Jackboot Camp

Is America Training Neonazis in Ukraine?

Officially no, but no one in the U.S. government seem to know for sure.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

There are no doubts about the neo-Nazi and white supremacist background of the Azov Battalion, a militia that has positioned itself at the forefront of the fight against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. As the founder and head of the battalion Andriy Biletsky once put it, “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival.”

That Russian President Vladimir Putin and his propagandists exploit this fact, using it to build support for their aggression and to undermine the international effort to help Ukraine defend its independence, is undeniable. But knowing that, and wanting to resist that, does not resolve some very important questions about the basic facts.

What is the relationship of the U.S. government to these people? Is it training them? Might it arm them? Is this, like the Afghan war of the 1980s, one of those cases where we aid and abet the kind of monsters who eventually become our enemies? Concerns about that possibility have been growing on Capitol Hill.

Because of uncertainties surrounding the Azov Battalion’s role in the U.S. training initiative and worries about the possible supply of shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles to such characters, the House unanimously adopted bipartisan amendments to H.R. 2685, the “Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2015.” And one of them specifically blocks training of the “Ukrainian neo-Nazi paramilitary militia ‘Azov Battalion.’” Representatives John Conyers and Ted Yoho sponsored the amendment to the bill, which was passed unanimously by Congress.

This is in addition to criteria established in an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, originally sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, known as “the Leahy Vetting Process.” The Leahy process consists of screening foreign forces applying for U.S. Government training and support to certify that they haven’t committed any “gross human rights violations.” If they are found to have done so, support is withheld.

But the highly problematic truth is that the U.S. currently has no real way of ensuring that members of neo-Nazi groups like the Azov Battalion are not being trained by U.S. forces, because most, if not all, have not committed a “gross human rights violation.” Even more difficult to determine is whether ex-U.S. military are training crypto-Nazis in a private capacity, and the issues speaks volumes about the complexities that have to be confronted by the United States in its efforts to help Ukraine defend itself from the Russian-supported secessionists.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Sgt. Ivan Kharkiv of the Azov battalion talks about his battalion’s experience with U.S. trainers and U.S. volunteers quite fondly, even mentioning U.S. volunteers engineers and medics that are still currently assisting them. He also talks about the significant and active support from the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. As for the training they have and continue to receive from numerous foreign armed forces. Kharkiv says “We must take knowledge from all armies… We pay for our mistakes with our lives.”

Those U.S. officials involved in the vetting process obviously have instructions to say that U.S. forces are not training the Azov Battalion as such. They also say that Azov members are screened out, yet no one seems to know precisely how that’s done. In fact, given the way the Ukrainian government operates, it’s almost impossible.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior brings what one U.S. official calls a “mishmash” of troops, consisting of volunteers, members of militia battalions and official army to be trained, and the Leahy process exists to check and see if any have committed a “gross violation of human rights,” which most likely they have not—at least not yet. But much less care is given to the question of ideology. When officials are asked for details of any kind regarding how the vetting process actually functions, answers are ambiguous, details are scarce and the explanations become contradictory.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, the U.S. Army Public Affairs Officer from the 173rd Airborne Brigade training Ukrainian forces in Lviv in western Ukraine, Capt. Steven Modugno, says that no one from the Azov Battalion or Right Sector is being trained in Lviv because the embassy uses the Leahy vetting process, which is in place to make sure no one has committed any kind of gross human rights abuses. When asked about members of the Azov Battalion who have not committed gross human abuses, more specifically how they are screened out, he says, “You know that’s actually a great question. It’s one the State Department would need to answer.”

The Daily Beast then interviewed State Department representative, Press Officer Yarina Ferentsevych of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. Ferentsevych told us, “At this point, as far as we are aware, no”—that is, no members of Azov. “Whether or not some may be in the lineup, that is possible. But frankly, you know, our vetting screens for human rights violations, not for ideology. Neo-Nazis, you know, can join the U.S. army too. The battalions that are in question have been integrated as part of Ukraine’s National Guard, and so the idea is that they would be eligible for training, but in all honesty I cannot tell you if there are any on the list we train. There were not any in the first rotation as far as I am aware.”

Ferentsevych confirms that it is practically impossible to know which trainees are from which battalion, “It’s a mishmash of folks: volunteers, soldiers, war heroes, Maidan veterans—I mean I couldn’t tell you, you know, short of investigating the background of each guy.”

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At this point, she recommends that we speak to the press officer of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. We explain that he actually directed us to her. She laughs. Welcome to the United States Government.

When we asked PAO Capt. Modugno whether it was possible to detect all the Azov guys who are dispersed into the national guard battalions, he told us, “I don’t know if any of them could get through.” He explained that he is not an expert on the Leahy vetting process, but, “From what I’ve seen here, I haven’t seen any extremists, I’ve seen patriots.” The acting head of Ukraine’s national guard, Mykola Balan, told The Daily Beast, “Azov hasn’t been trained by the U.S. military. Currently they are at the front line.”

Regarding the Ukrainian government’s involvement in the vetting process, Capt. Modugno explains that one section of the government is doing all the heavy lifting, “I believe it is the Ministry of Interior that is picking companies to come here.”

The Azov Battalion not only answers directly to the Ministry of Interior, but it is ingrained deeply in that structure. The founder and head of Azov, Andriy Biletsky works closely with the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior and as the BBC reported last year, “The Azov Battalion was formed and armed by Ukraine’s interior ministry.”

Biletsky claims, however, that his battalion hasn’t been trained by the U.S. military. In a comment to The Daily Beast, he said: “No, American army representatives do not train and had never trained the battalion. What I know so far is that there are regular training of the Ukrainian armed forces and Azov has nothing to do with it.”

Capt. Modugno says that he is more of a “boots on the ground type of guy… When it comes to vetting and the Ukrainian government, the most I can tell you is that we are training at the request of the government and where these guys come from and where they go—it is their [the Ukrainian government’s] decision not ours.”

As for American private individuals training Ukrainians elsewhere, Capt. Modugno says, “I can’t tell you that no Americans are there because any American who believes in a cause can go anywhere in the world. I can tell you in an official capacity, no, there are no American forces east of Kiev.”

When asked if, in an official capacity, any Azov members have been trained by the U.S. military in the past he says, “I don’t know. I don’t want to say ‘no’ because I am not a big history buff on military training here. As far as I know, no. But I also know the U.S. and other nations have been doing exercises here in Ukraine since like 2002. Rapid Trident is one of those exercises. I really don’t know what units would come to that because I believe that’s active duty military. So I’m not sure, but I don’t believe so.”

Capt. Modugno continues, “As far as who has been trained here on the ground, there were two companies that came in the first rotation. They were called Jaguar and Cheetah Company. It is my understanding they were complete companies when they came here. They augmented them with some of their war heroes from the ATO [Anti-Terrorism Operations] from other locations. They just graduated this past week. And right now we have the North and East Company. They are kind of a mishmash of different units and soldiers being trained here. Part of the Ukrainian government’s intent here is that when they graduate they’re actually dispersing them throughout Ukraine so they can take some of these tactics and techniques and see what they’ve learned… to take back to their units.”

This is exactly the concern of many about who is being trained by U.S. forces in Ukraine.

“You know, I know I’m about to speak speculatively here and I say that because I don’t know the entire process. But I do know that the State Department is very aware of the concerns that many news agencies and U.S. citizens have, that as [The Daily Beast’s] article says, we’re training neo-Nazis over here. I’ve seen them. I keep up on the news. I’m not saying that’s what we’re doing. I think what is really happening is the U.S. State Department is taking a serious look at these guys before allowing them to come here [to Lviv]. Again, that’s entirely speculative. But I think because concerns are so high, they’re being very careful.”

The captain continues describing what he has seen on the ground. “With most of the guys that I’ve seen here though, I haven’t seen anything extremist.” In order to convey the cultural diversity he has seen, he begins to name various sects of Christianity he has come across: “I’ve seen Roman Catholics; I’ve seen Mormon soldiers on the ground both U.S. and Ukrainian; I’ve seen Latter Day Saints; I just haven’t seen anything too crazy or anything you wouldn’t expect from any other military.”

When asked if there are any Jewish Ukrainian forces he replies, “You know that’s a fair question and one I can’t answer. I know on the U.S. side we’ve had Jewish soldiers here. I don’t know for the Ukrainians.”

Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation for the United States Embassy in Ukraine, Col. Cynthia Matuskevich, also denies that U.S. forces are training anyone from the Azov Battalion. Col. Matuskevich says, “The [Ukrainian] National Guard has told us there are none and that they all went through the normal vetting process that we’re required to do by the State Department.”

When asked for specifics on the vetting process she says, “Essentially, in its nearest sense, it’s like background checks on individuals. I can’t really elaborate, but we check with various agencies including the consular section and they just kind of do background checks. I can’t personally say what happens in D.C. because I’ve never been on that end of the process but the State Department in D.C. is the ultimate clearer—if you want to call it that.”

When asked how the Leahy process weeds out Azov members, for instance those who have not committed “gross human rights violations” but identify themselves with the Nazis and even with the SS, Matuskevich explains, “Unfortunately I can’t comment anymore—I mean we have Leahy requirements and we ask for human rights vetting but I mean we don’t individually interview everyone and ask them what their individual philosophies are because we know people could lie. But we do our utmost to abide by the Leahy vetting and we work with partners that you know we trust and have told us that none of them are members of those organizations.”

As for the “partners” they work with, Matuskevich says that they work directly with the Ukrainian National Guard, “which coordinates all the trainees. They fall under the Ministry of Interior, so our political section at the embassy would be the ones who are dealing with them… The Ukrainian Government, and I guess it’s in the form of the Ministry [of Interior] are the ones that nominate the candidates for the training.”

When asked why the new House amendment would be necessary if the Leahy process was already in place, Ferentsevych said, “That’s a good question, you should ask the congressman.” So we did.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) said: “This is an important precautionary action. The Leahy Law takes the essential retroactive step of prohibiting assistance to units that are credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights. The issue here concerns who is eligible for aid in the first place, and America must choose allies whose interests and ideas align with ours. Congress can—and should—provide additional guidance to the executive branch when candidates for U.S. security assistance are publicly associated with goals that conflict with our foreign policy.”

Ferentsevych would seem to corroborate the need for the amendment, in effect, when she says, “If these guys have violated human rights, then you would think that you would know. But human rights and ideology are two different things. It’s kind of like hate speech, people talk trash, it’s one thing, but if they do something about it, oh my God…”

When asked whether the Leahy process would screen out people with Nazi tattoos, she responds, “I have no idea… I don’t know. Is it on their neck where all the world can see it? Or is it on their bum, where nobody can see it? I don’t know. I’m not a legal expert.”

Jack Harris, the Official Opposition Critic for Defense for the New Democratic Party of Canada raised concerns about what forces Canada could end up training. “If they’ve integrated (Azov) into the larger organization, then we will be seeking clarification from Mr. Kenney [Canadian Minister of Defense] about what is happening here,” Harris said. Retired Canadian diplomat turned consultant for the International Organization of Migration in Moscow, James Bissett has argued that it would not be possible to detect all the Azov members dispersed into the National Guard battalions. Bissett told the Ottawa Citizen, “These militias [such as Azov] are being merged with Ukraine’s military so we won’t be able to determine who we are training.”

This is an issue that simply needs more attention than “I don’t know” from the United States Government. Even those most closely connected to the process seem unclear on the specifics of it.

As Congressman Charlie Wilson, the godfather of American support for the Afghan mujahedeen once said, looking back on the disaster that followed their “victory,” “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame.” The United States’ desire to train Ukrainian troops comes from the right place—the need to stop Russian covert and overt aggression. The problem is that the Azov battalion is nuzzled so deeply into the Ukrainian government that they are nearly impossible to weed out.