Article Thumbnail

Ukraine’s Far-Right Has Everything to Gain from War

The country’s extremist ideologues have been jostling for power over the last decade. A chaotic war, cheered on by American politicians and alt-right agitators alike, is the perfect opportunity to seize weapons and legitimacy

The rockets and grenade launchers are flowing into Ukraine, sent by the U.S. and NATO allies to embolden and empower the men battling Russian forces. Violence is increasing in the outskirts of Kyiv, the port town of Odessa, and the northeastern city of Kharkiv, among other locales. With the Ukrainian military heavily outnumbered compared to the well-resourced Russian invading force, every munition counts. 

The arrival of expensive and effective military weapons is a boon for the far-right nationalist Azov movement, which has prided itself on being one of the toughest, most skilled fighting forces on the ground in Ukraine. Indeed, it has been instrumental in helping to stymie Russian forces from swallowing the city of Mariupol and continues to be one of the most visible regiments in Ukraine. 

A report from independent Belarusian media outlet NEXTA, via Twitter

But Azov is also Ukraine’s most infamous extremist paramilitary, built by leaders who have peddled ultranationalist and neo-Nazi rhetoric. Its logos are two symbols made popular in Nazi Germany: The “black sun” sonnenrad and a mirrored version of the Wolfsangel symbol, both commonly used today to denote far-right resistance. And even after being folded into the formal National Guard of Ukraine in 2014, when it first defended Mariupol against pro-Russian separatist forces, the extremist element has lingered in Azov’s leadership and ranks. 

Disturbed by Azov’s connection to white supremacist and far-right rhetoric, the U.S. government banned the funding and armament of Azov fighters in 2018. But it’s obvious that the battalion has had access to U.S. weaponry since then, and some legislators have gone soft on pushing enforcement at a time when Russia’s invasion threatens to subsume Ukraine in bloody defeat. Indeed, one January report from Yahoo! News noted the Central Intelligence Agency has been deeply involved in training Ukrainian troops and paramilitaries, with one senior official boasting that its program is making inexperienced men into “really good fighters” that can maintain an insurgency longer than Putin expects. 

It’s not surprising, then, to see Azov fighters posing proudly with new munitions this week, including a shipment of Javelin anti-tank missiles. It’s likely not a coincidence that the U.S. and NATO allies have sent some 17,000 units of those shoulder-launched missiles in recent weeks. Amid a warzone operated by a chaotic mix of conscripted fighters, volunteer civilian militias and highly trained far-right paramilitaries, the odds are that swaths of equipment and resources will be squirreled away for later use. It remains unclear what kind of consequence this will have once the war concludes. 

Much has been written about the presence of Azov in Ukraine, but the regiment is the end result of a decade of fighting, politicking and reorganizing by far-right ideologues who are jostling for power in Ukraine’s political sphere. That decade has led to a number of movements that advocate for white nationalist ideals, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin has latched onto this phenomenon, claiming repeatedly that Ukraine is a Nazi state under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

That claim is false, and polling suggests that Ukrainian citizens have little love for explicit far-right rhetoric in their mainstream politics. But history proves that funding fighters in far-off conflicts can lead to unpredictable backlashes and long-term barriers to peace — a bloody lesson that has played out in South America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, with America’s warhawks calling for more money, weapons and aid to flow immediately to Ukraine’s ground forces, far-right groups are maneuvering in Ukraine to win acclaim and resources in an existential fight. 

To understand just how entangled right-wing forces are in Ukraine, you have to consider the white nationalist leader Andriy Biletsky. After flirting with Ukrainian far-right groups such as the SNPU in the early 2000s, Biletsky took matters into his own hands in 2008, helping build the ultranationalist Social-National Assembly and its youth paramilitary wing, Patriot of Ukraine. Biletsky once claimed in 2010 that the mission of Ukraine was to “​​lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].” Before he could do that, however, he became embroiled in the 2013 Euromaidan protest and the subsequent Maidan Revolution, in which the Ukrainian government was overthrown amid claims of rampant corruption and human rights abuses. 

It was here that Biletsky’s influence began to grow further: His followers founded the far-right political party and paramilitary Right Sector, while Biletsky himself became the first commanding officer of the Azov Battalion, a loose coalition of volunteers that won public approval by fighting on the front lines of Russia’s de-facto invasion of Crimea. What was obvious from the start was the neo-Nazi and far-right sympathies within the ranks, not just in Azov but other volunteer Ukranian miltias, leading to a condemnation by Amnesty International over war crimes and uncontrolled leadership. 

But then, like now, necessity trumped discretion. The battle over Crimea proved Ukraine needed more military might, and in November 2014, the Azov Battalion was formally brought into the National Guard of Ukraine — despite an Azov spokesman explicitly stating earlier that year that some “10 to 20 percent” of the battalion were neo-Nazis. 

Some of the most notable white nationalist organizers left Azov at this juncture, looking for other opportunities in electoral politics. Biletsky teamed up with Azov commander Nazarii Kravchenko to help form the fringe far-right political party National Corps in 2016. Kravchenko has been spotted being cozy with former CIA Director David Petraeus, whom he met with in 2019, but today, he’s taken up arms once again to fight, at least according to his Instagram account

Despite their departure, Azov continued to prove toxic. In 2016, the U.N. criticized Azov for a series of human rights abuses in battle. That didn’t seem to deter far-right activity, as in 2018, a street militia dubbed the National Druzhyna — formed by veterans of Azov — anointed itself as a police force and terrorized Romani and LGBT people.

And in 2022, the far-right symbiosis between electoral politics and warfighting remains stronger than ever. National Corps leaders have boasted about the formation of a dedicated Azov detachment in Kyiv and the bravery of the National Guard’s Azov regiment, according to Oleksiy Kuzmenko, an investigative journalist with Bellingcat. Kuzmenko observed in 2020 that, contrary to its claims, Azov showed little evidence of depoliticizing. Instead, it appears Biletsky and his supporters aren’t just ignoring far-right extremists, but honing their own anti-Zelenskyy agenda. 

Biletsky openly criticized the president in February, claiming he is a “servant of the Russian people” for participating in negotiations with Putin as the latter’s war machine mounted. This isn’t the first time that Biletsky has lashed out at Zelenskyy, either: In 2019, as the Ukrainian military debated pulling back from the Eastern front, Biletsky proclaimed he would defy the president’s orders and move up “a thousand” veteran troops.

Taken as a whole, the rise and warping of Azov is indicative of how far-right organizing can grow and intertwine despite claims that right-wing hate is an outlier, not a function, of these groups. “At its core, the [Azov] movement encompasses the regiment itself, the National Corps political party, the Centuria (formerly the National Militia) paramilitary organization as well as a number of affiliated subgroups and initiatives including a book club, youth camps, a ‘leadership school’ and a (temporarily closed) three-story social center just off Kyiv’s central Independence Square,” Michael Colborne, a journalist and expert on Ukraine’s far-right movement, wrote last year.  

It’s impossible to determine just how many Ukrainian fighters actually buy into neo-Nazism and white nationalist ideology, but what’s more obvious is that symbols like the SS Totenkopf, the Nazi iteration of the sonnenrad, and the Wolfsangel have become normalized. And the more explicit forms of hatred are visible, too: Recently, Azov fighters were filmed coating bullets in pork fat while joking about desecrating Muslim Chechen pro-Russian troops. Perhaps more disturbingly, the video was shared publicly by the official National Guard of Ukraine, sparking questions of why the government would spread what is effectively Islamophobic propaganda. 

It’s within this context that the notion of international aid and weapons falling into the wrong hands becomes all the more dire. “Before re-invasion, aid to the far right was plausibly accidental. But that may no longer be the case, because ‘all hands on deck’ means just that — and enables Ukraine’s far right to play a heroic role they otherwise wouldn’t,” Jonathan Brunson, former political analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and senior Ukraine analyst for Crisis Group, told Newsweek

A photo published by Russian news site in 2018, purportedly of Azov Battalion fighters (note the group’s distinctive mirrored Wolfsangel logo, center flag.) 

Meanwhile, it’s clear that far-right elements beyond Azov and National Corps are aware of this dynamic, too. Yevhen Karas, the leader of the neo-Nazi paramilitary group C14, made this clear in his remarks at a forum in February, stressing the influx of weapons from the West and emphasizing the unique power of Neo-Nazi fighters. “We have [now] been given so much weaponry, not because, as some say, ‘the West is helping us.’ Not because they want the best for us, but because we perform the tasks set by the West. Because we are the only ones ready to do them. Because we have fun killing and fighting,” he said (via a text translation). 

He went on to extoll the importance of these extremists to the the 2014 Maidan Revolution, claiming that while only “10 percent, maybe 8 percent” of fighting force had neo-Nazi beliefs, it was specifically those beliefs that helped motivate white nationalist fighters against Putin. “If not for those 8 percent, the effectiveness [of fighting in Maidan] would have dropped by 90 percent. So, the numbers are not the point,” Karas continued. 

The Maidan Revolution is a lesson for a different reason, too: In the aftermath, paramilitary groups ran wild seizing weapons for their own stockpiles. In one embarrassment for the government, Right Sector lifted military weapons from an Interior Ministry arsenal in the city of Lviv. The difference in 2022 is the sheer amount of military aid, which includes far more than small arms. 

This is something we’ve seen in full-blown proxy wars of yore, when U.S. forces trained and armed paramilitaries in the hope of gaining geopolitical power in distant lands. The U.S. was notorious for assisting Mujahideen insurgents in the 1980s in an effort to stymie Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan, which led to long-lasting conflict, especially in Pakistan and neighboring countries. Similar disasters unfolded in Nicaragua and Colombia after the CIA empowered violent paramilitaries in order to overthrow communist campaigns. It’s led to immense bloodshed that lingers today, with those paramilitaries continuing a legacy of violence even after the U.S. cut the cord. 

The U.S. doesn’t have its hand that deep in Ukraine — at least yet — but there are some foundational elements that could still lead to right-wing power struggles when the dust settles on the current conflict. Brunson, the political analyst, noted in a 2019 article that although national revolutionaries are unrepresentative of Ukraine’s population, they are overrepresented in government. “Many are appointed, meaning they can’t be voted out: Unelected far-right bureaucrats who help to shape national policy include a deputy interior minister, a state broadcasting deputy, several regional police chiefs and various officials who select grants for patriotic education programs, plan the de-occupation of Crimea and Donbas and track guns among activists who attend rural vyshkoly militia camps,” he explained. 

All of these influences have made Ukraine a hot topic for far-right agitators and sympathizers around the world, who dream of taking part in a fertile moment for right-wing agency — or just want to create something similar in their own home countries, says David Malet, a political scientist and professor who has analyzed transnational fighters and their impacts. “The big worry for Homeland Security has been that Ukraine would serve as a networking event for the extreme right like Afghanistan was for jihadis in the 1980s. Some volunteers have already gone back and forth between Ukraine and Syria to fight, and they might potentially get involved elsewhere. There’s also the worry that they could influence domestic extremists,” Malet tells me. 

There is evidence that Azov is currently working with Belarussian, Chechen and Georgian militia fighters that are pouring in to defend Ukraine, inspired by their own wars against Russian imperialism and authoritarian leaders. In the recent past, the group has recruited specific far-right men from America. And even without recruitment, extremist men seem unable to resist the pull of fighting with, and learning from, their Eastern European heroes. 

The Georgian National Legion in particular has had a string of Western far-right agitators join their ranks, including Craig Lang, an American veteran who first joined Right Sector’s militia arm in 2015 and helped radicalize other Western men. He eventually became a mentor to Jarrett Smith, another violent American man who expressed interest in traveling to Ukraine to fight for Azov. In one 2016 message, Lang alluded to the fact that Azov had its own agenda, not merely supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia. “Also as a pre-warning if you come to this unit and the government comes to shut down the unit you will be asked to fight. You may also be asked to kill certain people who become on the bad graces of certain groups,” he wrote.

Lang is now being investigated for war crimes allegedly committed while fighting in Eastern Ukraine, including imprisoning and torturing non-combatant civilians. (Georgian Legion leader Mamuka Mamulashvili said he had no idea about Lang’s exploits, merely describing him as a “very good fighter.”)

Of course, Ukraine’s fighting forces aren’t the only ones to have far-right ideology and extremists in their ranks. Russia has long been credibly accused of empowering right-wing nationalists to fight in Eastern Ukraine, including neo-Nazi warlords like Vladimir Zhoga (who was reportedly killed in a firefight this week) and Russian far-right organizer Dmitry Demushkin, who claims that the Kremlin’s deputy prime minister solicited him to gather a fighting force to kill Ukranians in contested territory. And even the U.S. military has a deeply checkered past when it comes to providing cover for all manner of extremists, and the Pentagon has more or less admitted it doesn’t have a handle on the situation. 

But Ukraine is situated in a deeply vulnerable position, with far-right activity having grown and been legitimized since the fighting began nearly a decade ago. Many American extremists, for one, are watching keenly from home, observing the wins and losses of Ukraine’s far-right agitators, says Calum Farley, an investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League. “What I’ve seen is certain neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups supporting Azov and these extremist paramilitary forces, above worrying about whether Ukraine or Russia’s in the right. And so they’re basically saying we don’t support Zelenskyy’s government. We don’t support Putin. We support these national socialists and these extremists militias,” Farley tells me. 

For far-right dreamers watching from afar, the entropy of Ukraine today, and the ease with which extremists are navigating the war, is a symbol that their beliefs can win. “For a long time,” Farley observes, “these groups have seen Ukraine and Russia as the last hope of a white Christian nation.”