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On Defending Mariupol and so-called "denazification"
The only way you win this game is by not playing it.
Russia’s failure to drive a quick and decisive end to its war in Ukraine has led to an ongoing information war adjacent to the battlefield in which the Kremlin is somewhat remarkably performing worse than its combat forces. International attention has recently been focused on Russian atrocities committed in Bucha, Ukraine where Kremlin denials of war crimes ring hollow with evidence against Russian forces mounting. Russia’s propaganda machine remains desperate to alter international public opinion and change the predominant narrative of the war. These efforts include, rather unsurprisingly, frequent commentary on the soldiers defending Ukraine, particularly those fighting under the Azov banner.
The Azov Battalion (now Azov Regiment) was founded in Mariupol in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and the subsequent war waged against Ukraine by Russia via its thinly-veiled proxies in the Donbass region of Ukraine. In 2014, one of Azov’s first acts as a fighting unit was to recapture Mariupol from a Russian-backed annexation effort. Azov’s soldiers have continually held the line as the War in the Donbass continued from 2014 to the present day. While fighting off Russian advances into Ukraine for eight years, Azov have continually been cast as a Ukrainian supervillain by pro-Kremlin media.
In Russia’s 2022 full invasion, one of the few places Russian advances have made any significant progress is in the Southeast of Ukraine, west from the Donbass and northeast from Crimea. This advance has led to the most bitter fighting of the war in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine. It’s here that Azov are a significant portion of the Ukrainian defenders holding the line.
Recent images from Mariupol remind one more of images of 1945 Germany than a modern-day city of—only two months ago—nearly half a million people. The city’s devastation was brought on by the Russian invaders who have shelled Mariupol indiscriminately during the roughly month-long siege. The mayor of Mariupol has claimed that what Russia is doing in Mariupol is “genocide of the Ukrainian people” and based on what little we know, it’s hard to disagree. Partly we know so little because the last Western journalists in the city had to flee before they could be captured or killed by Russian soldiers.
Based on what you’re likely used to reading, this would be the point of the article in which I explained the “complexities” of Azov’s ideology, but I’m not going to get into all that here. There are plenty of fact-checked articles on the first page of Google if you really want to know the details. Currently, you can easily find another thousand Kremlin-friendly pieces focused on all the bad Azov has supposedly done (fair warning, plenty of it is fake). Neither argument is my subject matter today. Why? Because sifting through those talking points, hemming and hawing over the good and the bad—whether it’s pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda or fact-checking the nuance of the situation—ultimately only helps the Kremlin distract us from what’s happening in Ukraine and especially in Mariupol as I type this.
The co-founder of Azov, Andriy Biletskiy, said it best in a recent interview, “We are at war for the very existence of Ukraine at the moment,” he said. “In the past month, I have never asked a person that came to join us about his political views. Today, Ukrainians have only one option of political orientation: for or against Ukraine.” Connotating the nation of Ukraine with the Kremlin-created Azov supervillains, in any context, is what the Kremlin wants. They know we have short attention spans, and they essentially know how to weaponize our distractability.
For instance, the Kremlin wants us to forget their soldiers are responsible for this:
And instead think of all Ukrainians as this:
Any time spent discussing Azov is time we aren’t spending on the death and destruction brought on by Putin’s war of choice. Have you ever considered why the Kremlin continually pushes out so many Azov fakes? Why do they continually blame their atrocities on Azov? Allow me to explain.
1. Fact-checking takes time.
The average person can only digest so much information in a single day. News articles dedicated to fact-checking take up a limited amount of brain space each person has, and those articles center the conversation around an intended distraction even when the outlandish claims are undeniably proven false. Kremlin propaganda will consistently throw out distractions and false information to move our attention away from what should be the core narrative.
There is value in fact-checking, and it is a necessity these days with the ease at which lies spread on the internet. However, the more time we spend correcting a lie, the less time we have to focus on the purpose of that lie. One purpose of the Kremlin’s Azov supervillain mythology lie is to continue to draw our attention away from the atrocities taking place against innocent civilians in Ukraine.
An information warfare sequence of events may be informative here. For instance, a series of events occur in this order:
Russian invaders shell a hospital in Mariupol.
Western media reports on this event.
Ukrainians and the Western world are outraged.
Russia falsely claims it’s a false flag and, in fact, Azov (being Nazis) blew up the hospital themselves.
Western media outlets fact-check and disprove this obvious Kremlin lie.
Kremlin propaganda says “aha, we knew you would come to the defense of Azov Nazis no matter what they do!”
Western media focuses on “well actually, the story with Azov and Nazis and so on is really complicated. Let us explain.”
And they do explain. They share both sides of the argument, and the Kremlin propagandists say “aha, see! The West is still defending Nazis!”
More outrage, more fact-checks, more attempts to shame the shameless ensue. Soon, the world (mostly) forgets Russian invaders bombed innocent civilians seeking medical care in a Ukrainian hospital.
The next atrocity occurs and this sequence repeats.
Let us instead skip that song and dance and here remind ourselves what the Russian invaders have done to Mariupol:
2. So the Kremlin can claim their war in Ukraine was a success. “Denazification”
One of the earliest stated goals of Russia’s invasion was the so-called “denazification” of Ukraine. After the pro-Western Maidan Revolution ousted pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, there was consistent talk in pro-Kremlin media of the “Kyiv Junta” of supposed Neo-Nazis who were backed by the CIA running the Ukrainian government. This talk never went away and the Kremlin continues to claim “denazification” as a major goal of their war. However, given Russia’s recent drawback in the north, it’s clear that Kyiv will not fall to the Russians anytime soon (if ever), and Zelensky’s government doesn’t look to be going either. Still, the Kremlin will not simply give up and admit defeat. Instead, the focus of “denazification” efforts has moved to the southeastern part of Ukraine and is now centered on Mariupol.
How so? When Mariupol falls (“if” seems a remote possibility now), then Azov’s base of operations, leadership and the majority of their soldiers will likely be dead or captured. The Kremlin can sit back and tell their domestic audience that they did what they came to do—”denazify Ukraine.” This could explain why recently the “denazification” stipulation was removed by the Kremlin as a requirement for a peace deal with Ukraine. With much of Azov effectively eliminated, can the Kremlin not say their “denazification” war aim has been successfully completed? It’s not an honest argument, of course, but propaganda doesn’t require honesty. It can usually get by with tiny slivers of truth.
3. The Kremlin wants to justify future revelations of atrocities against Ukrainian civilians and Ukrainian prisoners of war.
What may be coming are show trials like we’ve seen before in the Donbass. There may be executions of “extremist elements” captured by Russian forces. There may be POWs sent to Gulags. Ukrainian refugees forced to flee to Russia may be displaced in remote corner of the Russian Federation much like Stalin’s deportations, particularly during and after World War II, of various ethnic groups—Volga Germans, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Chechens and many others. The devastation of Mariupol and the atrocities in Bucha are already apparent to us, but the Kremlin can continually downplay the horror stories of the Ukrainians caught in the middle of this war which we’ll soon hear about. From now until the end of time, the Kremlin refrain will undoubtedly include lines such as “What would you have us do? The Azov Nazis would’ve done far worse to them!” That’s why Russians who first came to Bucha told the Ukrainian citizens they were there to “liberate” them, after all.
We all know it’s not true. It’s so absurdly untrue that our natural inclination is to scream at those who would say such heinous things, but my point here is there’s no winning this argument. There’s no shaming these people. There’s no way to make them stop lying. Ignore them. Don’t engage with the distraction. Recognize that the only way you win this game is by not playing it.
What’s happening in Ukraine right now is the mass displacement of millions of people from their homes. Civilians are being killed by indiscriminate Russian shelling. Those left alive in Mariupol are forced to remain in basements and bomb shelters, hoping that the shelling will end before they run out of food and water. When we focus on the moral standing of the Ukrainian defenders of their city, of their country, of their family homes and the streets they played on as children, we’re losing sight of what’s happening in Mariupol and may soon happen to the next Ukrainian city. We forget this invasion happened because Putin decided it must happen. We forget the burned and bombed out apartment buildings, hospitals and churches were full of innocent civilians only six weeks ago. We forget this destruction didn’t need to happen, and it goes on only because the Russian invader chooses to let it go on. I frankly don’t care about the ideology of those remaining soldiers defending the streets of Mariupol from those who would commit what may amount to genocide in the name of carving out a convenient land bridge between the Russian Federation and the illegally seized territory of Crimea. Stop talking about Azov and focus on the dead, the dying, the refugees forced to choose between death and deportation to Russia. Where are they going and what will become of those left at the mercy of the Russian state? Will there be military tribunals? Do the Russians plan to forcibly relocate these Ukrainians, or will they simply send them to newly built Gulags? Defending or lambasting the Ukrainian defenders is a false choice. I say we choose neither and change the topic altogether.
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