The Whitewashing of Neo-Nazis: Lev Golinkin & Ben Makuch on How Far Right Is Exploiting Ukraine War
Written by GRB on 19/07/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We end today’s show with the first — we are going to talk today about what’s happening in Ukraine. We’re joined right now by two people, by a journalist who’s written extensively in The Intercept, a reporter who’s looked at the role of neo-Nazis in the war. The Ukrainian-born journalist Lev Golinkin is also with us. He recently wrote a piece for The Nation headlined “The Western Media Is Whitewashing the Azov Battalion.” The piece looks at the neo-Nazi roots of one of Ukraine’s most heralded paramilitary forces. Earlier this month, Turkey released five former Azov commanders who were being held in Turkey. They flew back on a plane with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Meanwhile, The Intercept recently detailed how an anti-Putin Russian militia that carried out attacks inside Russia in May is led by a neo-Nazi who’s maintained links with American neo-Nazis. That piece was written by Ben Makuch, a national security reporter who used to work as a correspondent for Vice News Tonight. Ben has also just written a new piece for The Intercept about an American Army vet, wanted for murder in the United States, who escaped to Ukraine to fight with the Right Sector, an ultranationalist Ukrainian militia. We’re going to get to that in a moment.
But, Lev Golinkin and Ben Makuch, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ben, I want to talk with you about the piece that you wrote, “Russian Militia Has Links to American Neo-Nazi and Anti-Trans Figures.” Why don’t you lay out what you found?
BEN MAKUCH: So, the leader of the Russian Volunteer Corps, Denis Kapustin, is this well-known neo-Nazi figure not only in Europe, but he also came to prominence in the United States when he hosted a podcast in 2021 with a man named Rob Rundo, who’s the founder and leader of the Rise Above Movement. This is a character who has been very involved with the online neo-Nazi community, but also his group was at the Charlottesville riots. Some of them were indicted. He himself came under probe by the FBI for some actions at Berkeley. And after those podcast appearances, I dug a little further, and Denis Kapustin also had connections to this man named Christopher Pohlhaus, who is this four-year Marine Corps veteran that now leads this group called the Blood Tribe, but most recently has shown up to drag events in Ohio carrying a pistol, doing the “Sieg Heil” and intimidating protesters.
So, to me, when I started to see these connections with someone like Denis Kapistin, who very clearly has at least the quiet support of Ukrainian forces when he attacked Russia from Ukraine, it, to me, was very significant, especially when you saw that American weapons and American armored vehicles were allegedly used by the group.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And from what you can tell, how extensive are the far-right groups in Russia and their possible connections to those in Ukraine?
BEN MAKUCH: Well, far-right groups in Russia and Ukraine, they have had links before, but I would say, I mean, the Russian far-right groups, they are extremely anti-Putin. They had been in the past. I covered soccer hooligans in Russia in 2016 right on the lead-up to the World Cup, because many of them were talking about causing violence at the World Cup in 2018, and these groups were extremely anti-Putin. They were — some of them had actually done prison sentences for terrorism.
And these are the types of figures that are now a part of the Russian Volunteer Corps. And to be clear, these types of individuals are not only hyperviolent and have been involved in criminal networks in Russia, but they are very much, you know, very pronounced neo-Nazis that adhere to extremely racist and violent ideologies. And these are the types of people that are involved in the Russian Volunteer Corps.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring Lev Golinkin into this conversation. Ben — Lev, can you talk about your most recent piece and also the significance of Zelensky flying back with Turkey, with the permission of Erdoğan, to the ire of Putin, with the Azovstal leaders? Can you talk about who they are and what exactly this deal was?
LEV GOLINKIN: Yeah. The commander of Azov, who is — this is people who were trapped in Mariupol, who gave themselves up to the Russians, and who, according to a prisoner exchange deal, were supposed to stay in Turkey until the end of the war. Zelensky broke that deal and brought them back. The leader, Denys Prokopenko, he’s somebody who commanded Azov, and he’s the type of person who Western media says is an example of not a neo-Nazi. OK? In reality, he came out of the Kyiv soccer hooligan milieu. It’s called the White Boys Club — I think the name speaks for itself. He’s been photographed numerous times with a Totenkopf, which is one of the most common neo-Nazi symbols in the world. And he was part of Azov’s beginning — he was part of Azov’s beginning from 2014, from when it was still just a battalion form of a neo-Nazi gang.
And it’s when he has now returned, either he will begin his duties as commander of Azov again now, or he’s already been reinstituted. But it’s insane that he’s the type of person who we look at, and we say, you know, “Azov no longer is commanded by far-right groups,” when you have somebody like that.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there has been criticism of your reporting, Lev, saying that you’re making too much of the white supremacist influences or the far-right, the neo-Nazi influences now in Ukraine in the fighting against Russia, though they may have had their beginnings there. Can you respond to that?
LEV GOLINKIN: Yeah. It’s pretty insane that every time Marjorie Taylor Greene sneezes, it’s the second coming of Hitler, and yet here we have two brigades — brigades — of neo-Nazis, and we’re perfectly fine with it. So, I mean, the way I look at it is, you can support Ukraine without glorifying, without whitewashing neo-Nazis. And it’s insane that we are doing this. I think if I was reporting on neo-Nazis anywhere else, I wouldn’t have gotten any criticism. But it’s because they’re our neo-Nazis, and we’re celebrating them, then I’ve gotten criticism. I mean, I think it’s — I didn’t start the obsession with Azov. Putin did, when he began this war, but also our Foreign Service and our media began, when they started celebrating them as heroes. So, I’d like — I mean, anybody who’s criticizing this, it really doesn’t matter, because I feel that two brigades of neo-Nazis is two too many, especially for us to be supporting.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened at Stanford University on June 29th, the panel that it held from the Azov Brigade? Lay out the scene for us.
LEV GOLINKIN: Azov has had extensive tours of America, with — these are wives, that Denys Prokopenko’s wife was one of them, as well as an Azov veteran. They would tour, and they would do goodwill relationship building. And they’ve been many. They’ve been invited to Congress. They met with members of Congress. And twice — last fall and now last month — they’ve been to Stanford, which is incredible that you have this university, which, ironically, one of Stanford’s institutes published what is probably the most exhaustive study of Azov’s neo-Nazi links. OK? So, one of Stanford’s own institute for combating extremism has tracked Azov and has extensively reported on them. And yet, at the same time, Stanford invited them to campus, twice. Both times they’ve met with prominent people, with former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, with Francis Fukuyama. And they are going there. They’re projecting their logo on the campus, which is a neo-Nazi logo, a _Wolfsangel _. And Stanford apparently is perfectly fine with welcoming them.
The incredible part is that Stanford, before, has had a role when a lefty Jewish American cartoonist came on campus and who uses — sarcastically uses Nazi imagery. When that happened, Stanford suddenly had a problem. Stanford started putting out statements and having events about how this could trigger students and how this makes people uncomfortable. And yet you have a neo-Nazi insignia, a neo-Nazi group on campus, and they are welcome. They have the red carpet out for them. It’s stunning and is just irresponsible.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lev Golinkin, I wanted to ask you — even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine had the — there were numerous articles being published in Europe and the U.S. about how Ukraine had become a meeting point for far-right and neo-Nazi groups from the United States and Russia. There were regular conferences there. And, of course, we’ve had thousands of foreigners volunteer to fight against the Russian invading troops. What is your sense of what proportion of these foreign fighters are also neo-Nazis?
LEV GOLINKIN: It’s hard to get the proportion, especially these days, because they’re just so much unreported, they’re so much under the radar. The point is that Azov has remained a hub for neo-Nazis to come over, and they can get battlefield experience. It’s no different than the networks of Islamists who recruited ISIS when they recruited people from all over the world to come and get experience. So, you have this, and it’s — Azov is only a tiny part of the Ukrainian military, but they also have — I mean, how many world countries have actual neo-Nazi units? So, Azov has used this war to their advantage. They’ve used it brilliantly. And they are tremendous fighters.
And it doesn’t help that American and Western media, the same media who spent seven years tracking Azov and tracking its neo-Nazi nature, suddenly, at the beginning of this invasion, suddenly turned around and said that, all of a sudden, this organization stopped being far-right. It’s an incredible — and this is what I tracked in my Nation article. It’s just an incredible feat of whitewashing, which is denying reality, with Western media across the board suddenly saying, based on nothing, based on propaganda, that this entire group that attracted neo-Nazis from all over the world, that we’ve reported on, has suddenly stopped, stopped being neo-Nazis, and now they’re OK. It is North Korean levels of propaganda. And to see this happen in Western media, it’s rather disturbing.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring back in Ben Makuch. Ben, can you talk about the new piece, just out today, from The Intercept, “Fugitive Combatant: Wanted for Murder, an Army Vet Escaped to Ukraine — and Fought the Russians”? It’s about a veteran named Craig Lang. Tell us his story.
BEN MAKUCH: So, Craig Lang is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, and he left the military in 2014 under very murky circumstances. He allegedly had an armed confrontation with his now ex-wife. He went AWOL on his base, and then he left the military. He says it was a dishonorable discharge — or, he says it was an other-than-honorable discharge. And the military won’t actually clarify it, and the DOJ just says that it’s a discharge.
But following that, he worked in the oil fields in North Dakota and saw the news in Ukraine around 2015 and thought to himself, “I want to go over there.” And with a few Facebook messages and some exchanges with people there, he ended up in Donbas, which at the time was a frozen trench warfare against Russian-backed separatists, but also Russian regulars. And he was fighting for a group called the Right Sector, which is a very ultranationalist organization that’s sort of been this — or, has been a popular meeting ground for foreign fighters for many years. It attracted lots of neo-Nazis, but also anarchists and, essentially, just radicals. And he was fighting in a unit of mostly foreigners, that subsequently got war crimes investigations into them, both by the FBI and by foreign authorities.
And around 2017, he left, came back to the United States. And it’s around that point, with someone else, another U.S. Army veteran who also served in the Right Sector, the DOJ alleges that he schemed and killed a couple in Florida in a gun sale to finance a trip to Venezuela, where he was going to fight with anti-Venezuelan government forces. Now, he apparently ended up getting to Colombia.
He left and went back to Ukraine in 2018, 2019. And around that time, the FBI was onto him, and he ended up in Ukrainian custody. And since then, he’s been in this back-and-forth in courts. But what is really interesting is, by 2021, right around the end of the year, he appealed his case to the European Court of Human Rights. And that allowed him to stay in the country, but he was on, essentially, house arrest or Kyiv city limits arrest.
And, of course, we all know, by February 2022, the Russian full-scale invasion of the country happened. And as that was happening, someone like Lang, who’s fought extensively not only in Ukraine, but also for the U.S. military, ended up offering his services up. And where did he end up right away was the Right Sector. And he ended up fighting all the way ’til August 2022, at which point Ukrainian authorities finally booted him out of uniform, and now he’s facing extradition again.
But I think, more than anything, why I found this story so fascinating is that, clearly, this war, you know, we’re seeing more and more just how much control the Ukrainian military has on what’s been going on, especially in the early days. You know, a lot of things have slipped through the cracks. And I think there’s no question that the U.S. military has had similar problems in their own prosecution of wars over the last 20 years, but I think, you know, when the Pentagon is offering up billions and billions of dollars to Ukraine to defend itself, there needs to be some amount of scrutiny as to how its military and — you know, looking at things like Azov Battalion and Right Sector being involved in their actual military apparatus, and how that operates, and how someone like Lang, who did fight for the country twice, could also serve with the military knowing that he was facing extradition for pretty grisly double murder that involves a very lengthy — a very lengthy set of court documents and allegations against him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ben, I wanted to ask you a similar question. Is the situation in Ukraine analogous to what happened, for instance, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that drew jihadists from around the world and, obviously, became the basis for the development of al-Qaeda? Or is the fact that it is such a conventional war, not a guerrilla war, making it a lot more difficult for these foreign fighters who come in to stay very long or participate? I’m wondering your sense of that.
BEN MAKUCH: So, I’ve been covering this for many years, this exact network pipeline, because I knew very early on — I followed several very ultraviolent neo-Nazi groups, like The Base and Atomwaffen Division. There was always a lot of ambitions to get these kinds of guys through to Ukraine. I knew of one ex-Base member who actually ended up in Ukraine and fought — not exactly sure exactly which part or which unit he was with, but the Ukrainian military ended up kicking him and another American out of the country in the fall of 2020 for joining a neo-Nazi organization and trying to fight for the war.
So we know that there has been secretive pipelines and networks. And I know from my own sources and my own information that that still exists. Now, is it to the extent to which we thought it could be? There was a lot of analysts and experts saying that this was going to turn into sort of this ISIS-like network that was going to mimic very much so what the Islamic State looked like in 2014, 2015, 2016. I would say, and I think many people who have been studying this say, that that hasn’t happened, or at least we don’t know exactly how that has happened. But I will say, looking back at someone like Christopher Pohlhaus, who’s connected to Denis Kapustin, who’s the leader of the Russian Volunteer Corps, this is a man who’s now said he wants to go join the war in Ukraine. So, I think the ambitions of the far right, and seeing how this conflict continues — and, you know, I’ve always said the longer it continues, the more opportunities for this sort of thing to happen will become.
And I do think the Ukrainian military and the authorities do not want this to happen, and I think they’re vigilant to some extent. But I also think that in times of war and — you know, I’ve crossed that border into Ukraine through Poland, and I know how porous it can be. You know, the government has a lot on its plate, and I think trying to stop American extremists getting over, while I think they can do a pretty good job of it, there’s no doubt that that could be a problem. And I think this is something that is sort of a wait and see.
You know, when it comes to — you mentioned the mujahideen. We didn’t know exactly how severe that problem got, and the formation of al-Qaeda, ’til quite a few years later. So, I think the same sort of applies to the war in Ukraine. But as I said, we do know that those secretive networks, they do exist. I think they still exist. The scale, I don’t think, is on the level of Islamic State or the mujahideen, but I do think that these links and these international networks are very much around.
AMY GOODMAN: Lev Golinkin, if you can talk about — Ben was just talking about Denis Kapustin, who was described by the Anti-Defamation League as a Russian neo-Nazi. Can you talk about the Russian neo-Nazi elements within Wagner? And I was, like, shocked to learn that Wagner was named, the Wagner mercenary group, by its founder for the composer Wagner, who was Hitler’s favorite composer.
LEV GOLINKIN: Yeah, it’s interesting, because Putin’s justification, his excuse for this war, was to, what he called, denazify Ukraine. The pretense he made for his illegal invasion for the war is that Ukraine has neo-Nazis, and Russia is going to invade, and they’re going to get rid of them. He did this because, partly, to — partly because he didn’t have any other excuses, and also partly because he wanted to tap into Russia’s memory of World War II in fighting the Nazis back then.
The irony is that denazifying Ukraine is being done in large part by the Wagner Group, which is riddled with neo-Nazis. So, it shows — I mean, it shows the hypocrisy of Russia that it’s using neo-Nazis to supposedly denazify Ukraine, where instead what they’re doing is committing war crimes, committing an illegal invasion on this.
It’s interesting, because most neo-Nazis split — you have a lot of them splitting, depending on how they view Russia. Some groups of neo-Nazis view Russia as the last bastion of the white race, and they admire Putin and love him. You see a lot of U.S. in the far right, they view Russia that way. And then, on the other side is people who view Russia as not even a white country, as a barbaric Asian horde that Ukraine and Poland and the Baltics have to hold back. So, depending on where one falls, that’s why you kind of have neo-Nazis on both sides of this conflict. And they have very identical worldviews. It’s just it depends on how they see Russia, and what — that they go on one side or the other side of the conflict.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Lev, as a Ukrainian, as a Ukrainian American, are you concerned about what will happen about the empowering of the neo-Nazis within Ukraine when the war ends?
LEV GOLINKIN: Yeah. I mean, I think you don’t have to be a Ukrainian American or an American to just be concerned, because these people are getting a national profile. And the message that we are sending is that if you are the right type of neo-Nazi, we will arm you, we will train you, we will take you to Congress, we will celebrate you across our media, you will be our hero.
And, for example, Facebook did the incredible, incredible move where they banned Azov, all Azov pages. They had them banned as a hate group. After the invasion began, Facebook announced that they still have Azov listed as a hate group, but they’re going to allow posts praising Azov. In other words, yeah, they’re a hate group, but, you know, hate groups can do good things, too. There are good people on both sides. And this is what this war has created. And eventually, Facebook just wound up dropping Azov from its list of hate groups altogether.
So, we’re sending a very dangerous message, that if you’re right type of neo-Nazis, we will not only work with you, we will celebrate you. And I think that message is going to be heard across the world, and it’s deeply problematic.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben, we have 20 seconds. Your final comments from your research of years in Ukraine?
BEN MAKUCH: Well, I would agree with Lev that, you know, when this ends, that’s going to be the real question. I had someone from the Azov movement tell me, who is quite senior in the political side, say to me in February 2022 that Ukraine is going to be the next Texas of Europe, because there are so many weapons there. And I think when this is all over, that’s going to be something that we’re all going to have to face as a security issue in Europe. And I think when you have far-right extremists who might have access to that, that may be quite a problem to look out for.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Ben Makuch, national security reporter for The Intercept, we’ll link to your pieces there. And, Lev Golinkin, Ukrainian American journalist, we’ll link to your recent piece in The Nation, “The Western Media Is Whitewashing the Azov Battalion.” I’m Amy Goodman.