Last Monday, 79-year-old grandmother Valentyna Konstantynovska unwittingly became a symbol of the Russian information war against Ukraine when an image of her engaging in ad-hoc weapons training went viral.
Only a short drive away from the current front line, where government forces have been battling a Kremlin-backed insurgency since 2014, Mariupol is a likely target for the more than 100,000 Russian troops massing on the border just 95 kilometers (60 miles) away. And with the threat of a renewed Russian offensive looming, Ukrainians in Mariupol such as Konstantynovska have been lining up for military instruction at the hands of a variety of official and private groups.
Sunday’s session was run by members of Azov, a controversial ultranationalist group with its own political party and paramilitary force with ties to Western neo-Nazi groups.
Images of Konstantynovska laying prone with a Kalashnikov, an Azov member standing above her in camouflaged fatigues that bore the group’s Wolfsangel logo – a Germanic symbol that was used by various SS armored and infantry divisions and is now popular among neo-Nazis – quickly made the rounds on social media.
This prompted Russian state media to accuse the West of seeking to downplay the role of the far right in Ukraine.
But while the ideology of groups such as Azov is not widely popular among Ukrainians, the movement is tolerated because of its “patriotism” and willingness to fight for Ukraine, explains journalist and researcher Michael Colborne, who heads up investigative journalism website Bellingcat’s work on the Eastern European far right.
Colborne, whose book “From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right,” is released next month, believes that to a certain degree, Ukrainian ultranationalists would welcome war with Russia as an opportunity to build their brand.
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“They may not actively want the worst to happen. But if it does, I’m certain they will welcome it as an opportunity,” he said, citing recent training events held by Azov.
Founded as a volunteer militia by members of the Patriot of Ukraine neo-Nazi group during the early days of the war in country’s east, in 2014, Azov helped recapture Mariupol from the separatists before being incorporated into the national guard as a regiment. Its troops have been accused of war crimes by the United Nations, while its paramilitary arm, the National Corps, has been linked to attacks on local Roma and members of the LGBT community.
But while there has been vigilante violence by far-right groups over the past decade, some of it reported by Colborne for Haaretz, violence against Jews is relatively rare – despite years of Russian media reports claiming the opposite.
Despite the consistently poor showing of Azov’s political wing in Ukrainian elections, Russia has consistently played up its existence as evidence that the country is controlled by a fascist junta. Many Ukrainians are loath to discuss the movement, though, calling the allegations against it Kremlin propaganda.
“In this case, it’s clear that Azov is trying to take advantage of the current situation by positioning themselves as people who are ready, willing and able, and have the skills necessary to defend the population,” Colborne said. “With the current situation being what it is, that’s not something your average Ukrainian will be offended by.
“If you ask them, ‘What do you think of their politics?’ or mention that they are far-right extremists, many people will say ‘I don’t really care about that. I don’t share those views, I’m more interested in what they can do to defend Ukraine,” he explained.
The group has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the dismissal of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov last summer, causing it to “lose a bit of its moxy, and to a certain extent further war is an opportunity that at the core I think they would welcome,” Colborne said.Avakov had previously been criticized by Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Yaakov Bleich, for naming the Azov Battalion’s deputy commander as Kyiv Oblast police chief back in 2014.
Ironically, as Russian media was accusing Ukraine of sweeping neo-Nazis under the rug this week, the country’s parliament passed a bill on Tuesday establishing financial penalties and prison terms for those convicted of hate crimes against Jews. In order to be enacted, the bill now awaits the signature of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is himself Jewish.