'Denazification'? Neo-Nazi Groups Fighting Alongside Russian Forces in Ukraine

According to a German intelligence report, two neo-Nazi groups are fighting alongside Moscow in Ukraine, despite the Kremlin's claim to be 'denazifying' its southwestern neighbor

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
Service members of pro-Russian troops drive a tank during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine, last week.
Service members of pro-Russian troops drive a tank during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine, last week.Credit: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/ REUTERS
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Neo-Nazi groups are a part of Russia's forces in Ukraine, according to a leaked report from Germany’s foreign intelligence service.

The report, which was published earlier this week by German publication Der Spiegel, states that while it was unclear how many neo-Nazi fighters were present in the war zone, the far-right Russian Imperial Legion and Rusich groups were engaged in combat operations against Ukrainian forces.

While the report certainly undermines Russian claims to be "denazifying" its southwestern neighbor, far-right groups with neo-Nazi ties have fought alongside the Ukrainians as well. Members of Azov Battalion, a far-right volunteer unit with neo-Nazi ties that was incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces in 2014, comprised the bulk of the forces defending Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, Kyiv’s final stronghold in the Russian occupied city.

As for the groups fighting on Moscow's side, Russian Imperial Legion is the paramilitary arm of the Russian Imperial Movement, a St. Petersburg-based white supremacist group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 2020. According to the State Department, it has “provided paramilitary-style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe and actively works to rally these types of groups into a common front against their perceived enemies.”

While he declined to comment on the alleged BND report, Stephan Kramer, head of the Verfassungsschutz, or domestic intelligence agency, of the German state of Thuringia, told Haaretz that "we have known about the Russian-Imperial-Movement (RIM) group for years.”

According to Kramer, “several German members” of far-right groups "have undergone training” at the group’s paramilitary training camps near St. Petersburg and “contacts and identities between RIM and militant German right-wing extremists are known, but also into the Scandinavian region, Western Europe and across the Atlantic into the scene of White Supremists and the New Right.”

“It is also no secret that the Russian Government has also established links to the New Right Movement across Europe during the last years,” he said.

The group’s members were present in Ukraine during the first phase of the war in 2014-2015, alongside members of Rusich, a neo-Nazi organization with close ties to the Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary group, which is also present in Ukraine. The Times reported last month that members of the group, whose leaders have been photographed using Nazi iconography, were spotted in the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine.

According to the Times, Rusich co-founder Aleksei Milchakov has posted photographs of himself killing a puppy and mutilating Ukrainian servicemen on social media.

These groups were “Kremlin tools” during the first phase of the war, when Russia fomented separatist uprisings in Ukraine’s east, but their presence largely ended following the signing of the Minsk II agreement in 2015, said Dr. Anton Shekhovtsov, director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Austria.

    While they were previously necessary because they were able to present themselves as local fighters and provide Moscow with a degree of plausible deniability, it is now unclear what utility they provide the Kremlin during a period in which “Russian commanders have complete control of troops on the ground,” he said.

    Whatever the reason for their presence, “it makes [the Russians] hypocrites, and they know it does but they don't care,” said Michael Colborne, the author of the recently published "From the Fires of War: Ukraine's Azov Movement and the Global Far Right."

    “There's certainly a degree of Neo-Nazism and far-right views among Russian soldiers, but it's difficult to say to what degree. I've seen photographs of captured Russian soldiers, shared by Ukraine, where those soldiers have far-right or neo-Nazi tattoos. and the presence of Wagner, founded by a guy with SS rune tattoos and popular with neo-Nazis, particularly its affiliated Task Force Rusich, really underscores how hypocritical it is,” he said.

    “I mean, the tattoos Russian forces advertise from the Ukrainian side as being proof of 'Nazism' are identical to those worn by some soldiers on their side.”

    Russian-backed separatist leaders in Ukraine have made antisemitic statements claiming that Jews had taken control of Ukraine and were responsible for the 2014 Euro-Maidan Revolution, which deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, precipitating the current conflict.

    Last month, Russian-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin posted a video on his official website in which was could be seen granting an award to a fighter wearing Nazi and far-right insignia on his uniform, including a Death's Head or Totenkopf patch.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin has long used allegations of Nazism to legitimize his actions against the Ukraine. In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, he cited an alleged “rampage” of reactionary, nationalistic and antisemitic forces across the country.

    Russia’s Nazi rhetoric escalated to the point that it sparked a diplomatic spat with Israel earlier this month, after Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared during an interview with Italian media that the Jewishness of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not negate Ukraine's Nazi elements. Repeating the conspiracy theory that Nazi Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler also “had Jewish blood,” he claimed that "the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”

    After backlash from Israel, Russia doubled down in a statement accusing Jerusalem of supporting “the neo-Nazi regime in Kiev,” prompting further Israeli ire which was only mollified after Putin personally apologized to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

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