Despite attempts to evict it from the platform, a violent Ukrainian far-right group with ties to American white supremacists is using Facebook to recruit new members, organize violence and spread their far-right ideology around the world.
Although Facebook banned the Azov movement and its leaders more than a year ago, Facebook continues to benefit from ads that the far-right organization ran on Monday.
Since July, Azov, created during the Russian invasion in 2014, has opened at least a dozen new Facebook pages. Alla Zasyadko, a 25-year-old member, ran 82 ads on the social network with an ad and paid Facebook at least $ 3,726, according to the platform’s ad library. Many of the ads called for street protests against the Ukrainian government. One of the ads encourages children to sign up for a patriotic youth training course. Similar courses included firearms training.
Zasyadko did not respond to requests for comment.
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “The Azov Battalion has been banned from our platforms and we will remove content that represents, praises, or endorses it if we are made aware of it.”
At the time this story was published, the Azov Movement’s Facebook main page, listed as the Ukrainian Corps – a name similar to that of the movement’s political arm, the National Corps – was still active.
Facebook has been heavily criticized for allowing right-wing militant US organizations to organize and run ads on the platform. Some of these groups committed violence during the Black Lives Matter protests, campaigned for civil war, and allegedly conspired to kidnap and kill elected political officials. Facebook said last month that it deleted thousands of pages and groups linked to “militarized social movements”. Many of these pages and groups were removed after BuzzFeed News brought them to the attention of Facebook.
However, it has proven difficult to evict right-wing extremists from the social network. Many of them reappear days or weeks after being removed.
In April 2019, Facebook banned the Azov Movement, which includes many members advocating neo-Nazi beliefs. The company removed several sites related to the group, including those operated by its senior members and the various branches they run.
But since July 16, the group has been operating the new side of the Ukrainian corps. The site makes no attempt to hide the fact that it is part of the Azov National Corps – it openly discusses the activities and leaders of the National Corps, links to Azov websites and emails, and publishes photos of members in uniforms at rallies and torchlight marches.
Facebook has no reason not to know that the Azov movement is dangerous. After a series of violent attacks by members of the National Corps and its street paramilitary wing, the National Militia, on Roma and LGBTQ people across Ukraine, the US State Department called the Azov National Corps a “nationalist hate group”.
Matthew Schaaf, who heads the Ukrainian office of human rights group Freedom House and has been closely monitoring the group, said the Azov movement’s ability to mobilize people through social media poses a threat to society.
“In recent years, participants from Azov-affiliated groups have used violence against vulnerable groups in Ukrainian society and threatened officials. Social media is an important tool to organize these actions and share their results,” Schaaf told BuzzFeed News. “Many of these attacks are accompanied by before and after propaganda posts on social media.”
Azov started out as a volunteer military battalion in 2014, helping Ukraine defend itself against an invasion of Russia and its separatist proxies. The battalion’s symbol is similar to that of the Wolfsangel, the insignia that the German military often used during World War II. Although human rights groups accused the battalion of torture and war crimes during the first months of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, the Ukrainian National Guard accepted the Azov battalion into its official group in late 2014, where it was renamed the Azov Regiment.
The military unit was a popular Kremlin sucker, and Russian President Vladimir Putin used the group to justify his attacks on Ukraine as a fight against fascism. Although the group is not universally popular in Ukraine, its neo-Nazi connections are clear. In 2010, the battalion’s founder, Andriy Biletsky, said that Ukraine “should lead the world’s white races in a final crusade … against subhumans led by Semites [subhumans]. ”
Biletsky could not be reached for comment.
While the regiment is still looking for Biletsky, he’s gone into politics; From 2014 to 2019 he was a member of the Ukrainian parliament, but lost re-election. He now heads the National Corps political party, which for the most part failed to get members into elected positions, but uses social media to increase support. He is also one of the founders of the movement’s Intermarium project, which is building bridges with white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Western Europe and the US.
Although Facebook had previously removed Intermarium pages, a new Intermarium page was created on September 9th and is run by the National Corps International Secretary Olena Semenyaka. She has exchanged news and information on far-right and neo-Nazi figures in Europe and promoting “cultural” events in his office in Kiev.
After a ban, Semenyaka also reopened Facebook and Instagram accounts under a pseudonym.
Semenyaka did not respond to a request for comment.
Thanks in part to social media, the National Corps has moved into the U.S. with white nationalist groups, including the California-based Rise Above Movement, whose members attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, but were charged with them Actions got dropped later. In April 2018, RAM founder Robert Rundo visited Kiev and took part in a combat club organized by Azov. In October of this year, the FBI wrote that it believed Azov was involved in “training and radicalizing US-based white supremacy organizations.”
Last month, Ukraine deported two American neo-Nazis from the US Atomic Weapons Division who had tried to set up a local branch of the group with Azov fighters in order to gain “combat experience”.
With Azov using Facebook to expand beyond Ukraine’s borders, experts are increasingly concerned. “The use of violence and the possibility that they can bring together a large number of mostly young men who are willing to use violence, which is all made easier by social media,” said Schaaf, “gives them power.”