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Ukraine Struggles With Optics of Ultra-Nationalist Neo-Nazi Azov Militia

Published: March 4, 2022
Ukraine is struggling to keep up its progressive public relations optics as attention is drawn to its far-right neo-Nazi militia Azov Battalion
Veterans of Azov salute during a mass rally titled "No Surrender" in Kyiv on March 14, 2020. The militia’s taste for Nazi paraphernalia and insignias and their ultra-nationalist ideas remain a tarnish on the Ukrainian government’s otherwise stainless blazon in its endeavor to win the West's support for the cause against Russia. (Image: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

While military clashes flare in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the propaganda war is as intense as the military one, with Ukraine struggling to polish away the country’s neo-Nazi elements.

Most renowned is a military group called Azov, a group of volunteer militia with solid ties to ultra-nationalist organizations. Azov was incorporated into the Ukrainian Defense Force in late 2014 after it proved instrumental in ousting democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovich during the U.S.-backed Maidan Revolution. 

Azov also made a name for itself after its fierce resistance during the ensuing civil war against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region and their successful campaign at the battle of Mariupol, which is located at the Sea of Azov in the county’s renegade Donetsk province.

Azov members don Neo-nazi insignia, such as the infamous wolfsangel, have their own parliamentary affiliation called the National Corps, and their civil militia stroll the streets enforcing their own interpretation of justice, which has often boiled down to beating up immigrants, based on a 2019 article published in Foreign Policy

Azov’s ties with the west

However, even though neo-Nazi groups are officially banned in Ukraine, and despite the fact that Azov is blacklisted by the U.S. government and other western countries for its radical ideology and incitement of hate, it turns out that the group has been funded and trained by America, Canada, France, the UK, and other NATO countries, a report from the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University in the United States revealed. 

Meanwhile, the FBI stated in a criminal complaint that Azov is recruiting, training, and radicalizing U.S. white supremacists, news outlet Vice reported.

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According to Jerusalem Post, a related group, Centuria, claimed to have participated in several military training sessions in Germany, Poland, the UK, France, and Canada, while receiving training from many western allies at the Hetman Petro Sahaidachny National Army Academy (NAA) in western Ukraine.

According to the report, none of the parties, the NAA nor the foreign countries that provided training, conducted any vetting of the cadets’ background concerning possible neo-Nazi sympathies or affiliations—both comfortably assuming it would have been the other party doing it.

Azov’s ties to Ukraine

Vladimir Putin stated that Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine should not be understood as an invasion or an occupation but as a “demilitarization” and a “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, a country he dubbed a “Nazi’s den.”

To add to the confusion: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has always maintained he is Jewish. “How can I be a Nazi?” Zelensky said, referring to Putin’s allegations in his national address on Feb. 24.

“Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine,” Zelensky remarked.

Ukraine public relations has been putting a lot of effort into portraying Zelensky, a former actor and comedian, as a sympathetic family guy, but his decision to assign former war criminal and neo-Nazi Maxym Marchenko as Mayor of Odesa in this respect proved not to be helpful.

Or, as Twitter user Mark Ames put it, ‘“Also, a bad sign that Zelensky replaced civilian governor of Odessa with Maxym Marchenko, ex-commander of the far-right Aidar Battalion, subject of an Amnesty war crimes report in 2014. This war is a godsend for ghouls everywhere.”

But luckily, Facebook came to the aid. The social media platform announcement that it would provide “a narrow exception” to its ban on forbidden neo-Nazi groups and individuals to the Azov regiment.

Facebook would now “allow praise of the Azov Battalion when explicitly and exclusively praising their role in defending Ukraine OR their role as part of the Ukraine’s National Guard,” Facebook’s parent company Meta announced, cited by National Pulse.