Last year, I was involved in Counter Extremism Project’s research effort on the transnational connectivity of violent right wing extremism and terrorism. One of the recommendations the work produced was the need for terrorism designations of violent extreme right wing (vXRW) organizations or groups. Thus, I welcomed U.S. Representative Elissa Slotkin’s efforts to press the Biden administration to consider designating foreign vXRW/white supremacy groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). As always, however, the devil is in the details. The congresswoman’s list includes obvious candidates for such designations (i.e. Atomwaffen Division Deutschland and Feuerkrieg Division). However, one group’s inclusion merits a closer look and, in my view, its removal from that group: the “Azov Battalion (foreign affiliates and members).”
It is not my intention to go into semantics here as “Azov Battalion” no longer exists. I recognize Rep. Slotkin’s effort and will assume she meant the Azov Regiment or to be more precise—the Azov Movement, a much broader and amorphous entity. The intention to designate such a social movement, however, is challenging.
We are dealing with a socio-political organization based in Ukraine, a country on the borders of the European Union and NATO and not some failed state, and such an action necessitates a degree of buy in from the local authorities. This is not Taliban-ruled Afghanistan hosting Al-Qaeda, but a large European country which is currently at war with Russia. Ukraine has nothing to gain from hosting any entity that could be deemed by the United States as terrorist as Ukraine seeks U.S. security assistance. Azov Movement is a multi-faceted entity which comprises not only the aforementioned Regiment, firmly within the command and control structures of the Ukrainian ministry of interior, but also a political party, a paramilitary arm, a charity wing, discussion club, etc., with its backers in the government in Kyiv. An attempt to designate—or in the European reading of the situation, proscribe or ban it—would be seen by Ukrainians as incomprehensible or pointless as the movement is in no way on the verge of gaining power in Ukraine, nor destabilizing it, nor threatening the West. It would be up to the new U.S. administration to decide whether it wishes to pick up a fight with Kyiv over an inconsequential issue, especially given the current situation in and around Donbass.
Of course, such a cautious, hands off approach might raise concerns among critics who worry about Azov and its alleged “terrorist” character. Let us then take a closer look at the Movement and whether it meets the conditions of being designated as an FTO. Firstly, we need to look at the Azov Regiment, formerly known as the Azov Battalion.
Yes, it is foreign—Ukrainian and based in Ukraine. However, it does not engage in terrorist activity but theoretically “retains the capability […] to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism.” The capability is theoretical as Azov is a regiment of the National Guard akin to a well-armed, trained, and equipped gendarmerie of other countries. Azov does, however, have an opt out from performing policing duties and styles itself as a unit resembling foreign special forces. It also possesses plenty of guns and explosives to conduct hypothetical attacks. The same, however, could hypothetically be said about any unit of any armed force in any country on the planet and these are not seen as potential FTOs. Then there is the question of intent. Azov’s history has clearly shown that the Regiment has no intention of engaging in terrorism, either at home or abroad. Fourthly, it does not threaten “the security of U.S. nationals or the national security […] of the United States.” It simply cannot, if it is to follow the chain of command, as Ukraine’s deputy prime minister has publicly asked for NATO—of which the U.S. is the key member—to open its doors to Ukraine. Leaving aside the issue of whether NATO membership is at all an option for Ukraine in the foreseeable future, staging terrorist attacks directed at U.S. interests or its nationals would be highly discouraged in these circumstances.
So far, so good. Azov Regiment does not meet the criteria of an FTO designation. But Rep. Slotkin’s proposal calls for its “foreign affiliates and members” to be added to the list of the FTOs. Let’s first address the members, including not only the members of the Regiment, who clearly are not in the business of preparation or propagation of terrorist acts, but also the members of the wider Azov movement, including some of the Regiment’s veterans. Therein lies the rub as they have been involved in incidents of violence, aimed at political adversaries, the LGBT community, leftists, liberals, feminists, etc. The Regiment’s veterans have a track record of parading in rows, dressed in black, masked, with torches at political events. Most recently, its political outlet, the National Corps, organized paramilitary trainings for “representatives of veterans' and patriotic organizations, as well as owners of weapons” so that “the Ukrainian army, as well as every citizen of Ukraine […is] ready for any development.” Add to that the Regiment’s controversial emblem (is it, as Azov claims, “an idea of the nation” sign or a Nazi co-opted Germanic Wolfsangel?), alleged swastika tattoos on the arms of its members, hosting Greg Johnson in Kyiv at Azov’s Intermarium Conference, and National Corps members rubbing shoulders with who’s who of the European far right, and you get a perfect storm. You are faced with a movement which is partly paramilitary in nature, nationalist, “ready to meet violence with violence” (as one member put it to me), and happy to engage any political force which will not “assess, censure me or impose their beliefs upon me,” and that includes Europe’s mostly pro-Russian far right. The question remains: is Azov or its members terrorists? And are they threatening the U.S. national security or that of the U.S. nationals?
As much as one might dislike Azov’s policy positions, track record, or graphics, the answers to these questions should be in the negative. Yes, there is violence, but it is local in nature and therefore, should be addressed or tackled by Ukrainian authorities. It is debatable whether the U.S. should effectively do Kyiv’s work by handpicking a single nationalist or far-right organization of many that exist in Ukraine and declare it an FTO.
The issue, however, gets a bit more complicated while talking about “foreign affiliates” of Azov. An affiliate is someone who is officially attached to an organization or body. Since no Azov branch, National Corps, or National Militia/Centuria (Azov’s vigilante, paramilitary arm) exist abroad, then it is extremely difficult declare such official attachments or foreign appendices to the Ukrainian organization. Even if we were to assume Azov’s terrorist nature then in terms of foreign affiliates there would be hardly anyone to ban. There are, as always, exceptions to this: Tradition and Order, a Ukrainian affiliate of Azov, is said to have a German branch. It is at least partly paramilitary in nature but initially seemed to have had pretty far reaching political ambitions. Terrorist? Again, not really. An FTO? Most certainly not.
If we were to abandon the “affiliate” definition and simply look at “friends” or “guests” of Azov, then the reality is even more complex. Throughout the years, the movement not only reportedly rubbed shoulders with the less savory elements of Europe’s far right but also hosted elected representatives from the likes of Estonia or Croatia at its Intermarium conference. These individuals might call themselves “nationalist” or “conservative” but could easily be considered as “radical right,” i.e. non-extremist, non-violent, democratic but not fans or proponents of liberal democracy. Now, should one include these on the FTO list? Again, as much as one might dislike the policy positions of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), it received almost 18 percent of the vote in the 2019 parliamentary election and hardly is terrorist nor is it an affiliate of a terrorist organization.
Let’s move from such politically successful outfits towards more fringe partners with whom the National Corps coordinates protests and rallies held in different countries, e.g. outside Russian and Belarussian embassies. These, again, however, have nothing to do with terrorism. The same can be said about those organizations, groups, or individuals which met with or hosted Azov representatives—a long list that includes groups such as CasaPound in Italy in the South to Scandza Forum in the North of Europe. Some are radical right, others Identitarian or more extremist in nature, and yes, these includes entities whose members were involved in violence. Terrorist? Again, not really.
The last card that can be played here is the role and the subsequent fates of Azov “wannabes,” i.e. foreigners who trekked to Ukraine to presumably join the regiment or simply fight in the war in Ukraine. We have seen renewed interest in such individuals, in particular after the 2019 Christchurch massacre—whose perpetrator visited Ukraine during his many travels before the attack—and when American extremists or white supremacists, including the members of the Atomwaffen Division, attempted or did reach out to Azov. Atomwaffen allegedly even attempted to set up shop in Ukraine by founding a local branch. Azov’s members confirmed to me that the Movement fronts, including the Intermarium Support Group, are at times contacted by Americans and other foreigners, looking to join the Regiment and are regularly told that since the Regiment is in the structures of Ukraine’s ministry of interior, this is no longer possible. (Foreigners can only serve as contractors in the Ukrainian army.) In the eyes of the Azovians, the Atomwaffen cases stand out here as “having anything to do with them would give the U.S. an impetus to re-start debate on branding us an FTO and this is clearly not in our interest.” (2020 already saw a debate on this issue, see here and here.) If the Regiment is not an option for foreign extremists to realize their dreams of fighting in a war, then why do they bother and seek out partners in Eastern Europe?
We hope to answer this question in a Counter Extremism Project webinar on April 20, during which my two colleagues and I will be talking about the paramilitary-extremist link in Central-Eastern-Southern Europe, including Ukraine. The region is seen by Western, including American, extremists as the place to be: homogenous, politically incorrect, traditional, and Christian on one hand, and on the other, accessible, cheap, and less bureaucratic. At the same time, to the area provides multiple opportunities for paramilitary training with or without the region’s many far-right radicals in attendance (e.g. see here for information on how the German Hanau shooter of February 2020 received commercial paramilitary training in Slovakia). Ukraine’s vibrant far-right scene—which is permeated with paramilitarism due to an ongoing war with Russia and the presence of militant actors such as Azov—seems like a jewel in the crown. To reiterate, however, the local paramilitarism overall and Ukrainian in particular are locally or nationally focused. This is especially evident now with the threat of Russian escalation in Donbass hanging over Ukraine. In short, the country is not a “laboratory and training ground” for white supremacists. The West might think so as we study the gradual trend of eastward travel by some of our extremists, but this is not the view shared by the Ukrainian experts on the ground whom I interviewed for my forthcoming book.
These differing perceptions of which extremists are terrorists should force us to discuss the supply/demand or input/output of far-right extremism and white supremacy. It goes without saying that it would be a reputational embarrassment if certain Ukraine-based entities are regarded as magnets for the world’s far right and white supremacists. We should consider the extent to which this is not the fault of Ukraine or even the likes of Azov for that matter, but that of the Western far-right scenes and milieus which, in the globalized age, have easier access to their comrades in arms abroad. And consequently, think to what extent it is the fault of the host countries of these extremists who develop their ideas regardless of whether Azov exists or not, or whether it is an FTO or not. At the same time, Azov, which clearly has an internationalist but not a terrorist agenda—the Intermarium (i.e. an alliance of Eastern and Central European states along nationalist lines, as a counterweight to both Russia and the European Union), would exist regardless of whether Atomwaffen Division sets up shop in Kyiv or not. And lastly, with its logos, tattoos, torches, and marches, Azov looks like a paramilitary behemoth but it is more than that—a political party, a social organization, a business, etc. But it is not an FTO.
There are other smaller organizations on Rep. Slotkin’s list that better fit the bill and whose raison d'être is transnational violence. Start with those. In relation to Azov—make sure your European counterparts appreciate the fact that there is a socio-political movement in Ukraine intent on developing a pan-nationalist alliance which would rival the EU, the U.S.’ key Western interlocutor. This rivalry is not, however, about violence or terrorism but political ideas. These cannot be designated against but must be tackled head on while offering alternative ideas and solutions.