By Jonathan Power*
Lost in the clouds of combat we forget how the violence in otherwise peaceful Ukraine came about. The spark that lit the fire was struck in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan.
In 2014, demonstrators in the Maidan, the central square of the capital, Kyiv, were motivated by the arguments over a trade agreement with the EU, then being negotiated. They were ardently for it but the government under Russian pressure had done a somersault and was re-orientating its trade policy towards the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union.
In truth, Ukraine could have had both—just like the UK, until Brexit, had the EU and was negotiating the North Atlantic Free Trade Area simultaneously. But the EU and the US threw their weight behind the demonstrators and said Ukraine couldn’t face both ways.
After a few days, the demonstrations turned violent. Although the Western media was slow to catch on, the demonstrators had been infiltrated by neo-Nazis who fired first at the police and second at the more peaceful demonstrators. Some of the neo-Nazis in the Svoboda and Right Sector movements, who trace their pedigree back to Nazi times, became snipers, firing from the 11th-floor windows of the adjacent Hotel Ukraine.
A BBC film aired footage of this. So did an Italian documentary. Nevertheless, NATO countries have ignored the evidence for this and have accused the then pro-Russian government of President Wiktor Yanukovych of instigating the shootings.
The demonstrators continued to push and became more infiltrated by violent elements. On February 21, 2014 Yanukovych fled to Russia.
A few months after followed the so-called Minsk Agreement when the leaders of France, Russia, Germany and Ukraine hammered out a solution. Much of it hinged on Ukraine implementing certain promises—reform of parliament and the judiciary, ending corruption and discrimination against the Russian language. Initially, it calmed the violence. But peace didn’t hold for long. In February 2015 there was a second attempt—Minsk 2.
In 2014 Russia took over Crimea. Ukrainian’s right-wing militias were organised to harass the Russians. A militia called “Azov” is now its backbone. As a military force, they have grown in strength. As a political force they and their allies only got 2% of the vote in the last general election, whereas, in the elections held shortly after the Maidan events they and their allies gained more and its senior members held office as deputy prime minister and the ministers of agriculture, the environment and defence (which channelled government money to armed rightist groups).
Last month (March) one media outlet after another ran stories claiming that the far right’s Azov Battalion was a benign force attached to the Ukrainian army, somersaulting over their own reporting during the previous decade when they clearly identified the unit’s Nazi sympathies and ethos. Now the Western press in their unified riposte to President Vladimir Putin’s accusation that the country is infiltrated by Nazis, ask how can this be? President Zelensky, they say, is Jewish. Doesn’t that prove that Nazi influence is minimal? The fact is Ukraine is the world’s only nation to have a neo-Nazi formation in its armed forces.
The BBC’s Ros Atkins, an influential presenter on a major news program, talked for 10 minutes on March 27, last month, about the situation in Ukraine. “No far-right groups have any formal political power.” The fact is they have a lot of informal power, way beyond what their numbers suggest. As the Financial Times reported two days later, Azov is “the key to the nationwide resistance effort”.
Azov troops wear Nazi symbols. One is the “Black Sun”, first commissioned by Heinrich Himmler.
The same day, CNN on March 29 ran a story, saying, “Azov has a history of neo-Nazi leanings, which have not been entirely extinguished by its integration into the Ukrainian military”. CNN said that the government gives them near immunity despite their freelance violent actions.
The impact on Western audiences is hard to gauge since the issue has not been polled, but overall the impression given is that Azov are not Nazis but patriots.
Because of the war Western media have moved a long way from their stance taken last year. Time magazine described them then as a militia that had “trained and inspired white supremacists from around the world.”
“Azov is much more than a militia”, Time continued, “It has its own political party; two publishing houses, summer camps for children, and a vigilante force known as the National Militia, which patrols the streets of Ukrainian cities alongside the police. It also has a military wing with at least two training bases and a vast arsenal of weapons, from drones and armoured vehicles to artillery pieces”. Most of this armoury comes from Western nations.
In June 2015, both Canada and the United States announced that their own forces would not support or train the Azov regiment, citing its neo-Nazi connections.
The following year, however, the US lifted the ban under pressure from the Pentagon.
A 2016 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the Azov regiment of violating international humanitarian law.
The report detailed incidents over a period from November 2015-February 2016 where Azov had embedded their weapons and forces in inhabited buildings, and displaced residents after looting their properties. The report also accused the battalion of raping and torturing detainees in the Donbas region. It has also attacked Roma communities and LGBTQ members.
Last year (2021) Time talked to “the head of Azov’s international outreach”, Olena Semenyaka, who said that Azov wanted to “form a coalition of far-right groups across the Western world, with the ultimate aim of taking power throughout Europe”.
Is not Putin’s attack on Ukraine’s Nazis worth listening to, whatever one thinks about the illegitimacy of Russia’s invasion? Our enemy’s enemy should not necessarily be our friend.
*About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com