Servicemen of the pro-Ukrainian Azov battalion attend an oath ceremony in Kiev in 2014. Photo: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images
A video shows a masked man dipping bullets into chunks of gelatinous lard before carefully loading them into a gun’s magazine. As he performs the unusual ritual, he calmly issues a grave warning.“Dear Muslim brothers, in our country, you will not go to heaven. You will not be allowed into heaven. Go home, please. Here, you will encounter trouble. Thank you for your attention, goodbye,” the unidentified man says.
The video was posted by the National Guard of Ukraine on Sunday on Twitter, three days after Russian forces launched a military assault into Ukraine. The caption says it depicts an Azov fighter preparing bullets to be aimed at “Kadyrov orcs” by lacing them with fat from pork, which is forbidden to Muslims. The reference is believed to be addressed to Muslim Chechen soldiers. On Saturday, Ramzon Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s Muslim-majority Chechnya region, said Chechen soldiers had been deployed to fight alongside the Russian army in Ukraine.
As the Russian-Ukrainian conflict threatens to engulf Eastern Europe, military propaganda and rhetoric have revved up on both sides of the divide. The Azov Battalion is an ultranationalist volunteer arm of the National Guard of Ukraine that was formally infused into its ranks after it fought against pro-Russian separatists in 2014. The battalion has been accused of espousing neo-Nazi beliefs and reportedly continues to bear Wolfsangel insignia, used by Nazi units during World War II.The battalion’s first commander was Andriy Biletsky, a white nationalist who in 2010 said that Ukraine’s national purpose was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade… against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].”Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his so-called “special military operation” with intentions to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine. Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, also echoed Putin’s characterization of Ukrainian forces as “Nazis.”
The claims of a “Nazi” Ukraine have sparked widespread outrage and have been strongly denied by Ukrainian officials, including its Jewish president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who reportedly lost members of his family in the Holocaust. The video of the Azov fighter has been criticised for blatantly espousing racist rhetoric as part of pro-Ukrainian military propaganda. It has been called out for Islamaphobia by social media users, including British-Pakistani comedian Tez Ilyas, who reacted to it in a tweet saying, “Being killed by a lard covered bullet doesn’t disqualify one from entering Muslim heaven. Far-right racists made that up and the official Ukrainian National Guard is endorsing it. These are the forces my Foreign Secretary wants British civilians to go fight with?”“In the latest news you just can't make up: Ukraine’s National Guard publicly praised its neo-Nazi fighters from the white-supremacist Azov movement for greasing bullets with pig fat to kill Russian Muslims, demonizing them as ‘orcs,’” another Twitter user said.Although restricted by Twitter for hateful content, the video remains accessible on the platform. Facebook, meanwhile, has refrained from flagging content involving the Azov Battalion. According to internal policy documents viewed by The Intercept, the social media company will temporarily “allow praise of the Azov Battalion when explicitly and exclusively praising their role in defending Ukraine or their role as part of the Ukraine’s National Guard.”Islam forbids its adherents to consume pork. In some past conflicts involving Muslim combatants, pig fat–laced bullets from their enemies made headlines for inciting Islamophobia. In 2013, an Idaho City-based ammunition firm came under fire for its line of “Jihawg Ammunition” – bullets laced with pork grease and writing that condemns “Islamist terrorists to hell.”A well-documented incident involving fat-laced ammunition was the 1857 Indian War of Independence. After rumours spread that the cartridges of Enfield rifles, which had to be bitten off to be used, were greased in pig and cow fat – sacrilegious to Muslim and Hindu soldiers – Indian infantrymen abandoned their rifles and fought against their commanders in the British East India Company. The soldiers eventually lost the war, and thereafter India was brought under the direct control of the British crown. Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.