Canada trained members of Ukrainian neo-Nazi Azov battalion

Meanwhile, CTV News reported last Thursday that a spokesman for the nationalist regiment told it that as a group the formation was excluded from training with Canadian instructors at Operation Unifier, but that they "wrote a program" for their own courses and "were instructors in all disciplines at the training center of the National Guard of Ukraine", which confirms Radio-Canada's earlier report.

In addition, the media outlet revealed that on the social media accounts of one of Azov's commanders, Kirill Berkal, it has discovered posts that - apart from Nazi symbols and other extremist views - show members of the battalion training with Canadian instructors and refer to "cooperation" within the framework of Operation Unifier. 

Canadian Armed Forces response

In turn, a spokesperson for the Canadian Forces Joint Operations Command told CTV News that "all members deploying under Operation Unifier receive briefings to help them recognize patches and insignia associated with right-wing extremism." He detailed that, if Canadian soldiers "suspect" that their Ukrainian colleagues hold racist views or belong to right-wing extremist elements, those "are immediately removed." However, he stressed that when it comes to investigating foreign soldiers, "the Canadian Armed Forces do not have the responsibility to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt".

From the Canadian Armed Forces assured that they take "all reasonable steps" to ensure that training is not provided to extremists, but added that "Ukraine is a sovereign country" responsible for recruiting and vetting its own security forces.

In response to concerns that extremist elements of the Ukrainian Army have access to much more lethal firepower due to accidental countries arming Kiev, the Canadian Army noted that military aid is provided "exclusively" to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and that those donations are "controlled with end-user certificates provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense."

"There is a clear need for accountability and transparency."

For his part, Christian Leuprecht, a security analyst and professor at the Royal Military College and Queen's University, noted that "Canadians don't get to choose who they train and who they don't" in advisory and assistance missions such as the one in Ukraine. "Whenever there is a nationalist-type conflict there are going to be extremists. There are going to be people who have extremist views who participate in the fighting," he said. "So that's not particular to Ukraine, and I think the problem the Canadians have is that in that mission they don't have the luxury of picking and choosing: you're either in the mission or you're not," he added.

The expert asserted that Canada's military resources are too vast to establish a vetting mechanism in Ukraine, and that the Ottawa government would have had to weigh the risks of operating a training mission. "In terms of big payoff, it's never acceptable to have extremists in our midst," he said. "At the same time, when you're training hundreds or thousands of people for six and a half years in an Eastern European country, you're bound to get people who are xenophobic or extremists," he said.

Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, stressed that "it should be a standing policy of the Canadian Armed Forces to vet any militia they intend to train and arm so that they never train or arm neo-Nazis or their equivalents." "They should never have trained and armed Azov. The people in the Canadian Armed Forces who decided to meet with them and provide assistance to them knowing they were neo-Nazis should face discipline," he added.

According to Canadian politician Heather McPherson, the country's government "said it would not train the Azov battalion, but the footage indicates that it did." "There is a clear need for accountability and transparency about how these decisions were made with the Government's promised review. To simply say that the Government was not aware or was not responsible for the review is not an acceptable response when Nazi symbols were seen on some soldiers' uniforms," he stressed.

Previous reports

These are not the first reports revealing that the Canadian military trained Ukrainian nationalists. In September 2021, a group of researchers at George Washington University (USA) discovered that extremists in the Ukrainian Army boasted that they had been trained by the Canadians as part of Operation Unifier. According to the study, this was a group calling itself the Centuria Military Order, or simply Centuria, and had links to the far-right Azov movement.

The same year, an investigation by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper found that Canadian officials not only met with and received information from the leaders of the Azov battalion in 2018, but failed to denounce the unit's neo-Nazi ideology.

At the time, the Government of Canada - which since 2014 has spent more than $890 million on "multifaceted support to Ukraine" - repeatedly stressed that it has not and will never train soldiers affiliated with the nationalist regiment. The Department of National Defense promised a comprehensive review of Canada's mission in Ukraine after CTV News asked them for comment in October 2021.