The Azov battalion did not appear out of nowhere; fascism has been the imperialist tool of choice in Ukraine since the 1930s.
For those trying to understand the situation in Ukraine, one particularly important piece of context worthy of closer examination is the role of Nazis in the West’s policy in the country for 85 years.
While imperialist politicians and media are keen to downplay the existence and role of fascists in the country, routinely whitewashing them or disappearing them from view, it has become abundantly clear to all who care to see that they are a significant and increasingly dominant force. But how could that have happened in a formerly socialist republic?
On 5 March this year, the Manchester Evening News published an interview with a 98-year-old Ukrainian living in Britain titled: ‘He fought Stalin … now this Ukrainian hero doesn’t know if his nephew has been killed in combat’ (the online version was later taken down). Included in the article was a heartrending account of old timer Iwan Kluka’s fears for his nephew’s safety and the interviewer’s gushing description of him as “the most remarkable man I’ve ever met”.
Not included was the information that the nice old uncle must have been an active Nazi collaborator – one of the thousands who fought alongside their leader Stepan Bandera as part of the German Wehrmacht. In fact, the Ukrainian (more specifically, the Galician) section of the SS was famous for being even more brutal than the rest of that notoriously psychopathic organisation.
Ukraine felt the full force of Germany’s Operation Barbarossa invasion of the USSR in 1941, and experienced the ruthless brutality of the Nazi scorched-earth occupation that followed. Thousands of towns and villages were completely razed, their entire populations massacred with the aim of ‘making space’ for German settler expansion (‘lebensraum’) and wiping out the Slavic ‘untermensch’ (subhumans).
In the seismic conflagration that followed, of the 27 million Soviet people who died defending their socialist motherland, between 8 and 10 million died in Ukraine alone.
Counter-revolutionary remnants embrace fascism with enthusiasm
Many of Ukraine’s Nazis were remnants of the forces that had fought against the Red Army during the civil war and war of intervention that followed the 1917 October Revolution. Fanatical anti-Bolshevism had always been their guiding ideology, as had antisemitism, and pogroms against both revolutionaries and Jews were their stock-in-trade from the beginning.
Both civil war leader Symon Petliura and his ideological successor Stepan Bandera (leader of the Nazi-allied Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists), were rabid antisemites whose regimes massacred tens of thousands of Jewish Ukrainians. Both have been deified in modern Ukraine as ‘fathers of the nation’ and are presented in the West as democrats of the first order.
According to the World Socialist Website (WSWS), Petliura’s brief anticommunist regime in Kiev in 1919 was responsible for the murder of 30,000 Jews. Twenty-two years later, Bandera’s SS thugs likewise led pogroms in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, rounding up and massacring as many Jews as they could find.
Documentary evidence relating to the Wehrmacht’s advance into Ukraine in 1941 reveals that about 140 pogroms were perpetrated by Bandera-ites in western Ukraine in just the first few days of Operation Barbarossa. Between 13,000 and 35,000 Jews were murdered in the last days of June 1941, while OUN-B propaganda director Stepan Lenkavski called for the physical extermination of Ukrainian Jewry.
Meanwhile, such was their reputation for viciousness that the Nazis “used their Ukrainian collaborators to commit murders and acts of brutality that were too disturbing even for the SS units. For example, SS task force 4a in Ukraine confined itself to ‘the shooting of adults while commanding its Ukrainian helpers to shoot [the] children’.”
But our Western liberal media and politicians, so sensitive to the tiniest hint of linguistic antisemitism from any opponent of the status quo, are totally uninterested in the actual performance of the most bloody acts of antisemitism carried out in its service.
To paraphrase Karl Marx’s famous description of the English established Church: the imperialists will more readily pardon an attack on 99 of their 100 high moral precepts than on 1/100th of their global looting. Genocide itself is culpa levis (a minor sin) as compared with a criticism of imperialist financial interests …
Fascism the favoured tool of imperialism in eastern Europe
The ultranationalists who happily adopted outright fascist ideology during the rise of the German Third Reich (and have never dropped it since) continued to be the favoured tool of Western imperialism in trying to subvert and overthrow Soviet power in Ukraine.
Not only were they used by British imperialists between the wars, and by the German imperialists during WW2, but the Ukrainian Nazis were once again adopted by the USA and Britain at the end of the Second World War (even as it was still being fought, in fact) and sponsored to continue a guerrilla war against the socialist government and people of Ukraine (and in Poland) for some years after the war in Europe had officially been declared over.
After the epic defeat of German forces at Stalingrad, with Hitler’s armies on the retreat, Bandera-ite forces regrouped as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in 1943, armed with German weapons and inspired by the Nazi ideology of creating a ‘pure’ Ukrainian state.
“In 1943 and 1944, the UPA organised massacres that claimed the lives of 90,000 Poles and thousands of Jews. It also brutally terrorised, tortured and executed Ukrainian peasants and workers who wanted to join the Soviet Union. The UPA went on to kill some 20,000 Ukrainians before the insurrection was completely crushed in 1953” (WSWS).
British and American secret services were already supplying these ‘opponents’ before the end of WW2, and fuelling the ongoing civil war became the CIA’s first large-scale project to destabilise the Soviet Union.
As the Manchester Evening News interview unwittingly highlighted, thousands of members of the defeated UPA were brought to the USA, West Germany, Canada and Britain at the end of the war, against the wishes of the Soviet Union, which wanted to try them for their crimes. Initially, they came as ‘prisoners of war’, but they were later simply absorbed as ‘displaced European workers’.
Although living in the West, these Ukrainian fascists were encouraged to keep alive their ‘traditions’ and to bring up the next generation in hopes of a revival of their cause’s fortunes. Thus Iwan Kluka and his compatriots founded the still-thriving ‘Ukrainian club’ in Glossop – part of a well-funded network of such clubs across Britain.
Absorbed into the West, the Ukrainians’ Nazi affiliations were whitewashed and many were integrated (often via the CIA and MI6) into academia and the media in order to rewrite their history as ‘democratic freedom fighters’. They also helped to locate conduits for smuggling anti-Soviet propaganda into Ukraine.
A ready-made pro-imperialist force
It was therefore no difficult matter for the imperialists to reintroduce and support the creation and resurrection of far-right groups in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They also provided substantial funding to facilitate the process of rehabilitating Ukrainian Nazi war criminals after 1991 – in official history, in academia, in school curriculums, in popular culture and in the media generally.
A special commission set up in 2000 and another in 2005 whitewashed the history of Ukraine’s Nazis, preparing the ground for a law that gave parity to the war records of veterans of the antifascist Red Army and stormtroopers of the fascist OUN/UPA. This law was passed by the West-backed coup government of Viktor Yushchenko after the so-called ‘Orange revolution’ (ie, imperialist-backed coup) brought him to power at the end of 2004. It was also at this time that the leaders of the fascist party Svoboda first entered the Ukrainian government.
Since then, fascists and fascist sympathisers have been integrated into every part of the Ukrainian state, from the parliament and government to the media, cultural institutions and the army. Thousands of militants have trained in the ranks of the notorious Azov battalion (allegedly independent of the state but increasingly dominating it) before moving on into the ranks of the Ukrainian national army.
In this way, while Azov itself is not that big (although at its peak it was far bigger than any normal battalion of several hundred men, and even than a regiment of several thousand), its influence on the state and on the military is enormous.
Swedish historian Per Anders Rudling described Ukraine’s atmosphere in 2013: “The hegemonic nationalist narrative is reflected also in academia, where the line between ‘legitimate’ scholarship and ultranationalist propaganda is often blurred. Mainstream book stores often carry holocaust denial and antisemitic literature, some of which finds its way into the academic mainstream.”
While the fascists have been able to create a significant base of support amongst the impoverished Ukrainian speakers in the west – in their traditional stronghold of Lviv in particular but also in Kiev – they have had much less success in the east, home to most of Ukraine’s ethnically Russian population and to the industrial heartlands of the Soviet era, whose people played such a major role as Red Army fighters and partisans in the WW2 fight against fascism.
Those identifying today as ethnically Russian are depicted by the Bandera-ites as ‘eastern mongols’ and ‘Orcs’ (ie, subhuman), as opposed to Ukrainians in the west, who they claim are ‘pure Europeans’. This fascistic racial profiling is openly stated on their media and increasingly becoming state policy (insofar as there is such a thing as a Ukrainian state any more), but seems to provoke no particular outrage in the allegedly antiracist ‘liberal’ West.
Meanwhile, among other historical events, the leaders of Svoboda publicly celebrate the founding of the Galician division of the SS (describing it as “the pride of our nation”) and the Nazi invasion of Ukraine (Operation Barbarossa).
One younger party ideologist Yuri Mykhalchyshyn from Lviv founded a right-wing think tank back in 2005 that he intially named after Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels. In his writings, he has openly referred to the “heroic” legacy of fascists including Stepan Bandera and has described the holocaust as a “bright episode in European civilisation” (WSWS article).
The EuroMaidan and its aftermath
The coup of 2014 was, as in 2004, organised primarily by the CIA and was carried out in order to replace (again!) the government of Victor Yanukovych, who (again!) had been elected on a platform of retaining friendly economic and political relations with both east and west. His government had refused at the last minute to sign humiliating and punitive trade deals and loan agreements with the European Union and the IMF.
For this declaration of independence, Yanukovych was forced from office and into exile at the point of a gun, Ukraine’s parliament was sacked and violent fascist-led protestors occupied Kiev’s streets. Their West-trained snipers shot policemen and passers-by and their riotous thugs were given PR treatment (and cookies!) by Western media and politicians, who described them as ‘pro-democracy protestors’.
The result of this intervention was the installation of a government of kleptocratic stooges to facilitate the West’s total takeover of Ukraine’s economy, territory and resources.
It is in this context that we must understand the moves for independence, autonomy and liberation that were instigated by Ukrainians in the east of the country in response to the imposition of a US-controlled fascist-dominated regime that was determined to reverse the victory in WW2 and to scapegoat Russophone Ukrainians by turning them into second-class citizens in the interests of keeping the population divided and weak while Uncle Sam and Co looted what remained of their wealth.
Since the Russian armed forces had a big base in Crimea, Ukraine’s various fascist militia were unable to prevent the Crimean people from carrying out a peaceful referendum on their future. Unsurprisingly, they voted overwhelmingly to return to Russia, which they had been part of until Khrushchev transferred the territory to Ukraine in 1954. No one at the time took much notice of this move, since in the fraternally multinational USSR it made no meaningful difference to anybody’s life.
Across the Russophone eastern Donbass region, there were mass protests against the coup regime and its implementation of a law removing Russian as an official language of Ukraine. Azov and other fascist militia arrived in force to quell the unrest. In Odessa, the people’s protests were met with a brutal massacre of workers, burned alive in the trade union building while fascists chanted outside and prevented them from leaving.
The eastern port city of Mariupol, home to the massive Azovstal steel works, became the private fiefdom of the Azov thugs, who brutalised the local population and, mafia-style, drew funds from the local economy in any way they could (see ‘The fall of the Azov’ by Jacob Dreizin, The Duran YouTube channel, 18 May 2022).
In response to these events, the people of the Donetsk and Lugansk areas of the Donbass also held referenda, where they voted for autonomy within Ukraine – in particular for a guarantee of their right to use the Russian language. When the massacres in Odessa and Mariupol forced the people there to capitulate to the coup, their towns were then occupied by fascists, who not only terrorised the local people but also created bases from which to attack the newly-formed autonomous regions, which in turn had no choice but to take up arms if they wanted to avoid the same fate.
The antifascist war that began in Donbass in 2014 carried on for eight years, but was almost entirely ignored by the Western media. There were no fundraisers or ribbons for the refugees, widows and orphans. There were certainly no demands to ‘Arm, arm, arm Donbas’, as recent liberal ‘antiwar’ activists were heard to chant in support of more arms to Ukraine!
While the war was fought enthusiastically by Ukraine’s private ‘volunteer’ fascist paramilitaries, thousands of ordinary conscripted Ukrainians deserted, left the country or switched sides and joined the resistance, taking their arms and equipment with them.
Swiss military expert Jacques Baud has pointed out in this regard that: “According to a British Home Office report, in the March/April 2014 recall of reservists, 70 percent did not show up for the first session, 80 percent for the second, 90 percent for the third, and 95 percent for the fourth. In October/November 2017, 70 percent of conscripts did not show up for the autumn recall campaign. This is not counting suicides and desertions (often over to the autonomists), which reached up to 30 percent of the workforce in the ATO area.
“Young Ukrainians refused to go and fight in the Donbass and preferred emigration, which also explains, at least partially, the demographic deficit of the country” (‘The military situation in the Ukraine’, The Postil magazine, 1 April 2022, our emphasis).
By 2020, ‘independent’ paramilitaries (i.e., private armies answering to various West-backed oligarchs and ultimately to imperialist commanders) made up 40 percent of Ukrainian armed forces, numbering 102,000 men who had been armed, trained financed by the USA, Britain, Canada and France. They included in their ranks large numbers of foreign fighters, thugs and mercenaries from at least 19 different countries.
While the integration of fascists into the Ukrainian state machine and armed forces has been facilitated and accelerated since the 2014 coup, fascist paramilitaries like Azov have been used to train not only Ukrainian Nazis but also fascist thugs from all over Europe and north America.
In fact, the Ukrainian state has been revealed as having no meaningful existence outside the various CIA-controlled institutions, and no control over the country. Very aptly did John Pilger describe post-Maidan Ukraine as a “CIA theme park” in 2014 (‘In Ukraine, the US is dragging us towards war with Russia’, The Guardian, 13 May 2014).
Like post-invasion Libya, the territory had become a place where the USA in particular felt it could do as it pleased with no oversight, whether that be setting up unsupervised biowarfare labs, looting Ukraine’s agriculture and industry, or creating a world base for the arming and training of white supremacist cannon fodder (‘Misanthropic Division’, FOIA Research, 6 January 2019).
As with Isis and Libya in the Middle East, the repercussions are likely to be deadly, and to be felt across Europe and America for decades to come.
Airbrushing Nazis today
So fascists have been backed, armed, trained and given propaganda cover in Ukraine by the imperialist powers since well before WW2. First as a tool against the USSR and more recently as a tool against capitalist Russia, whose size, resources and military capability made its aim of economic independence a huge threat to the imperialist West, and to US hegemony in particular (Joti Brar, The drive to war Against Russia and China, 2017).
This policy has never materially changed. The imperialists still want to weaken and if possible balkanise and destroy Russia. They still want to loot Ukraine and use it as a tool in their war against Russia. And they continue to make full use of their Nazi proxies in Ukraine for all these purposes.
The Nazis we see in Ukraine today didn’t pop up spontaneously in 2014 or even in 2004. They have been a continuous force above and underground in the country, many in exile in the west during the cold war period, and they have owed their existence throughout to foreign backers, who have helped them to stir up racial hatred and to convince a sizeable section of the population in the west of the country that Russia and the Russian people are their enemy and that all their problems would be solved if a West-aligned and ‘pure’ Ukraine could be created, cleansed of their polluting presence.
Launching the special military operation on 24 February this year, President Vladimir Putin gave three objectives for Russia’s operation: “demilitarise” Ukraine (ie, remove its ability to act as a Nato proxy), “denazify” it, and secure its permanent neutrality.
While we can’t know the details of Russia’s military objectives, rational commentators have been able to draw conclusions from events as they have unfolded.
Demilitarisation has been approached by the destruction of Ukrainian aviation, air defence systems and reconnaissance assets, by the neutralisation of command and intelligence structures, fuel depots and supply lines, and by gradually creating a cauldron around the bulk of the Ukrainian army massed in the southeast of the country.
Denazification is being carried out first and foremost by the destruction and neutralisation of volunteer battalions operating in the cities of Odessa, Kharkov and Mariupol in particular, and by the simple expedient of checking captured soldiers for the Nazi tattoos which fascists seem unable to do without. What further steps will be necessary to remove the fascist threat from Ukraine remains to be seen.
Western narrative falling apart
In response to all this, the West, having failed in its economic war to break Russia’s resolve, is relying mainly on PR manipulations to shore up domestic support for its apparently bottomless spending plans.
The Ukraine army’s media brigade, its biggest and most well-organised section, is wholly under the control of the CIA, which expertly directs its production and packaging of media-friendly disinformation. The imperialists are making full use of their dominance and control of cyberspace in order to paint a wishful portrait of a popular resistance movement led by an incorruptible hero (Volodymyr Zelensky, don’t laugh).
Netflix has even underlined this narrative by airing for Western audiences the TV programme in which he played the part of an incorruptible man of humble origin shot into the presidency via his social media following.
Western media carefully hide from our view the fact that it is the Russians who are trying to avoid civilian casualties and the Ukrainians who are using civilian areas and civilian populations as shields, holding people hostage and refusing to let them leave in order to deter Russia from attacking their positions. The Ukrainian military and militias have no qualms about using hospitals, schools, kindergartens etc. as bases.
Even the fascists hunkering in the tunnels under the Azov steelworks in Mariupol port were presented as innocent civilians in the western media – and indeed, they had taken some women and children hostage in order to fuel this narrative.
Meanwhile, the same Azov battalion that was formerly labelled as fascist all over the West, and was previously subject to social media censorship, with posts that glorified it being removed, has become the hero of the hour. On 24 February, Facebook changed its policy and allowed posts favourable to the militia. A week or so later, the same platform authorised calls for the murder of Russian soldiers and leaders in eastern European countries.
It can be hard for the average worker to understand why it should be that our media is telling so many bare-faced lies about Russia and the war in Ukraine. But when we understand that the bastions of our so-called ‘free press’ are not free at all, but serve big capital, serve imperialist monopoly, whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of workers everywhere, we can begin to understand why they should be deceiving us on such a grand scale.
And as Russia continues to liberate towns from under the fascist jackboot, to capture Azov-affiliated and other war criminals, and to collect evidence for their trials, we can expect to see this latest tissue of lies collapse into ignominy.
As the lies are relentlessly exposed, we can expect the anger of workers in Britain and elsewhere to rise – especially when it is understood how the cost of living crisis that is bringing poverty and hunger to workers everywhere has been wilfully stoked by the reckless imperialist drive to war; by the quest for profit and domination.