Is the Azov Battalion a terrorist organization as 40 US House Democrats claim?

Members of Azov Battalion marching in Kyiv. Source: edaily  

International

Editor’s Note

In a notable letter signed by 40 USA House Democrats and addressed to the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, they ask why certain “white supremacist groups” including the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, were not included on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list.

The battalion has become a media darling to western journalists, being depicted as ultranationalists, Neo-Nazis, Ukraine’s greatest weapon, and everything in between. In Ukraine, however, it is respected for its discipline, high battle morals, and effectiveness in protecting the city of Mariupol from the onslaught of Russian-backed militants from the puppet “republics” in the east. It has also gained controversy due to its inclusion of far-right internationals. But is this part of Ukraine’s army “connected to recent terrorist attacks around the world as well as recruiting and influencing American citizens” as the letter says?

Azov Battalion’s brief history

The Azov Special Operations Detachment also known as Azov Battalion or Azov Regiment, was created in May 2014 as one of the volunteer battalions that engaged in defending Ukraine in the first months of the war with pro-Russian militants, when the army had only 4 capable battalions (2,000-4,000 troops).

From the very beginning, Azov was and remains part of the National Guard of Ukraine under command of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The regiment has been fighting at the front throughout the entire war (2014–now), mainly in the south near the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast.

In May-June 2014, Azov Battalion played an important role in the liberation of Mariupol from pro-Russian combatants. In the summer of 2014, it participated in several successful operations of Ukraine’s armed forces, such as re-claiming the towns of Maryinka and, partly, Ilovaisk, which was, however, again lost in one of the Donbas war’s bloodiest battles. In February 2015, Azov conducted one of successful offensive operations in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war as it retook several villages in the vicinity of Mariupol to secure the city from artillery bombardments.

As of October 2019, 46 soldiers of the Azov Battalion sacrificed their lives for Ukrainian independence and integrity in the ongoing war (list and portraits). Today the battalion continues fighting at the frontline and trains new soldiers in its military school in Kyiv.

Sergeants of Yevhen Konovalets’ Azov Military School. Source: Azov’s official web-page

Addressing the congressmen’s arguments

Representative Max Rose shared the letter of 40 congressmen to Mike Pompeo on Twitter with the following comment:

“Violent white supremacist groups meet all of the StateDept criteria for inclusion on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, but for some reason they refuse to label these groups as terrorists that they are, hampering law enforcement’s ability to keep us safe.”

The attack in Halle, Germany, and Christchurch, New Zealand are examples of evolving white supremacist terrorism, according to the letter (full text). The Congress members say that the Federal Government has several instruments to counter the threat from those overseas terrorist organizations included on the FTO list. Therefore, foreign white supremacist extremist organizations should be added to effectively counter them. The lawmakers seem to have a benign goal, yet their arguments to label Azov Battalion as a terrorist organization are groundless. And here is why.

1. Explaining why the Azov Battalion should be included in the FTO list, the Congress members call the detachment “a well-known ultranationalist militia organization in Ukraine…”

This definition is false. The Azov Battalion is not a militia organization, as the US legislators claim. A militia is an irregular and often illegal military organization that is usually opposing the regular armed forces. Giving the Azov Battalion such a definition is a serious mistake at least, and ignorance at most. It shows that, if the Congress members indeed had sincerely good intentions, they didn’t study the case properly. In reality, the Azov Battalion is a regular regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine. To name it a white supremacist militia de-facto means applying such a label on the entire National Guard of Ukraine, and, subsequently, the whole Ukrainian state.

Azov fighters training at a shooting range. Source: official web-page of Azov.

2. The Democratic lawmakers also define Azov Battalion as an organization “that openly welcomes neo-Nazis into its ranks” and radicalized several American citizens.

That the Azov Battalion “openly welcomes neo-Nazis into its ranks” is true in some cases. Indeed, several radically far-right individuals were fighting or training in this detachment. Serhiy Korotkykh, for example, an ex-commander of one of the units in the Battalion, previously was a member of neo-Nazi organizations in Belarus and Russia.

However, to accept neo-Nazis into a regular military regiment is not yet terrorism or its promotion. One should specify what exactly is meant by “neo-Nazis” and whether the views or intentions of this particular person support or call for terrorism. Also, lawmakers should specify in what way Azov radicalized American citizens or induced them to violence.

Regarding the inclusion of neo-Nazis, it’s important to mention that Azov, as well as other regiments of Ukraine’s Armed Forces and National Guard has no selection by ideological criteria. A battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine can’t have any ideology or favor right or left-wing activists or liberals to be enrolled. Ihor Lutsenko, former member of the Azov Battalion and Ukrainian parliament, told Euromaidan Press that he met people having various ideological opinions among the personnel of the detachment and that it’s a private matter for each volunteer. The issue of ideology was not important for Azov when they “were doing real practical things.”

“Ideological views can in no case be grounds for restraining [membership in the army]. If you have certain views, will the army refuse to take you? Ideology is a personal thing, just as religion and so on. As for the involvement of foreigners who were members of various criminal organizations… this is the responsibility of the SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service]. And I have a question about how adequately they do their job,” Ihor Lutsenko said.

What was the case, however, is that several commanders of the Battalion previously belonged to right-wing Ukrainian NGOs or political parties. Naturally, volunteers with nationalist political backgrounds preferred serving in Azov rather than other detachments, to have like-minded people around. This is entirely within the legal framework.

The fact is Battalion’s close relation to the National Corps political party, led by former Azov commander Andriy Biletskyi, a far-right nationalist who espoused white supremacist views. It is this party, which branched off the Azov Battalion, that is actively building connections to international far-right circles.

Explaining the party’s ideology, International Secretary of the National Corps Olena Semeniaka said that they criticize both Russia and the West which “demand to turn Ukraine into an object of international relations and processes [instead of an active subject]. These demands come from both East and West, and we intend to counter them.” She also called to “awaken the spirit of Europe that is now in a coma.”

Although such statements doesn’t contain anything criminal and legally party is separate from the Battalion, which is an integral part of the National Guard of Ukraine, informally the party can use some people from the staff of the Battalion to conduct its political purposes.

That is what happened when some of the members of the National Corps actively agitated and recruited American radicals from organizations that later committed street violence in the US.

The Bellingcat investigative team conducting open source intelligence published an extensive report on the enrollment of American extremists in the Azov Battalion. The most notorious example was Joachim Furholm, a Norwegian citizen calling himself a “national-socialist revolutionary” who tried to attract the American right to Ukraine to the struggle against Russian aggression. Furholm presented participation in the Russo-Ukrainian war as an opportunity for the American far-right to acquire military and other practical skills.

In that way, the Bellingcat report claims, National Corps tried to develop its international network of far-right radicals. Olena Semeniaka, for example, acknowledged contacts with the American Rise Above Movement (RAM) and said that RAM members came to Ukraine to “learn how to create youth forces in the ways Azov has.” Bellingcat also says that in its radio podcasts, Azov interviewed many foreign activists, some of whom committed crimes or called for violence. For example, Andrew Oneschuk was an imminent member of the network Atomwaffen Division that was linked to multiple murders in the United States. National Corps also interviewed Joachim Furholm, a Norwegian self-described “national socialist revolutionary” who framed participation in the war in Ukraine as a means for American right-wingers to acquire combat experience that, he thought, could be useful upon return to the United States. In one case, the Bellingcat report says, Furholm even described his activities as a “terrorist facilitator.”

Thus, Azov Battalion and the National Corps Political Party indeed had contacts with persons who called for violence or committed crimes — a fact that induces to a thorough investigation. However, there is littleask evidence of any calls for terrorism or violence by members of the Battalion. Such include a 2010 statement by Andriy Biletskyi that the Ukrainian nation’s mission was to “lead the white race of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen.” Also notorious were statements by Serhiy Korotkykh, a former commander of a unit in the Azov Battalion, that he doesn’t admire ISIS’ ideology, but enjoys their passionarity.

Although all these facts don’t show Azov in a good light, they still don’t provide any evidence of Azov facilitating, promoting, or supporting terrorism.

To sum up, Azov’s personnel indeed includes an above-average number of right-wingers, but does not entirely consist from them. However, the battalion doesn’t force following any ideology and a person holding any views can join it. Azov never called for violence or radicalism, although in 2014-2015 it was implicated in war crimes such as looting, unlawful detentions, and torture, according to reports by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. But Azov can’t bear responsibility for the individual crimes of foreigners who used to serve in its ranks or were agitated to serve there by other entities such as political party National Corps.

Should we label the entire Armed Forces of Ukraine as terrorists because individual fighters committed crimes, like American Craig Leng, who served at first with the Right Sector, another Ukrainian rightwing voluntary battalion, then in the armed forces of Ukraine and is being accused of murder in the USA.

Training in the Azov military school of Yevhen Konovalets.

3. As a strong argument against Azov, the Congress representatives refer to the notorious case of terrorist Brenton Tarrant, who committed the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 in New Zealand. He allegedly trained in the Azov Battalion and wore the emblem of the Battalion. The Congress representatives refer to the manifesto of the terrorist: “In his manifesto, the shooter claimed he had trained with Azov Battalion in Ukraine and he routinely wore a neo-Nazi symbol associated with them,” the letter reads.

The text of the manifesto in question doesn’t mention the Azov Battalion. Ukraine is mentioned only once in the list of the countries where terrorist traveled in Europe. There is no special mention about the war in Ukraine; it was the violence of Muslim radicals in Europe and the terrorist acts in Paris that induced Brenton Tarrant to commit his attack in New Zealand, according to his manifesto.

It would be interesting to find out where the US lawmakers attained the information about the terrorist referring to Azov in his manifesto.

4. Regarding the symbols associated with Azov that Brenton Tarrant wore, this appears to be a misinterpretation.

Indeed, he wore many Nazi symbols some of which, like the Black Sun, were used by Azov. However, this is a widespread symbol among radical right-wing movements, and since it is common among them, it would be unreasonable to link various movements just because they use this same symbol.

The Azov Battalion included the Black Sun in its emblem in 2014-2015, however, removed it later.

Black sun symbol.

Emblem of the Azov Battalion in 2014-2015.

The symbol itself was used by Nazi Germany, which is why it gained a negative perception in European countries. However, it also existed in ancient and medieval times. In Ukraine, similar solar symbols are usually more tolerated than in Western Europe, because they can be found on historical buildings or at archaeological sites, be popular in folk culture and in modern pagan cults, or even found in national embroidery patterns. In Ukraine, debates continue on whether such symbols should be banned because Nazis used some of them, or treated neutrally as part of national and ancient world culture.

For example, Vasyl Shkliar, a prominent Ukrainian writer and prizewinner of the Shevchenko Award, which is the highest Ukrainian award in literature, doesn’t hesitate to include the symbol as a cover of his book “Black Sun” that tells about the war against Russian aggression and doesn’t include anything related to Nazism or any kind of extremism.

The cover of the book by Vasyl Shkliar Chorne Sontse (Black Sun)

One may blame Azov for using such symbols because in that way they give good ground for Russian propaganda and make it easier to link them to extremism. Is such an emblem of the battalion appropriate or not for contemporary Ukraine is a disputable question having polarized answers. However, it is not an argument for including the detachment in a list of terrorist organizations or directly accusing them of acts of terrorism committed under this widespread symbol.

Azov’s promotional video:

Why the letter emerged and what is special about the Azov among other Ukrainian detachments

This is not the first letter of US Congress representatives against the Azov Battalion. In 2018, they already sent a similar letter. As a result, the remark was included in the 2018 spending bill that “none of the funds made available by this act [military aid to Ukraine] may be used to provide arms, training or other assistance to the Azov Battalion.”

Why had the Azov Battalion, and not any other, acquired this special attention? Viacheslav Likhachov, a specialist in the Ukrainian far-right and human rights activist explains:

First, there is no evidence of Azov’s involvement in far-right terrorism, or indeed a close association with those who committed acts of racist terror in the West. And some references that allege this connection are false… The symbol of the black sun is very widespread and cannot be a direct indication.

Second, the Congress Representatives are obviously not aware of what they are writing about because they use term militia for an official battalion. This indicates the careless preparation of this letter…

Third, there is a basis for some other accusations. Azov, especially at the initial stage, was very active in inviting foreigners who had military experience in NATO countries, although there were not many of them. The Ukrainian fighters needed high-quality training… Most of the Western volunteers involved in the Azov mission were people with far-right political views. This is true. They participated in the tasks. It cannot be said that they were radicalized under the influence of Azov. For them, it was an attractive opportunity to fight in a unit of like-minded individuals.

There can be at least three possible reasons why the Democratic lawmakers decided to write such a letter now.

The first and most obvious version is that they were concerned by the rise of right-wing white terrorism and wanted to somehow oppose it but didn’t study facts properly.

The second possible version is a direct or indirect influence of Russia and its propaganda.

According to the Stop Fake fact-checking site, Russians had portrayed Ukrainian military volunteers as far-right since 2014, being aware of the narratives in the West which could be utilized to discredit Ukrainian fighters. The rise in anti-Semitism and Nazism in Ukraine, Ukrainian glorification of nationalists – such were the headlines blaring from many pro-Kremlin Russian media. RT in Russian, RIA Novosti, Ukraina.ru and other pro-Kremlin media dutifully disseminated the story of the previous letter signed by 56 Congressmen in 2018 that was also directed against Azov. According to Stop Fake,

“the letter claims the Ukrainian government is financing anti-Semitism and that the country is glorifying Nazi collaborators, it criticizes the naming of streets after WWII era Ukrainian independence leaders Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera as part of Ukraine’s de-communization process.”

The letter to the State Department was published on California Representative Ro Khanna’s official Congress website. Ro Khanna is an ardent opponent of providing lethal aid to Ukraine, according to Stop Fake. Whether such congressmen are just blinded by Russian narratives or want to support Russia directly remains disputable.

In his article for The Hill, Kristofer Harrison, former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and director of AMS, a company that specializes in Russian information warfare, wrote that it appears Ro Khanna was duped by Russia into promoting their propaganda:

“It is ridiculous nonsense that Ukraine is beset with a bunch of Nazis. The Russians have been pushing this foolishness for a while. In Russia, if you want to discredit someone, call them a Nazi. Putin is using it to justify his war to his subjects. Russians are not particularly keen on attacking Ukraine. But if it is to free them from the yoke of Nazis, well, that’s different,” writes Harrison.

As the third reason for the letter, American domestic political competition could also have influenced the decision to write it. New York Representative Max Rose, who spearheaded the letter, said he was disappointed that no Republicans signed on to his initiative:

“It’s curious to me that the Republican Party, for the better half of this year, are claiming they’re against anti-Semitism… Here they have an opportunity to label it, but they’re not willing to stand against it.”

Though the connection of Azov to “white nationalist terror” remains flimsy at best, the letter of the US Congressmen has succeeded in painting an apocalyptic picture: international media were full of titles where words “Azov” and “terrorism” go together. Or, like in the Vice publication below, capital Kyiv appears as an illustration to the article on the letter and the Christchurch shooting.

Source: Vice

 

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Edited by: Alya Shandra

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