February 17, 2023 - 1:00pm

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Western commentariat and political class have been unsurprisingly vocal in praising the heroism of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his countrymen. More surprising, perhaps, is that this acclaim is now extended to far-Right militias like Ukraine’s Azov Brigade.

Azov, which has been labelled a neo-Nazi group, has increasingly been embraced by the American establishment. This was particularly apparent in October, when members of Azov spoke at Stanford University at an event where Michael McFaul, the former United States Ambassador to Russia, gave a speech with the organisation logo in clear view on the board behind him. This logo is a variation of the Wolfsangel, an emblem worn by an SS Panzer Division, and its fighters are also commonly seen wearing the Totenkopf. 

More recently, Paul Massaro, a US Federal Government employee and senior policy advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, posted a photo of himself on Twitter proudly holding up an Azov flag. A few days later, this was followed by a picture of him wearing a Stepan Bandera patch in a now-deleted tweet. Arguing with one objector, he asserted that “Azov made a heroic last stand at Azovstal and are considered heroes in Ukraine”, adding that “Bandera is viewed through the lens of the struggle for Ukrainian independence.”

Azov has long been the subject of both Western media attention and Russian propaganda. The group’s activities date back to April 2014, after a collection of ultranationalists evolved into an irregular military detachment. The organisation took part in early post-Maidan hostilities in Mariupol against pro-Russia separatists, and was later formally incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. The contingent has expanded over its history, becoming a battalion and, more recently, a brigade.

Azov has been the source of much controversy due to its ideology, symbols, and war crimes, including accusations of torture. Though the group is far from monolithic, elements of its leadership and many of its rank-and-file members evidently continue to espouse ultranationalist and neo-Nazi views. It also has a history of attracting radical foreign fighters, and has developed a sizeable international online following. Further, connections remain to the extremely ghoulish Misanthropic Division (MD) movement — this link becomes obvious with a quick glance at MD’s Telegram channels.

Any criticisms finally disappeared after Azov put up a long and intense defence against the Russians in the coastal city of Mariupol last year. Its fighters resisted for weeks after being surrounded, earning Azov the status of ‘Defenders of Mariupol’ and gaining much fanfare amongst commentators who would not otherwise be mistaken for far-Right mouthpieces.

After a prisoner exchange, in which Azov soldiers who surrendered at Azovstal were released, the New York Times wrote glowingly that “Commanders of Ukraine’s celebrated Azov Battalion have held an emotional reunion with their families in Turkey.” Without once mentioning Azov’s historical ideological orientation, the paper said that the group “has become a powerful symbol of the suffering inflicted by Russia and the resistance mounted by Ukraine”.

Surviving Azov fighters from the Mariupol siege were subsequently invited to meet members of Congress and toured the United States. Ironically, just years prior, that very same Congress passed bills including a ban on US aid to Azov, on the grounds that the outfit had neo-Nazis in its ranks.

It is certainly understandable to not want to disparage an invaded people, or to draw undue focus on segments of a certain group at risk of stigmatising the Ukrainian military as a whole. Yet whitewashing and valorising groups like Azov, which have violent extremists in their midst, is patently irresponsible.


Lucas Webber is the co-founder and editor of Militant Wire

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