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By focusing on the Azov Battalion we are falling into Putin’s trap

Ukrainians of all stripes are fighting to defend their young and fragile democracy from the real fascist threat: Russia.

By Oz Katerji

KYIV – The pervasiveness of information warfare is a reality that journalists must adapt to in the age of social media, particularly war journalists. Since the start of the information era, even comprehensive forensic investigations into atrocities with an abundance of evidence of war crimes have been strategically undermined by weaponised, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.

Reporting from a conflict is fraught not only with active dangers, but makes journalists potential targets of the internet information war. Many reporters currently working in Ukraine have told me they have been accused online of “supporting Nazis” when publishing their articles.

This should come as no shock to anyone who watched Vladimir Putin’s speech on the eve of the invasion. He stated his intention to “denazify” Ukraine because it was led by a far-right government. People who engage with this online are not having good-faith discussions about the political composition of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian civil society. They are derailing those debates by trying to legitimise Putin’s attempt to destroy Ukrainian democracy.

To explain this phenomenon, we must start with an honest appraisal of Ukraine’s far-right problem. The existence of the Azov Battalion, a far-right militia, is an issue that has been widely publicised in the Western press. It was founded in 2014, the same year as the pro-European Maidan Revolution and Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. In the same year, the Azov Battalion was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard, and in 2016 separated its political and military wings. Former members of the group have been investigated for serious hate crimes.

There is no way to sugar-coat this story: the racist views of senior Azov figures since its founding can be accurately described as neo-Nazi. The fact that the Ukrainian government is openly collaborating with a group with this history is a grave issue for any liberal, democrat or human rights activist. 

Membership figures for the Azov Battalion are hard to come by: recent estimates range from 1,000 to 3,000. For the purposes of debate, let’s assume that the membership stands at 10,000, as a spokesperson for Azov’s political wing claimed in 2018 in relation to the wider far-right “Azov movement”. Let’s further assume that all of those members are involved in the military wing and that, despite their denials, all of the members of Azov also hold explicitly neo-Nazi political beliefs.

The number of active military personnel in Ukraine, pre-war, was 196,000. To put that number into context, Azov’s maximum strength would be 5.1 per cent of Ukraine’s armed forces. 

But this still doesn’t tell us the whole picture. How has Ukraine’s far right fared in elections? According to Putin, the country is run by Nazis. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, far-right parties put forward a united slate but finished with a paltry 2 per cent of the vote. Comparatively, the new party established by the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Jew who had won the presidency in April of that year with a 73 per cent landslide, won 43 per cent of the votes.  

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None of these figures are presented here with the intention of sanitising or dismissing the very credible threat that Ukraine’s far right poses to ethnic minorities or wider civil society in the country. They are intended to put that threat into context, because it is being used by Moscow to justify a naked war of aggression against the Ukrainian people and against Ukraine’s young and fragile democracy.

During my time reporting on the ground in Kyiv, I have encountered a handful of former Azov members involved in the war effort as part of larger territorial defence groups. While these individuals exist and are operating, they have in my experience (so far) been few in number, and are not in any prominent positions of political power or even military seniority. I have also met former Azov members who do not hold far-right views but did fight as part of the group for extensive periods of time in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. The relationships that exist between armed groups in a war zone are complicated, which is the norm not the exception.

The call for Ukraine’s defence has been met by a wide section of Ukrainian society, from the young to the old. Volunteer battalions include anarchists, gay go-go dancers, imams and Hasidic Jews, for example. In Irpin, I met a lesbian territorial defence volunteer named Anna, who was fighting alongside a native Georgian. To ignore these people and concentrate solely on Azov does little to serve Ukrainian civil society, which faces an existential threat at the hands of Russian fascism.

That’s where this argument moves from the absurd to the obscene. Vladimir Putin is a major sponsor of far-right political parties across Europe, and is close to a militia (the Wagner Group) that is involved in military action around the world and has been linked to white supremacy movements. Under Putin, Russia has regressed into a totalitarian fascist regime. He threatens Ukraine not because it has a far-right element, but because Ukraine is a growing, sovereign liberal democracy that he can no longer control.

Russia’s information war focuses on Ukraine’s neo-Nazis because it seeks to take control of the narrative. It wants to dehumanise Ukrainians to the point that when a bomb is fired on a theatre full of children in Mariupol, it can blame the atrocity on Azov and avoid international condemnation and accountability. This is a tried-and-tested model that Russia has perfected in Syria over the past decade.

[See also: The long road to prosecuting war crimes]

Few attitudes in contemporary history have been more egregious than Russia’s systematic attacks on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and its reporting on the Bashar al-Assad regime’s multiple use of chemical weapons in Syria. These false attacks – spread by Russian state media employees, conspiracy theorists and their fellow travellers on the fringes of the political spectrum – sought to undermine not just the credibility of the overwhelming case made against Assad, but to blame the crimes on the victims themselves, painting even volunteer paramedics as al-Qaeda affiliates.

Through these attacks, which included a brazen but thwarted cyber attack on the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, Russia sought to reposition itself internationally through the brute-force repetition of lies, not as the accomplices of a regime using prohibited weapons on civilians, but as the liberator of territory controlled by terrorists staging “chemical weapons attacks”. That is the sole purpose of these campaigns, to paint the victim as the aggressor.

After the atrocities uncovered in Bucha, Irpin and the surrounding areas of the Kyiv Oblast liberated from retreating Russian forces, Russia is again, baselessly and repugnantly, attempting to blame barbarities on the extremists it claims to be fighting. This grotesque charade will continue, and more atrocities will follow, for as long as Putin is not held accountable in an international court.

Make no mistake, the existence of Ukrainian neo-Nazis or Syrian al-Qaeda fighters has nothing to do with Russia’s atrocities. Russia’s own propagandists understand this well. In an op-ed published on 3 April on Ria Novosti, a state media outlet, the Russian spin doctor Timofei Sergeitsev said that “denazification is inevitably also de-Ukrainisation”. Russia doesn’t just achieve its war goals by employing indiscriminate bombardment of civilians and civilian infrastructure, it makes certain that it is actively discriminating against those targets in the hopes of breaking the will of the populations resisting them. Russia is at war not with the Ukrainian government, but with the entirety of the Ukrainian people, and these attacks are intended to delegitimise and dehumanise them while Russia actively brutalises civilians with impunity.

Ukraine has a very real and credible far-right problem, but it is one that, at this moment, is significantly less politically successful than many of its European neighbours. Hungary’s recent election, which gave a fourth successive term to its authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, should make that clear. It is an issue that is being used to justify atrocities committed against the Ukrainian people by a revanchist fascist dictatorship.

Any discussion on combating Ukraine’s far right needs to start by defending Ukrainian democracy first and foremost, otherwise it is merely another weapon to advance the strategic aims of the far-right totalitarian regime that is seeking to crush Ukrainian freedom and Ukrainian civil society.

[See also: Echoes of the war in Bosnia sound a warning for Russia – and Ukraine]

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