We need to talk about Azov

    Mar 2, 2022

    OTTAWA—I didn’t want to write about this topic, but every time I try to get out, white supremacy just pulls me back in. 

    There has been a lot of Russian disinformation accompanying their invasion of Ukraine, an accoutrement to the ground war. Russia’s pretext to the invasion, in Vladimir Putin’s own words, as printed in The Sydney Herald, was as follows: “We will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”

    Um, excuse me, wut? If you’ve ever known anyone darker than alabaster who’s ever been to Russia, you know that’s a monumental joke. In fact, if you compare the language Putin used with Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, as historian Benjamin Nathans did for the University of Pennsylvania blog, you’d notice that Putin is using similar language: “It’s true that Putin is using the argument that he’s protecting the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine in a way that is similar to Hitler’s claim that he was protecting the rights of ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe, whether that was in the territory known as the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia or in Poland.”

    Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pictured with Defence Minister Anita Anand, left, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly at a press conference on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

    And people say that a history degree is a waste of time and money. 


    On Feb. 27, the Ukraine National Guard tweeted a video of their fighters, the infamous Azov regiment, who were coating bullets with pig fat to use against Muslim Chechen fighters, deployed by Russia. As reported by Al Jazeera, the now-banned tweet read: “Dear Muslim brothers. In our country, you will not go to heaven. You will not be allowed into heaven. Go home, please. Here, you will encounter trouble. Thank you for your attention, goodbye.” 

    The Azov Special Operations Detachment, or the Azov Battalion, is a far-right, neo-Nazi group of volunteer fighters that fought against Russian forces in the latter’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In that year, the group was formally incorporated into the Ukraine National Guard, given their effectiveness, especially in the Battle of Mariupol. They also train civilians and perform policing functions (policing is a corrupt institution, globally), according to Vice News: “The sprawling movement consists of an official regiment within the National Guard; its own fringe political party, National Corps; and a paramilitary group, known as National Militia, which ‘patrols’ Ukrainian streets enforcing its own brand of justice. Members of the group have been linked to a series of violent attacks on minorities in recent years.”

    Whoops. But then who cares about racialized people in peace time, much less in a war? No one. In fact, many have dismissed this as Russian disinformation, which it is not. In a written statement to the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, Ali H. Soufan from the Soufan Centre, an independent think tank on global security, testified in September of 2019: “Yet the emerging epicenter [of] WSE [white supremacist extremists] seems to be located in Russia and Ukraine. There are extensive ties between the Russian government and far-right groups in Europe. Russian disinformation efforts online have fueled anti-immigrant sentiment in countries like Sweden, fueling resentment among native-born Swedes and newly arrived immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.” He went onto say: “In Ukraine, the aforementioned Azov Battalion has actively recruited foreign fighters motivated by white supremacy and neo-Nazi beliefs, including many from the West, to join its ranks and receive training, indoctrination, and instruction in irregular warfare. The group has cultivated a relationship with members of the Atomwaffen Division as well as with U.S.-based militants from the Rise Above Movement, or RAM, which the F.B.I. has labeled a ‘white supremacy extremist group’ based in Southern California. The Azov Battalion also maintains a political wing, offering ideological education, and ties to a growing vigilante street movement which can be counted on for violence, intimidation, and coercion.”

    This is more than just a few bad apples. This is the global barrel. 

    And what proportion of our tax dollars is going toward funding Nazi battalions? How are we ensuring that the arms we are sending don’t end up in the wrong hands? The problem with funding Nazis is they tend to commit war crimes with your equipment. Amnesty International already warned about this in their 2014 report: “The failure to eliminate abuses and possible war crimes by volunteer battalions risks significantly aggravating tensions in the east of the country and undermining the proclaimed intentions of the new Ukrainian authorities to strengthen and uphold the rule of law more broadly.”

    And God forbid, our war-mongering media would take the time to ponder these inconvenient facts and demand accountability from this government, which thinks it can talk to us like we’re two years old. Instead of giving us a reason for their level of involvement in the conflict, what the strategic interest is to Canada, and what their plan is going forward, Trudeau & Company expect the public to trust them, as though they’ve earned that trust. And given that Ukraine is not yet a NATO member, and this is a NATO-sanctioned response, the optics are questionable, at best. 

    Along with individuals bearing the Nazi and Confederate flags, so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ participants included members of the Groypers, a white nationalist group, pictured here outside Ottawa City Hall on Feb. 5.

    But then, when it comes to racism and white supremacy, this country continues to be two-faced. While the Trudeau government denounces white supremacist extremism at home, it meets with them in the dark. David Pugliese, a defence specialist for the Ottawa Citizen, broke a story about Department of National Defence officials meeting with members of the Azov Battalion in 2018: “Members of the Azov Battalion were present, but, again, instead of denouncing the battalion’s Nazi sympathies, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces focused concern on the possibility that photos might have been taken showing Canadian soldiers with members of the Azov unit.”

    It’s hypocritical that the Trudeau government lambasts the Conservative Party (rightly so) for supporting the convoy that included Nazi and Confederate flag-bearers and occupied Ottawa for three weeks, yet uses public funds to support a government whose defence forces have knowingly incorporated them into their institutional defence structure. Were I the cynical type, I would note that there’s nothing better than a war to bolster one’s poll numbers that had been sinking up until this point. 

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.

    The Hill Times