By Alexander Rubinstein / The Grayzone
Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky has uploaded a video to his Telegram channel showing him holding court with one of the most notorious neo-Nazis in modern Ukrainian history: Azov Battalion founder Andriy Biletsky.
On August 14, just over an hour after Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced another $200 million in military aid to Kiev, Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky published the video depicting what he called an “open conversation” with Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade.
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“I am grateful to everyone who defends our country and people, who brings our victory closer,” Zelensky wrote, following his encounter with the unit on the outskirts of Bakhmut.
While casual Western observers might not have realized it, the brigade Zelensky was addressing is actually the newest iteration of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion.
“The 3rd separate assault brigade, excellent fighters,” Zelensky wrote days after the consultation, in a Twitter post which also alluded to a separate meeting with the Aidar Battalion, another neo-fascist outfit that has been accused of war crimes by Amnesty International. “They have stopped the enemy from advancing towards Kostiantynivka and pushed the occupiers back up to 8 kilometers.”
But the group’s origins are no secret. Describing their most recent rebrand in a YouTube video released in January, the unit explained: “Today we officially announce that the SSO AZOV is expanding to a brigade. From now on, we are the 3rd separate assault brigade of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”
Like its predecessor, the unit is led by Andriy Biletsky, who founded the Azov Battalion and has long served as a figurehead for the closely-aligned National Corps political movement.
But in spite of Biletsky’s rich Nazi pedigree, the video Zelensky published shows him sharing a moment of bonhomie with a white nationalist militant who has described Jews as “our enemy,” or as the “real masters” of the oligarchs and craven politicians that have corrupted Ukraine.
“How could I be a Nazi?” Zelensky asked on the eve of Russia’s invasion, pointing to his Jewish heritage. “How could a people who lost eight million lives fighting Nazis support Nazism?”
Perhaps the question needs to be asked again of the Ukrainian president following the tribute he paid to his country’s top neo-Nazi ideologue.
Ukraine’s Jewish leader Meets “The White Leader”
Since Russia’s military operations in Ukraine kicked off in 2022, Biletsky had taken pains to distance himself from his fascist past. He now claims that an infamous promise he made to rid the world of “Semite-led untermenschen” was actually fabricated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
But Biletsky’s most notorious screed against Jews was not an isolated outburst. Indeed, his record of Nazi-inspired tirades is extensive, and has been a matter of public record for decades.
Biletsky’s college thesis was a defense of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a group of paramilitary Nazi collaborators founded by Stepan Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists that carried out ethnic cleansings of more than 100,000 Jews and Poles. After leaving university, Biletsky quickly embedded with multiple fascist outfits, including the “Stepan Bandera All-Ukrainian Organization ‘Tryzub’” and the Social-National Party — not to be confused with the National Socialist Party of 1940’s Germany.
Biletsky left the Social-National Party in protest in 2004 as the group began to rebrand and move away from overt neo-Nazi symbolism. Two years later, he led an organization called Patriots of Ukraine, which has been linked to numerous mob assaults. One Patriot of Ukraine member has claimed the group was behind the seizure and torching of the headquarters of a political party during the US-backed “Maidan” coup in 2014.
According to Ukraine’s Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Patriots of Ukraine “espoused xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideas, and was engaged in violent attacks against migrants, foreign students in Kharkiv and those opposing its views.” What’s more, “Biletsky and some other members were suspected of violent seizures of newspaper kiosks and similar criminal activities.”
“For three years running, the organization has gained notoriety for its torch processions around student campuses in Kharkiv, Kyiv and Chernivtsi which fill foreign students studying in Ukraine with terror,” the human rights group noted in 2008.
During a Patriots of Ukraine general meeting in 2009, Biletsky raved: “How can we describe our enemy? The authorities and the oligarchs. Do they have anything in common? Yes, they have one thing in common: they are Jews, or behind them are their real masters — Jews.”
In 2011, Biletsky was arrested for allegedly ordering Patriot of Ukraine members to kill a fellow ultranationalist inside the group’s office following a dispute, and spent the following years in pre-trial detention. Thanks to a resolution passed by the Ukrainian parliament after the Western-backed overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, he would ultimately be released in 2014. But during his three years in custody, Biletsky managed to have a number of his fascist screeds published in a collection titled “The Word of the White Leader.”
One essay in the collection, dated to 2007, rails against Jews and Black migrants, casually dropping the n- word in the process. “Ukraine is the light of Europe! Our Nation still has enough strength to withstand this influx of foreigners, to cleanse our land and light the fire of purification throughout Europe!” the essay concludes.
In another essay outlining the ideology of “Social-Nationalism,” Biletsky praised National Socialism as a “great idea,” but criticized the Nazis as having been insufficiently eugenicist in their family welfare programs. He complained they supported parents with multiple children “without considering the biological quality of each individual family.”
“The result,” he continued, was “a significant increase in the birth rate, [but] a significant decrease in the percentage of the Nordic type in the population.” Because “these social benefits are aimed at the masses, they encouraged the worst human material to give birth to a child in the first place,” the self-proclaimed “White Leader” lamented.
A subsequent Biletsky manifesto entitled “Language and Race – Primary Issues” expanded on the “social-nationalist” concept: “Ukrainian social-nationalism considers the Ukrainian Nation to be a blood-racial community… Race is everything for nation-building – Race is the basis on which the superstructure grows in the form of national culture, which again comes from the racial nature of the people, and not from language, religion, economy, etc.”
As for the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine, Biletsky wrote, “The issue of total Ukrainization in the future social nationalist state will be resolved within 3-6 months with the help of a tough and balanced state policy.”
Following his release from prison, Biletsky got his chance to carry out a campaign of violence against the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine. As war broke out in the country, with the Russian majority of the east seeking self-determination in the face of a nationalist post-coup government viewed as Western puppets, Biletsky dissolved the Patriot of Ukraine and formed the Azov Battalion to wage a war against the separatists. Around this time, he was also elected to the Ukrainian parliament, remaining in office until 2019.
The new paramilitary outfit set up shop in Mariupol, using the port city as a staging ground for attacks on the Donbas, and violently crushing forms of feminist and liberal political expression on the city’s streets.
Meanwhile, the National Corps, a political party founded by Biletsky in 2016, has been described as a “nationalist hate group” even by the US State Department. The party has repeatedly incited violence against the Kiev Pride march, in 2018 calling on “all concerned citizens of Ukraine” to prevent the march from being held. In 2019, one National Corps leader had a more direct message: “Stay home, and don’t show up in public. Ever. That will make our life easier and keep you safe ;).”
In 2019, it seemed almost as though Biletsky’s influence was waning. An electoral coalition he formed with several other prominent neo-Nazis in Ukraine failed to gain enough votes to pass the threshold to gain any seats in parliament. Meanwhile, Vlodomyr Zelensky won the presidential election on a platform of making peace with Russia.
But Biletsky still held on to a trump card as a nationally-recognized strongman. When a Ukrainian news channel announced a two-hour live studio “TV bridge” between Ukrainian and Russian civilians aimed at fostering a stronger mutual understanding, Biletsky seized the moment to issue a thinly-veiled threat against Zelensky if he did not have the event canceled in a day’s time. If Zelensky did not intervene, “the answer to the Kremlin’s ‘little green men’ will begin to be given by ‘little black men,’” Biletsky said, referring to the black garb of fascist elements like Azov.
Biletsky called on Zelensky to be “The leader of a state at war,” and, “Not a clown, not an artist from oligarchic corporations, but the President.”
Zelensky responded within the timeframe of the ultimatum by denouncing the dialogue and seemingly offering a jab back at Biletsky, arguing that Ukrainians were being “manipulated by politicians who really want to get into parliament.”
A few months later, the pair butted heads again after Zelensky ordered Ukrainian troops, including Azov fighters, to withdraw from a frontline town in the Donbas in an apparent effort to honor the terms of the Minsk Accords. Biletsky fired back with threats to dispatch thousands more troops in open defiance of the president’s orders.
Zelensky’s showdown with fighters refusing his orders culminated with the head of state nearly breaking down on camera and pleading to the militants: “I’m the president of this country. I’m  years old. I’m not a loser. I came to you and told you: remove the weapons.”
Just a few short years later, in the midst of a hot war with Russia, Ukraine’s Jewish president and Ukraine’s most famous living antisemite seem to have put aside their differences. As Shakespeare put it, “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
Alex Rubinstein is an independent reporter on Substack. You can subscribe to get free articles from him delivered to your inbox here. If you want to support his journalism, which is never put behind a paywall, you can give a one-time donation to him through PayPal here or sustain his reporting through Patreon here.