The Guardian • Issue #2000

The far-right in Ukraine and the Australian connection

Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) flag. Euromaidan, Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe (CC BY-SA 3.0))

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia’s military operation aims to “demilitarise” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine. He was referring to the Azov Battalion and other Extreme Far Right organisations, which have been active since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, which violently overthrew the elected government and set fire to the parliament. The president was forced out of office at gunpoint and parliamentarians were forced to sign in the new government. This is the “democratic government” the Coalition government supports.

The reports on the Russia-Ukraine war have been totally one-sided with the Western press accusing Russia as the sole culprit, without any consideration given to the reasons for Putin’s attack. The journalist George Galloway asks how did the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have US$1.3 billion in offshore accounts, as indicated in the Pandora Papers, and how did he obtain a US$31 million house in Florida on a comedian’s income?

The reason for Russia’s attack begins eight years ago with the coup carried out by the Azov Battalion, a unit of the National Guard of Ukraine (NGU), backed by Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The resultant eastern separatist conflict zone became a finishing school for far-right fighters trained and supported by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the US government. It attracted fighters from across the world, who were drawn to the conflict, either because of the connection with the nationalist and far-right extremists in their home countries or by the slickly-produced far-right propaganda. Easy access to weapons increased the political struggle between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, that has claimed over 14,000 lives. As the conflict continued it increasingly became global, with fighters from more than fifty countries entering the war. The Azov Battalion used Facebook and other social media for its recruitment campaigns. By 2018 there were clear connections between people affiliated with Ukrainian forces and ultra-nationalist and far-right groups in Australia.

When Australians think of neo-Nazis, they may remember Russell Crowe in the Australian film Romper Stomper (1992), which sparked race riots when it was first released in London. Since then, the far-right has become much more sophisticated in promoting its image, with the additional financial and military support of NATO and the US government and arms manufacturers.

In 2015, the US Congress removed a ban on funding neo-Nazi groups like Azov Battalion from its year-end spending bill, allowing US weapons to flow directly to Azov. In 2017 AirTronic’s sales of weapons to Ukraine were conducted in “very close coordination” with the US Embassy, the US State Department, the Pentagon and the Ukrainian government. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab confirmed that the Azov Battalion did receive these weapons. Since 2015 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been secretly training these forces for ‘the most noxious elements circulating within Ukraine today’. The US was one of just two countries to veto a United Nations (UN) draft resolution Combating the Glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism, the other was Ukraine.

The Azov Battalion is known for its extreme neo-Nazi stance, and its involvement in a number of terrorist attacks and separatist incidents in various countries and regions, including the riots in China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 2019. The Global Times reported that US politicians, military and intelligence officers cooperated with Azov, to foster extremist forces in Eastern Europe against Russia. It was accused of displacing residents after looting civilian properties, according to a 2016 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Kyiv-based expert on right-wing groups in Ukraine, says the far right has been “riding” the patriotic wave, legitimising the nationalist-radical symbolism and rhetoric of groups such as the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), especially the red-and-black flag. Three parties joined together in the last election. The All-Ukrainian Union Party “Svoboda” had six MPs in the Verkhovna Rada, the National Corpus, headed by Andriy Belitsky, and the Right Sector, led by Andriy Stempitsky. Other groups included the Brotherhood C14, the Carpathian Sich, the Social-National Assembly, the UNA-UNSO, Tradition and Order, Revenge, the Revolutionary Right Forces, and numerous others. Ultra-Right members entered the military with high positions of influence and control. A former neo-Nazi activist from Patriot of Ukraine, Vadym Troyan, received a high-ranking position in Ukraine’s national police. Andriy Biletsky, the head of Azov, was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

The Ukrainian police showed little interest in stopping or investigating unlawful right-wing activities to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Svoboda Party activists, who threw grenades during a rally outside parliament in 2015, killing four national guardsmen, were never convicted. Nor has the Ukrainian government tried to stop trained foreign fighters from returning to their homeland, including Australia.

In 2014, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, Bret Walker SC, recommended to the Australian Federal Parliament that foreign fighter laws should be changed, so that all foreign fighting would be illegal unless approved by the government. In the wake of revelations that Australians had fought in Ukraine and that his recommendation had been ignored, Walker said: “There is a domestic concern, not just a concern about Australia’s obligations in relation to prohibiting war, but also domestic concern in terms of terrorist dangers in Australia.”

Four years later, Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov and National Police head Serhiy Knyazev met with Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner, Andrew Colvin. They were given a list of suspected Australian fighters trained in the Ukraine and urged that these men be charged. The AFP said it was unable to prosecute, as it is not illegal for Australians to join the conflict, as the federal government had ignored a high-level recommendation to make all foreign fighting a criminal offence. This was despite the war in eastern Ukraine being increasingly viewed as inspiring far-right extremists. There was also ample evidence of right-wing extremists committing acts of terrorism when they returned to their home soil.

The white supremacist attack that killed seventy-seven people in Norway in 2011, was intricately planned to maximise lethality and supported by his manifesto, 2083 – A Declaration of Independence, claiming transnational ideological justification, and highlighting multiculturalism as a threat to a perceived white European identity. His manifesto attracted much attention internationally helping the movement spread. An American was charged with a series of assaults on protesters, during the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where a woman was killed. The evolution of right-wing attacks continued up to the 2019 live-streamed massacre exemplifying the increased sophistication of white supremacist terrorism.

In March 2019, fifty-one people were murdered at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in a mass shooting by Australian Brenton Tarrant. Tarrant displayed a symbol used by the Azov Battalion during the attacks and published his manifesto, The Great Replacement, online shortly before the massacre. The Black Sun symbol emblazoned on his rucksack is the Azov Battalion’s logo. As well, he had painted other white supremacist symbols and names on his equipment. Tarrant had travelled to the Ukraine before the attack, as did numerous other perpetrators of extremist terrorists.

Sydney man Simeon Boikov, the leader of pro-Kremlin group the Zabaikal Cossack Society of Australia, had clashed repeatedly with Ukrainians in Australia and overseas. Boikov has attended multiple rallies and meetings with Australia First Party leader Jim Saleam, who Nino Bucci of the ABC News considers one of Australia’s foremost white supremacists.

In his expert report to the NSW Supreme Court, Professor Paul Spoonley of Massey University, Auckland, the Right Wing Resistance (RWR) organisation was founded in New Zealand and expanded to Australia in 2011. Its members had international connections and could be capable of acts of terrorism. Ricky White, who was second-in-charge of the NSW chapter of the RWR, was found to pose “an unacceptable risk of committing a serious terrorism offence … consistent with his previously held white supremacist views.” In 2014 White threatened people associated with a Jewish museum, then burned down a church in 2016.

He had been associated with right-wing extremist groups, such as the skinheads and Odinism, which Spoonley said were: “in the tradition of white supremacist and nationalist movements in ideology and activities, and their imagery is very aligned with contemporary neo-Nazi groups.” He added, “There is the potential for an escalation in violence from these groups – they do threaten that they will act against their “enemies” – and they tend to mandate individual acts of violence [by] those who are sympathetic to their views.”

Another former member of RWR became one of the first right-wing extremists placed under an extended supervision order in Australia, after a court found he was at high risk of committing a terrorist act.

Ethan Tilling was also a former member of RWR, based in Brisbane. Queensland joint counter-terrorism team officers questioned Tilling on his return from the Ukraine and he was deemed to not pose a threat to national security. The government would not confirm if a similar approach would be taken to other Australians returning from the Ukrainian conflict.

In 2019 intelligence provided to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) showed that five Australians had gained military training in Ukraine, raising concerns that could threaten Australia’s national security. One was a former Australian Defence Force personnel with ties to far-right groups. But it was not until January 2020 that Australia placed constraints on individuals returning from Ukraine. The Australian, who had connections to domestic and transnational white supremacist networks, had his passport cancelled to prevent his travel to fight with the Azov Battalion. The reason for the government finally getting tough was the 2019 massacre in New Zealand.

Online radicalisation of young Australians by extremist content was highlighted by AFP Deputy Commissioner, Ian McCartney, in a report given to the 2020 Senate estimates committee. “We’re finding now that in terms of right-wing extremism, that the concern for us is young persons being radicalised online – very aggressively in relation to right-wing extremism,” he said. The actions of Australian white supremacist groups such as the National Socialist Network (NSN) received significant community, media and national security attention as a result of their overt use of Nazi symbols and gestures in the Grampians National Park, Victoria.

The threat posed by such online exposure led to the Australian government proscribing the UK-based neo-Nazi Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD) as a terrorist organisation. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has previously called for the US-based Proud Boys to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation, however, SKD remains the only extremist organisation to be listed amongst the twenty-seven terror groups proscribed by Australia. The Victorian state government proposed legislation to ban the use of Nazi symbols such as the swastika, due to complaints from its large Jewish population. The legislation is expected to be introduced in the first half of 2022. The Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said the findings of a recent inquiry into the state’s anti-vilification protections were “sobering”.

Such legislative measures are critical to the political and operational landscape to not only enable the prosecution of offenders, but also to act as a deterrent, and to demonstrate that the community finds such ideology unacceptable. Increasing accountability for online platforms, such as Facebook, needs to restrict and remove extremist content in order to identify and remove sites that encourage and incite extremist ideologies and glorify them to stop the emulation of acts of violent extremists. So far Facebook has only removed pro-Russia content.

German law classifies Nazi symbols such as the swastika and the SS sig runes as “symbols of anti-constitutional organisations,” and has banned the use of Nazi gestures including the Nazi salute and the “Heil Hitler” in public places. Yet Germany does not include white supremacist symbols.

Such symbols and slogans are openly on display in Australia, with no legislation to stop it. With the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war the extremist groups can demonstrate in Australia with the full protection of the law. The government must put an end to the far-right organisations’ activities in this country and make it illegal for Australians trained in the Ukraine to re-enter Australia.

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