Why Is This AK-47-Toting Ukrainian Grandma Being Trained by Neo-Nazis?

A-79-year-old woman posed with an AK-47 in a photo-op set up by a neo-Nazi militia, showing just how surreal and complicated the conflict in Ukraine is.
image (5)
Image: Euronews Screengrab.

A 79-year-old woman in Ukraine made waves in Western media over the weekend. She and other residents of Mariupol—a city in eastern Ukraine on the Sea of Azov—gathered to get basic military training. Valentyna Konstantynovska leaned over an AK-47 and, along with others, received basic training ahead of a possible Russian invasion. At first it seems like the typical jingoistic images a country that’s heading for war might produce, but complicating matters further is the fact that the soldiers conducting the training were members of the Azov Battalion, a far-right nationalist militia in Ukraine with ties to neo-Nazis.


The news of Konstantynovska’s training was repeated and reported in a lot of Western media outlets without the additional context that the photo-op and training were set up by the Azov Battalion. It's an important context for a complicated conflict. It’s true that thousands of regular citizens are seeking basic military training in Ukraine over fears of an escalation of Russian conflict in the region. It’s also true that the Azov Battalion is a far-right organization with avowed Nazi members and connections to Ukraine’s National Guard.

Moscow has amassed 130,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders. It has troops stationed in neighboring Belarus, moved medical units near possible conflict zones, and has signaled it wants a buffer region between it and NATO countries. During a recent press conference, when asked what Russia wants from Ukraine, Putin quoted a popular song. "You may like it or not like it, my beautiful one, put up with it,” he said.

Washington announced it’s shutting down its embassy in Kyiv and sent messages to Americans in the country that it’s long past time to leave. President Biden has repeatedly said he will not send U.S. troops into Ukraine, no matter what happens. On Feb. 12, the Pentagon ordered the withdrawal of 160 Florida National Guard troops from Ukraine who were there on a training mission.

Eight years ago, a Russian-backed separatist movement began in eastern Ukraine and fighting has continued there ever since. As the fighting spread, paramilitary groups like the Azov Battalion—which uses neo-Nazi symbols on its uniform—formed to fight on behalf of Ukraine. Rather than fight another conflict against these militias, Kyiv legitimized them by folding them into the National Guard. 

It’s worth nothing here that Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. The conflict in Ukraine is complicated and exists at a crossroads of a dozen different ideologies and geopolitical interests. The image of Konstantynovska leaning over an AK-47 is a powerful one that reflects Ukraine’s desire to remain an independent country. But so are the Azov Battalion trainers bent over her, showing her how to shoot, while the Wolfsangel looms on their shoulder.

This is also not the first time a Ukrainian grandmother has become the center of war news in Ukraine. Back in 2015, when the fighting first started in the Donbas, another grandmother made headlines by promising to shoot Russians.