in an interview that Jews want “to drown Slavs in blood.”7
Ukrainian International soccer player Roman Vyacheslavovych Zozulya had to be let go from Rayo Vallecano FC in 2017 because the anti-fascist and left-wing fan base of the team objected so strenuously to his being on contract. The reason for the uproar was because Zozulya has been on record as supporting Azov.
“In December 2019, a match between the Spanish teams Rayo Vallecano and Albacete (Roman Zozulya’s then-current club) was suspended, when his former club’s fans loudly accused the player of being a sympathizer of Nazi ideology, due to his known support of the Azov Battalion as well as other images he had posted on his Twitter account, which contained references to Nazi symbolism or organizations claimed to support Nazism.”8 Rayo Vallecano was fined and suspended for two games by the Spanish League (La Liga), a decision of at least questionable justice.9
“WHITE RULER”, FUNDED BY OLIGARCHS
The Azov unit was led by Andriy Biletsky, who served as the leader of both the “Patriot of Ukraine” organisation (founded in 2005) and of the Social Nationalist Assembly, a nazi organisation founded in 200810. The SNA is known to have carried out attacks on minority groups in Ukraine.
In 2010, Biletsky declared that the national purpose of the Ukraine was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen” [German Nazi term for ‘inferior races’].
Biletsky left Azov formally in order to stand for election to the Ukrainian Parliament, as elected officials must not be members of the military or police force. He was elected to parliament in 2014 and remained an MP until 2019; his nickname among his supporters is “Bely Vozd” (“White Ruler”). In October 2016 Biletsky founded the far-right National Corps party, the core base of which is Azov veterans.
It is not only Russia that has oligarchs but of course it is they alone the Western media is focusing upon. However the Ukrainian fascist forces were privately funded by oligarchs – the best-known being Igor Kolomoisky, an energy magnate billionaire and then-governor of the Dnipropetrovska region. In addition to Azov, Kolomoisky also funded other volunteer battalions such as the Dnipro 1 and Dnipro 2, Aidar and Donbas units11.
Azov also received early funding and assistance from another oligarch: Serhiy Taruta, the billionaire governor of Donetsk region12.
The presence of these nazis in the Ukrainian military is not as in many countries where individual right-wingers and fascists are attracted into the military and police but rather that an already far-Right paramilitary organisation led by nazis has been incorporated into the national armed forces. That argues for a high level of acceptance of fascism among the country’s ruling circles and indeed one finds other examples in certain statements by officials and in historical revisionism of past anti-semitism and nazi collaboration in the country’s history.13
CHANGING ATTITUDES OF THE WEST
In June 2015, both Canada and the United States announced that their own forces will not support or train the Azov regiment, citing its neo-Nazi connections and white supremacist ideology.
However the following year, under pressure from the Pentagon, Congress lifted the ban. In October 2019, 40 members of the US Congress led by Representative Max Rose signed a letter unsuccessfully calling for the US State Department to designate Azov as a “foreign terrorist organisation” (FTO). Last April, Representative Elissa Slotkin repeated the request – which included other white supremacist groups – to the Biden administration.
In 2016, Facebook first designated the Azov regiment a “dangerous organisation” and placed it under its Tier 1 designation, one which includes the Ku Klux Klan and ISIL (ISIS). Facebook users praising or otherwise supporting Tier 1 groups are also banned by the social media company.
However, on February 24 this year, the day Russia launched its invasion, Facebook reversed its ban, saying it would allow praise for Azov. “While Facebook users may now praise any future battlefield action by Azov soldiers against Russia, the new policy notes that ‘any praise of violence’ committed by the group is still forbidden; it’s unclear what sort of nonviolent warfare the company anticipates,” the social media and information technology magazine The Intercept commented14.
THE UKRAINE REGIME “FASCIST”?
Opponents of the Ukraine regime (not all supporters of Putin by any means) have called the regime itself fascist, a claim which its defenders (and some others) have dismissed, citing its President and its Prime Minister being Jewish as evidence to counter the accusation. Ukraine now has the world’s third- or fourth-largest Jewish community, but estimates of its size vary wildly, ranging from 120,000 to 400,000 people, depending on who is counting15.
That the President and Prime Minister are Jewish is far from being the conclusive rebuttal that it might seem, since Zionists are known to have colluded with the Nazis in the 1930s in order to gain settlers for Palestine16. As far back as 2018, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that more than 40 human rights organisations had filed a case with Israel’s High Court of Justice to stop the Zionist state supplying the Ukrainian military because of the latter’s incorporation of anti-semitic fascists.
The article also pointed out that past anti-semitic regimes had been supplied by Israel, quoting the Argentinian Generals and the Bolivian regime that included Klaus Barbie; also Israeli instructors are known to be supplying the Azov with training17.
There is certainly some fire beneath all the smoke.
Putin is no anti-fascist and, apart from the failure to tackle the growth of fascist anti-semitic groups in Russia, the Putin regime’s suppression of Muslim resistance in Chechnya contains most features of fascist repression of a population18. The irony now is that, if a video is to be believed, Azoz are dipping bullets in pig fat and telling Chechens who are part of the Russian Army that they will be barred from Muslim heaven when shot. Another irony is that Azov is attracting white fascists and militant right-wing Christians from other countries to swell its ranks, much like Muslim jihadist organisations have been attracting radical muslims from other parts of the world.
Putin has his own reasons for the invasion of the Ukraine which are to do with the interests of the Russian ruling class, whether defensive or aggressive, rather than “de-nazification” but the evidence of fascist elements in the Ukrainian military and ruling circles cannot legitimately be dismissed as supporters of the Ukrainian regime have been doing.
4Active collusion with the Nazi occupation to the extent of whole Ukrainian units fighting alongside the occupiers and wiping out Jews and civilian socialists was notable among Ukrainian nationalists of the time. However, there was also significant anti-Nazi activism, both in partisan activity and in membership of the Red Army. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaboration_in_German-occupied_Ukraine
16And at times also to undermine left-wing Jewish activists.
Social National Assembly: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social-National_Assembly
Maiden massacre allegation: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document//E-8-2017-007088_EN.html
Expulsion of Zozulya from club with antifascist ethos: https://www.publico.es/deportes/zozulya-no-jugara-rayo-evitar-le-recuerden-vallekas-no-lugar-nazis.html
Facebook about-face on Azov: https://theintercept.com/2022/02/24/ukraine-facebook-azov-battalion-russia/
Jewishness of Ukrainian President and Prime Minister and anti-semitism: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/world/europe/volodomyr-zelensky-ukraine-jewish-president.html
Israeli supplies to anti-semitic organisations and regimes: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/rights-groups-demand-israel-stop-arming-neo-nazis-in-the-ukraine-1.6248727