On Saturday, May 14, an 18-year-old white gunman pulled into the parking lot at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, pulled out an assault-style rifle and shot 13 people, killing 10, before being arrested by police.
The suspected shooter, Payton Gendron, primarily targeted black people in an attack that authorities are calling “racially motivated violent extremism.”
A manifesto widely linked to Gendron showed a mishmash of beliefs. He did identify as a fascist and supported neo-Nazism. Gendron also espoused the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, the belief that white people are intentionally being replaced with non-white migrants in Europe, North America and elsewhere.
Russian state media, which has drummed up the neo-Nazi threat in Ukraine as a pretext to justify its illegal invasion there, attempted to tie Gendron to a controversial battalion in Ukraine’s National Guard called the Azov Regiment.
“Buffalo Shooter's Manifest Has Nazi Symbol Previously Used by Azov Battalion,” a headline from Russia’s state-run broadcaster Sputnik reads.
The article correctly states that the Azov Regiment’s former emblem was a combination of two Nazi-linked symbols — called the Wolfsangel and the Black Sun (Sonnenrad).
Gendron’s alleged manifesto does feature an image of a Sonnenrad. And the body armor Gendron used when carrying out the shooting also reportedly had a Black Sun on it.
However, to tie the Buffalo shooter to the Azov fighters based on the symbols is misleading and lacks context.
The Black Sun, which originated in Nazi Germany, has been used by white supremacists globally for decades. It is not specific to the Azov Regiment, particularly in its current incarnation as an apolitical unit of the Ukraine National Guard.
The purported Gendron manifesto, in fact, only mentions Ukraine in passing, as part of a section that appears to have been plagiarized from the March 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooter, VICE News and others reported.
That massacre killed 51 people. The Christchurch shooter, Brenton Tarrant, had traveled to Ukraine, but there is no evidence he associated with or trained with Azov soldiers, according to the VICE News report.
Caroline Orr, an extremism researcher, told VICE it appeared that those linking Gendron to Azov were attempting “to undermine support for [the West] helping to arm Ukraine by linking the shooter to Azov.”
Online sources claiming a connection between Gendron and the Azov Regiment “are primarily supportive of the pro-Kremlin narrative justifying the invasion of Ukraine under the auspices of ‘denazifying’ the country,” said the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank.
The ISD said that narrative appears to have emerged on Telegram before migrating over to “pro-Kremlin influencers on Twitter”:
“It is in the interests of both pro-Kremlin, far-right, and some hard left influencers and groups to attempt to link Payton Gendron, the Buffalo shooter, to Azov Battalion. For pro-Kremlin actors, doing so allows them to delegitimize the United States’ support for Ukraine, forcing them into a position of being seen to be defending white supremacists in Azov Battalion. It also attempts to weaken the US’ claim to moral authority by showing that it has issues with neo-Nazism domestically."
Meantime, Gendron never mentioned the Azov Regiment in his manifesto. He did, however, express anti-NATO sentiment and sympathy for Russia.
In a section titled, “kill high profile enemies,” the manifesto calls Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “the leader of one of the oldest enemies of our people, and the leader of the largest Islamic group within Europe.”
The passage states that Erdogan’s death will “drive a wedge between the Turk invaders currently occupying our lands and the ethnic European people whilst simultaneously weakening Turkey's hold on the region, removing a prime enemy of Russia and destabilizing and fracturing NATO.”
Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russia President Vladimir Putin said part of the reason he invaded Ukraine was to stop it from joining NATO, and because NATO expansion in Eastern Europe is a threat.
Still, the Azov Regiment remains controversial because of its past.
Formed as an all-volunteer unit to fight off Russia’s clandestine invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Azov Regiment was incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine in November 2014.
The group has its roots in the hard-right “Patriot of Ukraine” militant organization, but Ukraine claims it has been fully professionalized.
Numbering in the thousands, the Azov Regiment represents a small fraction of Ukraine’s total military forces. The regiment has risen to prominence since the Russian invasion for its spirited resistance in the port city of Mariupol.
Andriy Biletskyi, the head of the far-right National Corps political party, is widely considered the founder of the Azov Regiment. He only headed Azov for a brief period in 2014 before returning to politics, as active service members of the Ukrainian armed forces are not allowed to be members of political parties.
Some argue he leveraged his association with the Azov Regiment to buoy his political fortunes. Biletskyi was a member of the Ukrainian parliament from 2014 until 2019.
He has maintained communication with the Azov Regiment, but has not had any formal connection since October 2014, wrote Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Russian-born Israeli political scientist and human rights watcher who leads a hate crimes monitoring program in Ukraine.
The Kyiv Independent still refers to Biletskyi as “Azov leader.”
Biletskyi has denied making white supremacist and anti-Semitic remarks attributed to him, but a clear record of such statements exists. And Biletskyi, along with other members of his former Patriot of Ukraine party, were arrested on murder charges in 2011. They were later acquitted by Ukraine's parliament, resulting in Biletskyi's release from prison in February 2014.
The Freedom House initiative, Reporting Radicalism, said Biletskyi stopped making anti-Semitic statements after his release. But it said "anti-Semitism is sometimes manifested at the local level" if his party.
More recently, Biletskyi has stressed the multiethnic nature of the Azov Regiment. Dozens of Jewish soldiers are reportedly among those who have battled Russian forces in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
Outside analysts also deny Russia’s claims that factions of Ukraine’s armed forces are institutionally far right. "There are no Nazi battalions in Ukraine," Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, which tracks the Russian military in Ukraine, told CBS News.
"There is [the Azov] regiment... There are [estimated] several thousand people who are in this regiment. It is indeed a group where many members adhere to nationalist and far-right views," Leviev said. "But a lot of people also join it because it is one of the most prepared and fit-for-war units.”
Likhachev concurs, saying there are no ideological units within Ukraine’s National Guard.
Likhachev also argues that many of the extreme right elements left of their own accord by the end of 2014, while remaining ones were “cleaned out by the new regimental command in 2017.