Last year, Bellingcat, a website founded by the British journalist and former blogger Eliot Higgins, published a story titled, “Ukrainian Far-Right Fighters, White Supremacists Trained by Major European Security Firm.” It was written by Oleksiy Kuzmenko, a journalist focused on Ukraine and specific issues pertaining to the region. The comprehensive report was full of assumptions, and he spent a great deal of time searching through social media in an effort to connect the dots between his wild assertions.
Much like several articles published by Bellingcat, this piece was based entirely on open-source information and trolling social media. That alone does not make for inaccurate reporting, but Kuzmenko got this narrative so inaccurate it requires refutation.
The European Security Academy (ESA) never officially instructed the Azov Regiment, as was posited by the article. Two ESA instructors appeared in Ukraine in 2015. They asked members of the Azov Regiment if they would want to take part in a training program that lasted 10 days. Those who participated paid a little money out of their own pocket to do so. Afterward, the two instructors worked to create ESA Ukraine, an affiliated firm of the ESA. This new affiliated firm never took off. If Bellingcat had done their research and had spoken with the guys on the ground, they would have learned that ESA has never been back to Ukraine, and further, that the regiment didn’t approve of their work.
I was in the country during that time and those who participated in the training said there was nothing to gain from crawling around while guys kick dirt in your face. Bear in mind the Azov Regiment is considered a special operations unit, and the trainers from the ESA were treating them like new recruits.
But they received a letter of recommendation. I have one, too. If we’re being honest, this doesn’t do much to prove they officially trained the unit. Again, it’s clear that Bellingcat does not have the means to speak with members of the regiment. Based on that alone the article should never have been written.
The narrative put forth by the Bellingcat article is all wrong. Yes, members of the Azov Regiment have trained with the ESA, not to strengthen their soldiering abilities but to get qualifications so they can go on to work in the Middle East, much like many former service personnel. Several former members of Azov have gone on to seek further employment in the security industry.
The gentleman above is a great tattoo artist. You see him in full spec-ops gear? This is for Instagram, guys! Looking cool for the chicks—nothing more, nothing less. The course they were on? Most likely ESA’s useless private military contractors’ course. Sounds sexy, right?
The thing is, it’s not just Bellingcat that chose to run wild with these assertions. Several mainstream media outlets have done the same with next to no knowledge of the subject. They realize making a situation sound worse or more nefarious than it is will make an article more engaging for their readers.
The unvarnished truth here is a handful of soldiers from the Azov Regiment who were transitioning from the military to private contracting took a couple of training courses. Hardly a big deal.