Ukraine: Are Zelenskyy’s Hands Tied in Peace Negotiations by the Country’s Neo-Nazi Militia?

Aris Roussinos, the Foreign Affairs Editor at UnHerd, has a fascinating piece about the worrying role of neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine over the past several years. While emphasising that the Russian claim that Ukraine is a ‘Nazi state’ is certainly false – “Ukraine is a genuine liberal-democratic state, though an imperfect one, with free elections that produce significant changes of power, including the election, in 2019, of the liberal-populist reformer, Volodymyr Zelenskyy”, who is of course Jewish – nonetheless, Ukraine, he says, is an outlier in Europe in the official role the state gives to neo-Nazi militia:

Ukraine is not a Nazi state, but the Ukrainian state’s support – for whatever reasons, valid or otherwise – of neo-Nazi or Nazi-aligned groups makes the country an outlier in Europe. The continent has many extreme Right-wing groups, but only in Ukraine do they possess their own tank and artillery units, with the state’s support.

The most prominent and powerful of these neo-Nazi groups is Azov.

Alongside other far-Right groups, such as Right Sector, the nascent Azov movement played an outside role in the fighting against Ukrainian security police which left 121 dead and secured the success of the revolution. Acquiring control of a large property, just off Independence Square, from the Ministry of Defence, Azov turned the building, now named Cossack House, into its Kyiv headquarters and recruiting centre. Though Azov has since toned down its rhetoric, and many of its fighters may be non-ideological and simply attracted by its martial reputation, its activists are often to be seen covered in tattoos of SS totenkopfs and lightning bolt runes, or sporting the Sonnenrad or Black Sun symbol of esoteric Nazism. Derived from a pattern created for Himmler at Wewelsburg castle in Germany, chosen as an occultic Camelot for senior SS officers, the Sonnenrad is like the Wolfsangel rune of the SS Das Reich division, one of Azov’s official symbols, worn on their unit patches and on the shields behind which their fighters parade in evocative torchlit ceremonies.

I’ve visited Cossack House multiple times to interview senior Azov figures, including the leader of its National Militia (which provides auxiliary patrolling muscle to Ukraine’s official police force), Ihor Mikhailenko, and Azov’s International Secretary and intellectual linchpin, Olena Semenyaka. It’s an impressive setup: along with classrooms for the educational lectures they provide with state funding, Cossack House is home to Azov’s literary salon and publishing house, Plomin, where glamorous young hipster intellectuals busy themselves with organising Right-wing seminars and book translations, beneath glossy posters of fascist luminaries such as Yukio Mishima, Cornelius Codreanu, and Julius Evola.

But Azov’s power derives from the gun, not their literary efforts. Back in 2014, when the Ukrainian army was weak and underequipped, Azov volunteers under Biletsky’s leadership fought at the vanguard of the battle against Russian-speaking separatists in the east, reconquering the city of Mariupol, where they are currently under siege. Effective, courageous and highly ideological fighters, Azov’s efforts in the east won them great renown as defenders of the nation, and the support of a grateful Ukrainian state, which incorporated Azov as an official regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard. In this, Azov is believed to have enjoyed the support of Arsen Avakov, a powerful oligarch and Ukraine’s Interior Minister between 2014 and 2019. 

Has Putin targeted Mariupol for particularly severe bombardment because it is a power base for Azov?

The extent of the Ukrainian state’s dependence on neo-Nazi militia is unclear, but Roussinos intimates it may be considerable:

Like Ukraine’s other extreme Right-wing militias, Azov are dogged, disciplined and committed fighters, which is why the weak Ukrainian state has found itself forced to rely upon their muscle during its hours of greatest need: during the Maidan revolution, during the war against separatists from 2014 onwards, and now to fend off the Russian invasion.

I don’t write this to offer support for Putin’s propaganda, which even where there is a kernel of truth is invariably inflated with generous lashings of exaggeration and falsehood.

But I do wonder how much sway Azov and the neo-Nazi militia have over Ukrainian policy. In particular, are they constraining the terms on which Zelenskyy can achieve peace and end the war? Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Ukraine had to accept it would never be a NATO member, an apparent move towards conciliation with Russia:

Of course Ukraine is not a NATO member, we understand that. We have heard for many years about the open doors, but we also heard that we can’t enter those doors. This is the truth and we have simply to accept it as it is.

Who is he appealing to here when he says “we simply have to accept it”? The Telegraph reports that the U.K. Government is sceptical that a peace deal that concedes independence for two eastern regions and Russian control of Crimea would “secure the support of all Ukrainians”.

However, the Telegraph understands there is scepticism from senior U.K. Government figures involved in the Ukraine response about whether the talks really can achieve peace.

There is a concern that Mr Zelenskyy would have to agree to give up control of parts of the country to convince Putin to pull back troops. It could prove challenging to secure the support of all Ukrainians for such a deal.

Are the powerful neo-Nazi militia among the Ukrainians whose support would be “challenging” to secure? You’ve got to suppose they are.

Ukraine has shown incredible bravery in standing up to the more numerous invading Russian forces, and exposed critical weaknesses in the Russian military. Nonetheless, it has paid and is paying a heavy price for its resistance, and is standing alone, with the West refusing to engage militarily. One mystery to me is why Ukraine hasn’t been more willing to find a settlement sooner with its big, bullying neighbour, instead of continuing a war that, while winning it lots of international sympathy and support, is laying waste to its cities and driving millions of its citizens from their homes.

One possibility, of course, is that the Kyiv Government simply doesn’t trust Russia and suspects that its ambitions go well beyond what it claims are its terms for peace.

Another possibility, however, is that the Kyiv Government is not actually in a position to make the necessary concessions, even if it wanted to. Is Ukraine being kept from negotiating peace by powerful elements within the country beyond Government control, in particular its neo-Nazi militia? Is this why Putin said Tuesday that “Kyiv is not showing a serious commitment to finding mutually acceptable solutions”?

Leading Azov member Olena Semenyaka told Roussinos in 2019: “If Zelenskyy is even worse than [ex-president] Poroshenko, if he is the same kind of populist, but without certain skills, connections and background, then, of course, Ukrainians would be heavily in danger. And we have already developed a plan of what can be done, how we can develop parallel state structures, how we can customise these entry strategies to save the Ukrainian state, if [Zelenskyy] would become a puppet of the Kremlin, for instance. Because it’s quite possible.”

Roussinos notes: “In the event of Zelenskyy being forced by events to sign a peace deal surrendering Ukrainian territory, groups like Azov may find a golden opportunity to challenge what remains of the state and consolidate their own power bases, even if only locally.”

When it comes to negotiating peace, it’s worth asking if Zelenskyy and the Kyiv Government’s hands are tied by sinister forces in the country beyond their control.

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