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Opposing Russia's war need not mean whitewashing the Azov Battalion

RUSSIA’S plan to put captured members of the Azov Battalion on trial for war crimes will deepen the mystification of this notorious regiment across the West.

Though it will be easy enough to find genuine victims of the far-right militia — its responsibility for torture and extrajudicial killings during the Donbass conflict from 2014 onwards has been documented by rights groups including Amnesty International — it is clear enough that trying these prisoners of war on Russian soil will be a propaganda exercise. 

Russia, like the United States, does not recognise the International Criminal Court or its right to hold Russian soldiers accountable for war crimes, which undermines its credibility when seeking to hold others to account for them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will relish the opportunity to showcase the crimes of swastika-tattooed fascists, since the claim that Russia had to invade its neighbour to protect people from them has been key to justifying this war of aggression to his own citizens. 

As it becomes clearer that Russia is bogged down in a long proxy war with the West, suffering serious casualties and significant economic pain, show trials enabling the government to broadcast testimony from victims of far-right extremism will help shore up support for the war.

Over here, the whole process will only accelerate the rehabilitation of Azov as courageous patriots. 

Criticism of Ukrainian fascists was already being dismissed as “Putin apologism” before the Russian invasion began. 

It will now become harder since even the Ukrainian state has clocked that Azov needs a rebrand, convincing them to drop their use of the SS Wolfsangel symbol in favour of a modified Ukrainian trident. 

Western media now routinely describe the accusation that the Ukrainian military contains nazis as mere Russian misinformation.

It’s important to oppose this whitewashing exercise. 

Though the monopoly media want to present this war — like every war in which Nato has a stake — as a clash between good and evil, it should not be too difficult for socialists to grasp that Russia can have cynically exaggerated the role of Ukrainian fascists to justify an aggressive war, and Ukraine can still have a genuine problem with fascist militias.

We should learn from the left in Greece, where comprehensive condemnation of Russia’s invasion did not stop an outcry when Ukrainian President Zelensky had an Azov Battalion serviceman address the Greek parliament by video link. The uproar forced Greece’s right-wing government to denounce the stunt as inappropriate. 

Undoubtedly the Greek left’s experience in building mass democratic resistance to the fascists of Golden Dawn played its part in their refusal to be silenced on Ukrainian fascists.

The Azov Battalion are a neonazi unit, whose founder Andriy Biletsky stated that he wanted to lead “the white races” in a crusade against “semite-led untermenschen.” Their use of the Wolfsangel symbol draws on a history of Ukrainian nationalist collaboration with the Nazis, which included the direct involvement of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army led by Stepan Bandera in the Holocaust. 

Though the far right have never won significant electoral support in Ukraine, their influence over the state was magnified precisely by the clout wielded by armed groups like Azov. It is reflected in the Ukrainian state’s presentation of the mass murderer Bandera — and other anti-semitic killers like civil war-era despot Simon Petliura — as national heroes.

This rewriting of history is especially dangerous given the links between Azov and white supremacist organisations in the rest of Europe, and the flood of advanced weaponry into Ukraine, some of which is already being put on the market by unscrupulous and underpaid soldiers. 

Russia’s invasion has hugely boosted the prestige of Ukraine’s far right. Yet we saw in the Manchester arena bombing the blowback from arming extremists to fight Gadaffi. 

It is vital to be alert to the danger of analogous consequences from arming anyone who will fight Russia in Ukraine.


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