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Thursday, March 2, 2023

Michael Colborne: Ukraine's Azov Movement - a critique


This extensive blog post is the result of a series of discussions on a couple of email lists about the role of the Azov Regiment in Ukraine's fight for independence. I have been planning to rewrite my contributions into a more accessible blog post, and now would seem a good time, because this Tuesday pro-Putin white supremacist Congressperson Matt Gaetz(R-FL) read into the Congressional record Chinese propaganda claiming that US military support for Ukraine was going to the far right “Azov Battalion.” Citing the “Fox News of China” was just another move in his bid to stop that aid.

With the GOP in control of the House, we can expect to see its pro-Trump/pro-Putin wing make a big push to cut off US support for Ukraine's resistance to Russia's war of genocide, and they will be cheered on by their pro-Putin “anti-imperialist” allies such as Code Pink and Veterans for Peace. Since Russian propaganda has pushed so-called “denazification” as one of its key war goals, and has positioned Azov as the poster-child for Nazis in Ukraine, its important that those of us who support the Ukrainian people be clear about what is true and what is lies when it comes to Azov. It's important not to let constant repetition goad us into conceding a point when there's none to be conceded.

Michael Colborne's book, From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right (Analyzing Political Violence), is probably the most authoritative work out there on the Azov movement. Now that I have read it, I want to make some comments, and as these are likely to be rather extensive, I'm going to divide them into several parts.

  • One part will say why I think Colborne overestimates the significant of the far right in general in Ukraine, and the Azov movement in particular.
  • One part will ask why he downplays the struggle against the far right and the Azov movement in Ukraine.
  • This first part is a bit of a digression: I want to question the use of a political terminology that is by no means unique to Michael Colborne. 

 On White Supremacy & The "Far Right"

As I started reading Colborne's book, which gives a very detailed description of the far right in Ukraine, I kept feeling the need to call out to him and say “You know, these guys are also racists!” My call was finally answered on page 23, when he talks about “the explicitly anti-Semitic Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP in Ukrainian) an institution which awarded infamous American white supremacist David Duke a doctorate.” Needless to say, this didn't cure my need to have Colborne say explicitly that these Ukrainian far right or neo-Nazi groups or individuals, were also invariably, white supremacists. 

In fact, Colborne uses the terms “white supremacist” only 5 times, usually to describe an American member of the far right community, such as “American neo-Nazi terrorist David Lane” who “remains a favourite of white supremacists the world over.” and “Croatian-American white supremacist Tomislav Sunié.” His two other references to “white supremacist” resulted from a paper he cited that had the term in the title. He used the term “white nationalist” only twice, both times to describe “American white nationalist Greg Johnson.” The terms “white supremacy” and“white nationalism” weren't used at all. He uses the term “racist” three times. Twice he calls something “racist”, including “the U.S.'s Aryan Nations,” and once to say one Ukrainian far right figure born in 1895 was “authoritarian and ruthless, but not racist.” The term “racism” was used six times, four times in connection with “anti-Semitism,” a term he used 35 times.

In contrast, he uses the terms “neo-Nazi(s)” 75 times, and “far right” a whopping 413 times. Clearly, that's his preferred term for groups, people, and political attitudes, in Ukraine, Europe, and beyond that I would prefer to call racist or white supremacist. I infer from Colborne's usage that he sees white supremacy and racism as mainly American problems. In fact, his insistence on using the label “far right,” when I felt more descriptive and historically accurate terminology was appropriate, became such an irritant as I plowed by way through his book, that it caused me to take a rather large detour to examine, as I never had before, the “Right-Left” terminology used to describe political differences. And so, I digress—this is where I want to begin 2023 (originally posted in an email dated 4 Jan 2023):

Why do we use the relatively vacuous terms "Right" and "Left" when its been white supremacy all along?

OK, I exaggerate. It hasn't been white supremacy all along—just since the white race, and with it, white supremacy, was invented between ~1650-1705 in Virginia. So, for almost 400 years. The class struggle predates that by a lot, and misogyny was even earlier. But the class struggle could not—did not, reach its final decisive stage until the capitalist system dominated, and capitalism, on this planet, was developed on the backs of slaves and racial slavery.

Racial slavery became the economic engine for developing capitalism on this planet, and became inseparably linked with how capitalism developed in this instance, and it provided the material basis for the development of a very rich culture of reaction and white supremacy that we often refer to by its preferred labels such as “Conservative” or “Right-wing.” [Note, when I say “material basis” I mean slave-owner money went directly to think-tanks and universities to justify itself, that sort of stuff. It wasn't an ethereal thing. Nothing else in early capitalism had the super-profits to so heavily invest in Reaction & Ideology. ]

While we may easily delineate “Left” and “Right” in the opposing sides in Bacon's Rebellion (1676) when European indentured servants made common cause with African bondsmen to oppose the Virginia governor and English troops, they certainly didn't see it that way. We all know Right and Left didn't have any political meaning until the French Revolution, and for a long time it was rarely applied beyond legislative bodies, only after ~1875 did it start being used as we use it today. After the American Civil War and Reconstruction. After Socialism became a force to be reckoned with. 

Noting that “Thinkers are never keen to reflect on that which enables them to think.” Marcel Gauchet wrote an important piece titled "Right and Left"(1996). I will draw heavily on it in what follows. Of the terminology's origins, he says:

As for their origin, it is presumed to be enough to refer in ritual fashion to the French Revolution. In fact, a great deal of water flowed under the bridge between the Revolution, when people hesitantly spoke of the assembly as divided between a “right side” and a “left side,” and the Restoration, when the terms were permanently enthroned in the parliamentary lexicon. And it is an even bigger jump from the jargon of the Chamber of Deputies to the quintessential emblems of political identity, the fundamental categories of democratic confrontation, that right and left have become for us—usages that were not firmly established until the beginning of the twentieth century. p 241

He goes on to explain why he wrote the piece:

If the established terminology covers up its past, the purpose of this essay is to examine the process by which it became established. p. 242

This is also my purpose in bringing Gauchet into this discussion. He traces the long history of “Right-Left” from the French Revolution to our current usage:

We now turn our attention to understanding how right and left became the primary categories of political identity. This was a long, drawn-out process that lasted more than three quarters of a century, until the first decade of the twentieth century. p. 253

For a very long time, “right” and “left” still referred almost exclusively to the seating arrangements of parliaments. The real political differences, the divisions in the streets, was defined differently—by the colors red and white:

The elections of May 1849 (which, as is ‘well known, set the pattern of political confrontation in France for a long time to come) pitted what ordinary people referred to as the démoc-soct against the réacr (democratic-socialists against reactionaries). The banners flown by the opposing parties also established a very powerful symbolism of colors: reds versus whites. The red-white opposition would remain the key distinction between the two camps for the next half century. In the Breton village of Plozévet in the 1960s, Edgar Morin found that these two colors were still the primary symbols of party affiliation. Well into the twentieth century, long after the terms right and left had taken hold, red and white banners were still flown in times of tension, p.253

I think I need not elaborate on why red was the chosen color of the progressives & revolutionaries. I suspect white was chosen by reactionaries for many of the same reasons they chose to call their cobbled-together would-be master race “white.” I have elaborated on those in some of my other writings, most notably in The white-Left Part 1: The two meanings of white. 

Gauchet links the switch to “Right-Left” terminology to the 1848 revolutions and the winning of universal suffrage:

Universal suffrage immediately created an enormous need for political identification. Everyone was called upon to choose sides. People did so at first by identifying with either the red or the white. It was this opposition that both simplified the terms of conflict to the utmost and allowed people to indicate immediately where they stood. It was not until later that right and left supplanted white and red. The symbolism of color had established deep roots, even insinuating itself into folklore, especially in certain parts of the south. The symbolic battle developed its own panoply of costumes, masquerades, and ritual clashes of color. And of course red and white, both rich in symbolic overtones, were ideally chosen to speak to the imagination and the heart. In the end this makes it all the more mysterious that right and left, despite their cold abstractness, could have achieved the same emotional resonance, the same earnestness of identification or repulsion. p.254

Groups get to chose which colors they put on their banners—red and white were self-selected by those that marched under them, whereas “Left” and “Right” have been forced on us by history—as if but for a coin-toss in the French Revolution, we would be calling the white [Now recognized with all the double-meaning it implies.] supremacists left-wing extremists. And I think the reactionaries got the best of it by claiming the label “Right," after all, most people are right-handed, and that has nothing to do with politics, and for some reason, at least in English, “right” has another meaning, as in “correct” or “better."☺Gauchet goes on: 

The revival of the terms right and left thus came about in the midst of war, the fall of the Empire and the collapse of the Commune, and then the return to normal with a parliamentary regime capped by the approval of the new Republic in 1875. p.255

So, you see the move to substitute left and right for red and white came only after racial slavery had played out, the capitalism it had developed was already beginning to turn into imperialism, and the modern working class was knocking at the door with demands for socialism.

The Commune revived the colors of 1848. In particular it attached an ineradicable luster to the word red (and in consequence to white)—a positive identification for some, a repellent emblem for others. Revolution itself became “red” for its proponents, while “reds” were the very embodiment of bourgeois fears. In fact, the language of denunciation would continue to draw on the Commune for decades, and the language of denunciation would play an important part in familiarizing people with the friend-enemy vocabulary that went along with elections. p.257

So, it was a move to substitute the language of bourgeois democracy for the language of revolution!

From now on, democracy was conceived of as a means of domesticating conflict by organizing the major players on a vast scale and by ritualizing their clash down to its very vocabulary. The replacement of red versus white by left versus right implied acceptance of the reversible two-sided relationship of party supporter and political analyst over the one-sidedness of the partisan. p. 264

But wait, there's more! We also have to consider the philosophical implications of the change:

Because of the very intensity of their contrast, red and white were excellent symbols for implacably opposed camps. p, 264

Dialectical materialism favors revolutionary change, where the new replaces the old—and the capitalist were down with that so long as they were replacing kings and such:

When republicans were battling with monarchist, the objective was clear; both sides believed that when the goal was achieved, the adversary would simply disappear. p. 265

But once they had firmly established their power, that revolutionary view of the political process had to be replaced with the never ending struggle between right and left.

Come what may, there would always be division and discord between a right and a left—such was the promise of perpetual conflict that the two terms in their deepest sense conveyed. p.265
One aspect of the adoption of the right-left pair to delineate sides in the class struggle has been to fake a continuity going back to the French Revolution. As we have seen, that has not been the case. The idea is to present political struggle as always and never ending—the message being that capitalism is here to stay.

I've taken this right-left political terminology for granted all my life, and at some point, probably in high school, I learned about the French Revolution bit, and never took it much further than that—until I embarked on this voyage of exploration. I know that it's now so ingrained in our culture and history, that the use of the term pair is unavoidable. Still, I think it's important to know where it came from, and use terminology that is more descriptive and more revolutionary whenever possible. 

Above I recounted the historic transition from “red” and “white” to “left” and “right.” It should be added that now, at least in the US, identifying the two political sides with colors has again come into fashion, except now the reactionaries have seized “red” for their banners, and branded the more progressive, but not revolutionary, side “blue.” Revolution has no place in this political spectrum, and as if to preserve the linearity of right-center-left while still using sharply defined colors, they talk of “purple states & counties." 

—Detour ends—

Even while the Russia-Ukraine war would seem to be a prime example of white-on-white violence, the role of racism as a motivating factor is crustal to understand. That's because Putin's version of fascism and imperialism is grounded in white supremacy. Putin's vision of white supremacy is similar to Hitler's in that not only does he believe that white people are superior to non-white people, and destine to rule over them, he believe that a certain group of white people is superior to all other white people, and are destine to rule over all other white people, and through them, all the people on Earth. It's a delusion that I call “a whiter shade of white.” In this, Putin's grand scheme for world conquest is very similar to Hitler's. The difference is that whereas with Hitler, it was the Aryans that were the master race, with Putin, and his fellow great western chauvinists [another term that doesn't appear in Colborne's book], it's the East Slavs. Just as Hitler's first “special military operations” were directed at uniting the Aryan's under his leadership with a similar end goal in mind. Enter Russian tanks in Ukraine.

Colborne's book is chock full of information, it's missing a lot where the national question and white supremacy are concerned. Apart from his great reliance on the term “far right” to define the fascists and white supremacists in Ukraine, I don't see where it acknowledges that Ukraine is an oppressed nation, or that Putin's desires for imperial conquest are rooted in his vision of himself as the leader of the white world.

Is Michael Colborne making a Mountain out of a Molehill in his book on the Azov Movement?

This is part 2. Part 1 critiqued his overuse of the phrase “far right,” and took a detour to trace the history of how the key symbol pairs that dominates political life moved from the emotional colors “red” and “white,” to sides of our bodies, “left” and “right,” right being naturally favored by most people. The problematic flexibility of the left-right pair showed itself recently on MSNBC when Joe Walsh corrected Symone for referring to the Boebert-Gaetz cabal as the “extremist wing” of the GOP. He pointed out that the entire GOP House caucus was extreme—most were election deniers.

So, I want to begin by uniting with Colborne's definition of the extreme right:

Those on the far right who explicitly reject democracy and favour violence and “other unconventional methods to promote their alternative worldview” are extreme right rather than radical right (Ravndal, 2021). Those on the extreme right explicitly “seek the overthrow of liberal democracy” (Eatwell, 2003) even if, like the Azov movement with its National Corps political party, they also take part in elections. p. 54 

By that definition, all those who stormed the US Capitol two years ago were of the extreme right, as was the president who summoned them, and the 147 congresspeople that voted to overturn the 2020 election results. The current election-denying leadership of the GOP, as well as the election denying, and open white supremacy of much of its rank-and-file, makes one of the two major US political parties extreme right. As I began writing this, Steve Scalise, who once described himself as David Duke without the baggage, was seriously being promoted as a candidate for Speaker of the House. This would make him second in the line of presidential succession. He remains majority leader. In the middle of the night, they finally rammed Kevin McCarthy through—another election denier—another “David Duke without the baggage”—another, what Colborne would call “extreme right,” whereas I might choose more colorful language.

Russia, the other country with a “far right” problem to be considered along with Ukraine's, is run by an authoritarian thug and his neo-fascist United Russia party, supports neo-Nazis worldwide, and claims it has a god given duty to denazify Ukraine. It's in this context that I want to examine Colborne's implied proposition that between Ukraine, Russia and the US, Ukraine is the one with the really serious “far right” problem. 

Is Colborne making a Mountain out of a Molehill?

As I read Colborne's description of the Azov movement, I was underwhelmed by the numbers involved. He puts the Azov Regiment at the center of the Azov movement, and as to its numerical strength:

The Regiment is home to approximately 1,000 soldiers serving at a time, with a few thousand veterans of the Regiment across Ukraine and beyond. p.65
That's a pre-war number, when the AFU was ~ 200K, so ~0.5% of Ukraine's armed forces before the war, and as to the percentage of those that are neo-Nazis:
The ideological orientations of those who fight and have fought within the Regiment isn’t always as clear-cut as assumed, though the Regiment’s leaders have roots in Ukraine’s far right. In 2015, one representative of the Regiment claimed between 10 to 20 percent of the unit were neo-Nazis (Dorrell, 2015). p.65
That's between 100 and 200 neo-Nazis, 600 tops, if the veterans were included. Of course, these are pre-war numbers. The ranks of Azov Regiment have swelled since then, but that's only likely to mean the percentage of neo-Nazis in its ranks has gone down, as the extremists most likely joined the regiment early. The 'AZOV Regiment' account on Twitter now has 187.2K followers, up from 72K in Aug 2021, and 46K in Apr 2017. and its Telegram channel has a whopping 332,528 subscribers. The regiment has received a lot of attention worldwide since the war began. 

This discussion of what percentage of Azov has to be neo-Nazi before we can declare the whole Regiment neo-Nazi, reminds me of discussions about how many black great grandparents you had to have to be declared black. For example, many have been critical of Azov veteran Illia Samoilenko's visit to Israel after he defended Mariupol and was imprisoned and then released by the Russians, because he's a member of the Azov Regiment, saying “How can you entertain these Nazis?” but Haaretz says Samoilenko “personally has no known far-right sympathies." So, what percentage of neo-Nazis taints the whole regiment? Or is it a question of foreign perceptions?

Another far right militia Colborne profiles is the paramilitary wing of the National Corps, known as the National Militia, which was “rebranded as Centuria in 2020,” according to Colborne. With regards to size, he speaks of the “National Militia’s few thousand young, mostly male members,” and later, “a nighttime ceremony with torches, matching black shirts, chants...” that involved “the few hundred assembled Centuria members." p. 71

In the 2014 elections, Right Sector was the strongest far-right force. Colborne says:
Right Sector didn’t take long to underwhelm, with its leader Dmytro Yarosh winning a measly 0.7 percent of the vote in an ill-fated run for the presidency in May 2014. 
He said it had dwindled to a “few hundred members" by 2015 p.84. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, far right movements really don't seem to have much purchase in Ukrainian politics.

Right Sector was supplanted by National Corps, the political arm of the Azov movement. We get a window into its size and reach when Colborne tells us:
From 2017 to 2019, National Corps officially received more than 8,000 individual contributions from more than 2,000 people and seven companies, for a total of 18.6 million hryvnia (~€580,000; ~$690,000) during that time (Feshchenko et al, 2020)
Those figures more than justify his calling it “a marginal far-right party.” By Colborne's own definition, the election deniers that currently control the Republican Party are extreme right, unfortunately, they are a very long way from being marginal. In the most recent parliamentary elections in 2019, the same election that put Zelenskyy in the presidency, the major far right groups, including National Corps and Right Sector formed the coalition of Svoboda. It got only 2.15% of the vote, and zero seats in parliament.

Colborne also speaks of another neo-Nazi group named Avangard, which he describes as a “small group of at best a few dozen .., based in Kyiv and in Mykolaiv,” and Tradition and Order, “an avowedly Christian far-right group” which was “estimated to be relatively small, perhaps fewer than 100 members.” p.82 Another Ukrainian neo-Nazi group is Freikorps, which Colborne says “has at most a few dozen core members." Once he gets down to groups that are “the initiatives of one or two Azov movement members," p. 79 you get the feeling he's given you a very thorough survey of the Azov movement. 

Well, I am underwhelmed! The Proud Boys claims 203 chapters in 46 US states, up from 119 chapters in Sep. 2020 after a white supremacist POTUS famously asked them to “stand by.” A week ago, members of the NYPD were helping some Proud Boys illegally avoid subway tolls after they attacked a drag queen story hour event at a local library. Nobody should be surprised if some of those cops turned out to be Oath Keepers, a US extreme right group, with a heavy presence in law enforcement, whose leader and members have been found guilty of seditious conspiracy, with a reported 3,000 members in Texas alone, and more than 38,000 nationwide. Such is the breath and reach of just a few “extreme right” groups in the US. There are many more.

When it comes to “extreme right” personalities in Ukraine, one name stands above all the rest in Colborne's telling—Andriy Biletsky [Андрій Білецький], the founder of the original Azov Battalion, and acknowledge leader of the Azov movement. He's not much on Twitter, with only 2456 followers, but then his last tweet was 6/15/2020 [https://twitter.com/BiletskyAndriy/status/1272619898771058689 154 likes] But as Colborne points out, Ukrainian politics, especially far right politics, happens much more on Telegram than on Twitter. Biletsky has 72,580 subscribers on Telegram, more than triple the number Colborne cited [20,000], but then he, like many Ukrainians, has received a lot more publicity since the war. He also has a YouTube channel with 22.5K subscribers. Still Biletsky's reach pales in comparison to that of a US far right personality like Tucker Carlson, who pushes the white nationalist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory on the country's most watched prime time cable “news” show five days a week, and has 5.6 million followers on Twitter, or Lauren Southern, who promotes white nationalism, and fearmongers “white genocide.” to her 510K Twitter followers, or the anti-LGBTQ+ account run by Chaya Raichik, Libs of Tiktok and has 1.7M followers on Twitter, to name just a few.

Another major Ukrainian far right personality that gets 67 mentions in Colborne's book is Olena Semenyaka, [Семеняка Олена] spokeswoman for National Corps and head of the Azov Movement’s International Outreach Office. With responsibilities like that, you'd expect her to be all over social media, and she is. She even blogs on Counter Currents, the site run by American white nationalist Greg Johnson. So, it would be a cheap shot to point out that she has only 127 followers on Twitter because she hasn't used that account since 2014, and she probably tweets out of the @national_corps [Національний Корпус] account, but that has only 10.7K followers. The National Corps Telegram channel has 7,960 subscribers, and its YouTube channel has 84.1K subscribers, now. Everything about Ukraine gets more attention as a result of the war. Another Azov account I found on Twitter @supportAZOVcom has 2,558 followers. [When I searched for “azov” on Twitter, Michael Colborne is top of the list, so he certainly has made a name for himself there.] Another Azov account would seem to be Ukrainian Struggle Centre with 9,454 followers, which is a bit more than Michael Colborne with 8,735. Colborne writes:
Elements within the Azov movement also have good things to say about far-right terrorists. Wotanjugend has referred to Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in the 2006 Norway terror attacks, and Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City attacks that killed 168 people, as “heroes” (Bellingcat Anti-Equality Monitoring, 2019). p. 52

He says Wotanjugend:

with roots in Russia but now based in Ukraine, is largely led by Russian neo-Nazi, Azov Regiment veteran and Kyiv resident Alexey Levkin. p.49
To me, that sounds like a Russian neo-Nazi problem in Ukraine, but that also makes it Ukraine's neo-Nazi problem, as are the American neo-Nazis that show up in Ukraine. What looks like the Wotanjugend Telegram channel has 1,920 subscribers.

While Ukrainian neo-Nazis may admire American extreme right terrorists, they don't seem to have inspired many in Ukraine, whereas since McVeigh, the US has suffered an endless stream of extreme right, or white supremacist violence, from the racist Charleston Church massacre, through the El Paso “Great Replacement inspired” massacre, to the racist Buffalo grocery store mass shooting, and dozens of others. Colborne wrote about how some OUN members participated in Nazi pogroms in 1941, but if there's anything like the level of racist or anti-Semitic violence we see in the US, in Ukraine these days, he didn't report it. What he does say is:
Fortunately, Ukraine has been spared the ugliness of far-right terror attacks that countries like the United States, Germany and New Zealand have seen in recent years. p.156
Maybe, instead of thanking fortune for sparing Ukraine, we can conclude that possibly Ukraine's far right problem isn't quite as bad as claimed by those quick to call the kettle black.

From a moralistic point of view, Colborne may be absolutely right to say “a far-right movement shouldn’t have a three-story social centre off the main square of a country’s capital,” p. 161. If so, that statement shouldn't be applied only to Ukraine, and far-right movements occupy a lot more than three-stories in Washington, DC. 

I think Colborne gives a proper assessment of the danger the Azov movement poses for Ukraine here, in as much as any extreme right movement poses a threat to liberal democracy in any country where it exists:
They may not be in a position to single handedly destabilize Ukraine’ ...[One wishes the same could be said about the extreme right in the US. - Clay] But the Azov movement's continued presence on Ukraine's social and political scene, even as it remains forever the preserve of a small minority, poses a threat to liberal democracy in Ukraine. p.168
There are at least a couple of reasons why I have done the work, spent the money, and put in the time to produce this blog post. The first is that while I'm not aware of anyone claiming Ukraine doesn't have a problem with white supremacy, or it's far right, any exaggeration of the neo-Nazi problem in Ukraine plays right into the propaganda of the Russian fascists who are gaslighting the world by claiming their genocidal war against Ukraine has as its main purpose the denazification of Ukraine. 

The second reason is that in conclusion, Colborne proposes his own form of Western-imposed “denazification” for Ukraine. While Ukraine is fighting “denazification” being imposed by Russia with tanks and drones, he suggests that Ukraine's western allies condition critical aid on certain “denazification” policies [like taking away their 3-story building?] being carried out by a presumably recalcitrant Zelenskyy government:
Those shouldn’t be the only sorts of conditions applied to Ukraine’s international financial support. One possible way to encourage Ukraine to tackle its far-right problem, particularly the Azov movement, would be to make some funding contingent on specific actions from Ukraine's authorities. Making even relatively small-scale funding contingent on, for example, addressing far-right extremism in the military or placing sanctions and asset freezes against known far-right figures with proven links to violence and criminal behavior. I don’t suggest for a second that Ukraine’s international backers should turn off the taps to Ukraine. But it would be worthwhile for the international community to consider using its enormous financial leverage to persuade Ukraine’s authorities to take action on the far right. p.164
As if they haven't taken any action already. I will examine that assertion in some detail in my next section in this series. 

Colborne is concerned about the growing international influence of Ukraine's extreme right, but that is small potatoes compared to the international influence of America's extreme right. The Avoz movement may not be strong enough to destabilize Ukraine, but the US extreme right is actively destabilizing other democracies. What about sanctions against leading extreme right figures from the US? Jason Miller and Steve Bannon have just been involved in engineering a Jan 6th style insurrection for Bolsonaro in Brazil. Elon Musk just bought Twitter so he could open it back up to extreme right elements that were kicked off before. Shouldn't we be sanctioning them, along with Donald Trump, and Tucker Carlson before we exercise our “parental prerogative” to sanction extreme right figures in Ukraine? 

Symbolism is a big part of what makes a neoNazi in Colborne's eyes. It is almost as if adopting a logo in any way related to the wolfsangel makes them like the SS, but the wolfsangel has a much deeper history in that part of the world. Is it possible most Ukrainians see it differently? Political scientist Andreas Umland told Deutsche Welle that the Wolfsangel “is a pagan symbol that the SS also used," and was “not considered a fascist symbol by the general population in Ukraine." I see in the Confederate battle flag a symbol of racism and hatred just as toxic as the swastika. Until recently it flew over a number of state capitals, and many white people claim they aren't racists for flying it. Could that possibly be true? What does Colborne see when he sees the Confederate flag flying? Is it as bad as the swastika for him?

Colborne may feel he has the moral authority to admonish Ukrainians:
A military unit like the Azov Regiment has no place in a democratic country’s armed forces and should be disbanded. p.163

Presumably, this is because it's 10-20% neoNazi, or maybe a lot less now with all the new recruits. In anycase, they did put up a brave fight in Mariupol, and it bought the rest of the AFU enough time to regroup and mount successful counter-offensives in the East and the South. While Colborne never acknowledges that Ukraine is fighting a war of national liberation, that is what it is fighting, and that makes dealing with one's own ultranationalists a mite tricky. [ We can discuss how black socialists should relate to/or not? black nationalists some other time.] With imperialist nations it's different, of course. 

I certainly don't know all the details, and all sides of their situation, or maybe it's just that I don't share Colborne's arrogance, but I wouldn't be telling them how they should handle the Azov Regiment just now. I would rather trust their better judgement. 

Part 3

Why I think Colborne is wrong to discount the struggle against the extreme right, white supremacists, and neoNazis in Ukraine, and how that denial plays to Russian propaganda.

CBS Morning News is reporting this morning that a number of white supremacist and anti-Semite, extreme right members of Congress have received committee assignments and another failed election-denying GOP candidate has been arrested for hiring people to shoot up the houses of Democratic election officials, but according to Micheal Colborne, Ukraine is the country with the out-of-control extreme right problem that deserve sanctions from its western supporters who have reined in their fascists. So, in part 3 of this critique, I what to address this question:

Is Ukraine struggling against its extreme right?

Colborne seems to think not:
The first step in addressing the problem of Ukraine's far right and especially the Azov movement is, of course, to admit that there actually is a problem. p. 151
Here he gives the clear impression that reform in Ukraine's armed forces is something he advocates for, but they have not yet begun:
The United States, France, Germany, Canada and many other countries have begun to reckon with the existence and sometimes rise of far-right extremist elements within their armed forces—Ukraine needs to begin to do the same. p. 129
Reforms in Ukraine’s armed forces would also help curtail the influence of the Azov movement and the far right in general. As Ukraine's key international allies, like the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and others make efforts to tackle the issue of far- right extremism in their militaries, Ukraine must also follow suit. p.161
While the efforts of Ukraine’s allies to combat far-right extremism in their own ranks have certainly been found wanting at times, neither that nor the war with Russian-backed forces can be an excuse for Ukraine’s inaction. p.163
But opinions vary. Here are a few facts from the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) about Ukrainian government's moves to curtail the influence of the far right in the Azov Regiment: 
From July 2015 to early 2019 the Ukrainian government removed the Azov Regiment from the frontlines, and restricted them to bases in Yuriivka and Urzuf, southwest of Mariupol. This redeployment was largely due to international criticism of the Regiment, and its predecessor organizations, due to deep ties with the far-right. During this time the Regiment focused on recruitment and training, and participated in major military exercises with other Ukrainian units.

At this point, I don't have much more info than that about what changes took place in that period, but Colborne doesn't even mention these. Is it fair to paint “Azov” as one continuum from the Azov Battalion in 2014 to the Azov Regiment that defended Mariupol in 2022 without even acknowledge these effort to separate the Azov Regiment from the Azov movement? 

I have heard from various sources that most neo-Nazi and extreme right wing elements were rooted out in this period. The Times of Israel reported on this question:

Vyacheslav Lykhachov, a Russia-born Israeli who monitors hate crimes in Ukraine, acknowledges that there were neo-Nazis among the group’s founders in 2014, but says that most far-right ideologues left by the end of the year.

“The rest of the right-wing radicals, who clearly articulated their views, were deliberately cleaned out by the new commandant of the regiment in 2017,” Lykhachov explained

Colborne names a lot of “Azov veterans" that have been at the center of much of the neo-Nazi activity in Ukraine. It would be interesting to learn if these people were actually members of the Azov Battalion or Regiment, and if so, more about the nature of their separation from the service. Here's an example of where I believe Michael Colborne conflates the Azov movement with the Azov Regiment in a way that can be very misleading. In describing a veterans day march:

Less than five minutes behind them, after small columns of veterans of unrelated military units, marched the Azov Regiment itself. Several hundred veterans and supporters, shrouded in smoke from flares, carried flags bearing the Regiment’s Wolfsangel logo. The column was led by Andriy Biletsky, who relinquished command of the Regiment in 2016, with Maksym Zhorin at his side, who took over command until he himself relinquished it in 2017. Almost all were in military uniform from the waist down, wearing matching brown t-shirts with “Ukraine above all!” printed on the back. As they and other marchers got to Maidan, a huge banner had been draped over the glass facade of the shopping mall on Maidan to greet them. “Azov wishes you a happy Independence Day”(“Azov vitaie z Dnem nezalezhnosti!”), it read, again bearing Azov’s logo. The march, in total, drew an estimated 50,000 attendees. p62
Only what he describes doesn't sound like the Azov Regiment itself. It sounds like “several hundred veterans and supporters” led by ex-commanders of the Azov Battalion, whereas for the Azov Regiment itself, I would expect a thousand soldiers in dress uniforms led by the current Regimental commander, but Colborne doesn't mention them as part of the Azov Regiment itself in this march.

Also, in one of those “You're fired!” ,“No, I quit!” controversies, Andiy Biletsky may claim he “relinquished command” but I heard he was kicked out, and that in 2016 they completely banned him from any Ukrainian military service. Colborne may have reasons for promoting Biletsky's version of the separation as he seems to downplay, or discount, any struggle against fascist in the Azov Regiment. 

Another thing worth exploring in Colborne's book is the status of the “Avoz veterans” he seems to credit or blame for everything. Were they veterans of the Azov Regiment, or veterans in the Azov movement, and if they were veterans of the regiment, what was the nature of their separation? We know many, if not most, of the neo-Nazis were kicked out to the Azov Regiment since 2014. Are these some of the Azov veterans Colborne cites as behind everything? 

CISAC also reported on these struggles with the far right:
In 2019, during President Zelensky’s attempted implementation of the controversial “Steinmeier Formula”, which called for elections to be held in separatist-held areas under Ukrainian legislation and with the supervision of the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe.[61] Part of that process required mutual disengagement of troops and armaments along front lines in the Donbas, a move opposed by some veterans and volunteers who had fought.[62] A small number of volunteers and veterans refused to comply with the Regiment’s ordered withdrawal from the town of Zolote, perceiving it as a concession to the Russians. Biletsky threatened to mobilize further Azov veterans and National Corps activists.[63] Ultimately, Zelensky visited Zolote to attempt to resolve the crisis, resulting in verbal altercations with National Corps activists.[64]

In August 2021, 2020 the Shevchenkivskyi Court of Kyiv took seven Kharkiv-based members of National Corps into custody. They were charged with creating an organized criminal group. National Corps denied their members were guilty and staged a protest outside the President’s Office, leading to clashes against police. Following the violence, Kyiv’s Pechersk District Court took two more members of National Corps into custody for alleged hooliganism.[66]
In August 2021, journalist Leonid XB Ragozin report on this Ukrainian government crackdown on far right forces in a Twitter thread:
THREAD on Azov movement personalities arrested in the latest SBU sweep in Kharkiv. Not among them, but worth mentioning first, is Artem Moshensky, who was shot in the neck on June 30 and transported in a private plane to a hospital in Israel.

Moshensky was one of the leaders of the East Corps, an Azov movement outfit in Kharkiv. The main leader was Oleh Shiryayev, who later split from Azov movement and formed the paramilitary force of Viktor Medvedchuk’s pro-Russian party OPZZh.

Azov movement leader Andriy Biletsky blamed Shiryayev for the assassination attempt. Shiryayev blamed Biletsky. Shiryayev got arrested on July 6. On Aug 2, SBU clamped down on his pro-Russian paramilitary force.

The most prominent of the Azovians arrested in the latest sweep is Serhiy Velychko. From Metallist Kharkiv ultras milieu like most of them, Velychko is famously the author of Putin Khuylo (Putin is a prick) patriotic chant.

Less famously, Velychko was a co-founder of the security company AzGuard (Azov Guard). The other co-founder is Maksym Zhorin, a top figure of the pan-Ukrainian Azov movement. AzGuard’s adverts featured a phone number containing the cyphered Heil Hitler salute - 1488.

AzGuard’s logo copycats that of Wotanjugend - a Russian neo-nazi platform formed around the MOLOTH (Hitler’s Hammer) black metal band, which moved to Ukraine in 2015. Its lead singer Aleksey Levkin became one of Azov’s ideologists.

Another arrested Azovian is Serhiy Kozlyuk, who badly wounded cameraman Vadym Makaryuk in clashes at Barabashova market in Kharkiv in 2019.

Also among the arrested is Artem Subochev, who injured a patrol policeman in Kharkiv in 2016. Local media noted at the time that he appeared in social networks under the nick fcmk1488 and his posts were full of photos showing people making nazi salute

The last of the arrestees for now is Kyrilo Krikunov, who won Kharkiv police championship in sambo (a Soviet martial art) in 2017 as part of the East Corps team. He was evidently an employee of Ukrainian police at the time, like many Azovians.

In spite of his complaints about “Ukraine's inaction” in fighting the far-right extremism, Colborne, himself reports on these actions:

Two American members of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division (AWD) were deported from Ukraine in 2020, p. 147

eight movement members who had been released after being temporarily detained. p.152

As the arrests of members in Kharkiv in August 2021 suggested, the Azov movement also appears to have little compunction about getting involved in alleged criminal schemes.p.160

With the departure of [Azov-friendly]Arsen Avakov from the interior ministry in July 2021 and the Azov movement's subsequent complaints of “repression” from Zelenskyy’s government, are these processes. p.160

what the Azov movement decries in mid-2021 as “repression’—the arrests of members for being involved in an alleged criminal scheme and of others for trying to break through a police cordon to confront Zelenskyy, among other things...p.161
There's enough information out there to show that the Zelenskyy government has made an effort to curve the influence of neo-Nazis and the extreme right in its armed forces, and in Ukrainian politics generally. How effective and sincere those efforts have been is up for debate, but anyone who claims that there has been no effort, or worst, that the Zelenskyy govt is tolerating, or even colluding with, neoNazis is repeating the false propaganda of fascists attempt to subdue an ex-national minority with force.

As Denys Davydov said last week “It's time to help Ukraine, and it's time to change Ukraine.”

Clay Claiborne
2 March 2013