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Azov movement analysis: A far-right battalion has a key role in Ukraine’s resistance. Its neo-Nazi history has been exploited by Putin

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In a speech broadcast minutes earlier than the invasion started on February 24​, Putin stated: “We’ll search to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine,” ignoring the truth that the nation’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.

For the Kremlin, Exhibit A on this particular mission is the far-right Azov motion, a part of the navy and political panorama in Ukraine for practically a decade. ​

Azov’s navy and political wings formally separated in 2016, when the far-right Nationwide Corps get together was based. The Azov battalion had by then been built-in into the Ukrainian Nationwide Guard.

An efficient combating power that is very a lot concerned within the present battle, the battalion has a historical past of neo-Nazi leanings, which haven’t been completely extinguished by its integration into the Ukrainian navy. ​

In its heyday as an autonomous militia, the Azov Battalion was related to White supremacists and neo-Nazi ideology and insignia. It was particularly lively in and round Mariupol in 2014 and 2015. CNN groups within the space on the time reported Azov’s embrace of neo-Nazi emblems and paraphernalia.

After its integration into the Ukrainian Nationwide Guard, amid discussions within the US Congress about designating the Azov Motion a overseas terrorist group, Ukraine’s then minister of inner affairs, Arsen Avakov, defended the unit. “The shameful info marketing campaign concerning the alleged unfold of Nazi ideology (amongst Azov members) is a deliberate try and discredit the ‘Azov’ unit and the Nationwide Guard of Ukraine,” he instructed the net newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda in 2019.

They tried to reveal what life was like under Russian occupation. Then they disappeared

The battalion nonetheless operates as a comparatively autonomous entity. It has been distinguished in defending Mariupol in current weeks, and its resistance has been extensively praised by members of the federal government.

For Putin, who has falsely claimed Ukraine’s authorities is run by “drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” Azov presents an apparent goal. Moscow has given the regiment an outsized position within the battle, routinely accusing it of human rights abuses.

On March 7, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations blamed the Azov regiment for blocking an evacuation hall within the besieged port metropolis, saying they have been utilizing “residents as a human protect.” That declare has been repeated persistently in Russian media.

The identical day, Azov main Denis Prokopenko stated in a video shared on the regiment’s Twitter account that the “makes an attempt to arrange a secure hall for the (relocation) of civilian folks… failed due to a number of actions of the enemy (Russian forces) within the meeting space.”

After the bombing of a Mariupol theater that was sheltering civilians and had “kids” written in Russian on the bottom on both aspect of the constructing, the Russian Protection Ministry accused “militants of the nationalist ‘Azov’ battalion” of finishing up the assault. ​

Within the Russian disinformation playbook, the Azov motion is a tempting goal — one the place reality and disinformation may be elided.

Kyiv citizens take part in military training for civilians conducted by Azov regiment veterans on February 6, 2022.

The existence of an identifiably Azov factor inside the Ukrainian armed forces — and an efficient factor at that — poses uncomfortable questions for the Ukrainian authorities and its Western allies, which proceed to ship arms to the nation.

CNN has reached out to ​Ukraine’s protection ministry for remark.

Within the not-too-distant previous, Azov’s management overtly espoused ​White supremacist views and cultivated hyperlinks with equally minded teams and people within the West.

In 2010, Andriy Biletsky, now chief of the Nationwide Corps, the Azov motion’s political wing, reportedly said his objective was to “lead the White races of the world in a closing campaign.”
They thought they would be safe in the theater. Then it was bombed

In an announcement to CNN, the Azov regiment stated it “appreciates and respects Andriy Biletsky because the regiment’s founder and first commander, however now we have nothing to do along with his political actions and the Nationwide Corps get together” — including the previous commander by no means made such feedback.

The assertion stated that Azov’s “motivation has all the time angered Russia. Subsequently, disinformation assaults on the AZOV Regiment haven’t stopped since 2014.”

It added that the motion has “repeatedly denied allegations of fascism, nazism and racism,” and have Ukrainians of all completely different backgrounds together with “Greeks, Jews, Crimean Tatars, Russians” who “proceed to serve in AZOV.”

“Most of them are Russian-speaking, most are Orthodox. However there are Catholics and Protestants, Pagans and those that profess Islam and Judaism, and there are atheists,” Azov asserted.

It famous that the Azov regiment’s position is as “a particular unit of the Nationwide Guard of Ukraine, and is subordinated completely to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief — the President of Ukraine, by the way in which, a Jew.”

“It might be absurd to suppose that we’re united by the thought of white racism or nazism,” the Azov assertion added.

Regardless of the Azov motion’s worldwide notoriety, Ukraine “shouldn’t be a cesspit for Nazi sympathizers,” based on Alexander Ritzmann, a senior adviser on the Counter Extremism Venture (CEP), primarily based in Berlin.

He famous that within the final elections in Ukraine in 2019, Azov’s political wing solely gained 2.15% of the vote, and Biletsky misplaced his seat in parliament.

Plus — Ritzmann says — there are far-right actors distinguished in Russia, too. “There’s a far-right extremist drawback on each side within the battle, however there appears to be a bias in solely reporting on Ukraine’s far-right drawback,” he stated.

Azov’s beginnings

The Azov Battalion was fashioned in 2014, the identical yr Russian-backed rebels started seizing territory throughout Ukraine’s jap Donbas area, and Russia invaded and captured Crimea. On the time, Ukraine’s Ministry of Protection inspired volunteer battalions to affix the resistance marketing campaign and assist its struggling military.

The battalion’s position in recapturing Mariupol in June 2014 from Russian-backed forces introduced it “hero standing” in Ukraine, stated Ritzmann.

However that standing got here with baggage — the far-right views of some members and neo-Nazi insignia. These included the black solar, “a pagan image appropriated by Nazis for his or her pseudo-religion,” and the Wolfsangel, “an emblem that far-right extremists have additionally adopted,” Ritzmann stated.
Andriy Biletsky, the leader of the National Corps political party, reportedly said his goal was to "lead the White races of the world in a final crusade."

Azov’s leaders have denied the neo-Nazi associations, saying the Wolfsangel “N” and “I’ imply “nationwide thought.”

Regardless that the Azov Battalion was co-founded by Biletsky, who beforehand led the unconventional proper group Patriot of Ukraine, the group was armed by the state and partly funded by native oligarchs in jap Ukraine. That funding included cash from the Jewish tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, Ritzmann stated. The US State Division sanctioned Kolomoisky in March 2021. The earlier yr, the US Justice Department positioned him beneath investigation on accusations of embezzlement and fraud. ​

CNN has reached out to Kolomoisky’s lawyer for remark.

In 2016, the United National High Commissioner of Human Rights accused armed teams on each side of the Donbas battle, together with Azov, of human rights abuses.

Worldwide outreach

When the Azov Battalion was introduced beneath the command of the Ministry of Inner Affairs as a regiment in 2014, “politically motivated fighters like (Andriy) Biletsky left and based the Azov motion to allow them to do their ultra-nationalist, far-right work, which they weren’t allowed to do within the Ukrainian navy,” Ritzmann stated.

The political get together Biletsky fashioned, the Nationwide Corps, which the US Division of State described in 2018 as a nationalist hate group, “is basically the backbone of what we as we speak name the Azov motion,” Kacper Rekawek, a analysis fellow with the Middle for Analysis on Extremism (C-REX) on the College of Oslo, instructed CNN.

“The Azov motion is a harmful key participant of the transnational extreme-right and has served as a community hub for a number of years now, with robust ties to far-right extremists in lots of European Union international locations and the USA,” Ritzmann stated.

Nationalist activists light flares and shout anti-Russian slogans during a demonstration in front of President Volodymyr Zelensky's offices in Kyiv on October 14, 2020.
Olena Semenyaka, the top of the Nationwide Corps’ worldwide division, attended a festival in 2018 organized by German neo-Nazis; and in 2019 she spoke on the far-right Scanza Discussion board in Sweden alongside British neo-Nazi Mark Collett.

Since forming in 2014, the ​Azov motion has grown to incorporate a militia, summer season camps for teenagers and paramilitary coaching facilities. It runs actions, together with music festivals, political occasions and mixed-martial-arts tournaments, because it promoted itself within the worldwide far-right house.

The Nationwide Corps has repeatedly demonstrated its disdain for liberal values in its remedy of minority teams — with few repercussions.

A 2018 US State Department report discovered that the motion’s militia “attacked and destroyed a Romani camp in Kyiv after its residents failed to reply to their ultimatum to depart the world inside 24 hours,” in full view of the native police.

The ‘Dying Star’

Whereas the far-right worldview of the Azov motion is evident, there was an intense debate on whether or not the Azov Battalion ought to be classed a “overseas terrorist group” by the US Department of State.

“Folks all the time assume it (the Azov regiment and Azov motion) is one Dying Star,” Rekawek stated. “Yr by yr, the connections (between the regiment and the motion) are looser,” he stated, explaining that the battalion’s ranks now embody Ukrainians who haven’t any affinity with its neo-Nazi previous.

Ritzmann says the far-right factor in Ukraine’s military isn’t any completely different to what’s been detected in different militaries, corresponding to in Germany and the US.

“Presumably, far-right extremists serve within the Ukrainian navy as they do in all different militaries — legitimate information concerning the precise numbers usually are not out there,” he stated.

'It is not just Ukraine we are protecting'

“Again in 2015, the Azov Regiment itself claimed to have between 10% and 20% far-right extremists of their ranks,” however these figures are presumably smaller as we speak, he stated.

However the regiment nonetheless makes use of the Wolfsangel image, and leaders of the Azov motion, who was once commanders within the unit, continue to visit it, stated Oleksiy Kuzmenko, a Ukrainian-American investigative journalist specializing in the Ukrainian far-right.

“The present chief of the Azov Regiment, Denis ‘Redis’ Prokopenko, is a part of the core of the Azov motion since 2014, and served beneath commanders who went on to guide the Azov motion political and road wings,” Kuzmenko instructed CNN.

Prokopenko’s deputy, Svyatoslav “Kalyna” Palamar, has explicitly praised the motion’s founder, Biletsky, as “a pacesetter who ‘finds sponsors that basically make investments cash’ into the regiment,” Kuzmenko stated.

In this photo taken outside Kyiv on July 14, 2017, a student at a paramilitary camp for children calls the rank to attention.
Kuzmenko factors out that as of 2021, the regiment was “actively concerned within the coaching of the motion’s youth leaders,” and its web site has a link to the motion’s YouTube channel.

“Ukraine and (the) West’s inaction on these points paved the way in which for Putin to fairly actually weaponize them towards Ukraine in an try and justify his aggression,” Kuzmenko stated.

“Whereas it is appropriate to level (out that) Ukraine’s far-right has minimal electoral help, they (Azov) have loved close to impunity for violence aimed toward minorities, have been unchecked of their efforts to construct affect in navy and safety forces, and have been normalized by Ukraine’s senior leaders,” he stated.

In an announcement to CNN on Wednesday, Prokopenko stated: “Whoever calls us Nazis is deeply mistaken. We’ve got younger courageous troopers who give their lives for the independence of Ukraine and throw themselves beneath enemy tanks.”

Overseas fighters

Because it fashioned, the Azov motion has recruited overseas fighters motivated by White supremacism to combat in Ukraine, consultants say. Russia’s full-scale invasion of the nation, and Zelensky’s name for overseas volunteers to affix the combat, have raised considerations about radicalization within the conflict.

“My concern is that individuals, particularly far-right extremists in Europe, (will acquire) fight expertise and coaching within the Ukrainian theater after which use that for terrorist assaults in Europe correct,” Colin P. Clarke, senior analysis fellow on the New York- primarily based ​overseas coverage analysis nonprofit the Soufan Middle, instructed CNN.

Valentyna Konstantynovska, aged 79, holds a weapon during basic combat training for civilians organized by the Azov regiment on February 13, 2022.
In 2020, Buzzfeed reported that Ukraine deported two members from the US-based neo-Nazi group the Atomwaffen Division, who have been making an attempt to realize fight expertise with Azov.

Rekawek, an knowledgeable on overseas fighters at C-REX, stated Azov has solely been in a position to recruit 20 overseas fighters because the begin of the 2022 invasion. CNN has not been in a position to confirm these figures independently.

For its half, Russia additionally has a thriving ultra-nationalist scene that’s tolerated by the authorities.

The Russian Imperial Motion (RIM), an extreme-right militia primarily based in St. Petersburg, ​was, in 2020, the primary White supremacist group to be categorized as “Specifically Designated World Terrorists” by the US State Division. Whereas the RIM has labored in opposition to Putin’s regime, it has supported the Russian aspect within the conflict towards Ukraine — coaching Russian militants to affix pro-Russian separatists within the battle, according to the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French Front National party leader Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 24, 2017.
“They’ve by no means confronted their very own nationalists,” stated Rekawek. ​Specialists say Russia has additionally been a participant in Europe’s far-right house, with France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini having fun with close links with Putin earlier than the 2022 invasion.
And of the “few hundred western people with excessive right-wing or ‘nationalist’ convictions” who traveled to combat within the Ukraine battle round 2014, “most of these extremist volunteers fought on the aspect of the pro-Russian separatists,” based on a CEP report published in March.

Ritzmann has discovered pro-Russian teams calling for volunteers in his analysis. This contains “the Russian safety contractor Wagner Group, which has a historical past of displaying Nazi insignia,” he stated within the CEP report.

However amid the tide of hundreds of thousands of refugees and untold injury to Ukrainian cities, some consultants say Russia’s fixation on a minor participant just like the Azov motion serves a function — permitting the Kremlin to border the battle as an ideological and even existential battle. Nonetheless distant from actuality that could be.

This story has been up to date to incorporate an announcement from the Azov regiment.