The rumors that Roman Protasevich was associated with the Azov Battalion, a Neo-Nazi regiment incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, came off as too perfect of a “pro-Kremlin” caricature for me to initially put much faith in them.
But over the past couple of days it has been more or less confirmed that those initial reports, dismissed by Blue Checks as Russian propaganda, were in fact almost certainly true.
* In a 2020 interview with liberal Russian YouTube show host Yury Dud’, Protesavich himself admitted that he spent a year in the zone of the ATO in Donbass and sustained “several injuries” (though he claimed in an exclusively journalistic capacity). (h/t Ivan Katchanovski)
* The Ukrainian newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli, which is not a pro-Kremlin resource by any stretch of the imagination, wrote that he once did PR work for Azov.
* However, as Katchanovski points out, Google searches fail to show any of his credited photos/publications from that conflict.
* British journalist and filmmaker Jake Hanrahan: “He did more than that. He fought with a Belarus unit that fought alongside Azov. He was even shot in the chest on the battlefield. … He told it to my friend in person. My friend even has footage of him lifting his shirt to show the scar.”
* However, he did appear on the cover of “Black Sun”, Azov’s flagship magazine. That seems to go beyond a purely “journalistic” level of embedment.
* At this point, Azov leader Andriy Biletsky himself confirmed that Protasevich was “with them”, appearing to imply in a non-military capacity but without stating so explicitly: “Roman, together with Azov and other military units, fought against the occupation of Ukraine. He was with us near Shyrokyne, where he was wounded. But his weapon as a journalist wasn’t a gun, but the word.”
* So perhaps Protasevich was just a journalist (who produced no known journalism during that period) and an occasional cover model for Azov. But it does then beg the question of why he appeared in uniform in Azov parades. (h/t Volodymyr Ishchenko)
Full VK album. (Parade after the recapture of Mariupol).
* Interview from his own father, who said that he “was on the territory of Donbass in 2014 and fought on the side of the Ukrainian Army.”
Отец Протасевича признал, что его отпрыск на Донбассе не журналисткой занимался, а воевал на стороне украинский армии (читай – убивал!) pic.twitter.com/IKbJmwgqUW
— Юлия Витязева (@Vityzeva) May 25, 2021
* Now that Azov has become somewhat unhandshakeworthy in the West, some of its members and former members have sought to distance themselves from its “Nazi” associations. That is, its imagery are really all just ancient Slavic symbols, and only 10% of its contingent were Nazis.
Here is Protasevich selfie in a swastika-themed T-shirt.
Incidentally, that guy next to him is called Stanislav Goncharov, he fought in Azov from 2014-16 and was nicknamed “Terror Machine” (which he tattooed onto his skull). Some time after returning to Belarus, he got a prison sentence, not for fighting in a foreign country, but for “hooliganism, incitement to racial, ethnic or religious hatred, robbery and possession of pornography for the purpose of distribution via the Internet.”
Just your normal everyday journalistic work:
But the ultimate clincher is a photo that links Protasevich (right)…
… to a soldier with his face scrubbed out who appears in a 2015 interview given to the Belarusian news site Nasha Niva by a soldier with the moniker “Kim.” In that interview, he reveals that he served in the Belarusian “Pahonia Detachment” of the Azov Battalion, and speaks candidly of his reasons for joining the conflict.
Every volunteer who came to the war has his own reasons. I was no exception. And there are a lot of reasons for these.
Firstly, Ukrainian blood also flows in me, since my distant relatives were Ukrainians.
Secondly, blood scores with the communists. Many innocent people were killed, thrown into prisons and exiled. This grief did not pass my family. And now Russia, as the legal successor of the “sovok”, is showing aggression and rolling into the “red abyss”.
Thirdly, the war is being fought not only for Ukraine, but also for Belarus. If you do not stop the Russian Putin horde now, then our country may be next. The buildup of the military power of the Russian Federation, including in Belarus, is a clear evidence of this.
There is another interview with “Kim” at Focus.ua from the same year, where he largely retreads the same lines. He notes that his mother opposed his decision to go to Donbass (“although she is a Belarusian, having grown up in Russia, she is close to the Russian World”).
This is the data we have to date – and it is quite at odds with the picture of Protasevich that has been painted by the Western media.
Does it make a difference?
Well, yes, I think it does. It’s the difference in narrative between “idealistic pro-democratic journalism helping people organize peaceful protests against dictatorship”, with Leonid Bershidsky being representative in this respect:
There’s a world of difference between a dissident such as Pratasevich, who has opposed the Lukashenko regime since high school and whose “crime” was to help run an anti-Lukashenko Telegram channel, and a fugitive intelligence service employee with government secrets such as Snowden.
… and “Neo-Nazi militant doxing policemen and threatening reprisals against them” (a combination that would put you away behind bars in well nigh any country).
Unsurprisingly, the Western media has opted for the former and will not brook engagement with the latter, with the one notable mention of Protasevich’s Azov connection being scrubbed from the online version.
This is interesting: Britain's @thetimes has edited an article, written by its Moscow correspondent @marcbennetts1, to remove references to Roman Protasevich's involvement with the Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion in Ukraine.
The claim is true. So why take it out? Pressure from above? pic.twitter.com/tIXMLb9Iw9
— Bryan MacDonald (@27khv) May 26, 2021