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Ukraine's Support of Neo-Nazi Factions Goes Well Beyond Azov Battalion

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by blueapples
Thursday, Mar 03, 2022 - 21:58

One week into the Russia-Ukraine War, the city of Mariupol lays under siege. The city is an integral cog to Russia's military strategy as its occupation is prerequisite to gaining control of southern Ukraine, whose naval borders stretch from the Sea of Azov in the east to the Black Sea on the western coast where Odessa and Kherson are two of the most important strategic positions. Unlike Berdyansk, which lies about 60 miles westward down the Azov coastline, Mariupol has yet to entirely capitulate to Russian forces even though it lies closer to the separatist states of the Donestk and Luhansk people's republics that are heavily fortified by the Russian army. Characterized as a miraculous defense by Ukrainian forces and citizens, the resolute resistance of Mariupol is no coincidence and comes as no surprise to Russian forces. Though western media highlights Mariupol as a beacon representing Ukraine's resolve, painting that perspective glosses over an important factor in how the city has continued to fight on.

Since the Ukranian Revolution of 2014, Mariupol has been at the epicenter of the Neo-Nazi militant resurgence that Russian President Vladimir Putin has highlighted to create his own narrative in support of his country's invasion. Western media has balked at Putin's claims of his intent to "de-nazify" Ukraine, highlighting the country's vibrant Jewish population and president. Yet, examining Mariupol's history during the near-decade long conflict between Ukraine and Russia conveys that the resurgence of a national socialist sentiment has gone well beyond obscure militia groups. The ultra nationalist movement has permeated into government on local and federal levels, showing that it's supported by the upper echelons of Ukraine's ruling class. The reality of that political climate casts a new light on the ideological outlook of this ongoing war.

Azov Battalion is the centerpiece that Putin points to when criticizing Ukraine's support of Neo-Nazi groups. The ultra nationalist militia was founded in 2014 in Berdyansk by members of groups of Ukrainian and Russian football hooligans who used their supporter base as ultras of Ukraine's FC Metalist Kharkiv and Russia's FC Spartak Moscow as a platform to espouse their support of national socialist ideals under the moniker Sect 82. When the Ukrainian government issued a decree allowing the mobilization of militia groups of up to 12,000 members, Sect 82 member Andriy Biletsky used his standing as a member of Sect 82 and the ultra nationalist community at large to form the aforementioned Azov Battalion which capitalized on the conflict between separatist states backing the ousted government of Viktor Yanukovych.

Biletsky's Neo-Nazi political sympathies had been cultivated long before 2014. The subject of his thesis as a student at the University of Kharkiv centered around the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, who sided with Nazis under the Third Reich to fight against Soviet forces during World War II. Ukraine, like much of eastern Europe, was the battleground in which Operation Barbarossa was waged. Despite the recency bias of the west, Ukraine's recent history goes well beyond their current conflict with Russia and ignoring the complexities of its experience between the struggle being national socialism and Bolshevism conveys how far removed supposed supporters of Ukraine are from truly understanding its culture and society. The reverence of the Third Reich aligned Ukrainian resistance to the Soviet Union has been preserved through the decades, serving as somewhat of an ideological initiation into the current scope of nationalism represented by different groups.

After graduating in 2001, Biletsky would ascend the ranks of Tryzub, another Neo-Nazi militia group in Ukraine that served as the catalyst for the formation of the Right Sector - one of Ukraine's current and largest neo-nazi political organizations. His leadership role saw him foster relations with political parties sharing a national socialist sentiment, notably the Social-National Party of Ukraine, which Biletsky sought to keep from moderating its political position to take on a less extreme ideology. With that growing political aptitude, he ran for a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament in 2006 just a year after revitalizing Patriot of Ukraine, a Neo-Nazi organization describing itself as the "revolutionary vanguard of the Ukrainian social-nationalistic movement" which was founded in 1996 before being dissolved in 2004. Though Biletsky was successful in his political endeavors outside of an elected capacity, the support he gained fomenting the Ukrainian national socialist political sentiment was not enough for him to win in the parliamentary election of 2006.

Biletsky's defeat in that election would not deter him from continuing to foster the growing nationalist socialist sentiment in Ukraine that strove toward great political representation and military organization. Two years later, Biletsky was arrested following a march commemorating the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. He founded the Social National Assembly ("SNA") a month after his arrest in an effort to amalgamate disparate Neo-Nazi factions across the whole of Ukraine. The role the SNA had in bringing a greater organizational capacity to this cause along with the intersection of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution manifest in the establishment of several paramilitary groups including Right Sector in 2013 and the infamous foundation of Azov Battalion a year later.

Biletsky himself was not only central to Azov Battalion's formation, his role was crucial to its military operations as he held the position of its first commander. His ability to absorb members of existing Neo-Nazi groups of his into Azov Battalion drastically strengthened the militia's capabilities, motivating Biletsky to suspend the political mission of Patriot of Ukraine in order to focus on military engagements given the onset conflicts arising against pro-Russian separatists. As separatist groups of the Donetsk People's Republic faced off against Ukrainian government forces, Azov Battalion lent its aid fighting against the pro-Russian faction during the Battle of Mariupol from May to June of 2014. Azov Battalion's role proved to be key in allowing Ukrainian Special Forces to retake the city from the Donetsk People's Republic so much so that the government supported public funerals commemorating the casualties of the Neo-Nazi militia who died in the battle.

The Battle of Mariupol was a seminal moment that allowed Biletsky to parlay his military contributions as a platform to revitalize his political aspirations. Months after the battle, Biletsky ran in the 2014 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election and won the seat for the country's 217th electoral district with 33.75% of the votes. Biletsky's election marked his departure as commander of Azov Battalion as he handed the reins of the militia to Ihor Mykhailenko so that focus could be placed on his parliamentary duties. 

Biletsky's efforts to construct far right extremist political parties to take greater representation in the Ukrainian Parliament did not have as much success as his successful campaign as an independent candidate did. However, the Azov Battalion founder was certainly not the only national socialist to be elected to office in Ukraine amidst the  anti-Russian sentiment growing stronger in the country. Oleh Tyahnybok, the incumbent leader of Svoboda, a political party that Biletsky had urged the Social-National Party not to consolidate into years before, also managed to harness the rising tide of national socialism in Ukraine to facilitate his own political goals. Tyahnybok was elected to the seat of councilman in the Lviv Oblast Council as well as being elected to the Ukrainian Parliament as a member of the Social-National Party itself on two occasions in 1998 and 2002.

Following his initial political success, Tyahnybok advanced the national socialist position in Ukrainian to take particular aim against the Russian Federation. His fervent Neo-Nazi rhetoric led him to be barred from entering the United States and the Russian Federation launched a criminal case against him for his role participating in the First Chechen War. The US House of Representatives would go on to pass resolutions blocking any funding of Azov Battalion in 2015, citing its Neo-Nazi ties, the Canadian government would go onto follow in those footsteps within the same month. The international focus on Biletsky and Tyahnybok provides a historical acknowledgement of Ukraine's Neo-Nazi militia groups and their assimilation into the Ukrainian National Guard, a fact which has suddenly become a conspiracy theory from the Russian Federation according to the very politicians who confirmed that assertion years ago.

Despite these public condemnations, Tyahnybok was referenced by former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland in leaked audio recording of her discussions with then US Ambassador to Ukraine on how to shape the government of the nation following the ouster of President Yanukovych. Nuland stated "I think Yats is the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience. What he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside" noting that she believed Tyahnybok should be a core component of new Ukrainian government she sought to shape. During one of his many trips to Ukraine, including one in which he famously threatened to withhold loan guarantees to ensure that his son's company Burisma would not face any criminal prosecution, then Vice President even personally met Tyahnybok when he greeted members of the western supported Ukrainian political establishment.

Following the change of government in Ukraine in 2014, it became clear that Tyahnybok and other national socialists had solidified their political standing in the country in one capacity or another. Though Tyahnybok presently holds no elected position, he still remains the leader of the Neo-Nazi political party Svoboda. In 2018, his role with the party brought new controversy following the persecution of Romani residents of Ukraine by C14, Svoboda's youth ranks. C14's attacks against the Romani were made possible by an agreement negotiated between Svoboda and the Kiev city government to contact C14 as a police patrol throughout the streets of the capital. Biletsky has also assimilated his influence into the party by becoming a member of Svoboda, last losing an election during the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election in which he ran as a member of the party.

Despite mixed results in running for office, the ebb and flow of Biletsky and Tyahnybok's success is measured beyond election tallies. Their contributions to the renaissance of Neo-Nazism in Ukraine have been so profound that the national socialist political platform has become a mainstay of each election cycle.

As the Russia-Ukraine war wages on, the invasion will certainly serve to embolden Neo-Nazi factions from militia's to political parties throughout the whole of Ukraine. While Azov Battalion currently takes center stage, the origins of its founder and his allies show that a national socialist sentiment is deeply ingrained in Ukrainian politics. With the election of national socialist politicians in the past and continued sanction of their political and military operations, it's clear that Neo-Nazism in Ukraine is far from a Kremlin sponsored piece of propaganda.

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