Choosing friends and enemies in Ukraine is no straightforward task

By Scott Taylor

A Ukrainian soldier stands watch at Boryspil International Airport as equipment from a Canadian CC-130J Hercules aircraft from 436 Transport Squadron in Trenton, Ontario is unloaded on August 8, 2014. (Combat Camera).

A Ukrainian soldier stands watch at Boryspil International Airport as equipment from a Canadian CC-130J Hercules aircraft from 436 Transport Squadron in Trenton, Ontario is unloaded on August 8, 2014. (Combat Camera).

Last week, the U.S. Congress voted to explicitly prohibit American soldiers from training the Ukrainian militia unit known as the Azov Battalion. The reason the American lawmakers gave is the fact this rogue unit is openly rife with neo-Nazis in its ranks.

From the early heady days of the demonstrations in the streets of Kiev, it has been an embarrassing and oft-overlooked fact that those spearheading the movement to oust pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych are right-wing radicals. When Canadian former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird linked arms and marched in solidarity with Ukrainian protestors, reporters neglected to mention the more sinister elements at the forefront of the crowd.

The political genesis for the anti-Yanukovych movement was rooted in the Svoboda (Freedom) Party — it was formally known as the Social-National Party until they realized this sounded too much like Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party — and the Right Sector party.

Heading up the Right Sector was a colourful character known as “Sashko Billy,” who had fought as a mercenary in Chechnya and who was driven by a hatred of all things Jewish and anything Russian. When the heretofore peaceful street demonstrations turned into violent riots, it was Sashko Billy’s Right Sector thugs and Svoboda Party bully boys who battled with Ukrainian security forces.

After Yanukovych was toppled, these same neo-Nazi thugs continued to strut around Maidan Square — even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Baird visited Kiev to celebrate Yanukovych’s overthrow.

After Ukraine’s eastern provinces rejected the pro-Western interim government in Kiev and established their own breakaway self-proclaimed independent states in Luhansk and Donetsk, it was only a matter of time before these fascist elements and neo-Nazis were drawn into the burgeoning conflict.

To be fair, the interim Ukrainian government did attempt to distance itself from some of the more extreme Nazi elements. On March 24, 2014, a special police unit attempted to apprehend Sashko Billy, but in the bizarre tale surrounding his death, the vaunted mercenary somehow shot himself in the back — twice — while resisting arrest.

However, as the fighting with Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine intensified, security forces showed little stomach for fighting their own people. Thus, the volunteer militias, such as Azov, proved to be an invaluable asset to the struggling regime of newly elected President Petro Poroshenko.

Originally funded by private donors, Azov drew into its ranks a large number of foreign volunteers, eager to fight for their fascist, anti-Semitic beliefs. It was when the international media reported Azov Battalion soldiers sporting swastikas on their helmets that alarm bells started going off.

Yes, the Azov Battalion is by far the most effective and motivated unit the Ukraine government had in the first assault against the rebels. However, with a bankrupt treasury and a desperate need for international aid and military support, neo-Nazis are not exactly something you’d want to showcase. To downplay the reports, the allegations were dismissed as “Russian propaganda.”

However, the Azov Battalion’s commander himself confirmed that as many as 20 per cent of his soldiers are, in fact, dedicated Nazis. For the record, at the height of Adolf Hitler’s power, fewer than 10 per cent of the population were actual members of the National Socialist Party.

The case against the Azov Battalion was compelling enough for the U.S. Congress to exclude them from military aid. Canada, of course, has also sent military trainers to western Ukraine. But, as of yet, the Harper government has not taken any measures to prevent our soldiers from training either Azov or other neo-Nazi militiamen.

When asked for a clarification vis-à-vis the possibility of our troops assisting right-wing extremists, the defence minister’s office stated that the Canadians would only be training the Ukrainian National Guard. Unfortunately for all involved, as of September 2014, the Azov Battalion officially became a member of that National Guard.

As loathe as the Canadian government is to admit that Ukraine’s security forces contain such unsavoury elements, it is imperative that we follow the U.S. lead on this and ban any and all support to neo-Nazi fascists, even if they are anti-Russian.