History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
The Croatian “special police” crowding into the hotel bar were singing songs of the notorious Second World War pro-Nazi Ustaše (Ustasha). All were sporting the “skinhead” look, which may be benign now but was once the fashion choice of neo-Nazis. It was late. I was bone-weary. Over the past few days I’d been responding to Croatian “ethnic cleansing” and cease-fire violations. I’d allegedly been shot at by Serbs, although I was pretty certain that it was just some Croat trying to inject a touch of drama into a front-line visit. As the child of parents whose lives had been upended by a Nazi regime, my feelings on returning to the familiar comfort of our hotel to find it full of neo-fascists would be difficult to put into words. But my job was to monitor, so I settled down to nurse a beer and watch.
One thing I had to give those guys was that they were at least part of a disciplined, uniformed force, unlike the “camo”-wearing thugs comprising gangs on all sides of the Yugoslavia conflict dignifying themselves as “militias”. Perhaps it was fatigue and the effects of more than one beer, but as the night wore on I found myself becoming less judgmental. These were not bad lads with hard-right ultra-nationalism in their genes. They were ordinary young men who’d been motivated, taught and led in that particular direction. Given decent leadership and weaned from toxic ideology, I’d be pleased to have them in a Canadian uniform.
I thought of that night in 1992 recently, when a BBC report attributed the killing of yet another Russian general in Ukraine to the “Azov Regiment”, which had begun as as a volunteer militia fighting pro-Russian separatists and Russian infiltrators after the Russian annexation of Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs incorporated it into the National Guard in 2014 and during the past eight years it has become a combat-hardened thorn in the flesh for Russia. Since the invasion started in February, it appears to have been a key element in the dogged resistance of the besieged city of Mariupol despite the best that the Russian military has thrown at it. But Azov has its dark side.
The origins of what began as the “Azov Battalion” are solidly far-right; founded by an amalgam of soccer hooligans, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and East Slavic ultra-nationalists. It has cultivated links with extreme hard-right groups worldwide, and especially closely with those in Croatia.
It appears to have been extraordinarily effective in confounding Russian operations but, ironically, it has also been a gift to Russia’s President. Far right groups tend to have few humanitarian scruples, so it’s not unexpected that by 2016 the monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (an unarmed, civilian body much like mine in Yugoslavia three decades earlier) was reporting violations of international humanitarian law by the Azov Regiment.
President Putin is a master of gaslighting, so it’s unsurprising that that his speech on the eve of the invasion claimed that NATO was supporting “extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis” and that justified his “special military operation” for “denazification of Ukraine”. A disingenuous argument at best, given that his ultra-nationalist regime has cultivated extreme right-wing militants, neo-Nazis and mercenaries; while Ukraine’s democratically elected President is from a Jewish family that lost members in the Holocaust, and Azov’s political wing has never been able to garner sufficient popular support for even one seat in parliament.
The cancer of hard right, militant ethnic ultra-nationalism can metastasize quickly in complacent societies with politicians inclined to authoritarianism. Troubling signs for the world are evident from Victor Orban’s re-election in Hungary to Marie LePen’s popularity in France; from President Xi’s China to Donald Trump’s America. Canada is not immune either. Last year it outlawed four domestic extremist groups, and this year others transformed an anti-vaccine protest into a far-right occupation of the national capital. Comfortable democracies owe it to ourselves to give the Ukrainian government all the help we can, not just to defend the law-based international order on which our peace and prosperity depend, but also to prevent prolonged conflict in Ukraine creating what one scholar has suggested could become an “Afghanistan of Neo-Nazis”.
Like those Croatian police in the 1990s, veterans of Azov will undoubtedly emerge from the war celebrated as savours of the nation. That will require careful management to give credit where credit is due, healing the physical and mental scars without legitimizing or empowering militant racists and extreme ethno-nationalists. Furthermore, although the corrupt and far-right elements that plagued post-Soviet Ukraine have rallied around the flag, they haven’t disappeared. Undoubtedly President Zelensky is well aware of the post-war challenge. His wartime leadership has been a classic case of the right person in the right place at the right time. But it’s worth noting that another exemplary wartime leader, Winston Churchill, was voted out of office just two months after the victory celebrations. The end of the killing will be no time for Ukraine’s friends to relapse into pre-war complacency.