Far-right extremists in Ukrainian military bragged about Canadian training, report says
A photo posted in 2019 to Centuria’s Telegram shows a group of uniformed men posing next to one of the buildings of the Ukrainian National Army Academy. The building is part of the NAA’s campus in Lviv. It is possible that Centuria’s manipulation of the original photo included a modification that changed the banner in the resulting image to feature a Sonnenkreuz as opposed to a symbol reminiscent of crosshairs on a target, according to the report. (Oleksiy Kuzmenko/George Washington University IEREs/Military Order Centuria/Telegram)
TORONTO -- A report exploring the far-right in Ukraine’s military found that neo-Nazis and supporters of far-right groups in the ranks bragged online about receiving training from Canada and other NATO nations, prompting promises of a thorough review from the Department of National Defence.
The report, entitled “Far-Right Group Made its Home in Ukraine’s Major Western Military Training Hub” and published by the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, details a group within Ukraine’s National Army Academy (NAA) known as the “Military Order Centuria” or simply “Centuria.”
The group is led by those with ties to the internationally active far-right Azov movement, the report says. The Azov movement has attacked anti-fascist demonstrations, city council meetings, media outlets, art exhibitions, foreign student, the LGBTQ2S+ community and Roma people.
A 2016 report issued by the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights details accusations against the Azov movement’s militia known as the “Azov Battalion” of torture and other war crimes in the ensuing conflict after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The Ukrainian National Guard later took the Azov Battalion into its ranks – where it is now known as the Azov regiment.
“I discovered evidence that a far right group composed of military members, officers and cadets with a clearly spelled out international agenda and seemingly dozens of members was able to operate in a prestigious and Western-backed military academy in Ukraine, proselytizing to the academy's cadets since 2018,” said report author and Washington, D.C.-based investigative reporter Oleksiy Kuzmenko in a series of emails to CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.
Kuzmenko said that the Military Order Centuria has ties to the international Azov movement, which he describes as “a large far-right organization with thousands of members that stretches from a highly capable and politicized Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard to a far-right political party National Corp.”
The report says the Military Order Centuria members describe themselves as an “order of ‘European traditionalist’ military officers” that share a goal of reshaping Ukraine’s military with right-wing ideologies, and defending what they call the “cultural and ethnic identity of European people."
Detailed evidence in the report, including photos taken from social media and posts from messaging platforms, show members of Centuria performing Nazi salutes. They also bragged online about receiving training from foreign military forces including those of Canada, Germany, the U.S. and the U.K.
The report states that the NAA denied Centuria operated within the academy. Kuzmenko said several photos and videos of alleged members have been removed from various social media accounts and websites after he reached out to the group for the report.
Kuzmenko detailed one example of his past research on Twitter that shows the proximity of extremists in the Ukrainian military with the Canadian Armed Forces, where a man he describes as an “in-your-face neo-Nazi” graduated from a tactical medical program in 2018 run by the Canadian Armed Forces and the U.S. military and later trained other cadets. The soldier, who is not a part of Centuria, Kuzmenko says, appears on several social media posts holding Nazi flags and in others posing with Canadian instructors. CTVNews.ca has not independently verified the photos or Kuzmenko's allegations.
Noting that the Ukrainian in question was wearing items of clothing that clearly showed his affiliations, Kuzmenko said members of Centuria and other far-right groups in the military are “practically screaming who they are with the way they operate in the open.”
A member of Centuria received officer training in 2020 at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the U.K., according to the report, and another attended Germany’s Army Officer Academy in Dresden in 2019.
“I believe that my report shows that despite the far-right's lack of electoral success, they continue to build up their influence in Ukraine, specifically in the military that seems to tolerate overt far-right activity in its ranks,” Kuzmenko said via email. “To be clear I don't suggest that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis, or that the Ukrainian military is dominated by the far-right…what I say is that there are strong indications that Ukraine ignores an evident issue and so do its Western allies.”
Kuzmenko said the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence denied allegations about Centuria made in the media prior to his report, but later announced a probe after it was published.
Multiple Ukrainian agencies did not respond to CTVNews.ca’s request for comment by time of publication.
Christian Leuprecht, a security analyst and professor at the Royal Military College and Queens’s University and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says that Kuzmenko’s report should give Canada and its allies “pause” regarding their ongoing missions in Ukraine.
“It’s ultimately up to Ukraine to vet their own soldiers, but when they are not careful about getting soldiers that fundamentally don’t align with our values and interests, that compounds the risk that the allies will simply pack up,” Leuprecht said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca on Saturday.
Leuprecht said he believes that Canadians will “expect more” from Ukraine which has received such an immense amount of resources, time and energy over the years from Canada.
“This is a country that wants to join the EU and eventually wants to join NATO, and when you openly and actively court and tolerate anti-democratic elements in the very institutions that [are] there to defend your way of life…that is going to raise questions in Canada if this mission is worth the candle,” he said.
WHAT IS CANADA DOING IN UKRAINE?
Canada has had a presence in Ukraine since 2015 as part of Operation UNIFIER, as support for the Ukrainian security forces – which includes military training, according to the Department of National Defence website.
Canada is part of a multi-national joint commission that includes the U.K., U.S., Denmark, Poland, Sweden, Lithuania and Ukraine, and sends approximately 200 Canadian Armed Forces members to the country every six months, and provides “non-lethal” gear and equipment such as night vision goggles and medical kits.
According to the CAF, as of Sept. 30, more than 30,000 Security Forces of Ukraine candidates have participated in the training since the mission started, with the CAF claiming to have provided training to 1,951 members of the National Guard of Ukraine.
The mission is set to expire in March of 2022, unless it is extended again by the federal government.
WHAT IS CANADA’S RESPONSE TO THE REPORT?
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca on Monday, the Canadian Armed Forces said it is “very concerned” by the findings of the study.
“In light of these findings, DND will be conducting a thorough review of the report, including whether or not current policies and procedures in place are sufficiently stringent to flag and prevent the CAF from unwittingly aiding those whose views it fundamentally opposes,” the statement reads.
The statement says that Canada relies on the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence to vet its members, but if Canadian soldiers suspect that their Ukrainian counterparts or trainees hold racist views, they are removed immediately.
“There is no burden of proof on the CAF to demonstrate this beyond a reasonable doubt,” the statement continues. “When Ukrainian military officers are selected to pursue opportunities in Canada, it is a firm prerequisite that the members not hold values contrary to those held by their Canadians hosts of the Ukrainian government.”
CTVNews.ca reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office and was sent an emailed statement from a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence on Tuesday, who replied on behalf of the government that “the Minister is deeply concerned by these reports and he has requested that officials review this matter. Our government and the Canadian Armed Forces do not tolerate anti-Semitic, racist, or hateful views.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the report “alarming” in an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca on Tuesday, adding that the party plans to “review the report more deeply in the next few weeks.”
“Our armed forces should not train or support any far-right extremist groups anywhere in the world. The Liberals promised to make Canada's commitment to democracy and human rights a core strategic priority of their new government. The new Minister of Defense should look at this and put in place mechanisms to avoid any situation like this in the future,” the statement says.
CTVNews.ca reached out to Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, but did not receive a reply by time of publication.
And while the vetting of foreign soldiers falls to their country of origin, questions around liability and responsibility could arise for Canada down the line, Leuprecht said.
“The government has always purported to be about values…so it really puts Ukraine at odds with the broader agenda that the federal government claims to be driving…that then becomes a high policy risk,” Leuprecht said. “Because if one more of these members or units commits war crimes or other types of violations of the law of armed conflict or international law -- and it turns out that they were trained by Canadians -- the government is going to have to provide some very difficult answers.”
This story has been updated with further context regarding the online activities of Centuria and a clarification on how the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence responded to the report.