In his testimony last week before the House Intelligence Committee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent credited Ukraine’s volunteer battalions for saving the country from the Russian-backed uprising in Eastern Ukraine.
“Ukrainian civil society answered the challenge. They formed volunteer battalions of citizens, including technology professionals and medics,” he said. “They crowd-sourced funding for their own weapons, body armor, and supplies. They were the 21st century Ukrainian equivalent of our own Minutemen in 1776, buying time for the regular army to reconstitute.
What Kent, the State Department’s leading expert on Ukraine, neglected to mention was that a significant portion of these volunteer battalions are ultra-nationalist and even explicitly neo-Nazi paramilitary groups. Also left unsaid was the fact that at least one of these militias previously received military support from Washington, and possibly still does despite a formal ban from Congress. (RELATED: State Department Official Said He Raised Concerns Over Burisma Corruption In 2016)
During the outset of the war in Eastern Ukraine, volunteer battalions formed to help the Ukrainian national army stem the advance of pro-Russian separatist forces. Volunteer battalions distinguished themselves on the battlefield, leading many Ukrainians to laud them as national heroes. While some of these of militias did not espouse any particular ideology, others aligned themselves with ultra-nationalism and neo-Nazism. Such groups include the Right Sector, Dnipro 1 Battalion, Aidar Battalion, and the Azov Battalion.
The Azov Battalion has gained particular notoriety in Ukraine and the West. Andriy Biletsky, the group’s founder and commander, famously declared that Ukraine’s mission is to “lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade … against the Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].” Azov welcomes neo-Nazis into its ranks and uses the Wolfsangel, a symbol commonly used by the German Waffen SS during World War II, as its emblem.
In October, 40 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to list Azov as a foreign terrorist organization for its human rights violations and role in training American white supremacists.
While groups like Azov enjoyed considerable success on the battlefield, they also earned a reputation for brutality. A 2017 joint report by several Ukrainian human rights groups found that volunteer battalions were responsible for a majority of the human rights abuses by pro-Kyiv forces. (RELATED: Trump Approves Anti-Tank Weapons For Ukraine)
“Most of the victims reported that the Ukrainian volunteer battalions committed the violations. In particular, the victims recognized some members of ‘Shakhatrsk’ (‘Tornado’), ‘Aidar,’ ‘Dnipro-1,’ and ‘Azov’ units as perpetrators of torture, enforced disappearances and unlawful detentions,” the report stated.
While the Ukrainian government has sought to rein in the volunteer militias by incorporating them into the army, some of these paramilitary groups show no intention of completely submitting to Kyiv. Azov, in particular, has often adopted a defiant tone toward Ukraine’s political leadership. During a speech before parliament in 2017, Azov head Biletsky threatened to overthrow the government.
On October 1, the Zelensky administration reached an armistice deal with Russia and separatists, which mandated that all sides withdraw their forces from the line of conflict.
Azov Battalion troops, however, initially refused to obey Zelensky’s orders to pull back. They established a “last checkpoint” in the warzone town of Zolote and declared their opposition to the cease-fire agreement. Zelensky regarded this act of defiance serious enough to travel to Zolote to meet with the soldiers in person. However, it was only after the Ukrainian army disarmed the Azov troops involved that the planned withdrawal could go through.
The National Corps, the political wing of the Azov Battalion, also helped spearhead mass demonstrations against Zelensky’s peace plan. (RELATED: The Presidency Of Ukraine’s Head Of State Volodymyr Zelensky Mirrors Trump In Some Pretty Striking Ways)
Further complicating matters is the fact that many of these paramilitary groups have powerful allies within the Ukrainian government. Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, who controls Ukraine’s police and national guard, is a known Azov patron. Avakov selected Vadim Troyan, an Azov veteran and former member of the neo-Nazi Patriots of Ukraine organization, as his deputy. The minister also appointed Sergei Korotkykh, a Belarusian neo-Nazi who fought for Azov, to a senior position in Ukraine’s National Police.
Another organization that enjoys a close relationship with the Ukrainian law enforcement is C14, an ultranationalist gang that has gained notoriety for its attacks on ethnic minorities, journalists, and political activists. In late 2017, Kyiv’s city government signed an agreement with C14 that granted the group official permission to patrol the streets as “municipal guards.” There have also been incidents of the police siding with C14 during the group’s attacks on peaceful demonstrators.
At least one of Ukraine’s radical paramilitary groups received military support from the United States. The Azov battalion has participated in training exercises with U.S. troops and received American PSRL-1 grenade launchers. Congress passed a ban on arming Azov in 2018, but questions about its enforcement remain.
A Daily Beast investigation found that the Pentagon and State Department did not have a clear mechanism for stopping extremist Ukrainian militias like Azov from getting U.S. aid.
“When officials are asked for details of any kind regarding how the vetting process actually functions, answers are ambiguous, details are scarce and the explanations become contradictory,” the Daily Beast wrote.
Despite their controversial reputation, Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist volunteer battalions found some prominent sympathizers in Washington. The late Senator John McCain visited the headquarters of the Dnipro-1 battalion, whom he lauded as “brave volunteers,” in June 2015. Just several months earlier, Amnesty International had released a report denouncing the battalion for “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.”
Even after many of these paramilitary groups were blacklisted by Congress, they continued to receive a warm welcome from U.S. diplomats in Ukraine. Dmytro Shatrovsky, the leader of Azov-affiliated Veterans Brotherhood, was one of the featured speakers at an event sponsored by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) this past August in Kyiv. William Taylor, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, also spoke at the event and was seen sitting in the front row during Shatrovsky’s speech.