Why is applauding Ukrainian Nazis a scandal, but not arming them?

Canada's parliament has apologized for celebrating a Ukrainian veteran of a World War II-era Nazi military unit. Yet NATO’s current alliance with Ukrainian neo-Nazi units remains unscathed.

The Canadian government has apologized after giving a Ukrainian veteran of a World War II-era Nazi military unit a warm reception in parliament. Yaroslav Hunka, 98, was honored following an address by visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who joined Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the entire House of Commons in a standing ovation. Hunka, Parliamentary Speaker Anthony Rota declared, is a “Canadian hero” who “fought [for] Ukrainian independence against the Russians.”

Ottawa’s applauding lawmakers overlooked that the Russians, at that time, were Canadian allies against Hunka’s Nazi commanders. Hunker served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as SS Galichina, a unit of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing. SS Galichina was directly involved in Nazi atrocities, including the Huta Pieniacka massacre of February 1944, where hundreds of Polish villagers were burned alive.

After an outcry, Rota issued perhaps the vaguest apology on record for heaping praise on a Nazi. The Canadian lawmaker referred to having “recognized an individual in the gallery,” only to then “become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to do so.” For his part, Trudeau blamed Rota, and quickly pivoted to affirming the need to “push back against Russian propaganda, Russian disinformation, and continue our steadfast and unequivocal support for Ukraine.”

If Canada and its NATO allies were consistent in disavowing Ukrainian Nazis, they would be forced to renounce not only an elderly veteran, but some of their current allies.

Although I do not agree with the Kremlin’s labelling of Kiev as a “Nazi regime,” it is undeniable that a powerful neo-Nazi and far-right movement is imbedded in Ukraine’s military. This movement formed the heart of the US-backed Maidan coup that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. And in the near decade of war since, Western governments have been a critical ally.

The core of the Maidan’s right-wing leadership grew out of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), an ultra-right nationalist party that collaborated with the Nazi occupation of Ukraine during World War II in the killings and deportations of Jews, Poles, and Soviets. The OUN leader, Stepan Bandera, is still regarded as a nationalist hero, and his influence was proudly displayed when the Maidan protests erupted in late 2013.

Although Maidan initially began as a peaceful uprising of ordinary citizens, Bandera’s followers ultimately took control. Maidan’s upper ranks included members of the Svoboda Party, which has been condemned by the European Parliament for “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views.” Joining forces with Svoboda was Right Sector, a coalition of far-right groups whose members openly sported Nazi insignia.

“The uncomfortable truth,” two Western specialists wrote in Foreign Policy one month after the February 2014 coup, “is that a sizeable portion of Kiev’s current government — and the protesters who brought it to power — are, indeed, fascists.”

The fascists celebrated their achievement. “Maidan was a victory for nationalist forces,” Yevhen Karas of the neo-Nazi C14 gang later recalled. C14, which the State Department has labelled a “nationalist hate group”, could also credit foreign help: during the Maidan violence, its members took refuge in the Canadian embassy.

Summarizing contemporaneous surveys days before the February 2014 coup, political scientists Keith Darden and Lucan Way observed in the Washington Post that “Anti-Russian forms of Ukrainian nationalism expressed on the Maidan are certainly not representative of the general view of Ukrainians.” Despite this, the post-coup government awarded at least five key cabinet posts to Svoboda and Right Sector. “I could never have predicted this,” Per Anders Rudling, a Swedish academic specializing in European nationalism, remarked at the time. “A neo-fascist party like Svoboda getting the deputy prime minister position is news in its own right.”

Having helped the neo-fascists take power, the US disagreed, insisting that Svoboda leaders were attempting “to take their party in a more moderate direction,” as one senior US official told Reuters in March 2014.

On top of newfound political power, the Maidan coup left Right Sector with a large arsenal of weapons and some 10,000 militants. And when Russia-aligned rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region launched an armed revolt against the post-coup government, Kiev relied on far-right and neo-Nazi forces to fight them.

The most notorious neo-Nazi militia, Azov Battalion, was founded in May 2014. By November, Azov was formally incorporated into the National Guard, making post-Maidan Ukraine “the world’s only nation to have a neo-Nazi formation in its armed forces,” Ukrainian-American journalist Lev Golinkin observed in The Nation.

In its fight against the Donbas rebels, the New York Times reported in August 2014, Azov “flies a neo-Nazi symbol resembling a Swastika as its flag.” The Times also noted the integral role of Azov and other militias in the fight:

The fighting for Donetsk has taken on a lethal pattern: The regular army bombards separatist positions from afar, followed by chaotic, violent assaults by some of the half-dozen or so paramilitary groups surrounding Donetsk who are willing to plunge into urban combat.

Officials in Kiev say the militias and the army coordinate their actions, but the militias, which count about 7,000 fighters, are angry and, at times, uncontrollable.

According to Ukraine’s interior ministry, Azov was among the first battalions to receive US military training for the Donbas war. Azov even “boasted that its fighters received more time training with a weapon than recruits in the Ukrainian conventional forces,” a U.S. military study noted. The Canadian army also trained Azov forces, and, according to an investigation by the Ottawa Citizen, expressed internal worry that their ties would become publicly exposed.

By July 2015, the New York Times acknowledged that Azov was “openly neo-Nazi.” According to a Daily Beast account that same month, one Azov fighter recalled “his battalion’s experience with U.S. trainers and U.S. volunteers quite fondly, even mentioning U.S. volunteers engineers and medics that are still currently assisting them.” A Public Affairs Officer with the US army’s training contingent in western Ukraine also admitted that the US was not taking any steps to avoid training Azov members and other neo-Nazis: “When it comes to vetting and the Ukrainian government, the most I can tell you is that we are training at the request of the government and where these guys come from and where they go—it is their decision not ours.”

Amid these reports, the late Democratic Rep. John Conyers led a Congressional effort to ban US support for Azov. In 2015, Conyers introduced an amendment to a Pentagon funding bill which barred “arms, training, or other assistance to the Azov Battalion.” Although his measure was initially approved, The Nation’s James Carden reported the following January that the Pentagon successfully pressured Congressional leaders to remove it.

The Pentagon’s intervention meant that by February 2018, Azov had “received teams of American military advisors and high powered US-made weapons,” Max Blumenthal of The Grayzone reported. That same year, Rep. Ro Khanna revived the Conyers measure and successfully added it to another Pentagon appropriations bill. “White supremacy and neo-Nazism are unacceptable and have no place in our world,” Khanna said. The Azov ban has been extended in subsequent Pentagon funding bills, including last year’s.

In 2019, a group of lawmakers also signed on to a letter urging the State Department to declare the Azov Battalion a Foreign Terrorist Organization, on the grounds that Azov is a “well-known ultranationalist militia organization in Ukraine that openly welcomes neo-Nazis into its ranks.” The State Department, then led by Mike Pompeo, declined to do so.

But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, even this limited Congressional pushback has been abandoned.

Azov, the Wall Street Journal reported in June 2022, was “hoping to benefit from Western aid.” At least one battalion claimed to have three US-made Javelins, as well as short-range antitank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. By September, an Azov officer openly credited “Western weapons” for Ukrainian battlefield successes in Kharkiv. To make their case for more help, a group of Azov fighters paid a visit to Capitol Hill, where they were met with a warm welcome.

Azov and its Western supporters initially attempted to play down their ties to the group’s founding commander, Andriy Biletsky, who has defined Ukraine’s mission as being to “lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade…against the Semite-led sub-humans.”

 “The Azov Regiment has been repeatedly reconstituted,” a Western academic wrote last year. “Its extremist early leaders such as the odious Andriy Biletsky are long gone.” In March 2022, Azov told CNN that while it “appreciates and respects” Biletsky, “we have nothing to do with his political activities and the National Corps party.”

But Biletsky was not long gone, and his activities remained military. By May of this year, Biletsky was leading an assault brigade in the battle for Bakhmut. The New York Times tepidly described him as a “a former ultranationalist politician and the founder of the Azov regiment, a group that was part of Ukraine’s national guard before the war and is now integrated into the country’s military forces, with little or no political bent.” It is unclear how the Times determined that Azov had abandoned what its Ukraine correspondent had previously described as an “openly neo-Nazi” bent.

Biletsky remains on the front lines. Just last month, the Ukrainian government shared a video of Zelensky meeting with the Azov commander to discuss military strategy.

To the extent that Ukraine’s neo-Nazi contingent is now acknowledged in NATO states, it is mainly as a public relations issue that threatens support for the proxy war. An illustrative June 2023 report in the New York Times explored the preponderance of Ukrainian battalions, including Azov, that openly brandish neo-Nazi emblems. But rather than explore whether the US should be arming and abetting neo-Nazis, the Times instead cast Ukraine’s neo-Nazi movement as among the “thorny issues of history” that “risks fueling Russian propaganda.”

Trudeau’s response to the applause of a Nazi veteran inside his own parliament is the latest iteration of this approach. From Western proxy warriors’ point of view, the problem is not that we are arming Ukrainian Nazis, but that acknowledging this fact plays into “Russian disinformation.” Accordingly, while Canada has just apologized for applauding a Ukrainian Nazi World War II veteran, Ottawa and fellow NATO members remain unbothered by their alliance with his unit’s modern-day followers.