In early April, a member of the US Congress, Elissa Slotkin, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking that 13 radical-right extremist groups and movements be officially designated as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) in the United States. This designation would, in theory, ban any American from providing “material support or resources” to any of these designated organizations, ban foreign members of these groups from entering the US, and freeze funds held in American banks belonging to these groups.
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Some of the groups on the congressperson’s list are familiar names to any observer of transnational radical-right extremism over the last several years: the Nordic Resistance Movement, Blood and Honour, National Action and what Slotkin, a former CIA employee focused on extremism in the Middle East and North Africa, describes collectively as the “Azov Battalion” in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, as someone who has written extensively about the threat of 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 the radical right is concerned, group designations and proscriptions aren’t always the best policy tool.
What’s in a Name?
For one, I’ve seen this play out before. In 2019, another member of US Congress, Max Rose, authored a similar letter demanding that the Azov Battalion be designated as an FTO. Rose’s letter was, ultimately, a complete failure. As 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 boon to the radical right.
Slotkin’s letter, fortunately, doesn’t make those kinds of sweeping, evidence-free claims. But it’s not without its major flaws. For one, the letter incorrectly refers to the Azov Battalion. The military unit once known as the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 to combat Russian-backed insurgents in a still-hot war in eastern Ukraine, has been under the auspices of Ukraine’s National Guard and properly known as the Azov Regiment for years. While referring to it as the “Azov Battalion” could be excusable as something a commentator without experience in Ukraine might mention in passing, it’s not so excusable in an official letter demanding that said organization be designated as a terror group. In particular, how can a group be designated if it can’t even be named and identified correctly?
The accurate descriptor would, of course, be the “Azov Movement.” I’ve described the Azov Movement, which grew out of the original battalion and regiment, as a heterogenous radical-right social movement. At its core, the movement encompasses the regiment itself, the National Corps political party, the Centuria (formerly the National Militia) paramilitary organization as well as a number of affiliated subgroups and initiatives including a book club, youth camps, a “leadership school” and a (temporarily closed) three-story social center just off Kyiv’s central Independence Square.
It also encompasses organizations and networks that are clearly led by and are made up of members of the movement who appear to function with some degree of independence, often without any stated relationship to the movement and who are more open or extreme in their rhetoric. There are also smaller radical-right organizations that are nominally independent but still appear to have at least some relationship with the movement and who circle around its orbit.
Slotkin’s letter, on the other hand, describes Azov in superficial terms. The movement is referred to solely as “a well-known militia organization in Ukraine [that] uses the internet to recruit new members and then radicalizes them to use violence to pursue its white identity political agenda,” with one sole reference to a relatively recent January 2021 article. Sure, there’s not enough space in a letter like this to discuss the Azov Movement in considerable detail. But there’s no shortage of material in English on the movement’s activities over the past several years (certainly not just from this author), and, what’s more, it is easily accessible and digestible to anyone who chooses to take a few minutes to read beyond a simple Google search.
Having even a cursory understanding of what the Azov Movement actually is and how it functions would reveal just how difficult it would be in practice to designate it as an FTO, and, in fact, how difficult it is to proscribe these kinds of movements in practice. Even as the UK has moved to ban the violent neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, reports from Germany suggest that sympathizers are using still-existing networks to rebuild an offshoot of the group there.
The question then turns to who would be designated as an FTO. Would it be the regiment alone, which is itself a member of Ukraine’s National Guard and thus 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 US would surely never designate an official unit of an American ally’s military, whether one likes it or not.
Moreover, and to move further into the morass, would the broader movement be proscribed as an FTO, and if so, whom would that include? One could see it encompassing the National Corps and Centuria, but does that include every single affiliated organization, from sports clubs to youth camps? What would be the legal criteria for determining whether an entity is or isn’t part of the movement? And, moreover, which individuals can even be described as being part of the movement? Trying to parse these questions would be a veritable nightmare.
A Better Way
Even worse, I can easily imagine how affiliated organizations within the movement would worm their way out of being part of the designation, which exposes a serious flaw with going after the radical right through the means of executive group proscription. Daryl Johnson, an American domestic terrorism expert and former senior analyst with the US Department of Homeland Security, told a journalist in Canada, my home country, that its government’s efforts to ban groups like the Proud Boys were “more of a symbolic gesture,” and that radical-right organizations facing these kinds of bans could simply just change their names and regroup under a new banner.
Given that, in the Ukrainian context, radical-right organizations and affiliates have a history of changing their names and branding while maintaining the core leadership, one should expect this to continue if an attempt to proscribe the entire movement were to actually happen. If US 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 clumsy if attention-grabbing mechanism of a foreign terrorist organization designation.
They should consider, for one, designating specific individuals, with specific and justified reasons, instead of broader groups and movements. Visa and travel bans for specific prominent individuals, which would also encourage European allies to extend visa-free Schengen Area restrictions to those same individuals, would also be useful. There is also the option of placing pressure, both public and private, on Ukraine’s government and elements in the Ukrainian state to properly acknowledge and tackle the issue of the violent radical right in their country — pressure that could even include making some international funding and financial support contingent on tackling the problem.
These would be much more effective starting points for the US or any other Western country worried about the activities of Ukraine’s Azov Movement than any attempted FTO designation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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