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The Russian-Ukraine conflict could strengthen neo-fascist groups in both countries

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The war in Ukraine has, for the moment, sidelined a topic that's historically been highly sensitive in that country. Vladimir Putin hoped to resurrect it when he claimed his invasion was in part to denazify Ukraine. Experts of the far-right roundly dismiss Putin's pretext for invasion. They also point to the latitude that Putin has given to neo-Nazis in his own country. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and joins us now. Odette, thanks so much for being with us.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: My pleasure.

SIMON: I want to begin by noting that, of course, there was the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 before the Nazis invaded Russia. These two countries were once allies right before World War II. This claim that Putin makes of denazifying Ukraine - what's he mean?

YOUSEF: You know, I think this claim was surprising to people who are aware that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is Jewish and that he has family members who were killed in the Holocaust. Putin is mainly believed to have been referring to something called the Azov Regiment. Now, that was something that started as an ultranationalist volunteer battalion back in 2014, when Ukraine was resisting the Russian annexation of Crimea. And later that year it was folded into the nation's security apparatus under the Ukrainian National Guard.

The origins of the Azov Regiment were neo-Nazis. And, you know, today there continues to be debate over whether ideologically the regiment is neo-Nazi. The U.S. has at least on paper banned aid and training from going to that unit. But far-right experts say it's grossly inaccurate to take this regiment's history as some sort of indication that the whole of the Ukrainian military or society sympathizes with neo-Nazis. And honestly, that far-right ideology really still is on the fringe in Ukraine. And those experts also say that Putin's claim about neo-Nazis in Ukraine is hypocritical.

SIMON: And hypocritical how?

YOUSEF: So given Russia's history, you might not expect there to be, you know, neo-Nazis there, but there are. And most prominent among them is a group called the Russian Imperial Movement. That's an ultranationalist neo-Nazi group that actually is anti-Putin and pro-monarchist. So they kind of are yearning for a return to the tsar. The group operates out of St. Petersburg and has two training camps. You know, it's interesting, Scott, because Putin certainly could dismantle this group if he wanted to. And I spoke to Heidi Beirich about why he hasn't done that. Beirich is the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, and here's what she said.

HEIDI BEIRICH: The thinking is, is that Putin tolerates this group because it sows discord in Western countries and causes problems. And so as long as the Russian Imperial Movement doesn't do anything to disrupt internal Russian politics, he appears to tolerate it.

SIMON: Odette, how has this group tried to sow discord in Western countries?

YOUSEF: The Russian Imperial Movement has been known to train and foster close connections with neo-Nazi groups throughout Europe and has even connected to organizations and individuals with groups in the United States. I think the most notorious example was back in 2016, when some Swedish nationals reportedly trained with Russian Imperial Movement in St. Petersburg and then returned back to Sweden, where they committed a series of bombings, including of a refugee shelter there. You know, the Russian Imperial Movement has kind of sought to cultivate itself as the center of this increasingly integrated transnational movement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And interestingly, in April of 2020, the U.S. State Department designated them a specially designated global terrorist group, making it the first white supremacist terrorist group to receive that designation.

SIMON: What are experts telling you about their concerns about extremist elements that might be answering this call to war for resistance?

YOUSEF: You know, they're watching very closely now that money and weapons are flowing into Ukraine from Western countries. You know, this is clearly necessary, Scott, to help Ukrainians defend their country. But Beirich told me that it's also something that we need to keep monitoring.

BEIRICH: When this conflict ends, what's going to happen with all that weaponry? Where is it going to flow to? Who's going to put their hands on it? And that's a concern as well. And some of it will end up in the wrong hands.

YOUSEF: You know, to take this further, Scott, you know, there's concern that foreign fighters who might be extremists will travel to Ukraine to fight alongside Ukrainians and gain battlefield experience and create some close connections.

There is another thing that experts are watching, which is about, you know, how the narrative ultimately kind of takes shape around this conflict and the role that far-right actors will have played in it. You know, much of the sensitivity around this topic stems from the history of Ukraine's struggle against Russia. Ukrainians are, like, still divided on how or whether to commemorate a key World War II figure named Stepan Bandera, who fought the Soviets, but also at times collaborated with the Nazis. And so we may see similar debates in the future concerning individuals who are at the front lines in Ukraine today who have links to neo-Nazism.

SIMON: NPR's Odette Yousef, thanks so much for being with us.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.