Last year, a report published out of George Washington University (GWU) revealed that members of a Ukrainian far-right group, the Military Order of Centuria, boasted online about receiving NATO training at the Hetman Petro Sahaidachny National Army Academy. Despite newly unearthed documents showing that Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) officials initially admitted the report was credible, Canada’s military is now trying to claim — without evidence — that the report contained “doctored” photos to support “Russian disinformation.”
At best, the fact that CAF made this allegation without clear evidence or even specific examples suggests the military does not take the issue seriously. At worst, it signals a cynical attempt to exploit a chaotic information environment in order to deflect scrutiny from Canada’s military operations. In either case, the CAF’s claim about the report baselessly throws researchers and journalists’ reputations — and their personal safety — under the bus.
The GWU report, published in September 2021, documents Centuria members promoting white nationalism, throwing Nazi salutes, and praising members of the SS. In a 2020 Telegram post, the group stated that its objective was to “attain the highest ranks inside the Armed Forces [of Ukraine]” and to “hold significant influence within the structure of the Armed Forces.” The group is also linked to Ukraine’s notorious far-right Azov movement. In 2021, Centuria boasted about forging ties with “foreign colleagues from such countries as France, the United Kingdom, Canada, the US, Germany, and Poland.” The GWU report prompted an internal review last year, but the CAF ultimately denied it had trained the group — without providing any details.
However, internal documents that I recently obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request show that CAF officials admitted at the time of the report’s original publication that they believed it was credible. The documents reveal that the report was referred to as a “continuous issue,” and was not considered to be part of a “Russian info ops campaign.” Officials spoke of a need to develop a robust information “posture” to avoid allowing the report and others like it to be used to discredit Operation Unifier, Canada’s $890 million training program in Ukraine (now operating in the United Kingdom). Far from expressing concern about the report’s revelations, officials appeared to be worried about monitoring and managing any ensuing media fallout. Staff set up a “social media listening process” in order to see if the story had “any pickup.”
The GWU report states that new recruits at the training academy were not screened for extremist views. In the documents obtained through FOI, Colonel Robert Foster, a member of the Canadian military attaché in Ukraine, disputed this, but admitted internally that the vetting process “may not be as extensive as one would think.” The FOI documents also suggested that Ukraine’s ministry of defense launched an “official inspection” of the report’s findings. But last month, CAF told me in an email that it had not received any written correspondence about that inspection since the start of Russia’s invasion.
Canada’s Armed Forces and the Ukrainian Far Right
The GWU report was not the first time CAF had been linked to the Ukrainian far right. The Ottawa Citizen revealed that Canadian military officials met with and were briefed by members of the neo-Nazi Azov Regiment in 2018. CAF did not denounce the unit but feared reporters would expose the meeting. In April this year, Radio Canada and CTV News provided further evidence showing that the CAF had trained members of Ukraine’s military who were members of various far-right groups.
In response to my questions about their internal communications regarding the GWU report, CAF claimed in an emailed statement the report contained “Facebook” photos that were “doctored” to support a “Russian disinformation” campaign, citing a conclusion relayed to them by Ukraine’s ministry of defense. The fact that CAF made this claim only when prompted to answer questions about their internal communications — rather than through a press release — has the appearance of a defensive maneuver, not a clearly thought out assessment of the report.
Canada’s military admitted it did not know which photos were allegedly altered and could not provide any evidence to back up its claim, instead deferring to the Ukrainian ministry of defense, which did not respond to my requests for more information. As well, CAF would not say if they believed the supposedly edited photos discredited the report as a whole.
Quite apart from the inability to even say which photos were allegedly altered, the CAF’s claim of disinformation is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the GWU report itself acknowledged that Centuria had likely digitally altered some photos before posting them to social media. In all cases, however, these suspected alterations did not detract from the report’s conclusions — the images contained Nazi imagery before and after changes were made (meaning the images were equally damning with or without the edits). Second, the report did not rely solely on Facebook photos. In addition to referring to images, screengrabs, videos, and texts taken from other social media platforms, the report also documented pertinent Ukrainian media reports and other online publications and documents.
Understandably, the GWU report’s author, Oleksiy Kuzmenko, was baffled and shocked by CAF’s vague and unsubstantiated claim. He was never contacted by either the CAF or the Ukrainian ministry of defense, and said he is prepared to explore legal options to defend his work against unsubstantiated allegations made by any government. He also noted he has previously received death threats because of his work covering Ukraine’s far right, and is concerned about the possibility of physical attacks by individuals misled or encouraged by “irresponsible” claims by the governments of Canada and Ukraine.
The aspersions cast on the GWU report are made all more concerning in light of a recent report that revealed CAF has its own internal problems with white nationalism. In both its dealings with coalition partners and each of its three branches, the CAF appears to be in profound need of cleaning house.
Leveraging the Putin Bogeyman
The circumstances in which CAF made the claim about the GWU report is also unquestionably convenient for the military. Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine in part based on the lie that the Ukrainian state is overrun with fascists and needed to be “denazified.” As such, journalists have understandably taken extra care not to give credence to the Kremlin line.
However, while some have managed to still acknowledge the existence of fascist groups in Ukraine that exert outsize influence relative to their size, others have simply downplayed or denied facts about them altogether. This comes amid a disturbing politicization of the concept of “disinformation,” which some dominant media, academic studies, and state institutions have used to conflate empirical falsehoods with dissenting opinions and inconvenient facts. Any reference to concerns about Ukraine’s far right, the narrative goes, simply helps Putin.
Although I have no evidence to suggest that Canada’s Department of National Defence deliberately delayed the release of the internal communications that I requested, it’s worth noting that the documents took over a year to be made available. Furthermore, they were only released after I filed a complaint with Canada’s information commissioner. The delay ultimately meant the documents came to light at a time when any public concerns about fascists in Ukraine had been eclipsed by an information climate in which any facts complicating dominant narratives about the war were readily dismissed as Russian propaganda.
What is clear is that CAF would rather we all forget about the GWU report and others like it. But Canadian journalists and civil society cannot allow that to happen. It is impossible to know how and when the brutal war in Ukraine will end. But given the fact that Canada recently extended Operation Unifier, it seems likely the CAF will be looking to play some role in the country’s postwar future. The questions raised by the GWU report and others like it should be at the forefront of all public debates about any future training operations conducted by Canada inside Ukraine.