According to internal policy materials that were shared with reporters at The Intercept, Facebook has announced that it has changed its policy toward the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian neo-Nazi military unit that had been banned from the site under its Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy. Facebook will now allow users to praise and promote the once banned battalion now that it is fighting the Russian invasion.
We can now all be “friends” with the neo-Nazi terrorist group—no matter how despicable they may be—because they are fighting against the enemy of Ukraine.
The Intercept reports that Facebook will allow users to support the Azov Battalion as long as the posts explicitly and exclusively praise the role of the neo-Nazi organization in defending Ukraine or their role as part of Ukraine’s National Guard. Examples of speech that Facebook now finds acceptable include: “Azov movement volunteers are real heroes, they are a much-needed support to our national guard”; “We are under attack. Azov has been courageously defending our town for the last 6 hours”; and “I think Azov is playing a patriotic role during this crisis.”
Facebook is simply acknowledging that if Azov is an effective and ruthless enemy of Russia, it must be our friend. But they are wrong about that. The Azov Battalion has been a hateful and dangerous group since its formation in 2014 as a far-right, all-volunteer infantry military unit emerging from the nationalist/terrorist Patriot of Ukraine group and the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly group. Both of these groups engaged in neo-Nazi ideals and attacked migrants, members of the Roma community, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who opposed their views.
Andriy Biletsky, the founder of Azov, who had served as the leader of both the Patriot of Ukraine and the SNA, has said that Ukraine’s national purpose was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival, a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen”—a German term for “subhumans” with roots in Nazi propaganda.
According to TIME magazine in 2021, Ukrainian police had long treated Biletsky’s organization, Patriots of Ukraine, as a neo-Nazi terrorist group. Biletsky’s nickname within the group was Bely Vozhd, or White Ruler. But all of this changed after Azov’s success in fighting the Russians in 2014. TIME concluded that among the militias that formed to resist the Russian forces, Biletsky’s followers in Azov were the “most disciplined and battle ready…They held the line even after everybody left.”
For their bravery on the battlefield, Biletsky and other Azov commanders were lauded as national heroes. Azov fought successfully on the front lines in 2014 against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of Ukraine and was officially integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine on November 12, 2014—receiving praise from then-President Petro Poroshenko who called them “our best warriors” at an awards ceremony.
Because of his success in leading the neo-Nazi battalion—and his savvy use of Facebook and other social media—Biletsky won a seat in parliament in 2014. In a statement to TIME in 2021, Facebook defended its attempts to deal with the proliferation of right-wing extremists, saying it has banned more than 250 white-supremacist groups: “As they evolve their efforts to return to the platform, we update our enforcement methods with technology and human expertise to keep them off.” Azov was one of those banned groups.
Those days are over as Azov appears to have been enthusiastically welcomed back on Facebook—despite the fact that the group has been accused of human-rights abuses—including torture—in a research report issued in 2016 by Human Rights Watch and by the United Nations. Even The New York Times called the battalion “openly neo-Nazi” in 2015. Azov does not even try to hide its Nazi leanings—still using the Wolf’s Hook symbol on their uniforms—a symbol that has long been associated with the Waffen-SS division in Nazi Germany.
When Vladimir Putin vowed to “denazify” Ukraine, most commentators dismissed his rhetoric as the rantings of a madman. Many media sources, like The Washington Post, dismissed Putin by pointing out that Ukraine’s Jewish President Zelensky had “lost family in the Holocaust.” But the truth is that there has been a neo-Nazi presence in Ukraine for a very long time. Azov has been an important part of that presence—with the encouragement of the leadership of the country.
In January 2018, Azov pledged to “restore order to Ukraine” by forming the National Druzhina street patrol unit which carried out pogroms against the Roma and LGBTQ communities. According to The Nation, Azov monitored the polls in the presidential election that year.
While Congress attempted to ban Azov from receiving U.S. arms and training in 2017, a Daily Beast report issued that same year, entitled “How Many Neo-Nazis is the U.S. Backing in Ukraine,” indicated that the white supremacists had full-access to United States aid. In 2018, it was reported that Azov had received American grenade launchers.
For Putin, the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is important because it provides a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea. Mariupol has been the largest trading port in the Azov Sea from which Ukraine exports grain, iron and steel, and heavy machinery. But, in some ways Mariupol is even more important to Putin symbolically because it is the Base for the Azov Battalion—the epicenter of what Putin sees as necessary to be destroyed in order to meet his goal for the de-Nazification of Ukraine.
It is difficult to know the truth about how far Azov will go to win this war. The Guardian has pointed out that Russian propaganda has claimed that Azov fighters were responsible for killings of civilians and destruction in Mariupol. Pedro Gonzalez recently reported in The American Conservative that in the days before the bombing of the Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol, local reports warned that in order to pull the United States into supporting a no-fly zone, the Azov Battalion was planning a false flag operation at the theater in which civilians would be endangered or even killed before the world’s watching eyes.
We may never know the truth. But as Facebook allows the world to “like” the Azov Battalion—and praise its heroics—the social media site will provide an excellent recruiting tool for white supremacists throughout the world to join the fight.At the same time that Facebook continues to de-platform conservative groups and individuals in the United States, TIME magazine has indicated that Azov has effectively used Facebook to recruit, radicalize, and train new members.
For the rest of us, it will be increasingly difficult to determine exactly who our friends are. The presence of neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine cannot be denied, but this is now being contested even within the Catholic community as the debate between George Weigel and Archbishop Vigano demonstrates. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that sometimes the enemy of an enemy should remain an enemy to the rest of us.
[Photo: Azov Battalion in 2020 (Credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)]