Pro-Kremlin influencers are among a number of people trying to cynically tie the alleged Buffalo mass shooter to an infamous far-right battalion in the Ukrainian military, seemingly in an effort to undermine support for the embattled nation.
On May 14, an 18-year-old man walked into a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and mercilessly killed 10 people with a rifle. The majority of the victims were Black and authorities have called the attack “racially motivated.” The gunman livestreamed his actions and posted a manifesto and other documents that link him to the transnational neo-Nazi network connected to other racist mass killings.
As with other attacks that follow this horrible script, misinformation has quickly followed the killings. In the Buffalo attack, the primary bit of misinformation has been focused on the sonnenrad, or black sun, a neo-Nazi symbol the suspect displayed on his body armor and the front of his manifesto. The symbol was also used previously by Azov Battalion, an infamous group in the Ukrainian national guard with well-known neo-Nazi and extreme-right ties. And it’s been embraced by other extremist groups.
Within many online circles of the far-right, the sonnenrad is nearly as popular as the swastika, so describing it as an “Azov symbol” is misinformed at best and a blatant attempt at creating a narrative at worst. Despite this, the claims (in some cases, carefully worded ones) linking the shooter to the Azov Battalion came hard and fast in the hours after the attack—especially among groups supportive of Vladimir Putin’s claims that he invaded Ukraine to “de-Nazify” the country.
Caroline Orr, an extremism researcher with a large following on Twitter, posted a rather simple analysis explaining that “the sonnenrad is a white supremacist symbol, not ‘an Azov symbol’,” and she was quickly swarmed by people desperate to highlight the racist Ukrainian division.
“People who wanted to tell a particular narrative started portraying my comments … in the most disingenuous way possible and basically implied that I was defending white supremacists (or that I’m a white supremacist) by stating a pretty widely known fact,” Orr told VICE News. “Based on the people involved in leading this charge and the comments they made, it looks to me like they are trying to use this mass shooting to undermine support for helping to arm Ukraine by linking the shooter to Azov.”
None of this exonerates Azov Battalion, which is beloved by many within the online neo-Nazi world in which the shooter seemed to live in. On top of that, some neo-Nazi groups are outwardly cheerleading for Ukraine in the conflict because of Azov and in the past have sent members to them in an attempt to attain training. In this case, however, Azov is not mentioned at all in the shooter's manifesto, and Ukraine is only mentioned once, not in the context of the current war. (It appears in a section directly stolen from the Christchurch shooter, who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019.)
In his manifesto, the alleged Buffalo gunman said he was directly inspired by the Christchurch shooter. While it’s important not to take the manifesto at face value, Christchurch’s influence on the Buffalo shooter is clear as the manifesto is a blatant rip-off of the Christchurch shooter's. It has been reported that the Christchurch shooter had connections to Azov but while he did travel to Ukraine before his murders, there is no evidence he made contact or trained with Azov, as journalist Michael Colborne points out in his book on Azov.
While this Azov connection was the dominant conspiracy that came out following the Buffalo murders, many more can be found online. These include the idea that the killer was a left-wing extremist or a socialist—despite the manifesto language clearly indicating otherwise. In neo-Nazi circles, many claimed the attack was a “false flag” and that the shooter was a federal agent in an effort to strengthen hate speech and gun laws. The neo-Nazis’ “evidence” that not all the victims were Black, although 11 of 13 were, and that he plagiarized much of his manifesto from the Christchurch shooter, proving he had to be a fed. In some circles, a schism has formed between far-right extremists who support, and extremists who disavow, the murderer.
A write-up by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a counter-extremism think tank, on the effort to tie the shooter to Azov says it “shines a light on the unlikely alliances of convenience forged during the war in Ukraine and America’s struggle with domestic extremism.”
Tim Squirrell, the head of communications and editorial at the ISD, told VICE News that “the appeal of linking an attack that has rightly been met with horror and condemnation to people that you also dislike is shared across political boundaries.”
“Pro-Kremlin actors have an obvious interest in undermining the U.S. government’s stance on Ukraine, trying to put them in a position of defending white supremacists abroad while condemning an attack motivated by white supremacy at home,” he said. “The same goes for some Trump supporters who see this as an opportunity to make the government uncomfortable. For those on the left amplifying these claims, it’s more about combatting what they see as U.S. imperialism, which they claim upholds white supremacy at home and abroad.”
The ISD identified several key pushers of this theory including Telegram pages with over 400,000 followers, a pro-Kremlin influencer with nearly 48,000 followers on Twitter, and pages that purport to be media outlets. One popular Twitter account which was key in several anti-Ukraine conspiracies spreadingwas seemingly suspended for posting “evidence” connecting the shooter. Western journalists linked to Kremlin-affiliated media outlets or influencers who exist in the online contrarian world also tried to link the Buffalo attack to Ukraine.
“It’s just dishonest and disingenuous, and it’s really not helpful. The shooter never mentioned Azov in his manifesto, and there’s no evidence linking him to Azov,” said Orr. “We should be talking about the people and ideas and spaces that did motivate him—and many of them are right here at home, in the U.S. We don’t need to weave some intricate, evidence-free narrative trying to link him to foreign fighters, when it appears far more likely that he was radicalized right here, by ideas that are all over the internet.”
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.