Ukraine: Canada has tough questions to answer about training extremists

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With mounting evidence pointing to the Canadian Armed Forces having trained members of Ukraine’s military who are also reported to be part of extremist groups, experts say Ottawa needs to strongly bolster its investigation and vetting of the soldiers it trains and arms in the embattled country.

The Department of National Defence promised a thorough review of Canada’s mission in Ukraine after CTVNews.ca approached them for comment in October 2021, regarding a report from George Washington University that found extremists in the Ukrainian military were bragging about being trained by Canadians as part of Operation UNIFIER.

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The group in question – which calls itself Military Order Centuria, or simply Centuria, has links to the far-right Azov movement.

The Canadian military said they were alarmed by the report and denied any knowledge that extremists had taken part in training, adding that it does not have the mandate to screen the soldiers they train from other countries.

In the month that followed, an investigation by the Ottawa Citizen found that not only did Canadian officials meet and get briefed by leaders from the Azov Battalion in 2018, they did not denounce the unit’s neo-Nazi beliefs – despite being warned about their views by their colleagues– and their main concern was that media would expose that the meeting had taken place. Officers and diplomats allowed themselves to be photographed with battalion officials which was then used online by Azov as propaganda.

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The federal government, which has spent more than $890 million training Ukrainian forces through Operation UNIFIER, has repeatedly stressed that it has not and will not ever train soldiers affiliated with Azov.

However, a recent investigation by Radio Canada into documents related to Canada’s mission in Ukraine found evidence that soldiers from the Azov regiment, identified by patches on their clothing and other insignias, have participated in training with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as recently as 2020 at the western-backed Zolochiv training centre in Western Ukraine.

In a series of messages to CTVNews.ca, a spokesperson for the Azov regiment currently fighting in Mariupol, Ukraine said they were excluded as a group from training with Canadian instructors in Op. UNIFIER but that they “wrote a program” for their own courses and “were instructors in all disciplines in the National Guard of Ukraine training centre,” confirming Radio Canada’s previous reporting.

The spokesperson did not address questions related to individual Azov regiment members receiving training through Op. UNIFIER.

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However CTVNews.ca was able to find evidence on the social media account of Azov regiment leader Kyrylo Berkal, call sign “Kirt,” of members training with Canadian instructors, where they refer to “cooperation” with Op. UNIFIER in 2019. Berkal’s social media features Nazi symbols and other extremist views.

CTVNews.ca asked the government whether it would re-evaluate its special relationship with Ukraine, its training mandates for Op. UNIFIER or review the lethal aid being sent to Ukraine in light of the recent reports. A spokesperson for the Canadian Joint Operations Command of the CAFs said in a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca earlier this month that “all members deploying on Operation UNIFIER are briefed to help them recognize patches and insignia associated with right-wing extremism.”

The statement said that if Canadian soldiers “suspect” their Ukrainian peers or counterparts hold racist views or belong to right-wing extremist elements they “are removed immediately.”

However the statement reiterated that when it comes to vetting foreign soldiers; “there is no burden of proof on the CAF to demonstrate this beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The CAF said it takes “every reasonable measure” to ensure no training is provided to extremists, but the statement said “Ukraine is a sovereign country” responsible for recruiting and vetting its own security forces.

Addressing concerns that extremist elements in the Ukrainian military now have access to much deadlier firepower because of countries like Canada arming Ukraine since the Russian invasion, the CAF said that donations of military aid are provided “exclusively” to the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine and that those donations are “controlled with end users certificates provided by the MoD of Ukraine.”

Christian Leuprecht, security analyst and professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, said “Canadians don’t get to pick who they do and don’t train” on advise and assist missions like the one in Ukraine.

“Anytime you have a nationalist type conflict, you’re going to have extremists. You’re going to have people who hold extremist views engaged in the fight,” Leuprecht said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca. “So that’s not particular to Ukraine, and I think the problem that Canadians have is in that mission don’t have the luxury to pick and choose…. either you’re in the mission or you’re not.”

Leuprecht said Canada’s military resources are too stretched to set up a vetting mechanism in Ukraine, and that the government would have had to weigh the risks of operating a training mission.

“In terms of the grand trade-off, it is never acceptable to have extremists in our midst,” he said. “At the same time, when you’re training hundreds or thousands of people over six-and-a-half years in an eastern European country, it is unavoidable that you’re going to get some folks who are xenophobic or extremists.”

However, Leuprecht said when the military resumes Op. UNIFIER, there should be serious conversations about how to deal with the Azov movement and other far-right battalions being lionized as defenders of Ukraine after the war, swelling their ranks.

“We’ve obviously learnt some hard lessons here that make us all uncomfortable as Canadians…if or when we re-engage with Ukraine on the advise and assist mission, how is it not going to enable this battalion in particular or people who are affiliated with it,” he said. “It will be an important question going forward precisely of the heroic status that the battalion will have taken on.”

A photo featured on the social media account of Azov regiment member Kyrylo Berkal appears to show Canadian instructors involved with their training.

WHAT IS THE AZOV MOVEMENT ABOUT?

The Azov movement was created in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and was predominantly a paramilitary unit of radical nationalists, which – including its founder and leader Andriy Biletsky—openly espoused anti-Semitic and other far-right ideology. The movement has attacked anti-fascist demonstrations, city council meetings, media outlets, art exhibitions, foreign students, 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 in 2014. The Ukrainian National Guard later took the Azov Battalion into its ranks – where it is now more commonly known as the Azov Regiment.

More recent efforts to distance the current iteration of the Azov regiment by politicians and academics from its infamous roots and current ties to the far-right “are in contrast to important facts,” according to investigative journalist and the original author of the report into Centuria, Oleksiy Kuzmenko in a series of emails sent to CTVNews.ca.

“The Azov Regiment is clearly a highly capable unit of the National Guard of Ukraine. In my opinion it’s a highly professionalized wing of the Azov movement incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine, but it’s not depoliticized, nor is it just a regular unit as some claim,” he said.

Kuzmenko said the unit proudly carries recognizable far right symbols on its insignia and continues to be closely tied to the larger, internationally active far-right Azov movement and its political wing the National Corps party. He also said he was not aware of the Ukrainian army doing any vetting for extremism in its ranks.

The National Corps party is “openly hostile to liberal democracy, universal voting rights [and] minority rights,” Kuzmenko said. “The party isn’t explicitly neo-Nazi but the Azov movement includes explicitly neo-Nazi elements. To be clear, the National Corps party has nearly negligible electoral support but at the same time it has long enjoyed impunity for violence.”

Kuzmenko said that those who push for “absolution” of the Regiment from its far-right heritage and links “seemingly want the public to believe that its evident ties to the Azov movement, its use of far-right, white nationalist symbols etc. don’t mean anything,” he said. “If you buy that, I have a bridge to sell you.”

However, Kuzmenko said it was important to note that many Ukrainians who do not support far-right ideology had joined up with units bearing variations of the Azov name since Russia invaded, wanting to defend their country – but the National Corps party is making efforts to educate newcomers in its ideology.

“I believe that current claims…that the [Azov] Regiment isn’t far-right….are meant to make support for these fighters more palatable to the West,” Kuzmenko said. “And to bury the fact that the government of Ukraine has long embraced a far-right military unit as part of the National Guard of Ukraine.”

However, Kuzmenko said he does not think there is any reason “why it should be hard to openly admit that these forces… [are] very much far-right and that they (the Azov movement) are also valiantly fighting Russia whose brutality [and] crimes dwarf …the danger the far-right pose to Ukraine.”

Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine included references to “de-Nazify” the country, with President Vladimir Putin targeting the Azov movement in his remarks. This has made criticism of the Ukrainian military, Op. UNIFIER and even the Azov Regiment a fraught subject.

In a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca, the Executive Director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network Evan Balgord said the organization did not want to contribute to “the Russian narrative that Ukraine or the Ukrainian army are Nazis…Azov does not represent Ukraine.”

However, Balgord said “it should be the standing policy of the CAF to investigate any militias they intend to train and arm so that they never train or arm neo-Nazis or their equivalents. They should never have trained and armed Azov. The people in the CAF who decided to meet with them and lend them aid, knowing they were neo-Nazis, should face discipline.”

A statement emailed to CTVNews.ca from the NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Heather McPherson about Canada’s training of Azov members struck a similar tone. However, the statement did include calls for tough questions to be answered by Ottawa.

“The government said they wouldn’t train the Azov Battalion, yet images indicate they did. Reporting has also shown that the CAF had concerns about meeting with them, yet they still met with them,” the statement continues. “There is a clear need for accountability and transparency on how these decisions were made with the government’s promised review. Simply saying the government wasn’t aware or weren’t responsible for vetting is not an acceptable response when there were Nazi symbols seen on the uniforms of some soldiers.”

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence did not respond to CTVNews.ca’s multiple requests for comment by time of publication.

IS CANADA LIABLE IF SOLDIERS IT TRAINED OR ARMED IN UKRAINE COMMIT CRIMES?

As Canada and its allies continue to funnel weapons and aid to Ukraine, the question of liability hangs in the air. If a member of the Ukrainian military who has extremist views or is part of a group like Centuria or the Azov Regiment – commits a crime with training or weapons provided by Canada, where does the blame lie?

The answer is complicated and has several levels, according to Professor of Constitutional and International Law at the University of Ottawa, Errol Mendes.

Starting at the international level, Mendes used the example of Canada selling arms to Saudi Arabia, for which he noted Canada has been accused by human rights organizations in the past of violating the Arms Trade Treaty, by providing weapons to a government that has a known history for human rights violations.

“How does this then apply to Ukraine if some of the weapons that have been sent end up with the Azov Regiment or any group that may come under scrutiny for allegations of war crimes?” he said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca. “The difference is that the arms were sent to Saudi Arabia under the auspices of the Saudi government which is well known to have been involved in human rights violations – could one say the same thing about Ukraine?”

A step down from the international level, Mendes says, is to determine how significant was the government of Ukraine and Canada’s involvement in the training and the sales of the weapons.

“How much command responsibility do they have for any of the violations under the Geneva Conventions and under international humanitarian law in general? Command Responsibility is where you have to prove, if this ever ended up in a court of law, and assess what are the responsibilities of the military leaders in Ukraine and then the political leaders they report to?” he said. “Did they know? Did they do anything to stop the acts from being committed? It really boils down to the level of knowledge that the appropriate commanders and those they report to at the political level.”

Mendes said it would be a tough sell legally to prove that Canada is liable for actions performed by Ukrainian soldiers they trained or armed.

“In that situation you have to figure out not only those who have actual command responsibility, but whether anybody else were potentially aiding them… and could one then make the argument that if Canada knew [about the extremists], could they be seen as aiding in that sense, that would be subject to obviously a lot of evidentiary requirements to be proved,” Mendes said.

Mendes said Canada should focus on supporting the Ukrainian prosecution office and oversight mechanisms to “help the military command deal with the negative far-right forces in the army.”

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Edited by Phil Hahn.

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