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The government in Ukraine has been accused of sympathizing with and honoring former SS officers, neo-Nazis, and Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky has been accused of conspiring with the pro-Nazi Azov movement. Russian President Putin and his administration has seized on these claims to justify the war in Ukraine, which began February 24, 2022. However, it is important to examine the veracity of these alleged ties between the Ukrainian government and neo-Nazi groups in order to inform Western policy on the currently raging war in Eastern Europe.

Russia’s Allegations Against Ukraine

In a 2021 article by President Vladimir Putin titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” he claims that Ukraine and Russia share a common history and culture, and that Ukraine is an artificial state created by the Soviet Union. Putin asserts that Russia and Ukraine share a common history, language, and culture, and that they are essentially one people. He argues that Ukraine only became a separate state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that its borders were drawn arbitrarily by the Soviet authorities. Putin also seeks to downplay the role of Ukrainian nationalism and the country’s Western orientation, portraying these as recent developments that have been imposed on the Ukrainian people by outside forces.

While Putin argues that Ukraine is an artificial state, this has been a matter of debate among historians and scholars. While Ukraine did not exist as a modern state prior to the Soviet era, it has a long history as a region with a distinct culture, language, and political identity. The idea that Ukraine is an artificial state is closely tied to Russian attempts to undermine Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity, and to frame the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a civil war rather than a Russian invasion.

Putin also went on to criticize NATO and Western powers in the article for alleged interference in Ukraine’s government and accused Ukraine of harboring former Nazis and neo-Nazis. According to Putin, Ukraine is facing a climate of fear due to the deployment of NATO infrastructure, foreign advisers supervising authorities, security services, and armed forces, as well as the glorification of Nazi collaborators. Specifically, he identifies marches and torchlit processions in honor of SS war criminals as evidence of Ukraine’s skewed priorities, accusing Mazepa, Petliura, and Bandera of collaborating with Nazis and questioning Ukraine’s decision to rank them as national heroes. Putin warns of deliberate attempts to erase the names of genuine patriots and victors from the memory of young generations, adding fuel to the debate over Ukraine’s national identity.

Ukraine’s Nazi Problem: An Inconvenient Truth

While the aforementioned march in 2020 did not appear to be sponsored by the government in Kyiv, the 2016 article regarding the alleged honoring of war criminals does mention:

“the rehabilitation of ‘heroes’ like Stepan Bandera, who last month had a street named after him in Kiev; Symon Petliura, a 1920s anti-Semitic statesman who in May was commemorated on public television, and Roman Shukhevych, a militia leader who will also be honored with a street name in Kiev.”

It is noteworthy that in 2016, Ukraine was headed by President Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in 2014 following the overthrow of his pro-Russian predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych. At that time, Ukraine was still dealing with the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests and the annexation of Crimea by Russia and there may have been other reasons, though obviously controversial, for trying to revision such war “heroes”:

“These are not my heroes,” Zissels, the head of the Vaad organization of Ukrainian Jews, told JTA during a recent interview. “They’re being honored not for anti-Semitic crimes, but for their fighting for Ukrainian independence against Russia. And still I don’t like the naming of streets after them, which has divided Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “most Ukrainians do like it and the Jewish minority, or any other ethnic minority, should not interfere with the choice of the Ukrainian people as they name their national heroes.”

Speaking out against this trend, Zissels said, “can and will serve Russian propaganda.”

Is Russia Fueling Antisemitism in Ukraine?

Interestingly, the underlying evidence for Putin’s claims, at least prior to 2016, are more nuanced than his self-penned article might suggest. According to a 2014 article from the TImes of Israel, there was a rise of reports of anti-semitic attacks against synagogues and Jews in Ukraine, with some Jews claiming the attacks were being blown out of proportion, or potentially even being engineered, by the Kremlin to overthrow Kiev’s fragile new government. With less than one-tenth of Ukraine’s population Jewish, the amount of press devoted to the community during that crisis would make it seem as though they number in the millions, rather than 350,000 (an estimate which some believe may also be inflated). Putin himself also seemingly fuelled the anti-semitic narrative by asking,

“What is our biggest concern? We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist, and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.”

However, many Jews in Ukraine believed that these alleged attacks were being manipulated for geopolitical ends, and that the supposed propaganda was bought into and amplified by the international press. Many Ukrainian Jews are even pointing at Russia as the real source of the anti-semitism issue, and are suggesting that Putin is attempting to create a “golden cage” to “save” Jews from supposed anti-semitism, engineered by himself and the Kremlin.

President Zelenksy vs. Azov

The Azov Regiment today functions as an armed wing of the broader Azov Movement, and has tried to distance itself from its neo-Nazi affiliations to avoid being defined as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Their emblem, which soldiers wear on their uniforms, features a “Wolfsangel” and “Black Sun,” symbols associated with Nazi Germany and neo-Nazis today. Additionally, the former commander and a former Ukrainian parliamentarian of the Azov Regiment, Andriy Biletsky, said in 2010 that he believed Ukraine’s national purpose should be to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade . . . against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].”

Prior to the 2022 invasion, President Zelensky’s interactions with Azov members had been tense. During a visit to the front-line town of Zolote in Luhansk Oblast in 2019, Zelensky argued with a group of Azov members who opposed his plan for mutual disengagement of troops and armaments at the front line. The argument escalated when Zelensky demanded that the veterans who had taken up residence in an abandoned house remove their allegedly illegal arms from the town. One veteran, who heads the National Corps, a political offshoot of the far-right Azov volunteer battalion, in Mykolaiv city, claimed they had no arms and wanted to discuss protests against the planned disengagement, causing Zelensky to become furious.

And while there actually is some merit to claims that Ukraine has honored some former Nazi allies as war heroes, it appears the decisions were fueled more by anti-Russian sympathies, rather than pro-Nazi sympathies. While no free-thinking person in the Western world would condone this state of affairs, the situation is far more complicated than simply declaring Ukraine a “Nazi state,” or that Ukraine is a haven for neo-Nazis. And as for claims that President Zelensky is a Nazi sympathizer, research suggests that the country is far from a “Nazi state” and that Zelensky himself is of Jewish heritage and lost family in the Holocaust. However, the presence of groups like the Azov Movement and some of their extremist actions—attempting to impede the disengagement of forces in the Donbass in 2019, organizing gypsy pogroms, perpetrating attacks on political opponents, and acts of vandalism against Jewish shrines—have all highlighted the existence of a neo-Nazi problem in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government’s honoring of former Nazi allies in 2016 is also problematic. Therefore, it is crucial to continue examining and addressing this problem to ensure that Ukraine remains a democratic and inclusive country.

What About Russia’s Justification for the War Against Ukraine?

Of course, it is easy to debate these issues during peacetime, but when armed conflict becomes a reality, then governments and leaders often have to reshuffle priorities. It is clear that President Zelensky has had differences with Azov members in the past, but how has he interacted with them since the beginning of the war in February 2022?

Well, it appears that there are conflicting views and evidence regarding President Zelensky’s relationship with Azov. In April of 2022, Zelensky delivered a speech to the Greek Parliament, which was followed by a video message from a member of the Azov Battalion. Opposition parties and influential figures in Greece criticized the inclusion of the video, considering it a provocation and voicing concerns about neo-Nazi influence. However, Zelensky has repeatedly denied claims that Azov is a neo-Nazi group. In an interview with a Greek television channel, Zelensky stated that the Azov Regiment is a part of the Ukrainian National Guard and not a volunteer formation. He further mentioned that those who wanted to get involved in politics left Azov Regiment, while those who chose to serve in the National Guard became a part of it. Zelensky emphasizes that there is minimal public support for extremism in Ukraine, despite the ongoing war.

Additionally, even reports by Western liberal media suggest that Ukraine has a history of Nazi collaboration, heightened by the glorification of controversial figures associated with Nazi proxies and the presence of neo-Nazis within some volunteer battalions like Azov. It is possible that President Zelensky’s stance on Azov may be purely out of diplomatic and wartime necessity, rather than because he harbors any Nazi sympathies. The fact that he has criticized its members in the past and even argued with them face-to-face, as well as refuted claims of political involvement, suggests that he may not be ideologically aligned with glorifying Nazis or fascism. However, the complex nature of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the potential influence of far-right and neo-Nazi elements in some volunteer battalions like Azov make it difficult to determine President Zelensky’s true stance towards the group. More transparency and verification of insider information would be essential to ensure that the situation in Ukraine is accurately represented to the international community.

Far-Left Values vis-à-vis Ukrainian Surrender

The question often arises about who is responsible for initiating and concluding the war. Some groups in the progressive Western left may not necessarily vocalize this viewpoint explicitly, but have a certain perspective on “peace through diplomacy,” which insinuates Ukraine’s surrender on Russia’s terms.

While far-left views are grounded in principles of voluntary exchange and nonviolent resistance, it may not be realistic to rely solely on these methods to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The situation involves complex political and territorial issues, and Russia’s actions may be driven by strategic interests beyond Ukraine. Moreover, the Ukrainian government may not be able to rely solely on theories of pacifism and redistribution of capital for its defense and may require the support of Western military and economic aid, as well as diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful resolution.

It is also worth taking seriously the attention to the Ukraine conflict because of the risk of nuclear war, despite acknowledging issues with Ukraine’s democracy and presidency. That said, it’s important to continue the fight. At the start of the war, socialist author Taras Bilous joined the Territorial Defence Forces alongside anarchists from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, demonstrating that people want to fight for their country, despite the flaws in its democracy. It is also common argument that the conflict in Ukraine is merely another proxy war between the West and Russia, but this alone should not be used to label it as such as that sentiment could apply to practically all armed conflicts in the world, as more powerful allies take sides. Instead, it is important to focus on analyzing Ukraine’s reliance on the West and understanding the goals of both imperialist world powers. Leftists should support economic pressure on Russia, such as the imposition of tougher sanctions and embargoes on Russian oil and gas, to increase pressure on Putin to end the war. Western states share responsibility for the conflict, but radical leftists should criticize their willingness to bypass sanctions and lend economic support to Russia instead of criticizing the supply of weapons and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

End the War, Deal with Imperialism Later

All in all, the claims that Ukraine is a Nazi state are more complex and nuanced than a simple label. While there are certainly issues with far-right and neo-Nazi elements within Ukraine, including the glorification of controversial figures associated with Nazi proxies and the presence of neo-Nazis within some volunteer battalions like Azov, the situation is not as clear-cut. It is also important to acknowledge that Putin may be using and even fueling these claims as propaganda to justify his military actions in Ukraine.

On the other hand, if the West were to stop supporting Ukraine in its defense against Russia, it could shift the power dynamics in the region and embolden further aggression by Russia, while undermining the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty that form the basis of international law. The West’s credibility, trustworthiness, and commitment to its values, alliances, and international obligations would be called into question, potentially leading to strained relationships with other countries. The humanitarian crisis in the region could worsen with higher casualties and greater influence for Russia, exerting economic and military pressure on other former Soviet states in the region, such as Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The invasion of Ukraine has put Sweden and Finland on edge, pushing them to seek NATO membership in a move to deter Russia from expanding eastward. The implications of such decisions are complex and multifaceted, and will set of a chain reaction of a variety of factors that will be felt in Europe and the rest of the world for decades.

In the end, the situation in Ukraine is difficult. Claims regarding far-right and neo-Nazi elements present in Ukraine are founded, but such claims may also be used as propaganda by President Putin to justify his actions. While ending the war may be desirable, withdrawing support for Ukraine could have significant implications for the region and beyond. The West must balance its democratic interests with its commitment to values such as territorial integrity and sovereignty, while also considering the humanitarian consequences of its actions. The situation is multifaceted, and any decision must take into account a variety of factors and potential outcomes as the war in Ukraine enters its eighteenth month, with no reasonable end in sight.

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