Nothing to see here, just Western journalists doing PR for Neo-Nazis

Lazy reporting or an eagerness to sell one side of the story has put the far-right front and center

By Tarik Cyril Amar*
Feb. 15, 2022

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the far right is alive and kicking in Ukraine today. Ranging from militant nationalists to white-power-loving neo-Nazis, extremists have a significant presence. Even if they don’t run the country, they wield a disturbing amount of political and cultural influence and, in particular, have infiltrated the military and security forces. Their breed of historical revisionism and present-day belligerence is well-connected internationally and extremely media savvy.

A good example of its up-to-date knack for selling itself far beyond Ukraine has come in the wake of the current war scare (or really hysteria?) over American allegations of an impending large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. When the Azov Battalion, a powerful and well-known far-right outfit, organized what seems to have been a media spectacle under the pretext of training civilians in basic military skills, many Western media made useful idiots for Neo-Nazism of themselves. Instead of either ignoring the stunt or reporting its nasty politics, they fell for it.

In this way, New York’s “Eyewitness News” program on ABC7NY showed footage from the training that clearly displays an instructor’s arm patch with the “Wolfsangel” symbol, a Germanic rune used by the Nazi SS and adopted as well by Azov. Yet the program offered zero comment on that, really, stunning and offensive image.

Britain’s Daily Mail fudges the issue. Coyly noting, very much as an aside, that Azov has “previously faced accusations from Western journalists that they are a neo-Nazi group,” its report is resolutely focused on one of the civilian participants, Valentyna Konstantynovska, a plucky granny of 79, who is learning how to shoot a Kalashnikov. With illustrations, including social media screenshots, outweighing text, readers nonetheless learn that her neighbors and Ukrainians in general consider Konstantynovska a hero and an “exemplary Ukrainian.” What could be more “human-interest” and cutely appealing? No questions asked about the remarkable circumstance that the “exemplary Ukrainian” feels no compunction about getting her training from an instructor wearing a retooled SS insignia that, in particular, used to decorate the tanks of the SS Panzer-Division “Das Reich.”

Other Western reporting on the same event is even worse. Instead of hedging on what Azov is, the issue is simply omitted entirely. Thus, on Sky News, the runic arm patch is also perfectly visible. Viewers get the same touching story about an elderly patriotic lady with a Kalashnikov. But her instructors are presented merely as “Ukrainian special forces.” Special” indeed.

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Perhaps you’d think that the Times of Israel would be a little more rattled by Azov’s symbols and ideology. But you’d be mistaken: There, too, Konstantynovska and her trainers make a short appearance, as a “79 years-old” who “holds a weapon during basic combat training for civilians, organized by the Special Forces Unit Azov, of Ukraine’s National Guard.” What could be wrong with that

Examples could be multiplied at ease. In fact, if you need more, just google. But the pattern should be clear by now – a far-right unit that has successfully nestled inside Ukraine’s military is having spectacular PR success in the West. And it was easy. Because, it seems, almost nobody cares. It is, after all, not hard at all to first notice an arm patch that pretty much screams “I have an SS past” (as it is meant to) and second do some elementary research about Azov. There is no secret about its ideology and politics. A very basic internet trawl will do. If you call up a few easily identifiable experts on the topic, in and outside Ukraine, you’ll get an earful from them as well.

So, what is the problem here? Is it that Azov has managed to become part of Ukraine’s National Guard? That alone, for any journalist worth his or her salt, should ring alarm bells. Such a unit as part of the state’s official military forces and yet preserving its far-right identity, as it does, is a sign of something very disturbing.

Or is this a mere matter of laziness? Some stringers or maybe literally PR agents or offices hand out a nicely personal story and everyone just adapts it without checking? I do not know, of course. But there are really only two explanations for this fiasco: either there is deliberate collusion of Western media with the PR strategies of the Ukrainian far right or Western media are being incompetent on this topic.

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This is, moreover, no exception. On the contrary, there’s a long-standing pattern. For years now the Ukrainian far-right has had two crucial kinds of help: Domestically, at home in Ukraine, the crisis of 2013/14 saw a fatal closing of ranks between self-declared liberals and democrats and right-wing radicals. The underlying logic was simple and opportunistic: My enemy’s enemy must be if not my friend then at least some sort of ally. And since both mainstream and far-right protesters were opposed to the same old regime under then president Yanukovich, a de facto coalition emerged, in which the far-right – very well organized, aggressive, and determined – did not dominate but had great, sometimes decisive influence.

When Ukrainian or foreign critics challenged this devil’s pact, the fiercest flacking came from intellectuals, experts, and, in reality, volunteer information warriors who clearly recognized that the far-right connection had to be downplayed to facilitate maximum Western support for Ukraine. Therefore, anyone pointing out this inconvenient fact was slandered as some kind of Russian stooge.

The other great support for the Ukrainian far-right has come not from inside Ukraine but abroad. Its main forms have been ignorance and deliberate deception, often by omission, precisely as displayed in the story of Azov’s touching Kalashnikov training session with Valentyna.

Perhaps those Western journalists and editors participating in this whitewashing are just careless, perhaps they feel that they are just answering tit-for-tat in the great “information war” with Russia, maybe they believe that Ukraine deserves the turning of a blind eye. Whatever they think they are doing (if they are thinking at all), they are wrong. The far right never and nowhere deserves a pass. And there are, by the way, many Ukrainians who do not want it given a pass either.

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