“Azov needs a war.” An interview with Michael Colborne

Michael Colborne

The Canadian journalist Michael Colborne is known for his investigations of far-right groups, some of which have been published by the international project Bellingcat. In the past six years, Michael has been writing about Ukraine. His book From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right will come out in January. The Marker has talked to Michael before his book’s publication and found out what would happen to Azov if there was a war with Russia, where the Nazis leak confidential information, and why we cannot ignore their existence.

About journalism

How did you find yourself in Ukraine and why did you become interested in the far-right movement?

I visited Ukraine for the first time in 2013 as a tourist. Two years later, I started working in journalism and writing about Ukraine. I’m very lucky to regularly come to a country that interests me and write about it. I got immersed in the language environment, accumulated knowledge, and my curiosity grew. I got a good grasp of many things and decided to write a book. So it kind of snowballed.

As for the far-right, it was a combination of two factors. I was spending a lot of time in Ukraine after Maidan, writing on all kinds of topics: politics, society. In 2016-2017, I covered the far-right activities in Bulgaria and Slovakia. And in late 2018 I came to Ukraine and decided that I wanted to write about the local far-right movement. So I started studying the topic, talking to people, particularly about Azov.

I was stunned. Especially by how little this topic was covered in the media. Between 2018 and 2019, I started regularly writing about the far-right in Ukraine, although by that time, to be honest, a lot had already been researched. Gradually I arrived at the idea of creating a book.

What exactly about this topic grabbed your attention?

In part it was due to the myths about the Ukrainian far-right, when people say that it’s “Kremlin propaganda,” or that “Ukraine is full of Nazis,” or other such nonsense which was broadcasted in 2014–2015. I wanted to figure out for myself what is fiction here and what is the truth. The more I dug into this topic, the more I realized that despite the similarities between the Ukrainian far-right and their comrades from other Eastern European countries, there was a significant difference between them which engaged me. The Ukrainian far-right acted openly, which, of course, is concerning and should be covered in the media.

Could you say that the Nazis have a kind of dark charisma which provokes interest?

It’s not the case for me. I am not as much interested in the far-right themselves as in their groups and in the way misanthropic ideas manifest in society, the way people who promote them start being seen as a part of the mainstream—this is the subject of my research. I am much less interested in the great man theory than in the forces and circumstances which allowed these ideas to develop.

The National Corps at a march on 14 October 2021. Photo: Sergey Movchan, Political Critique

How long have you been working at Bellingcat?

For two and a half years. Before that, I was a freelancer and worked for openDemocracy, Foreign Policy, Balkan Insight and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Most of your articles have been published on the Bellingcat website which has taken a clear pro-Ukrainian stance. However, it is sometimes assumed that the topic of the radical right in Ukraine is promoted by Russian propaganda. Is there a conflict here? How were your investigations received in Ukraine?

Bellingcat writes about what needs to be covered for the public. We investigated the crash of Flight МН17 in the sky above Donbas, the Skripal poisoning and other things which pointed at the involvement of the Russian FSB. But when we write about the Ukrainian radical right, I think it is seen as criticism of Ukraine. I am personally interested in holding people on both sides accountable. Should we keep silent about regrettable circumstances “on our side” because it supposedly can play into the enemy’s hand? “Don’t talk about the Nazis, you are feeding Kremlin propaganda!” This mindset, unfortunately, exists in the heads of Ukrainians. But I did not sign up for this. The best you can do in this situation is study the problem and talk about it openly, not sweep it under the rug. This approach will never help Ukraine.

What are the difficulties you faced while preparing the book? The last time we talked, you mentioned that it was impossible to talk to Nazis because they always lie.

This applies to all radical right in any country. I found that there’s no point in interviewing them, because they tell lies to your face in order to present their movement or idea in a good light. Of course, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to them at all. When I write about someone in particular, I must ask for a comment. In this case, talking to them can be useful, they can deny or confirm a certain fact, but you will not get serious insights from them. Although when I went to the National Corps with questions about Andriy Biletsky for my book, they never answered me. If the far-right want to be judged fairly, they should not ignore journalist requests.

I think that in the case of the far-right we first need to explore all the open sources, analyze the propaganda and communication channels, talk to other experts, and only then, at the very end, talk to them directly.

Are you afraid of the Nazis?

No. Admittedly, none of them has ever threatened me. So far. We’ll see what their reaction will be when the book comes out.

Do you think they’re not as dangerous as they are generally considered to be?

Some far-right can see me somewhere in the street and punch me in the face. Most likely, it will be in response to my publications. But I’m sure that most of them think, “We hate this guy, but threatening him or beating him up will be counterproductive.” A few months ago in Kyiv, journalists covering the radical right were attacked by dumb youngsters who confused reporters with antifascists (referring to the attack on the Bukvy correspondent Oleksandr Kuzhelny. Ed.). Maybe I’m too optimistic.

About Azov

When did you start working on the book?

I worked in stages. I started collecting materials in November 2018. There are references to this period in the book. Until May 2020, I didn’t think of writing a book at all.

The National Corps at a march on 14 October 2021. Photo: Sergey Movchan, Political Critique

Why did you decide to dedicate the book to Azov specifically, even though there are many other neo-Nazi organizations in the country?

Back in 2018, it became clear that this is the biggest and most powerful far-right movement which makes all the others look insignificant. I was stunned by the scale of Azov, which managed to build an entire infrastructure that includes the National Corps political party, the National Militia, and many other smaller organizations. I find it equally fascinating and concerning.

After the 2019 election, it became clear to me that Azov had taken the dominant position in the far-right movement. Ukraine has very few groups which try to go their own way, but even they need to coordinate their actions with Azov. Even fewer of them are in conflict with Azov. I would say that Azov has almost completely taken over the far right in Ukraine and established a monopoly.

There has been a lot of discussion about another war with Russia recently. According to US intelligence, Moscow is preparing an invasion in early 2022. What will happen to Azov in case of another big war?

I don’t think there will be a large-scale invasion. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw increased military activity in Donbas or on the border, just to heat up the situation.

However, in the worst-case scenario Azov will get even more opportunities to present themselves as the “true defenders of the homeland and the avant-garde of the revolution.” If it comes to capturing Ukrainian cities, I’m afraid we will see far-right guerilla fighters in the streets.

So is Azov the one group in Ukraine which is the most interested in another war?

Yes, I talk about this in my book. Azov was founded on war, so it needs a war, whether a real or a metaphorical one. As I say in my book, war gives the far-right a raison d’etre and a goal. If they get another war in 2022, whatever they say, they will be happy about it.

How did you collect your materials? Did you manage to talk to the people featured in your book?

I worked on the book along with my journalistic publications which came out in 2018–2019. For instance, I interviewed Olena Semeniaka, the international secretary of the National Corps, in September 2019, and talked to Aleksey Levkin from WotanJugend in 2019.

I would say that the main method I used to collect the materials was borrowed from Bellingcat: working with open sources, particularly Ukrainian and Russian social media. Those who follow the far-right in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are well aware that the main means of communication for the far right is Telegram.

The Ukrainian radical right use Telegram for everything, from the National Corps’ official channel and the channel of its leader Andriy Biletsky, an enormous number of minor channels for various subgroups associated with Azov, and to the semi-secret chat rooms. All of this together is a huge array of data. I got literally obsessed with the far-right Telegram, but at least I had a chance to figure out how the whole communication works. The information published on the official channels of the National Corps, Biletsky or Maxim Zhorin, the head of the party’s headquarters, is a polished message for the outside world. But on the small channels and in the chat rooms, the radical right talk frankly and do not try to hide anything behind eloquent wording because they think that nobody is watching. A huge chunk of information for the book was taken from conversations between Azov members on Telegram.

Do you read their messages in the original language or do you use translation software?

I studied Russian and I can also read Ukrainian. I usually understand everything, but sometimes I need to employ online translation software to work with long texts, or ask my colleagues to translate slang. For instance, when I learned from Denis Kapustin’s chat room about the return of the American Nazi Rob Rundo to Serbia, I was tripped by the verb “dostali” in the sentence, “Ничего себе, в Сербии достали?” (“Wow, they got him in Serbia?”).

If you needed to briefly explain Azov to someone who doesn’t know the situation in Ukraine, how would you describe it and what historical comparisons would you draw on?

Fortunately, comparisons with the far-right movements of the 1930s and 40s are not really appropriate because Azov is not as powerful or numerous as Hitler’s Stormers or Mussolini’s Blackshirts. I’d resort to a comparison which the far-right use themselves: the German Freikorps in the interwar period. One far-right organization chose this name on purpose in Ukraine today. The historical similarities are not entirely accurate, so I would mention contemporary Italian fascists from CasaPound, especially given that the Ukrainian far right have been in contact with them and Azov was partially modeled after the Italian example.

A much better comparison is the far-right movements in Croatia and Serbia. In Croatia, the far right were a part of the effort to defend the country against a more aggressive dominant force. If we look at Croatia, we will find that the veterans of the War of Independence still constitute a force 30 years later. This is a great example of how war and far-right nationalism turn into an ugly cocktail which self-reproduces decades after the war. There was never any war action in the Serbian lands, but the far-right nationalism in Serbia became mainstream after the war in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. This is what concerns me the most in the Ukrainian context: the war will end, but the effects of the far right becoming a part of the mainstream will last for decades.

The National Corps at a march on 14 October 2021. Photo: Sergey Movchan, Political Critique

You have observed Azov for several years. How has the movement been developing and what state is it in today?

I discuss this in the last part of my book. I think that Azov is constantly changing: Azov members themselves don’t have a clear idea which direction they should move in. There is a conflict between the leaders, Biletsky and the veterans of the far-right scene on the one hand and young activists on the other. Biletsky and the old guard try to present Azov on TV as a non-threatening mainstream force. But the younger activists don’t want to be moderate. This was the line along which the OUN split in 1940: the older, more conservative members supported Andriy Melnyk, while the younger and more radical ones supported Stepan Bandera. I don’t think there will be a schism in Azov, but these contradictions will only intensify over time.

In addition, within Azov, there is a power struggle between Botsman and Biletsky. Botsman is clearly trying to build his own far-right base within Azov from people who are loyal to him personally. Well, they are the radical right, there will always be rivalry for power among them.

Another problem is Azov’s source of funding. There is information that Azov members are involved in crime and take money from Ukrainian oligarchs. Although I give a caveat in the book that these claims are impossible to verify. Some of the far-right might consider such sources of funding to be ideologically wrong.

So, in a sense, you could say that Azov is not as strong in 2021 as a year or two ago.

About the National Corps, Botsman and the “Hand of Kremlin”

One of the most odious members of the National Corps is the Russian Nazi Sergey “Botsman” Korotkikh. In Ukraine, he is often seen as an FSB agent. He is even included in the database of the Myrotvorets website. From your perspective, can Azov leadership be linked to the Russian secret service?

There is a chance that they have been connected, in the past or at present. It is impossible to know for sure. I would not be surprised if it turned out that Russian money reach the Ukrainian far right in one way or another to make them organize some kind of protest. Then the question is if the far right themselves are aware of this. I would not be surprised to find out that the far right in Ukraine consciously took money, even if it was not big money, from “sources close to the Kremlin,” but they did not do anything.

Either way, when it comes to the “Kremlin money,” this does not negate the far-right problem in Ukraine. Even if tomorrow we get irrefutable proof that Korotkikh is an active Russian secret service operative, it will not change the fact that everything that’s happening in Ukraine is locally made. Even if there is the “hand of Kremlin” in Ukraine, it is a reason to look closer and not to turn a blind eye.

This rule works for any topic where the “hand of Kremlin” shows up in general. Whenever there is a possibility of “Russian influence,” they say that the person who received the money was acting as “a puppet or an agent” and “following orders.” I think that the reality is much more complex.

Clearly, Korotkikh is an extremely dangerous figure. He is generally suspicious at different levels. I’m curious about the future that awaits him, given the accusations of criminal activities. I don’t think he will have cover forever. Sooner or later he will end up in the hands of the Ukrainian law enforcement.

What is the relationship between the Azov regiment in the National Guard and the National Corps party? Some researchers claim that the Azov regiment is independent from the movement and the party, and that it is not far-right.

This is about a formal distinction between the Azov regiment and the Azov movement. I disagree with this claim. Yes, the Azov regiment is subordinate to different government bodies, namely to the National Guard. But saying that there is no relation between the regiment and the movement is ridiculous. If we look at the memorial ceremony for their comrades on the Day of the Dead which Azov holds every September, it is suspiciously reminiscent of the Nazi Cathedral of Light by Albert Speer. An eerie ritual with torches. But if we look closer, we’ll see that Azov members are holding shields with the callsigns of their fellow soldiers who died in 2014. The shields feature the Azov logo—they’re still claiming that it’s not a “Wolfsangel.” There’s also a “black sun” on the shields.

I look at this and think, “Do you really want to convince people that the regiment under the same name, which uses far-right symbols and still invites Andriy Biletsky to give solemn speeches, and the movement are independent phenomena? Then why, when anti-fascists hold banners demanding to disband the Azov regiment, the radical right lose their minds in anger?”

I think that the myth that there is no connection between the Azov regiment and the Azov movement has been promoted since 2019 by the regiment’s supporters who want to defend it from attacks by promoting this myth.

In the latest parliamentary election, the united nationalist bloc, which included the Freedom Party and the National Corps, got 2.15%. How do you explain the electoral weakness of right-wing forces in Ukraine? Does this result mean that they have no impact on the country’s politics?

They have an impact on politics in Ukraine even though they achieved nothing in the election. Azov and the far right change the discourse in the country using non-parliamentary methods, for instance, by controlling the Veteran Ministry, the municipal guard via C14, or through national-patriotic education. I think that these two percent in the election don’t mean anything, I generally don’t believe that radical nationalists will ever win more votes in Ukrainian elections. The only way for the radical right to gain more votes in elections is to become more moderate. The National Corps is doing it right now, while remaining a far-right party at its core. I don’t think Ukrainians will buy it. In addition, many parties have employed nationalist rhetoric since 2014. The best example is Poroshenko’s 2019 campaign.

There are a lot of young people at National Corps demonstrations. Sometimes they are just children. How do they manage to involve them in the organization?

Azov leaders are very smart and resourceful. They try to present Azov as something masculine and very cool. As a place where you can train and become a stereotypical cool guy: muscles, tattoos, guns. I think that young Ukrainians, especially from small towns, are attracted by this.

The National Corps at a march on 14 October 2017. Photo: Sergey Movchan, Political Critique

The Ukrainian far right in the global context

Your book is titled From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right. The first part of the title is clear, it refers to the war of 2014, but please explain the second part for our readers. How does Azov relate to the global far-right movement?

Azov’s relationship with the global far-right movement has undoubtedly changed, and I’ve dedicated an entire chapter to it. It is easy to trace by following the actions of Olena Semeniaka, the National Corps secretary for international affairs. In 2017–2018, she traveled all over Europe and talked to the far right in Germany, Croatia, Portugal, Italy and other countries.

Everything changed in 2019, first of all due to the critical media coverage of Azov’s activities, including my publications. This ended their aggressive international information and propaganda work. They could not stand up to the criticism and lost ground. Publications about the training base for the far right in Ukraine and comparisons between Azov and ISIS attracted so much attention that Azov had to suspend its international programs, at least in the public field. Secondly, the attack on mosques on 15 March 2019 in Christchurch made people pay close attention to far-right terrorism. I’m curious what Azov is going to do with its international program. I don’t think they will abandon it entirely, maybe they will carry it out in secret or more selectively.

At the same time, many of the foreign far right still see Azov as the ideal model of a far-right movement. This perception is partly based on myth and partly on real facts. Even now, the Western far right, particularly the French and the Germans, write about Ukraine as a place where you can simply come, get a gun and go to the front right away. But it hasn’t worked like that for a few years now!

What does the far right success in Ukraine mean? Is it a global right-wing revanche?

I think it is. We’re observing the revival of far-right forces everywhere, it’s just that there are factors in Ukraine which made the situation significantly worse. In other countries I visited the far right are much less numerous, but even they have started acting openly and confidently. For example, in Serbia, where the far right are closely connected to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, just like in Ukraine. In Bulgaria, the far-right movement is not as developed, but they have a presidential candidate, Boyan Rasate, who was arrested for attacking an LGBTIQ+ center in Sofia. It shocked even me because it hadn’t happened for a long time. Now look at my country, Canada. People think that we have a paradise here and that we don’t have problems with the far right, but I can assure you it is not the case, we just don’t hear about them as much. We have both anti-vaxxers and open Nazis.

There are far right in every country. And they are feeling more confident. I think that the reason for this global right-wing turn is that influential politicians are leaning to the right and even use a soft version of the far-right rhetoric. This has paved the way for the real far right: when politicians repeat their ridiculous ideas, it gives the far right confidence. When I look at the current American political situation and compare it to what they had before Trump, I see that the far right are acting even more openly. In countries such as the US, Canada and the UK, they have infiltrated the media and complain about the “culture war,” the onslaught of liberalism, wokeism and other nonsense. This polarization of the debate gives room for maneuver to the far right, who start seeing themselves as the avant-garde of the fight against the LGBTIQ+ and gender theory.

What can we call this? The return of the far right?

I would call it a global far-right revival which we can observe around the world, not just in Ukraine. I mean primarily the majority of European and North American countries.

Will the book be translated to Ukrainian or Russian?

I haven’t thought about it yet. It would be great, but I haven’t talked with my publisher about it yet.

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