KYIV, Ukraine—When Deputy Secretary of State George Kent spoke at the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment hearings this week, he painted a powerful picture of Ukrainian bravery in the face of Russian aggression.
In 2014, when “Russia invaded Ukraine” and occupied 7 percent of its territory, Ukraine’s state institutions were “on the verge of collapse,” he said. But “Ukrainian civil society answered the challenge. They formed volunteer battalions of citizens, including technology professionals and medics. They crowd-sourced funding for their own weapons, body armor, and supplies. They were the 21st-century Ukrainian equivalent of our own Minutemen in 1776, buying time for the regular army to reconstitute.”
But Kent most likely did not have in mind the most famous—and infamous—of those volunteer units, the Azov Battalion, which 40 members of Congress have asked the State Department to designate as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Some of its members are neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and avowed anti-Semites.
Are the Azov fighters, in fact, “Minutemen” or monsters, freedom fighters or terrorists? Or in some cases both?
Angry demonstrations here about those congressional efforts to get Azov declared an “FTO” suggest just how complicated and treacherous the political and military landscape has become in this nation fighting for survival. It is another factor—along with the extortionate, allegedly impeachable games played by the Trump administration—weakening the position of President Volodymyr Zelnsky as he struggles to achieve an equitable peace with Vladimir Putin.
The congressional letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and pushed by freshman Rep. Max Rose (D-NY), portrays Azov as part of an ultra-right-wing “global terrorist network” analogous to al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State, but one bent on attacking Muslims, Jews, and people of color. The letter notes that the man who carried out the mosque massacres in New Zealand last March, killing at least 50 worshippers, claimed he trained with the Azov. His livestreamed slaughter then inspired murderers in the United States who targeted a synagogue in Poway, California, and Hispanic shoppers in El Paso, Texas.
The Oct. 16 letter quoted a tweet a week before by Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence and a Daily Beast contributor, after the synagogue attack in Halle, Germany, on Oct. 9. Katz noted “the similarity between this video” in Halle and the New Zealand attacker’s, concluding it was “another installment from a global terrorist network, linked together via online safe havens much like ISIS.” Symbolically, at least, Azov has become a rallying point for the neo-Nazi international community.
The State Department response to the letter was non-committal, denying that its failure to designate various foreign groups as terrorist organizations had anything to do with “ideology or motives.”
In many ways Oleksandr Konibor, a self-professed admirer of far-right movements in Europe, is typical of the Ukrainians who heeded the call to fight for their country by joining the Azov Battalion in 2014.
“It was a tragic time for our country and in some ways a wonderful time for us,” said Konibor, a 34-year-old teacher. To be sure, some members of Azov wore swastikas their uniforms and a patch associated with the unit looks like a variation on Nazi symbols. Other members were fringe Pagan worshipers, former convicts, unemployed men, or merely adventure-seekers.
In those early “Minuteman” days, nobody was very picky about who picked up a gun to fight the Russians. The Azov fought shoulder-to-shoulder with a unit of Chechen Islamist fighters, who had their own reasons to come to the front. What united them, in fact, was not so much far-right ideology as a willingness to be in the trenches.
Konibor said he joined not for reasons of ideology but to defend his country and because he liked spending time with men from the soccer clubs he belonged to.
In Ukraine, in the years since the fighting began, the Azov has come to be viewed as a unit of misfits whose flaws, however obvious, were cleansed by the crucible of combat.
After the congressional letter was reported here last month, Azov soldiers staged protests in Kyiv. Veterans with stern faces, their wives and girlfriends holding roses in their hands, gathered in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They held signs saying, “Ukraine’s defenders are not terrorists.”
Ukrainian officials and members of parliament pushed back against the initiative on Capitol Hill. They concede Azov includes marginal figures but it is now also formally part of Ukraine’s armed forces, having been incorporated into the National Guard, and should not be identified as a terrorist group.
The letter to Pompeo was pretty unequivocal, however, and notes that Congress specifically prohibited the Azov from receiving arms, training, or other assistance from the United States in 2018.
“I am sure that the congressmen who wrote the appeal had not seen a single Azov soldier,” Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Anton Geraschenko told The Daily Beast, adding that some members of Congress have been invited to Ukraine. Geraschenko insisted that there was “no proven evidence” of any connection between Azov and the Christchurch shooter, even though the shooter had painted an Azov insignia on one of his rifles.
The unit’s supporters here argue that accepting the letter’s characterization is bending to Russian propaganda, which casts all Ukrainian soldiers as neo-fascists. And Russian media rejoiced at the congressional letter: The American establishment is getting tired of Ukraine, reports said.
The battalion’s founder, Adriy Biletskiy, has a two-decade history in far-right movements and has spent time in prison for murder—on trumped-up charges, he says. In the past, he played a leading role in the far-right Patriot of Ukraine and Social National Assembly. When the war began in 2014, as George Kent noted, Ukraine’s army was in miserable condition and authorities did not stop Azov from using banners and chevrons featuring Nazi symbols, including the wolfsangel insignia associated with the Nazi SS.
This is a tragic reminder of Ukraine’s past. Some 1.5 million Jews were killed here during World War II. “Ukraine is where the Holocaust began,” Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece a week after President Zelensky’s inauguration. “The new government in Ukraine should also play a more expansive role in acknowledging the Holocaust as part of its national history.”
For now, however, when Azov members publicly admire Hitler, authorities are reluctant to condemn them.
Last year , the Zaborona media group reported on the lives of Azov soldiers in eastern Ukraine. “One day we saw a flag of Nazi Germany in the window at the Azov military base in the city of Mariupol,” Zaborona founder Yekateryna Sergatskova told The Daily Beast. “Before the war, many of the Azov guys sympathized with Russia’s neo-Nazi groups; I still wonder why Azov is fascinated with Hitler, it could be that the worshipping of Nazi Germany’s ideology is their revolt against Stalinism, against the communist regime.”
Last year, battalion founder Biletskiy personally took an oath from hundreds of Azov veterans and far-right activists joining his National Corps militia—a far-right political movement promising “to establish order in Ukraine.”
Some Azov veterans see their mission in the most radical way. According to an investigative report by Bellingcat, Ukrainian supremacists translated the hate-filled manifesto by the Christchurch shooter into Ukrainian and sold the pamphlets for $4 a piece at Azov’s literature club.
“Several American and European citizens have served in Azov, and even more Russian citizens joined the battalion in 2014-2015,” Vyacheslav Likhachev, Ukraine’s leading expert on far-right movements, told The Daily Beast. “Yes, numerous Azov soldiers share neo-Nazi ideology but the U.S. congressmen cannot blacklist the entire regiment of the interior forces, it would be the same as to accuse the state of Ukraine of terrorism.”
To make their point, Azov veterans and their supporters started “A Veteran Is Not a Terrorist” campaign, criticizing Rep. Max Rose for initiating the letter to Pompeo.
Yelena, a slim, rather gloomy looking waitress waiting for her boyfriend, an Azov soldier, to come home from the war, told The Daily Beast, “I am sure Rep. Rose is sitting in his office, he has not smelled any gunpowder.” (In fact, Rose is a decorated combat veteran of the U.S. Army who served as a platoon leader and was wounded in Afghanistan.) “Right at this very moment, my husband and other Azov guys are defending Ukraine from Russian aggression," said Yelena. “They are heroes and not terrorists like ISIS.”
Authorities in Kyiv say they will stand by veterans, and hope to talk the U.S. government out of any designation of Azov as a terrorist organization.
Those opposed to this labeling think of soldiers as heroes, no matter how far right their ideology. Volunteer Natalia Voronokova and her team have been providing medicine, food, and ammunition for Azov soldiers since the early days of the war.
“I have seen Azov on the battlefield,” she said. They endured hardships and losses. “And as for their subculture, that is their choice.”