The narrative of a Nazi Ukraine runs through the Azov Battalion, which we talked about in a previous article. A photo has been circulating since 2014 showing some Ukrainian fighters with three flags: that of NATO, that of the Azov Battalion and a flag with the Nazi swastika. The image is used to support the narrative of Vladimir Putin’s “denazification” of Ukraine. One of the flags was pasted into the image using a photo editing program, as explained to Open by Forence researcher Neal Krawetz and creator of the Fotoforensics website, which first reported the fake.
All of this in no way denies the presence of neo-Nazis within this group of volunteers who operated against the first Russian occupation in Ukraine between 2014 and 2015. This manipulated photo, however, allows us to understand how the Ukrainian extreme right tried to seize power and, after apparent failure, took sides – and violently so – against the governments that followed that of the pro-Russian Yanukovych, particularly Zelensky . We will tell about them in the next articles of this series devoted to the Azovs, and then we will also talk about the Italian front.
The verdict of photo forensics
Open contacted forensic researcher Neal Krawetz and creator of the Fotoforensics website on March 14, 2022. Here is his response, already given in a tweet from 2014: «The Nazi flag is fake. The image is viral and the original was never made available.”
Neal Krawetz tells us how this image was subjected to the analysis of the tools provided by the FotoForensics website, specifically between 2014 and 2015, and then saw the requests drop until February 2022, the same period that Vladimir Putin decided to in to invade Ukraine. Neal gives us the analysis of FotoForensics in which we notice some elements present in the flag area.
Neal explains the reasons for his verdict:
- Camera focus is too sharp in the Nazi flag;
- it does not coincide with the plane of focus;
- the red part of the flag in the upper left corner ends above the soldier’s fingers.
The picture was shared by the Russian site Radikal.ru (here), as confirmed by Neal Krawetz at Open. It is currently no longer available, but it is saved on Archive.is.
Screenshot of saving to Archive.is
The flag in question appears to be that of the “Hitlerjugend”, a German youth organization. In the footage published on the protagonists’ social profiles, this flag does not appear at all. On the contrary, others are shown that relate to National Socialism.
A technique to misinform
The image circulated with further modifications, replacing the Nazi flag with that of the self-proclaimed Republic of Lugansk, according to Neal Krawetz’s analysis of the tool. The photo montage is easy to find as the person who made it left two obvious traces of the previous flag.
According to Neal, there is a reason that leads to modifying an image as it has already been modified before. According to the expert, this would be a common disinformation tactic:
- create a fake (the photo with the Nazi flag);
- Create a fake of the fake (the above image) to start a false narrative;
- spread doubts and reap the benefits in users who will “absolutely” consider at least one of the two real photos.
Other fakes of the fakes pointed out by Neal Open are the following: the addition of the ISIS flag (here), the removal of the swastika (here) and the replacement of the flag with that of Israel (here).
Alterations of the altered image: the counterfeits of the counterfeit.
Also, according to Neal, the technique of creating fakes of fakes is typical of Holocaust deniers: they create fake photos that they try to fake further in order to be able to report new fakes, claiming that it all never happened.
The presence of neo-Nazis in the photo
One of the oldest shares is that of the tweet posted by the @MarQa__ account November 27, 2014: «Picture of the Azov battalion in eastern Ukraine. Just to show both sides of the coin », although we know the source: It was first published on November 18, 2014 by the VK account of a Ukrainian fighter Oleg Penya (Олег Пєня).
The author of the post is present in the photo, he is second from the top from the right. As we will see in this article and in the one that follows the events of the first Azov Battalion volunteers, Oleg is a staunch Nazi and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist.
In his VK account we can find some photos showing him disguised as a military man with the symbol of Azov (he took part in the operations of the Donbass volunteer battalion). Including one where he is holding a Nazi flag, different from the one in the photo published in 2014. There is no shortage of references to National Socialism and right-wing extremist ideologies (here, here, here, here and here).
Here is a post from May 18, 2017 claiming that Ukraine is in Jewish hands. Not only that, he accuses them of wanting to block the VK social network in Ukraine “probably under the pretext of “fighting Russian influence”.
In the same anti-Semitic post, Oleg argues that within VK there is no censorship (except for violent and pornographic content) and that the same social network is not controlled by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which is why he believes that they cannot block the ” Ukrainian revolutionary and nationalist movements”, which is the case on Facebook with intolerant nationalist images against Jews. In the post, Oleg challenges those bans from Facebook (like the one his account suffered) and is tired of “hearing nonsense about the European Union and NATO”.
One of the many photos of Oleg with the Nazi flag, unlike the one from 2017, which is not seen in any other shot shared on his profile.
This last element, namely the contempt for NATO, could have been an excuse to add the Hitler Youth flag to “balance” the thinking of the battalion’s volunteers. The post with the photo was deleted by Oleg without giving an explanation. It is strange that he removed it due to the presence of the Nazi symbol after releasing several others. The only detail we can notice is the censorship of the faces, which are often present in the shots published by Oleg, just as there are no other photos with such a large group of fighters associated with the presence of a Nazi symbol in to be connected. Most likely, the volunteers were fighting for the same cause, but not all of them were right-wing extremists and anti-NATO extremists like Oleg.
Photo taken in Mariupol
Through Oleg’s account, we find a photo that captures the same building as the image posted online. Here is a comparison where both the building wall and the windows look similar.
To ensure definite geolocation, the Twitter account @Polk_Azov posted two photos on April 26, 2015 thanking a musical band that performed for the Azov Battalion. Where is it? In Mariupol.
Here are all the elements that match the three photos:
Oleg was in the Donbass region, as he actually reports in the title of the photo gallery of his VK profile: “Donbass ATO 2014-2015”. Oleg had a Nazi flag in the room, but not the one in the group photo.
Outside this photo gallery we find those of the concert:
Oleg and far-right activism
Oleg is part of the paramilitary group of Azov veterans “The National Wives” (“НАЦІОНАЛЬНІ ДРУЖИНИ”), denied in 2018 and seen as a threat to the country’s democracy and a useful pretext for Russian propaganda against Ukraine. A fact that does not worry the members of the paramilitary group.
The photos that Oleg published together with the Azov battalion are from 2015, a transitional year when he then joined the regular forces of Ukraine from a paramilitary group. As Oleg himself explains in an interview published in 2014, his criminal record does not allow him to join the Ukrainian regular armed forces. Another symbol in the form of a black flag (below) can be seen in Oleg’s photos, and it’s not exactly Azov’s.
The black flag with the symbol, which is also present in that of Azov, bearing the letters IN from “Idea Nazione” (where “Nazione” is pronounced “Natsia” and resembles “Nazi” at the end), which has been used since 2005 by of the ultra-nationalist organization “Patriot of Ukraine” (disbanded in 2014), concerns another formation Oleg belongs to: the political movement of Zhytomyr Autonomous Nazis (Автономні націонал соціалісти Житомира) against the Poroshenko government (they call him “a dead bastard” ) .
Anti-Semitism, even in this group, is so extreme that Ukraine is in the hands of the Jews. In the 2015 image below, we not only see Putin with a smack on the head, but also some Ukrainian politicians of the time who have been identified as Jewish (or affiliated with Israel).
As we can see from this joint post from 2014, the neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic group Oleg is part of expressed their disgust for those who won the 2014 election. In the photo below are President of Ukraine Poroshenko and singer Ruslana (winner of Eurovision 2004).
Indeed, Oleg is evidence of the Nazi presence within the Azov Battalion, made up of volunteers, Ukrainians and foreigners, which fought against the first Russian invasion of Ukraine. As we explained in the previous article, it is absolutely true that right-wing extremists fought in the ranks of Azov, but what we need to tell is how these characters actually tried to seize power and how they survived the operation’s failure on the other hand, the governments followed that of the pro-Russian Yanukovych.