‘Neo-Nazi’ insurgency in Ukraine: Russian propaganda or a real risk?

Far-right Azov Battalion on the front line of battle against Russia

Members of the Azov Battalion pray near the city of Kharkiv
Members of the Azov Battalion pray near the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv
(Image credit: Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

Launching the invasion of Ukraine just over a month ago, Vladimir Putin claimed that he was on a mission to “de-Nazify” Russia’s eastern European neighbour.

The allegation that a country with a Jewish president is overrun by the far-right was repeated on Saturday by one of Putin’s closest allies, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the Russian Security Council.

“Of the many distortions” offered up by the Kremlin as reasons for regime change in Ukraine, the alleged need to “de-Nazify” the besieged nation’s leadership and save ethnic Russians from “genocide” is “perhaps the most bizarre”, said Allan Ripp on NBC News. But while “Putin is engaging in propaganda, it’s also true that Ukraine has a genuine Nazi problem”, Ripp added.

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Front-line fighters

The most prominent far-right group involved in the fight against Russia is the Azov Battalion. Formed as a volunteer militia in 2014 to battle Russian-backed separatists in Donbas, the unit was officially incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces that same year.

The battalion, named from the Azov Sea, first joined the fight against separatists forces around Mariupol and has been based there since, leading the defence as the port city has faced relentless shelling in recent weeks.

The estimated 900 Azov members are “ultra-nationalists” who have been “accused of harbouring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology”, Al Jazeera reported. Yet the unit “received backing from Ukraine’s interior minister” following the annexation of Crimea, “as the government recognised its own military was too weak to fight off the pro-Russian separatists”.

The group’s founder is Andriy Biletsky, a white nationalist who formerly led the far-right National Corps party. He has “toned down his rhetoric in recent years”, The Guardian reported in 2020.

But Biletsky had previously called for Ukraine to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans]”, said the paper.

In 2015, the battalion’s spokesperson said “that 10% to 20% of Azov’s recruits were Nazis”, Al Jazeera reported. And although the unit has denied that it “adheres to Nazi ideology as a whole”, images and symbols “such as the swastika and SS regalia are rife on the uniforms and bodies of Azov members”.

‘Defenders of the nation’

While “most of Ukraine's armed forces have been quietly engaged in the grind of a gruelling tug-of-war with Russia” over the past month, said The Telegraph, Azov has “been busy putting out slick videos and images trumpeting its own achievements”.

“Its well-oiled PR machine has been producing Ukraine’s arguably best-quality war videos, with camera drones perfectly capturing the attacks as they happen in real time,” the paper reported. And “Ukraine’s armed forces have happily used Azov’s videos as visual proof of the country’s counterattacks on the invading army”.

The efforts of the “effective, courageous and highly ideological” Azov fighters to stall Russia’s invasion have “won them great renown as defenders of the nation, and the support of a grateful Ukrainian state”, wrote UnHerd foreign affairs editor Aris Roussinos.

However, the “awkwardly close relationship between a liberal-democratic state” and “armed proponents of a very different ideology” is causing “some discomfort” for Ukraine’s Western backers, Roussinos added. The US Congress “has gone back and forth in recent years on whether Azov should be blocked from receiving American arms shipments”, but the battalion has begun receiving a share of Western lethal aid shipments as fighting intensifies in Ukraine.

Keep enemies closer

In the war against Russia, Azov’s “dogged, disciplined and committed fighters” have been of great use to the government in Kyiv, according to UnHerd’s Roussinos. Indeed, rather than “de-Nazifying the country”, Putin has “helped solidify the role and presence of extreme right-wing factions in Ukraine’s military, reinvigorating a waning political force”.

Unit founder Biletsky’s National Corps party “never ran for national elections”, The Telegraph said. But “its candidates have shown dismal performance at local elections in a clear sign of just how far Azov’s ideology is from concerns of ordinary Ukrainians”.

The organisation was also dealt a blow by a 2016 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHA) that accused its fighters of violating international humanitarian law in its response to Russian-backed separatists.

So “the current war has surely come as a blessed relief for Azov”, said Roussinos.The concern now is that if Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is forced “to sign a peace deal surrendering Ukrainian territory” to Russia, Azov “may find a golden opportunity to challenge what remains of the state and consolidate their own power bases”.

“Right now,” Roussinos added, “Ukraine and Zelenskyy may well need the military capabilities and ideological zeal of nationalist and extreme right-wing militias simply to fight and win their battle for national survival.

“But when the war ends, both Zelenskyy and his Western backers must be very careful to ensure that they have not empowered groups whose goals are in direct conflict with the liberal-democratic norms they both pledge adherence to.”

Azov “are battle-hardened after waging some of the toughest street fighting against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine”, Ripp said on NBC News.

And while their involvement in the Ukrainian resistance does not “justify the misery that has befallen Ukrainians over the past several weeks”, it is vital that Zelenskyy and his government acknowledge that the country’s “Nazi problem is real”, Ripp warned.

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