Designating the Azov movement as FTO is ineffective

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In early April, US Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin sent a letter to State Secretary Antony Blinken request that 13 radical right-wing extremist groups and movements be officially designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) in the United States. This designation would, in theory, be to prohibit any American from providing “material support or resources” to any of these designated organizations, prohibiting foreign members of these groups from entering the United States, and freezing funds held in US banks belonging to these groups.


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Some of the groups on the congressman’s list are familiar names to any observer of radical right-wing transnational extremism in recent years: the Nordic Resistance Movement, Blood and Honor, National Action and what Slotkin, a former CIA employee focused on extremism in the Middle East and North Africa, collectively described as the “Azov Battalion” in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, as someone who has written extensively on the threat from the radical right in Ukraine, the mention of Azov caught my attention. But it wasn’t for the right reasons, and it shows that when it comes to the radical right, group designations and proscriptions are not always the best political tool.

What’s in a name?

On the one hand, I have seen this play play before. In 2019, another US Congressman Max Rose wrote a similar letter demanding that the Azov Battalion be designated as FTO. Rose’s letter was, in the end, a complete failure. Like I wrote from Ukraine in November 2019, it contained inaccurate information, including the unproven claim that the Christchurch terrorist admitted to training with Azov, and ended up being a propaganda bonanza for the radical right.

Slotkin’s letter, fortunately, does not make these kinds of general, unsubstantiated claims. But it is not without its major flaws. On the one hand, the letter incorrectly refers to the Azov Battalion. The military unit formerly known as the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 to fight Russian-backed insurgents in an ever-hot war in eastern Ukraine, is under the auspices of the Ukrainian National Guard and properly known under the name of the Azov Regiment for years. While calling it the “Azov Battalion” might be excusable as something an inexperienced commentator in Ukraine might mention in passing, it is not so excusable in an official letter demanding that the said organization be designated as a terrorist group. In particular, how do you name a group if it cannot even be named and identified correctly?

The exact descriptor would, of course, be the “Azov Movement”. I described the Azov Movement, which grew out of the original battalion and regiment, as a heterogeneous social movement of the radical right. At its base, the movement includes the regiment itself, the political party of the National Corps, the paramilitary organization Centuria (formerly the National Militia) as well as a number of affiliated subgroups and initiatives, including a club reading center, youth camps, a “leadership school” and a three-story social center (temporarily closed) just off the central Kiev Independence Square.

It also encompasses organizations and networks clearly led by and made up of movement members who appear to operate with a certain degree of independence, often without any declared relationship to the movement and who are more open or extreme in their rhetoric. There are also smaller radical right-wing organizations that are nominally independent but still seem to have at least some connection with the movement and revolve around its orbit.

Superficial terms

Slotkin’s letter, on the other hand, describes Azov in superficial terms. The movement is referred to only as “a well-known militia organization in Ukraine [that] uses the internet to recruit new members, then radicalizes them to use violence to continue its political agenda of white identity, ”with a single reference to a relatively recent article from January 2021. Of course, there is not enough space in a letter like this to discuss the Azov Movement in detail. But there is no shortage of English material on the movement’s activities over the past few years (certainly not just from this author), and, what’s more, it’s easily accessible and digestible for anyone who chooses to take a few minutes to read beyond. with a simple Google search.

Having even a superficial understanding of what the Azov Movement really is and how it works would reveal how difficult it would be in practice to designate it as FTO and, in fact, how difficult it is to forbid these kinds of movements. In practice. . Even though the UK has moved to to prohibit the violent neo-Nazi division Atomwaffen, reports Germany suggest that supporters are using still existing networks to reconstruct an offshoot of the group there.

The question then turns to who would be designated as FTO. Could it be the regiment alone, which is itself a member of the Ukrainian National Guard and therefore a member of the country’s armed forces? As counter-extremism expert Kacper Rekawek pointed out last week in a blog post For the Counter Extremism Project, the United States would surely never designate an official unit of an American ally’s army, like it or not.

Also, and to dig deeper into the quagmire, would the larger movement be outlawed as an FTO, and if so, who would that include? You could see it encompassing the National Corps and Centuria, but does that include all affiliated organizations, from sports clubs to youth camps? What would be the legal criteria to determine whether or not an entity is part of the movement? And, moreover, which individuals can even be described as part of the movement? Trying to analyze these questions would be a real nightmare.

A better way

Worse yet, I can easily imagine how the organizations affiliated with the movement would strive to no longer be part of the designation, revealing a serious flaw in pursuing the radical right through executive group ban. Daryl Johnson, a US domestic terrorism expert and former US Department of Homeland Security senior analyst, Told a journalist from Canada, my home country, that his government’s efforts to ban groups like the Proud Boys were “more of a symbolic gesture” and that radical right-wing organizations facing such bans could simply change their minds. name and regroup under a new banner.

Since, in the Ukrainian context, radical right-wing organizations and their affiliates have a habit of changing their name and brand while retaining the main leadership, it is to be expected that this will continue if an attempt to banning the whole movement really had to happen. If the United States and Ukraine’s other Western allies are seriously concerned about the Azov movement – as they should be – there are far more effective means at their disposal than the awkward but eye-catching mechanism of a designation. foreign terrorist organization.

They should consider, on the one hand, appointing specific individuals, with specific and justified reasons, instead of larger groups and movements. Visa and travel bans for specific eminent people, which would also encourage European allies to extend visa-free Schengen area restrictions to these same people, would also help. There is also the possibility of exerting pressure, both public and private, on the Ukrainian government and elements of the Ukrainian state to properly recognize and tackle the problem of the violent radical right in their country – pressures that could even include granting international funding and conditional support to solving the problem.

These would be much more effective starting points for the United States or any other Western country concerned about the activities of the Azov movement in Ukraine than any attempt to appoint an FTO.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.



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