Labeling enemies of Russia as “Nazis” is a common trope that Putin has weaponized to help garner support for certain policies. For example, in 2002, Russian leaders used the threat of Nazis to pass an “anti-extremism” bill that many critics saw as a veiled attempt to further undermine human rights. Putin has once again turned to this tried-and-true justification for the invasion of Ukraine, directly pointing to the Azov Battalion as a clear example of how Neo-Nazis infiltrated Ukraine and are calling the shots.
The Azov Battalion has a complex and dubious past. Andriy Biletsky, an ultra-nationalist, formed the group in 2014 following Ukraine’s revolution and the annexation of Crimea. Many of its members claim to be ultra-nationalists and adhere to certain neo-Nazi ideologies. One look at their battalion emblem, and you can see the resemblance to a swastika. Allegedly, its inspiration comes from the Nazi Wolfsangel. The chaos of the 2014 Maidan Revolution crippled Ukraine’s military forces, meaning the fledgling regime had to rely on para-military groups like Azov to battle Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country. The regiment benefited from having fighters that were well trained and better supported than the average Ukrainian soldier. Azov eventually became a formal part of the Ukrainian national guard because of their integral role in the war, which placed itself under the control of the authorities in Kyiv but also gave the group and its leaders greater legitimacy.
For Putin, this controversial group has provided a perfect cover for his invasion of Ukraine. Videos have surfaced of Russian troops searching for Nazi tattoos on refugees fleeing the besieged city of Mariupol. Russian media has leaned heavily into this narrative, claiming that Russian troops are fighting Nazis throughout Ukraine. Even convicted Russian agent Maria Butina told the BBC she believes that President Zelenskyy is a Nazi, despite the fact that he is Jewish. Furthermore, reports have surfaced where provocateurs would paint swastikas at Jewish cultural areas in the city of Kharkiv to further bolster the notion that Ukraine is a hotbed for Nazi activity.
The Kremlin has once again turned to Nazis and the existential threat they posed during WWII to compel its citizens to support the invasion into Ukraine. Explaining this war is especially difficult as Ukrainians have close familial, linguistic, and historical ties to Russia. Reports that some Russian soldiers are surrendering en masse demonstrate how difficult is to ask young men to risk their lives fighting people who have an intertwined history. As Russia tries and sells its population on the war in Ukraine, it will likely try and avoid the close connections between Ukrainians and Russians as the Nazi narrative is further pushed. Ukraine has a complicated relationship with the Azov battalion, but it is not representative of the whole of Ukrainian political ideology. As Ukraine rebuilds after the war it will have to contend with its relationship with the Azov Battalion. Nonetheless, calling Ukraine a fascist state is a clear misnomer and a typical propaganda tool of the Russian media.