OTTAWA — The Defence Department has vowed to review how the military screens for extremist views in the foreign troops it works withafter a report found that far-right radicals in the Ukrainian army boasted on social media that they received training from the Canadian Armed Forces.
The study this month out of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., found that members of Centuria have accessed training from Canada, among other NATO countries, and taken part in joint military exercises.
Centuria is a group that holds ties to far-right movements, venerates Nazi figures and aims to protect what it calls Europe’s “ethnic identity,”according to the report from the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.
In response to the study, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center this week called for an investigation by the Defence Department.
“I think they have to reassess the program, because these are the last people on earth whom you want to train,” Efraim Zuroff, director of the centre’s Israel office, said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.
“In other words, these are people who might turn those weapons later, not against the Russians but against people among their own population who they don’t like or they don’t agree with and God knows what,” said Zuroff, who also carries the title of the centre’s chief Nazi hunter.
The Defence Department says Canada currently relies on the Ukrainian government to vet its security forces.
“If Canadian soldiers suspect that their Ukrainian counterparts or trainees hold racist views, they are removed immediately. There is no burden of proof on the CAF (Canadian Armed Forces) to demonstrate this beyond a reasonable doubt,” the department said in an email.
Nonetheless, the study’s findings prompted the department to conduct a “thorough review of this report, including whether current policies and procedures in place are sufficiently stringent to flag and prevent the CAF from unwittingly aiding those whose views it fundamentally opposes.”
None of the Western governments contacted in the study, including Canada, the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, vet Ukrainian training recipients for extremist views and ties, the report said.
“The upshot of this report is that between these two sides, nobody is actually doing their job,” Tarik Cyril Amar, a professor at Columbia University and expert on Ukraine, said in a virtual interview from Istanbul.
“If you’re a state or a military who makes your trainers, your facilities, your weapons available for helping somebody how to learn to kill, you are responsible,” he said.
Far-right militias played a prominent role in the early days of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict that kicked off in 2014 following the Maidan protests and revolution in Kiev.
Extremist vigilantes associated with the ultranationalist Azov movement and other “volunteer battalions” helped Ukraine’s regular army defend its territory against separatist proxies backed by Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and supported separatists in the Donbas area.
Since then, Ukraine’s armed forces have integrated Azov into their ranks and said that extremist elements have been weeded out, but observers remain skeptical.
“Evidence uncovered in this paper suggests that since 2018, the Hetman Petro Sahaidachny National Army Academy (NAA), Ukraine’s premier military education institution and a major hub for Western military assistance to the country, has been home to Centuria,” the report says.
“The group, led by individuals with ties to Ukraine’s internationally active far-right Azov movement, has attracted multiple members, including current and former officer cadets of the NAA now serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Apparent members have appeared in photos giving Nazi salutes and made seemingly extremist statements online.”
As recently as April 2021, Centuria claimed that members participated in joint military exercises with France, the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany and Poland, the study says.
“Currently, per the NAA, dedicated permanent advisers from Germany, Canada and Denmark, as well as experts of NATO’s Defense Education Enhancement Program (DEEP), are involved in shaping the curriculum the Academy teaches to its students,” the report states.
“In 2018, for example, the NAA unveiled a high-tech ‘Delta Classroom’ sponsored by Canada.”
Ivan Katchanovski, a specialist on Ukrainian politics and history at the University of Ottawa, says Canadian policy turns a “blind eye” to ultranationalist extremism and human rights violations in parts of the country.
“This silence basically is used by the far right in Ukraine and by the Ukrainian government as immunity, as a sign of support, as a green light,” he said.
This would not be the first time western governments have backed security forces abroad while looking the other way on extremist ideologies.
“During the Cold War, in Central America in particular, there were similar kinds of policies ignoring the far-right movements and human rights abuses,” Katchanovski said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2021.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press