KYIV, Ukraine — Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine last year, the Ukrainian government and its NATO allies have posted, then surreptitiously deleted, three seemingly innocuous photos from their social media feeds: one soldier standing in a group, another resting in a trench. and an emergency worker posing in front of a truck.
In each photo, Ukrainians in uniform wear patches featuring symbols made famous by Nazi Germany and have since become part of the iconography of far-right hate groups.
The photographs, and their removal, highlight the Ukrainian military's complicated relationship with Nazi imagery, a relationship that forged under Soviet and German occupation during World War II.
The relationship became particularly fragile when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin falsely declared Ukraine a Nazi state, a claim he used to justify his illegal invasion.
Ukraine has worked for years through legislation and military restructuring to stem a far-right movement whose members proudly wear symbols steeped in Nazi history and espouse views hostile to leftists, LGBTQ movements and ethnic minorities. But some of the group's members have been at war with Russia since the Kremlin illegally annexed parts of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 and are now part of a wider military structure. Some are considered national heroes, even the right-wingers remain politically marginalized.
The iconography of these groups, including skull and crossbones patches worn by concentration camp guards and the symbol known as the Black Sun, now appears regularly on the uniforms of soldiers fighting on the front lines, including soldiers saying the image. symbolizes the sovereignty and pride of Ukraine, not Nazism.
In the short term, that threatens to amplify Putin's propaganda and fuel his false claim that Ukraine must be “de-Nazified” – a position that ignores the fact that Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a Jew. More broadly, Ukraine's ambivalence about these symbols, and sometimes even its acceptance of them, risks giving new mainstream life to the icons the West has spent more than half a century trying to eradicate.
“What worries me, in the Ukrainian context, is that people in Ukraine who are in leadership positions, either they don't want or they don't want to acknowledge and understand how these symbols are seen outside of Ukraine,” said Michael Colborne, an researcher in the investigative group Bellingcat that studies the international right-wing. “I think the Ukrainian people need to realize more and more that these images undermine support for the country.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine said that, as a country which had suffered greatly under the German occupation, “We stress that Ukraine categorically condemns any manifestation of Nazism.”
So far, that image has not eroded international support for the war. But that left diplomats, Western journalists and advocacy groups in a difficult position: Drawing attention to iconography risks playing a role in Russian propaganda. Saying nothing allowed it to spread.
Even Jewish groups and anti-hate organizations that have traditionally invoked hate symbols have remained largely silent. Privately, some leaders fear being seen as embracing Russian propaganda talking points.
The question of how to interpret such symbols is divisive because it persists, and not only in Ukraine. In South America, some insist that today, the Confederate flag represents pride, not a history of racism and secession. Swastika first important Hindu symbol before being co-opted by the Nazis.
In April, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine posted a photo on his Twitter account a soldier wearing a patch featuring a skull and crossbones known as the Totenkopf, or Death's Head. This particular symbol in the image is notable for the Nazi units that committed war crimes and guarded concentration camps during World War II.
The patch in the photo has the Totenkopf on the Ukrainian flag with No. 6 small below. The patch was official merchandise of Death in June, a British neo-folk band which the Southern Poverty Law Center said produced “hate speech” that “exploited themes and images of fascism and Nazism”.
The Anti-Defamation League considers Totenkopf “a common symbol of hatred.” But Jake Hyman, a spokesman for the group, said it was impossible to “make any conclusions about the wearer or the Ukrainian Army” based on the patch.
“Image, while offensive, is a musical band,” said Mr. Hyman.
The band is now using photos posted by the Ukrainian military to market the Totenkopf patch.
The New York Times asked Ukraine's Ministry of Defense on April 27 about the tweet. A few hours later, the post was deleted. “After studying the case, we came to the conclusion that this logo can be interpreted ambiguously,” the ministry said in a statement.
The soldier in the photo was part of a volunteer unit called the Da Vinci Wolves, which started as part of the paramilitary wing of the Ukrainian Right Sector, a coalition of right-wing organizations and political parties that militarized after Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.
At least five other photos on Wolves' Instagram and Facebook pages show their soldiers wearing Nazi-style patches, including Totenkopf.
The NATO military, an alliance Ukraine hopes to join, does not tolerate such patches. When such a symbol appeared, groups like the Anti-Defamation League had spoken out, and military leader have reacted quickly.
Last month, Ukraine's state emergency services agency posted on Instagram a photo of an emergency worker wearing the Black Sun symbol, also known as Sonnenrad, who appeared at the castle of Heinrich Himmler, Nazi general and director of the SS. The Black Sun is popular with neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
In March 2022, the NATO Twitter account posted a photo of a Ukrainian soldier wearing a similar patch.
Both photos were immediately deleted.
In November, during a meeting with Times reporters near the front lines, a Ukrainian press officer wore a variation of the Totenkopf made by a company called R3ICH (pronounced “Reich”). He said he didn't believe the patch was affiliated with the Nazis. A second press officer present said another journalist had asked soldiers to remove patches before taking photos.
Ihor Kozlovskyi, a Ukrainian historian and religious scholar, says the symbols have a unique meaning in Ukraine and should be interpreted the way Ukrainians perceive them, not the way they are used elsewhere.
“The symbol can live in any community or any history independently, regardless of how it is used in other parts of the Earth,” said Mr. Kozlovskyi.
Russian troops in Ukraine were also seen wearing Nazi-style patchesunderscores how complicated it is to interpret these symbols in a region steeped in Soviet and German history.
The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, so two years later they were taken by surprise when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine suffered greatly under Soviet rule which engineered a famine that killed millions. Many Ukrainians initially viewed the Nazis as liberators.
Factions of the Ukrainian Nationalist Organization and their rebel armies fought alongside the Nazis in what they saw as the struggle for Ukrainian sovereignty. Members of the group also took part in atrocities against Jewish and Polish civilians. However, later in the war, several groups fought against the Nazis.
Some Ukrainians joined Nazi military units such as the Waffen-SS Galizien. The emblem of the group led by the German officer was a sky-blue patch with a lion and three crowns on it. Participating units the massacre of hundreds of Polish civilians in 1944. In December, after years of legal battlesUkraine's highest court ruled that government-funded research institutes can continue to list the unit's insignia as exempt from banned Nazi symbols under a 2015 law.
Today, as a new generation struggles against Russian occupation, many Ukrainians see the war as a continuation of the struggle for independence during and immediately after World War II. Symbols such as the flag associated with the Ukrainian Rebel Army and the Galizien patch have become symbols of anti-Russian resistance and national pride.
That makes it difficult to easily separate, on the basis of icons alone, Ukrainians angered by the Russian invasion from those who support the country's far-right.
Units such as Da Vinci's Wolves, the more famous Azov regiment, and others starting with members of the far right have been incorporated into the Ukrainian military, and have been instrumental in defending Ukraine against Russian forces.
The Azov regiment celebrated after surviving a siege of the southern city of Mariupol last year. After Wolf commander Da Vinci is killed in March, he receives a heroes funeral, which is attended by Mr. Zelensky.
“I think some of these far-right units are mixing a bit of their own myth into the public discourse about them,” said Mr. Colborne, the researcher. “But I think that the most that can and should be done everywhere, not just Ukraine, is not to allow right-wing symbols, rhetoric and ideas to seep into public discourse.”
Kitty Bennett And Susan C. Beachy research contributions.