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Ukraine’s neo-Nazis | What you need to know about them

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Neo-Nazis, whose roots in Ukraine extend to their collaboration with Hitler during World War II, have a free run in the country. That may not last.

One of the objectives for the military operation in Ukraine, as spelt out by Russian president Vladimir Putin in his speech on the eve of the action, is “demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians”.

What’s with the Nazi element in Ukraine? Here’s what you need to know, starting with the Azov Battalion.

The Azov Battalion

Starting as a small group of ultra-nationalists who made up a volunteer militia during the 2014 upheaval that forced out President Viktor Yanukovych, the group grew into a battalion that fought pro-Russian forces in the eastern Donbas region comprising Donetsk and Luhansk, both now recognised as independent republics by Moscow.

By November of 2014, the Azov Battalion had been upgraded to the status of a regiment and incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard.

According to an Al Jazeera report, Azov is a far-right all-volunteer infantry military unit, comprising of ultra-nationalists who are accused of harbouring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology.

This makes the Ukraine military the only one in the world to incorporate a far-right militia. It is important to note that the regiment’s insignia is reminiscent of the Nazi Wolfsangel, though the battalion claims it is in fact meant to be the letters N and I crossed over each other, standing for "national idea".

According to The Daily Telegraph, the Azov Battalion's extremist politics and professional English social media pages have attracted foreign fighters, from Brazil, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Greece, Scandinavia, Spain, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Russia.

Reports published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights {OHCHR} have connected the Azov Battalion to war crimes such as mass looting, unlawful detention, and torture.

A VICE report on the Azov quoted Mikael Skillt, a Swedish former neo-Nazi who travelled to Ukraine in 2014 to become a foreign volunteer for the far-right regiment, as saying that they were drawn to Ukraine after being inspired by the prominent role that Ukrainian ultranationalists and far-right hooligans had played in the Maidan protests of 2013 and the ‘dignity revolution’ that followed in 2014.

The Maidan protests

It is pretty clear that the 2014 Maidan protests gave prominence to these far-right groups.

The Euromaidan protest began in 2013 following the Ukrainian government's decision to suspend preparations for an association treaty with the European Union and to seek closer economic relations with Russia.

Violent protests broke out as a result across Kyiv, Lutsenko and Klitschko. Thousands collected at Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti {‘Independence Square’} and camped there. The protesters were beaten and shot at by the government security forces. Around 100 activists were reportedly killed, many felled by special police snipers.

The 2013-14 violence saw the emergence of several ultranationalist groups with names like Svoboda, C14, Right Sector, Traditsii Pooryadok {Traditions and Order} and Karpatska Sich. Some were well-organised militias, others no more than street gangs, but all with an alarming proclivity to coalesce in varying proportions over time.

The last Ukrainian parliamentary election in 2019 saw all the right-wing parties merge into one united list. They couldn’t make a mark, however, gaining just 2.15 per cent of the popular vote; the threshold of 5 per cent of the vote for a seat in Parliament remained too far.

A brief history of Ukraine’s Nazi elements

Interestingly, the Euromaidan protests also saw the lionisation of Stepan Bandera — a Ukrainian nationalist partisan leader during World War II, who at one point was allied with the Nazis.

There are several monuments in honour of Bandera throughout western Ukraine and in 2018, the authorities in Lviv, just 46 miles from the Polish border, announced that 2019 would be the ‘Year of Stepan Bandera’, again sparking protests from Israeli and the Polish government.

This is where the history of Ukraine’s Nazi element takes shape.

The Nazi elements in today’s Ukraine spring from the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists {OUN}, a far-right organisation that was born in Vienna in 1929 and modelled on Benito Mussolini’s fascists. The OUN’s main aim was the independence of Ukraine, but it had split into moderate and radical parts by 1940.

Stepan Bandera led the extreme version which supported the invading Germans in the years that followed, pledging loyalty to Hitler. By October 1942 when the battle of Stalingrad, the deadliest battle in World War II, was raging the OUN had founded the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, known by as the UPA.

The OUN has been implicated as backing the Holocaust while the UPA engaged in atrocities against Poles, Jews, Russians and other Ukrainians, and is considered to have carried out large-scale ethnic cleansing of Poles, particularly in what are known as the Volhynia and Eastern Galicia massacres.

Why the world should worry

That Ukraine’s Nazi elements have no representation in the country’s Parliament is cause for relief — and almost an explanatory trope for all those ranged against Russia in the current conflict.

The worry, however, comes from their representation in the country’s internal security and police forces after 2014. Most of these gangs and militias have been implicated in violent acts of anti-Semitism, and against the Roma gypsies as well as LGBTQ activists and women’s rights activists.

The previous government of Petro Poroshenko, a businessman known as the ‘Chocolate King, normalised the neo-Nazi presence and activity in Ukraine. The speaker of the last Parliament was Andriy Parubiy, founder of Svoboda and Patriots of Ukraine, the latter growing into today’s Azov Battalion. The chief of police in Kyiv was Vadym Troyan, a former Colonel in the Azov Battalion.

In 2015, a new law named the UPA and OUN as heroes of Ukraine, and made it a crime to deny their heroism. Similar other initiatives have mainstreamed and whitewashed the Nazi collaborators Ukraine’s recent past. For instance, the SS Galichina, a Ukrainian military unit that fought with the Germans in World War II is honoured with celebratory marches now.

The Holocaust revisionism that has gripped Ukraine is alarming to many in the West, and the world at large. The anti-Semitism of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis have been pointed out by several organisations, including the World Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and watchdogs like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.

Bizarre as it may be, military aid and training from the West has brazenly flowed to the neo-Nazis of Ukraine and continues to. In December 2014, Amnesty International accused the Dnipro-1 battalion, an ultra-right military unit, of war crimes. In 2015, US Senator John McCain was tweeting about visiting them, and went on to praise the unit.

Finally, the Neo-Nazis of Ukraine are becoming a sort of mother-hive for those of their ilk around the world. White supremacists from the UK, Sweden, US and even Brazil have been recruited by the Ukrainian far-right. In 2018, four white supremacists trained by the Azov Battalion were arrested in California.

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