KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Azov regiment is nothing more than “small number of bad apples” who should not be allowed to define the embattled eastern European country’s image, Defence Minister Jason Kenney said Friday.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Kenney underlined earlier reassurances that the paramilitary group would not receive Canadian training or support, but — unlike in the U.S. — that guarantee won’t be enshrined in law.
That’s in part because Parliament has risen and won’t reconvene until after the federal election in October. But it’s also one of those touchy subjects both here and in Canada’s large, politically active Ukrainian diaspora.
While opinions are divided, many see the 1,500-man Azov unit as being populated not with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but with patriots willing to fight in order to rollback Russian-backed separatists.
Earlier this week, the group, which says it’s the victim of a Russian smear campaign, called on Canada to refute claims that it is a haven for fascists.
Spokesman Alexander Alferov told The Canadian Press that his group believes Canada has shown leadership and moral clarity on the issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in the eastern regions.
Conservatives have doggedly courted the Ukrainian vote back home, both with its strident, sometimes personal, anti-Putin rhetoric. They ensure high-profile members like junior defence minister James Bezan are photographed delivering relief and military hardware.
The spillover effect of such endeavours, of course, is that they attract the applause and admiration of the same ultra-nationalists Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko must court.
It is only one snapshot of the complicated political terrain Canadian troops are about to inhabit.
Canada is indeed providing moral leadership, but that doesn’t mean the Harper government will back those with extremist views, Kenney said.
“We should not allow a small number of bad apples in one battalion to characterize the new Ukraine,” he said. “The new Ukraine which is western-oriented, focused on democratic values.”
He also seems to believe the country’s standing would be improved if Ukraine joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and he intended to suggest the country “redouble its efforts against anti-Semitism.”
The impression that he keeps close tabs on the issue was highlighted when he referred to the chief rabbi of Kyiv as his “friend” and said the Jewish community in Ukraine not only supported the uprising in 2014, but feels “more comfortable politically and socially in post-Maidan Ukraine than they have ever felt.”
Kenney sat down Friday with leaders of the persecuted Muslim Tatar minority, who’ve been displaced and marginalized by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He’s also meeting Poroshenko before checking out training centres where Canadians troops will be based later this summer.
The Ukrainian Defence Department intends to screen the hundreds of national guardsmen being sent for training at a NATO friendship centre along the Polish border, a process the minister says he’s confident will weed out extremists.
Alferov says the Azov regiment, which started life as a national socialist group called “Patriots of Ukraine” known for praising the concept of white supremacy, also conducts screening of its recruits.
But it does not ask questions about politics and chooses members based upon their willingness to fight for Ukraine, he said.
Whether his unit receives any western military training is irrelevant, Alferov said. “Ukraine could use more weapons.”
Azov fighters have started to receive more heavy equipment during the last few months as a ceasefire in the breakaway eastern region appears to be crumbling.