Dispatch

U.S. Congress Accidentally Boosted Ukraine’s Far-Right

A member of Congress wrote to the State Department calling out Ukraine’s Azov movement as terrorists. It backfired.

Members of the Azov movement protest in front of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv on Oct. 28 holding a banner that says "Defense of Ukraine Is Not Terrorism!"
Members of the Azov movement protest in front of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv on Oct. 28 holding a banner that says "Defense of Ukraine Is Not Terrorism!" Michael Colborne for Foreign Policy

KYIV, Ukraine—There were around 100 of them gathered in front of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday morning. But they weren’t there because of anything going on in Kyiv. They were there protesting what a first-term member of the U.S. Congress almost 5,000 miles away had said about them in an official letter to the U.S. State Department.

They were from Ukraine’s far-right Azov movement, holding placards reading “Azov are heroes” and stretching out a printed banner for the cameras reading “Defense of Ukraine isn’t terrorism.” They spoke on the steps with Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister and demanded that his ministry send an official note of protest to the State Department.

They were there because of Rep. Max Rose, who represents New York’s 11th congressional district. He sent a letter on Oct. 16 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, signed by 39 of his colleagues, demanding that several international far-right movements, including the Azov movement, be officially placed on the foreign terrorist organization list alongside the Islamic State and al Qaeda. The first group mentioned by name in Rose’s letter is the Azov movement, which, Rose writes, “has been recruiting, radicalizing and training American citizens for years.”

The goal of the letter seems apparent: to draw attention to international far-right extremist groups thought to be inciting acts of terrorism, a growing concern in the wake of the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, and similar ones in El Paso, Texas, and Halle, Germany, among others.

But here in Ukraine, Rose’s efforts have backfired. The letter is sloppy, to the point where some of the claims in the letter, especially the claim that the Christchurch shooter admitted to training with Azov, are simply wrong. Yes, Azov is indeed a dangerous far-right movement with global ambitions, something I’ve argued a number of times. But Rose’s letter actually helps Azov’s cause.

The Azov Battalion was founded in 2014 to help defend Ukraine against Russian-led proxy forces. It also quickly became known as a place where foreign far-right extremists could make themselves at home. Almost six years later, Azov has expanded into a multipronged movement with a political party, street militia, and dozens of affiliated smaller organizations. The military unit is now under the auspices of Ukraine’s National Guard and properly known as the Azov Regiment. It’s why, in Rose’s letter, referring to Azov as simply the “Azov Battalion” is not only technically incorrect but displays a lack of understanding about the movement itself. (Rose’s office did not reply to a request for comment from Foreign Policy.)

Thanks to Azov, Ukraine has emerged as a new hub for the transnational far-right. From organizing international far-right conferences and neo-Nazi concerts to actively trying to recruit American extremists into its ranks, there’s good reason to be concerned about what Azov is doing. After the arrest in September of a U.S. soldier who allegedly planned to bomb an American news network and then go to Ukraine to fight with Azov, that concern has only grown.

The reality here in Ukraine, however, is a bit more complicated. In a country still at war with Russian-led forces, veterans of all political stripes hold high stature in Ukrainian society. This includes veterans from the Azov Battalion, who are still thought of highly for the defense of cities like Mariupol in eastern Ukraine in 2014. It’s why their far-right, often outright neo-Nazi affiliations are considered secondary to their role as “defenders” and are often downplayed or ignored in mainstream Ukrainian politics and society.

It’s also why negative reaction to the letter in Ukraine has come from more than just Azov itself. Last week, Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov—considered the de facto patron of the Azov movement—defended Azov in a meeting with American officials, calling the letter a “shameful information campaign” and claiming that Ukraine would “counter these dirty and insidious methods.”

Even parliamentarians from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s own party, which now dominates Ukraine’s parliament after July’s elections, has defended Azov. A letter signed by 39 Ukrainian MPs, mostly MPs from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, and sent to the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs said that “attempts to label one of the most decorated official units of the National Guard of Ukraine as a “terrorist organization” or an “overseas violent white supremacist extremist group” weigh heavily on our souls and painfully echo in the hearts of…Ukrainian servicemen, veterans and volunteers.” And outside the doors of the foreign ministry, Deputy Foreign Minister Vasyl Bodnar told representatives of Azov that “the Azov Regiment is a defender of Ukraine, not a terrorist organization.”

But there’s one particularly curious claim in Rose’s letter, about the Christchurch shooter. “In his manifesto, the shooter claimed he had trained with the Azov Battalion in Ukraine,” Rose writes.

Problem is, this isn’t true. I’ve read through the manifesto more times than any journalist or researcher should; Ukraine is mentioned only once in passing as a country the shooter claims to have been to. Azov itself isn’t mentioned at all, and there’s no evidence to suggest that the shooter had ever trained with Azov.

The logical leap Rose then takes makes even less sense—because far-right terrorist attacks in Poway, California, and El Paso were inspired by the Christchurch shooter, the “link between Azov and acts of terror in America is clear.”

Not really. What’s clear is this: Azov is certainly a key node in a global far-right extremist network, one that includes sympathizers and even perpetrators of far-right terrorism. But to claim that Azov has a direct link to far-right acts of terrorism in the United States isn’t a claim that holds water—yet.

Azov has taken full advantage of the letter’s sloppiness. It is promoting an online petition to Zelensky demanding that he officially condemn the letter; it sent representative after representative on TV to talk about how it is not a terrorist group; and, of course, members of the group protested Monday morning in front of Ukraine’s foreign ministry. Azov is using the opportunity to claim that not only the regiment but the whole group is hardly the neo-Nazi-friendly extremist movement its detractors claim it to be. “Veterans, not terrorists!” is the slogan.

Of course, the reality is that Azov is exactly that—a dangerous neo-Nazi-friendly extremist movement. What’s more, there actually is a lot you can write about Azov and some of its senior members’ support for far-right terrorism without veering into misinformation.

You could write about the Russian neo-Nazi Alexey Levkin, an Azov veteran who was in front of me on Monday, holding aloft a Ukrainian flag. Levkin, as I’ve written, is the main force behind the “Wotanjugend” movement loosely affiliated with Azov; Wotanjugend’s website—now offline—had posts praising the Christchurch shooter and other far-right terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Until a few months ago, it was freely sharing a Russian-language translation of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, as well as the livestream of the mosque attacks themselves.

You could write about Nikita Makeev, an Azov veteran from Russia who was given Ukrainian citizenship by Zelensky in July. He was up front, holding aloft a flag with Azov’s logo, which the group continues to deny is based on the Nazi-era Wolfsangel symbol even as Azov blurs the symbol from its own Facebook posts.

A few days after the Christchurch shooting, Makeev posted praise for the shooter on his now-deleted Instagram profile, showing a mural of the shooter as a “saint” with an excerpt from a poem about the Crusades. Both Makeev and Levkin are associated with the Kyiv-based Russia Center of self-described political exiles from Russia—anti-Vladimir Putin, anti-Kremlin neo-Nazis, in fact—members of which were in Budapest last week, with other neo-Nazis, praising a Hungarian neo-Nazi group for trying to torch a Jewish community center.

Failing this, you could just talk about how the Azov movement and the Christchurch shooter, among other far-right terrorists, share the same inspirations, the same ideologies, and the same Nazi symbolism, even if there’s no direct causal link—yet—between Azov and an international act of far-right terrorism. Sloppiness and stretching the truth to make your point doesn’t help anyone but the far-right.

Michael Colborne is a journalist in eastern Europe who focuses on the far right and has written extensively about Ukraine's Azov movement.

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