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Putin says he wants to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine. Is there any truth behind these claims?

Accusations focus on the Azov Regiment, an extreme right-wing group, but it represents less than 2% of Ukraine’s armed forces

At checkpoints surrounding the besieged city of Mariupol, Russian soldiers and Ukrainian separatists force fleeing males to strip naked, so they can search for tattoos indicating neo-Nazi sympathies or membership in the Azov Regiment, the main unit that is defending the southeastern port.

Popular legend says the Russians will chop off a hand bearing a tattooed Black Sun or Wolfsangel, or pump a bullet into the neck of a man whose skin bears such symbols.

The Wolfsangel, inspired by medieval wolf traps, looks like a “Z” with a horizontal line through the centre, and was the symbol for the SS Panzer Division Das Reich, among other German units during the second World War.

The Black Sun is a swirling circle created by overlapping swastikas and was also a Nazi symbol.

Members of the Ukrainian far right claim these emblems pre-date Nazism and that they evoke Ukraine’s medieval, Viking origins. Their use has nonetheless saddled the regiment with the epithet neo-Nazi. Azov’s flag, in Ukraine’s national colours, is dominated by a blue Wolfsangel on a field of yellow.

Both symbols were earlier used by the Social-National Assembly, the extreme right-wing party that was co-founded by Andriy Biletsky. He went on to create Azov, then the political party National Corps. Biletsky was a deputy in Ukraine's unicameral parliament, the Rada, from 2014 until 2019 and is today helping to co-ordinate the defence of the capital, Kyiv.

A coalition of three extreme right-wing parties won only 2.4 per cent of the vote in the 2019 elections

Named after the Azov Sea, Azov began as a volunteer battalion of at most 300 hooligans and paramilitaries in Mariupol in 2014. Its raison d'être was to fight the Russian-backed separatists who seized parts of Donbas. The pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich had so diminished the armed forces that they were unable to confront Russia's seizure of Crimea and the offensive in Donbas. Yanukovich was forced out of office by the Maidan protests, and the new government needed the help of militias like Azov and Sector Right to hold on to the east of the country.

The Russian president Vladimir Putin claims he invaded Ukraine to "de-nazify" the country. But there are zero far-right extremists in president Volodymyr Zelenskiy's government. A coalition of three extreme right-wing parties, Biletsky's National Corps, Right Sector and Svoboda, won only 2.4 per cent of the vote in the 2019 elections, less than half the 5 per cent threshold that would have enabled them to re-enter the Rada.

Azov represents less than 2 per cent of Ukraine’s total armed forces, which are estimated at more than 250,000. The battalion was integrated into the country’s national guard in November 2014, when it became a regiment. According to experts, it has been “depoliticised”, save for a handful of diehard neo-Nazis.

Yet the symbols, and past excesses, including human rights abuses and war crimes in Donbas that were documented by the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have enabled Putin to distort and exaggerate the importance of neo-Nazism in Ukraine.

Up to 27 million Soviet citizens – the most in any other country – were killed in what Russians call the great patriotic war. Putin’s endless accusations of Nazism tap into Russian memories of the second World War and exploit a stereotype of Ukrainians as anti-Semites and collaborators.

‘Fascists and Nazis’

"One finds in Putin's discourse a form of reductio ad hitlerum," says Adrien Nonjon, an expert on Ukraine and post-Soviet extreme right-wing movements at the French Institute for Eastern Languages and Civilisations, Inalco. "The extreme right in Ukraine is a tiny minority which is absolutely not representative of the Ukrainian population or armed forces who are fighting for the survival of their country."

Putin began building the narrative of a Nazi Ukraine after the Orange Revolution, which prevented Yanukovich from winning a rigged election in 2004.

Yanukovich became president in 2010 and strengthened Putin’s Nazi narrative by promoting the extreme right-wing party Svoboda. When riot police brutally repressed anti-Yanukovich protests in Maidan Square, far-right paramilitaries clashed with police.

Putin called the overthrow of Yanukovich by the Maidan protests “a coup d’état organised by fascists and Nazis”. He has used the same terms for the past eight years.

In the present war, accusations focus on the Azov Regiment, because it alone among extreme right-wing groups gained a degree of success and popularity.

The Azov battalion drove Russian-backed separatists out of Mariupol on June 15th, 2014, an anniversary it celebrates annually.

When the Russians bombarded a maternity hospital in Mariupol on March 9th, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claimed the hospital had been taken over by Azov. Russia accuses Azov of using civilians as "human shields", just as Israel accuses Hamas and Hezbollah of hiding behind civilians.

Nonjon, like other experts, says the neo-Nazi core of Azov has been diluted by mass recruitment which has swollen its ranks to up to 5,000. In March, Zelenskiy reportedly awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine to an Azov commander.

Yet Azov remains a sensitive topic. When I asked a colonel in the territorial defence about accusations that the regiment is neo-Nazi, he shifted uncomfortably and dismissed the subject in one sentence, saying they have been incorporated into the regular armed forces. The Irish Times’s request for an interview with a representative of the regiment was declined.

Neo-Nazi groups in Russia

On March 26th, a bearded Azov fighter recorded a video, posted on social media, with Azov’s Wolfsangel emblem in the lower right corner. The soldier identified himself as “Kalyna” and begged “western friends and Russians who know how to think ... not to confuse the concepts of patriotism and Nazism”. The Azov Regiment is fighting “the real Nazis of the 21st century” who have already invaded Georgia, Chechnya, Transnistria and Syria, he said.

Historically, Lviv and western Ukraine were the cradle of far-right movements, who concerned themselves only with securing Ukrainian independence. Biletsky is from the eastern city of Kharkiv and has sought links with extreme right-wing movements outside Ukraine. In 2007, he published a text entitled “Ukrainian Social Racial Nationalism”. He is regarded as a white supremacist, though he has never openly claimed neo-Nazi affiliation.

'There are more far right-wing Russian extremists fighting on the side of the Russian-backed separatists than there are neo-Nazis in Azov'

When the war eventually ends, the extreme right could gain influence for having constantly warned of the Russian peril at a time when Zelenskiy sought peace in Donbas. Its ideology advocates a form of neutrality vis-à-vis the liberal west and especially towards Russia. Neutrality is a likely outcome of the war. Or Zelenskiy might try to crack down on the far right to please both Putin and Ukraine’s supporters in the West.

Ironically, “there are hundreds of neo-Nazi groups in Russia”, Nonjon says. Some support Putin. Others have joined the Azov Regiment. But, the historian adds, “there are more far right-wing Russian extremists fighting on the side of the Russian-backed separatists than there are neo-Nazis in Azov. That is the paradox of Russian propaganda”.

Members of extreme right-wing movements have reportedly flocked to Ukraine to join the Azov Regiment, including neo-Nazis from the US, France and Norway. Biletsky told the Financial Times that Azeris, Georgians and Israelis have also joined up.

"We live in a world where the extreme right has never been so visible," says Nonjon. "The extreme right is on the rise in general, and Ukraine is not an exception, nor is Russia. This is not a Ukrainian problem. The problem is everywhere, including in the US and Europe."