Viral photographs of an elderly Ukrainian woman handling an AK-47 during a combat training exercise have thrust Ukraine’s far-right forces into the spotlight.
Valentyna Konstantynovska, a 79-year-old resident of the eastern port city of Mariupol, was photographed on Sunday taking part in drills prompted by the Russian troop buildup across the border, telling reporters: "If something happens, I will defend my home, my city, my children.”
The story gained international attention as a vivid illustration of the bravery of ordinary Ukrainians in the face of the threat of Russian invasion.
But the picture took on more sinister undertones when it emerged the combat training was hosted by Azov, an extremist movement notorious for its far-right ideology.
The presence of far-right elements within Ukraine’s self-defence forces has been seized on by the Kremlin in a bid to smear Ukrainian forces as “fascists,” and has been an issue for Kyiv’s Western allies, although many Ukrainians dismiss the debate as overblown by Western observers.
The controversy has largely centred around Azov – a militant ultranationalist movement with neo-Nazi roots that was officially incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in 2014, after playing a major role in fighting pro-Russian forces in key engagements such as the Battle for Mariupol. The sprawling movement consists of an official regiment within the National Guard; its own fringe political party, National Corps; and a paramilitary group, known as National Militia, which “patrols” Ukrainian streets enforcing its own brand of justice. Members of the group have been linked to a series of violent attacks on minorities in recent years.
The movement’s extremist ideology has never been much of a secret. Its fighters have been photographed covered with far-right tattoos and insignia, while the regiment is identifiable by the Nazi Wolfsangel logo on their uniforms (the group has denied the symbol carries a Nazi connotation). And the movement is driven by figures with deep roots in Ukraine’s extreme-right scene.
Andriy Biletsky, the Azov Batallion’s first commander and later a National Corps parliamentarian, previously led the neo-Nazi paramilitary organisation “Patriot of Ukraine,” and once stated in 2010 that it was the Ukrainian nation’s mission to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade… against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].”
“There is no arguing about [the extremist ideology], because you can see the pictures of guys with swastikas,” Mikael Skillt, a Swedish former neo-Nazi who travelled to Ukraine in 2014 to become a foreign volunteer for the far-right regiment, told VICE World News last year.
Skillt, who has since renounced extremist politics, said that he, like many far-right radicals across the world, was drawn to Ukraine after being inspired by the prominent role that Ukrainian ultranationalists and far-right hooligans had played in the Maidan protests. The demonstrations were a turning point for the country – they resulted in the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, and would go on to play a key role in the war with Russia that followed.
When Russian-backed separatists rose up in the east of the country in 2014, Ukraine’s under-resourced military found itself outgunned and flatfooted. It was volunteer militias such as Azov and Right Sector – whose members included fighters drawn from the ultranationalist and far-right hooligan networks – that stepped into the breach, making a name for themselves in the fierce fighting for the city of Mariupol, and carving out a reputation as valiant defenders of the nation.
The Azov Battalion became formally incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in late 2014 as a result of its role in the conflict, bringing its extremists onto the government payroll under the auspices of the Interior Ministry. This gave the movement an unlikely degree of official legitimacy.
“They were transformed from basically a bunch of far-right thugs. That’s how they were seen before 2014: irrelevant numerically and politically,” said Kacper Rękawek, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, who has researched Azov and the large numbers of foreign fighters, many of them right-wing extremists, drawn to fight on both sides of the conflict.
“Suddenly, they go from zero to hero.”
Azov’s formal status within the National Guard – and the movement’s active promotion of its ideology, and the building of ties with right-wing extremist groups elsewhere in the world – has proven an ongoing issue for Kyiv’s allies, and been a gift to Russian propaganda.
The U.S. government – which has described Azov’s political party, National Corps, as a “nationalist hate group” – has banned any of its military aid to Ukraine from reaching the movement, while the FBI has said in a criminal complaint it believes Azov is training and radicalising US white supremacists, among the wave of foreign right-wing extremists who have been drawn to Ukraine to seek contacts with the movement. (Since 2014, an estimated 17,000 foreign fighters have poured into Ukraine, fighting on both sides of the conflict.)
In 2019, concerns over the dangers posed by Ukraine’s ultranationalists prompted ambassadors of G7 countries to urge the government to act against the extremists.
Meanwhile, Azov has been a boon to Russian propaganda, which has sought to smear Ukrainian forces as a whole as right-wing extremists. “Had there not been an Azov, Russia would have invented it,” said Rękawek, adding that the Kremlin PR tactic was particularly hypocritical, given that far-right foreign fighters have also volunteered on the pro-Russian side of the conflict.
He said that Ukrainians tended to see the Western concerns over Azov’s official status as overblown, particularly amid the ongoing threat of Russian aggression.
“They are seen as a force that fought successfully and stood there whereas others were unable to, so they get a pass [with many Ukrainians].”
He also questioned whether the training events would play a significant role in spreading its ideology.
“There’s a definite number of neo-Nazis in Ukraine and they’ve all heard of Azov already. I’m not sure a training like that is going to turn people into Azovians,” he said, adding that it appeared the most significant surge in support from the Ukrainian public amid the current crisis was directed towards the military, rather than Azov.
When challenged over the tolerance of Azov within their state structure, he said, many Ukrainians typically argued that Azov’s political party, National Corps, remained a fringe concern, with the radical right coalition it belonged to winning just over 2 percent of the national list vote and failing to win a single seat in the last Parliament.
However, he said the official embrace of Azov remains a thorny issue for Ukraine.
“The question remains: Do you want to have a force that has a Wolfsangel in its logo within your National Guard?” Rękawek said.