About Those 'Neo-Nazis' in Ukraine...
Russian propaganda efforts have redoubled since Putin launched its aggression against Ukraine a week ago. Suddenly, a host of stories has appeared in conservative media that try to rally support for Vladimir Putin because he is allegedly fighting Nazis and the New World Order in Ukraine. One of the worst examples is, perhaps, the Gateway Pundit, which has been duped into publishing stories by one Larry Johnson, whose only focus is the glorification of Russia and the smearing of Ukraine as a nation of Nazis.
We could respond by advising Russia and its advocates to worry about their own neo-Nazi infestation, but since this smear has now become widespread, it is prudent to address it.
The Nazi smear is a twisted but effective technique used by Russian propaganda and our left-wing media in equal abundance. Russia has been doing it since Stalin made it "a thing." This smear is effective because its victims try to distance themselves from one another and sometimes join in accusations, hoping others won't think of them as Nazis. It's also effective because it's extremely dirty. Trying to debunk it makes one dive deep into repulsive dirt.
Remember how Trump was smeared over Charlottesville — where did those Neo-Nazis even come from? Remember Nick Sandmann? Remember how Kyle Rittenhouse "became" a neo-Nazi for shooting at violent thugs in self-defense? Of course you do. But somehow no one remembers it when exactly the same technique is used on Ukraine.
When the Nazis occupied Ukraine in 1941, my Armenian grandfather became trapped there with four of his children, while his fifth and oldest joined the Soviet Army and was killed in action. The Nazis arrested my grandfather and sent him to a concentration camp because they decided that he looked Jewish. By some miracle, he survived and returned home to raise my father and my three aunts. Growing up, I have been a few times insulted by random antisemites who thought I was Jewish, and I know from personal experience how unfair and downright evil it is to single out people because of their ethnicity. I've written articles in support of Israel and one time was arrested for hanging pro-Israel posters on the GMU campus. Don't even bother accusing me of whitewashing a bunch of Nazis.
A lot of the anti-Ukrainian propaganda points have been growing from a widely planted story claiming that their Azov battalion is a Nazi organization. Debunking that libel today is especially difficult because the Russian influence operators have already distributed the myth around the world, all the way to the U.S. Congress. It would take an entire think-tank to shovel through that pile of "evidence."
Why have the Russian propagandists chosen that particular group? Azov is extremely effective against the Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The fact is, Russian aggression was the only reason Azov was formed in the first place, so the Kremlin has only itself to blame for it.
The Azov battalion was organized in 2014 when the poorly armed and unprepared Ukrainian army was forced to fight an unexpected war against Kremlin-orchestrated "separatism" in eastern Ukraine. Seeing how the military was failing, one of the richest Ukrainian industrialists and the governor of the Dnipro Oblast, Igor Kolomoisky, spent a hefty chunk of his own money to recruit and arm a volunteer battalion to defend Ukraine. The unit was named Azov after the small Azov Sea in southern Ukraine. This was quickly followed by a series of Ukrainian victories, in which Azov played a part.
Its initial sponsor, Kolomoisky, is Jewish and has since become an Israeli citizen, living in Israel. Not exactly neo-Nazi material, but the media influencers conveniently omit that fact. The smear is as absurd as if Hitler were to spread rumors about General Patton being a Nazi so as to hinder the American war effort.
Have there been volunteers with extremist views? Surely, there have been. Extremists exist in every nation, and they tend to join militias, as such people are drawn to violence. In a life-or-death situation for the country, when every fighter and every minute counts, no one does background checks on people who volunteer to fight for a good cause. Or would you rather they stay home and send bespectacled academics to the war instead?
It's not difficult to single out a dimwit or two and provoke them to make stupid statements on record, then magnify them out of proportion in the media. The media have done it many times to American conservatives; conservatives should know better.
Were there extremist or racist soldiers fighting in George Patton's army? I bet there were a few, but it doesn't follow that Patton was one of them, or that the U.S. Army had no moral right to fight Hitler and its victory was not legitimate.
To reference American popular culture, Azov is the Ukrainian version of the Suicide Squad. Accordingly, they chose a bellicose, ominous-looking emblem of the crossed letter Z that also calls to mind a modified Ukrainian Trident but, to the critics, it appears too close to the SS emblem or the swastika. It arguably follows traditional embroidery ornaments, and, after all, we don't demonize the entire Buddhist community in Asia for the continued use of their traditional swastika symbol.
There is some scary quality about the designs one can make with the letter Z. Germans used it, Ukrainians used it, and so have the Russians in the war against Ukraine (see the illustration). Yet, if I were the Azov P.R. agent, I'd probably advise them to hire a different art director.
In the seven years since Azov was formed, it has been cleaned up to become a special unit in the Ukrainian National Guard, but the smear of being a neo-Nazi militia is still being artificially inflated out of proportion. It came to a point in January of 2021 when the battalion had to write an official refutation to a Time Magazine article that called them a "white-supremacist militia." If you remember what happened in Washington in January of 2021, you may wonder if the timing of that story was not coincidental and if a Russian influence operation may play a role in the sudden surge of "white supremacist" and "Nazi" name-calling in the American media, aimed to split and demoralize the country.
Appealing to the history of antisemitism in Ukraine isn't much proof. Ukraine is not unique here because the history of Europe, especially Russia, is littered with examples of antisemitism. What makes Ukraine unique is its current Jewish president, Zelensky — the only such head of state in the entire world outside Israel. By the logic of the Nazi smear, Azov should be fighting on the Russian side against Zelensky. But Russian propaganda has never bothered to be consistent. The more insane, the better.
By the same propaganda logic, Germany should be open for invasion by anyone willing to do so because it has a history of state-sponsored antisemitism under Hitler. Except that today's Germany is not what it was generations ago, and that is what should matter now.
It would seem that the Russian influence operation has been successful not just in planting smear stories, but also in removing the stories that counter their narrative. The existing links that support this article are in Ukrainian or Russian, so they won't be of much use in the U.S., but for those who read either of those languages, here is a detailed breakdown published by Hromadske, a Ukrainian nonprofit organization for public journalism.
Of the English-language sources, observe the debunking of one of the vile examples of the anti-Azov Russian hoaxes. On the eve of the Netherlands' referendum about relations with Ukraine, Russian propaganda released a video in which alleged "Azov members" in masks threaten Dutch citizens with violent terrorist acts and burn the Dutch flag. This example speaks volumes about the goals, methods, and targets of such operations.
Speaking of neo-Nazi videos, here's a recent one on Instagram, in which neo-Nazis swear allegiance to their Fuehrer. Only they are not Azov fighters, nor are they even Ukrainians. They are goose-stepping, black-clad young Russians declaring their undying love for the Putin regime. In other words, Putlerjugend.
The best source is saved for last. It was published by The Hill and written by Kristofer Harrison, who worked for defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and was a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign. He is a co-founder and principal of AMS, a company that specializes in Russian information warfare.
In the article "Did California's Ro Khanna get duped by Russia's propaganda?," Harrison writes:
Congratulations, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), it appears you were just duped by Russia (and bragged about it). As a result, you promoted Russian propaganda about Ukraine's Azov Battalion being Nazis with text in the behemoth $1.3 trillion spending bill. The question is, who put you up to it? ...
It is ridiculous nonsense that Ukraine is beset with a bunch of Nazis. The Russians have been pushing this foolishness for a while. In Russia, if you want to discredit someone, call them a Nazi. Putin is using it to justify his war to his subjects. Russians are not particularly keen on attacking Ukraine. But if it is to free them from the yoke of Nazis, well, that's different.
The reason why the Kremlin is using information war against the Azov Battalion, specifically, is partially because they sometimes make themselves easy PR targets. These are guys with guns fighting a Russian invasion, not a PR agency with media training. But the bigger reason is that the Azov Battalion is one of the most effective defensive units.
Russia can't beat them on the battlefield, so they use K Street lobbyist sellouts to help cripple them. Who wants to provide guns to fascists? Nobody. That is the ruse you fell for. ...
In this instance, the Russian active measure began with an article in a publication that should know better: Foreign Policy. John Conyers read the piece on the Congressional Record. It then spread like wildfire among lazy journalists and Russia's network of fools, knaves and propagandists. ...
Russia is attacking the U.S., and quisling K Street lobbyists are helping them. Help us identify them.
Propaganda surely exists on both sides, it's part of any war. But it's curious to see how, in American social media, especially among some conservatives, it has become popular to ridicule and debunk any embellishments coming out of Ukraine, with no attention whatsoever to a less noticeable, creeping insertion of anti-Ukrainian tropes in the American media, which comes not as a meme, but as an "eye-opener" of a "serious political expert."
Think about that before you make another disparaging comment about an underdog nation fighting for freedom and independence against a stronger, dictatorial neighbor. Just like some Americans on January 6, Ukrainians rebelled over a brazenly stolen election by a Kremlin-backed candidate in 2004, and then they rebelled again against a Kremlin-backed president in 2014, and they have been fighting off Russian aggression ever since. Today, Russia is bombing Ukrainian cities, and the Azov battalion is the only force that bravely stands in the way of a superior invading army, defending a strategic port city, Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov.