The Nazification of Ukraine
May 27, 2022
During the early stages of the Syrian Civil War an airbase in the north of the country, Menagh Air Base, was besieged by opposition forces. These forces included various units under the banner of the "Free Syrian Army," as well as radical jihadists including Al Qaeda in Syria and ISIS. The former wasn’t particularly effective — why engage in a frontal assault on a besieged complex that was one day eventually going to fall? If you’re an ordinary Syrian, finding the motivation can be hard. But if you are a radical jihadi, especially a foreigner, then frontal assaults are exactly why you joined the war. After a year-long siege, the resistance in the airbase was finally broken when an ISIS suicide bomber blew filled an armored vehicle up with explosives and blew it and himself up at the center of the base. The experience of Menagh Air Base (and other similar incidents) taught observers from the CIA and elsewhere that while these radical jihadists hated the West, they were highly effective fighters, and such assessments determined who Western arms flowed to in the war.
During the early stages of the invasion, the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol came under siege by Russian forces. The city was defended not just by regular Ukrainian units, but the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion. Russian forces began to enter the city on 12th March 2022, on 11th of April, with the battle clearly lost and a breakout attempt failing, most Ukrainian regular forces surrendered. Azov, as well as a small remnant of the regular forces, retreated into the Azovstal steel plant. There was no hope for victory and little hope of the end result being anything other than death or capture. Despite this, and in an increasingly desperate situation, running low on food and even drinkable water, Azov forces did not surrender until the 16th of May, tying down some of the most effective Russian-aligned fighters for an additional month, essentially doubling the length of the battle. The Azov fighters were so accomplished at drawing things out, they even managed to prolong their surrender, with the last of their troops not surrendering until four days later, on the 20th of May. The experience of the Battle of Mariupol demonstrated to outside observers that Azov are determined fighters, soldiers willing to fight on even in hopeless situations. In determining how western weapons flow, that they are fascists who hate the decadent liberals in the West matters less than how effective they are in battle.
One of Russia’s stated goals for the invasion of Ukraine was the “denazification” of Ukraine, the disarmament and abolition of Azov, Right Sector, and various other fascist units of the Ukrainian military. While Russia has destroyed the Azov Battalion military unit in Mariupol, the invasion has created favorable conditions for Azov and their compatriots. Rather than “denazifying,” each day Ukraine becomes more “nazified.”
The Azov movement started the year with only one unit, the “Special Operations Detachment Azov”, which was part of the Ukrainian National Guard. After the invasion, the Ukrainian government began to hand out weapons to anyone who would take them, and “Territorial Defense Forces” (TRO) rapidly proliferated across the country. Azov used this opportunity to form at least seven TRO units. But with Azov’s reach and reputation, these groups did not remain TRO for long, with Azov Territorial Defense Units in Kharkiv becoming battalions of the 127th Brigade, and the Kyiv unit becoming a “Special Purpose Regiment”. Right Sector is generally less (in)famous, and so harder to find information on, but they have taken the same path of forming TRO units that later become christened as part of the Ukrainian regular army. One can easily find pictures of Right Sector’s Ukrainian Volunteer Corps 2nd battalion signing on to become an official unit of the Ukrainian Army under the flag of the Holocaust-perpetrating Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) that they have adopted as their own.
Svoboda is the only far-right party in Ukraine to achieve any real electoral success, receiving 10.5% of the vote in 2012 and getting 37 MPs. But in the most recent election, they garnered barely more than 2% and received only a single MP. Still, at the local level, they continue to enjoy some success. Svoboda also has their own military unit, the Sich Battalion, a ‘special police’ unit of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. C14 was originally founded as Svoboda’s youth wing, though they no longer enjoy that status. The name of C14 references the White Nationalist “Fourteen Words” (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”), and their main claim to fame is their repeated violence against Romani people. A few weeks before the war their leader gave a speech at Svoboda’s national conference, alongside Svoboda’s only MP. He says that for the West Ukrainian “nationalists” they are a problem. Beyond being a threat to the liberal democratic order in Ukraine and elsewhere, they are a genuine military threat to other European countries due to their extreme views and the number of their weapons and combat-ready veterans. But, as he observed, “we were given so many weapons now, not because we are ‘’good’,’ not because "they want us so much," but ‘’because we are fulfilling the tasks of the West, because we are the only ones who are ready to fulfill them.” The “task” is to counter Russia.
Few were willing to fight and die in Donbas in 2014 apart from the far-right. While many Ukrainians fight now in defense of their nation, the far-right has the most effective fighting groups. And this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Young enthusiastic men who want to fight want to go to the most effective fighting groups, which are the far-right groups. These recruits ensure that these groups remain the most effective ones, and more fascists arise from close social contact. It’s not like the fascist volunteer units in Donbas started out as elite fighters, they were formed out of streetfighters, but they got to gain experience fighting other volunteers, the separatists in the east, and by 2022 they had plenty of experience. In the same speech quoted above, the Svoboda leader says that, while fascists were only a small percentage of the protesters at Maidan, they were 90% of the effective strength there. A similar calculation could be made for the Donbas war. And one suspects that the same calculations are being made in this current war, while at the same time that ‘small percentage’ grows and grows.
While much of Azov’s core cadre have been killed or captured in Mariupol, the officer core of this unit was allegedly purged of far-right elements in 2014-16, so the original core leadership and most explicitly fascist elements did not die there, instead, they are in Kyiv, setting up a production line of fascist military units, and operating the more broadly political ‘Azov Movement’. This movement has become heroes to many in Ukraine who would have thought them questionable before this most recent “round”. Earlier this year few could have imagined that the Azov Battalion would be shouted out to rapturous applause live on stage at Eurovision, but this happened. Except for Svoboda’s 2012 success, fascists have been firmly rejected in Ukrainian elections, and their most recent election saw a decisive victory for a liberal Jew whose mother tongue is Russian, who captured the wave of dissatisfaction sweeping post-Maidan Ukraine. This was supposed to be the man to find peace with Russia and end the war in Donbas. That didn’t work out, but, still, the evidence of the last Ukrainian election showed the country generally moving away from fascism, away from the war in the East, and away from war with Russia. This was the will of the people, anyway. But Ukraine after 24th February 2022 is a different country, and the heroes of the war may well receive a hero's welcome in the next Ukrainian election.
The View from the Occident
The Azov Movement getting 100 MPs at the next Ukrainian election is nothing that the West wants, why would it be? If Ukraine has proved anything, for a while at least, it is that you can have Nazis fighting hard and a liberal government. The West was willing to back radical jihadis in Afghanistan and Syria, but at neither time did things work out for it. Afghanistan took a while to become a problem, but Syria proved that things could go awry very quickly, as within a year ISIS went from being just another Islamist group in Syria to knocking on the doors of Baghdad.
There is an idea among many on the left that the West is anxious to back jihadis and fascists, but the evidence does not really bear this out. The West’s most abiding and useful partner in Syria was the far-left YPG. They are, in general, quite ecumenical about these things. The West will back Nazis in Ukraine because larger interests are at play, but they won’t do so happily. And, even if they are aware of what they are getting into, this will do nothing to avert the likely disaster. We saw a vision of the future when a young neo-Nazi slaughtered a dozen people in upstate New York, Azov-style Black Sun on his arm. On the other side of the world, other people wearing the Black Sun on their arms post photos on Twitter of their newly delivered NATO weaponry. Officially, there remains a prohibition on the transfer of arms from the US to Azov, but the most effective fighting formations of the Ukrainian military are going to get the weapons they require. It doesn’t help that most Western journalists seem either ignorant or unconcerned about the problem and, instead, just deny that Azov are anything other than good patriots. Politicians’ room for maneuver is limited as long as the major parties are committed to arming Ukraine. Obviously, so long as Ukraine is in a war it can do nothing so rash as to divest itself of its most effective fighting formations.
The Destruction of Ukraine
Russia’s glacial Donbas offensive has started to accelerate at the time of writing, but it seems hard to imagine that plans for a full takeover of Ukraine might be pulled off the shelf. Wars are highly dynamic and hard to predict, and, doubtless, this war will embarrass all predictions many times over, but it seems most likely that this war will not be won by anyone. Russian sources crow about taking this place and that, but on full maps of Ukraine, spotting day-to-day differences is almost impossible. On the other side, a Kherson counteroffensive has been promised for going on two months now. (As I write a large-scale offensive is being promised there again.) But, if anything, comparing maps, the capture of terrain has gone the Russian way. Russia is not going to get Kyiv and Ukraine is not going to get Crimea. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Russia will even get Zaporizhzhia, or that Ukraine will take back Kherson. Instead, the Russians will control more of Ukraine than they did before, but the “question at hand” will approach no closer to being settled. The big change will likely just be the incredible damage that Ukraine has and will yet suffer during this war.
You hear reports of heroic Ukrainian saboteurs in the rear blowing up railway lines, but all of these lines are Ukrainian railway lines. The grim reality of fighting a war in your own homeland is evident. It's not just that every Russian shell lands in Ukraine, destroys Ukrainian buildings, makes untillable Ukrainian fields, and detonates Ukrainian infrastructure, but so does every Ukrainian shell (apart from a tiny number that hit Russia). Having initially planned to inherit it, Russia started the war without much targeting of infrastructure, but that has changed. And the Russian advances are sufficiently slow that Ukrainian forces have plenty of time to blow bridges and dams in order to slow them further. Sanctions were meant to break the Russian economy, but the last estimates show Russia’s GDP loss at only 7%. While that is certainly severe for the people of Russia, it is not going to destroy Russia anytime soon. (Effective sanctions will, of course, also inhibit reconstruction efforts in the parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia.) Ukraine started this war as Europe’s poorest country and is expected to lose half of its GDP. It has seen millions of its already shrinking population flee, and its state energy provider had already asked for a government bailout six months before the war started. (No doubt, Western advisors will soon suggest privatization, and a bill restricting workers’ rights already went through the Rada in March.) These are conditions that the West could assist with, but, so far, there has been no real movement on that front. A country with a dying economy is being flooded with more and more weapons and comparatively little economic aid. These are conditions conducive not to liberal democracy, but to fascism.
A fascist Ukraine is not the outcome the US wants, it's not an outcome the leaders of the European Union want, it's not an outcome the President of Ukraine wants, it's not an outcome that the people of Ukraine want and preventing such an outcome was a stated reason for Russia starting this war. And yet this is an outcome that is entirely on the cards.