KYIV, Ukraine — Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine last year, the Ukrainian government and NATO allies have posted, then quietly deleted, three seemingly innocuous photos from social media feeds: a soldier standing in a group, another resting in a trench and an emergency worker poses in front of a truck.
In each photo, Ukrainians in uniform wear patches with symbols made infamous by Nazi Germany and have since become part of the iconography of far-right hate groups.
The photos and their erasures highlight the Ukrainian military’s complex relationship with Nazi imagery, a relationship forged under both the Soviet and German occupations of World War II.
That relationship has become particularly delicate because 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 contain a fringe far-right movement whose members proudly wear symbols steeped in Nazi history and hold views hostile to leftists, LGBTQ movements and ethnic minorities. But some members of these groups have been fighting Russia since the Kremlin illegally annexed part of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and are now part of the wider military establishment. Some are considered national heroes, although the far right remains politically marginalized.
The iconography of these groups, including a skull and crossbones patch worn by concentration camp guards and a symbol known as the Black Sun, now appears with some regularity on the uniforms of soldiers fighting on the front lines, including soldiers who say the imagery symbolizes Ukrainian sovereignty and pride, not Nazism.
In the short term, it threatens to bolster Mr. Putin’s propaganda and fuel his false claims that Ukraine should be “denazified,” a position that ignores the fact that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. More broadly, Ukraine’s ambivalence toward, and sometimes even acceptance of, these symbols risks giving new, mainstream life to icons the West has spent more than half a century trying to eliminate.
“What worries me in the Ukrainian context is that people in Ukraine who are in leadership positions either don’t or aren’t willing to acknowledge and understand how these symbols are viewed outside of Ukraine,” said Michael Colborne, a researcher at the research group Bellingcat, which studies the international far right. “I think Ukrainians need to be increasingly aware that these images are undermining support for the country.”
In a statement, Ukraine’s defense ministry said that as a country that suffered greatly from the German occupation, “we emphasize that Ukraine categorically condemns any manifestations of Nazism.”
So far, the images have not undermined international support for the war. However, this has put diplomats, Western journalists and advocacy groups in a difficult position: drawing attention to the iconography risks being played to the benefit of Russian propaganda. By saying nothing, it allows it to spread.
Even Jewish groups and anti-hate organizations that traditionally invoke hateful symbols have been largely silent. Privately, some leaders worry about being seen as embracing the themes of Russian propaganda.
Questions about how to interpret such symbols are as divisive as they are persistent, and not just in Ukraine. In the American South, some insist that the Confederate flag today symbolizes pride, not its history of racism and secession. The swastika was an important Hindu symbol before it was co-opted by the Nazis.
In April, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine posted a photo on his Twitter account of a soldier wearing a skull and crossbones patch known as the Totenkopf or Death’s Head. The particular symbol in the photo was made famous by a Nazi unit that committed war crimes and guarded concentration camps during World War II.
The photo patch places the Totenkopf on top of a Ukrainian flag with a small number 6 below. This patch is the official merchandise of Death in June, a British neo-folk band that the Southern Poverty Law Center said produces “hate speech” that “exploits themes and imagery of fascism and Nazism.”
The Anti-Defamation League considers the Totenkopf “a simple symbol of hate”. But Jake Hyman, a spokesman for the group, said it was impossible “to draw any conclusions about the user or the Ukrainian military” based on the patch.
“The image, although offensive, is that of a musical group,” Mr. Hyman said.
The group is now using the photo released by the Ukrainian military to promote the Totenkopf patch.
The New York Times asked the Ukrainian Defense Ministry on April 27 about the tweet. A few hours later, the post was deleted. “After studying this case, we came to the conclusion that this logo can be interpreted ambiguously,” the ministry said in a statement.
The soldier pictured was part of a volunteer unit called Da Vinci’s Wolves, which began as part of the paramilitary wing of Ukraine’s Right Sector, a coalition of right-wing organizations and political parties that militarized following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
At least five other photos on the Wolves’ Instagram and Facebook pages show their soldiers wearing Nazi-style patches, including the Totenkopf.
NATO troops, an alliance Ukraine hopes to join, do not tolerate such stickers. When such symbols appear, groups like the Anti-Defamation League have spoken out and military leaders have reacted swiftly.
Last month, Ukraine’s state emergency service posted a photo on Instagram of an emergency worker wearing a Black Sun symbol, also known as a Sonnenrad, which appeared at the castle of Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi general and director of the SS. Black Sun is popular among 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 quickly removed.
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 did not believe the patch was Nazi-related. A second press officer present said other journalists asked the soldiers to remove the patch before taking pictures.
Igor Kozlovsky, a Ukrainian historian and religious scholar, said the symbols have meanings that are unique to Ukraine and should be interpreted according to how Ukrainians view them, not according to how they were used elsewhere.
“The symbol can live in any community or in any story, regardless of how it is used in other parts of the Earth,” Mr. Kozlowski said.
Russian soldiers in Ukraine have also been seen wearing Nazi-style armbands, underscoring how complex the interpretation of these symbols can be in a region steeped in Soviet and German history.
The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, so it was surprised two years later when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine suffered greatly from the Soviet government, which caused a famine that killed millions. Many Ukrainians initially viewed the Nazis as liberators.
Factions of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its rebel army fought alongside the Nazis in what they saw as a struggle for Ukrainian sovereignty. Members of these groups also engaged in atrocities against Jewish and Polish civilians. Later in the war, however, some of the groups fought against the Nazis.
Some Ukrainians joined Nazi military units such as the Waffen-SS Galizien. The emblem of the group, led by German officers, was a sky blue patch depicting a lion and three crowns. The unit was involved in the massacre of hundreds of Polish civilians in 1944. In December, after a years-long legal battle, Ukraine’s top court ruled that a government-funded research institute could continue to list the unit’s insignia as excluded from Nazi symbols banned under law since 2015
Today, as a new generation fights 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 Insurgent Army and the patch of Galicia have become emblems of anti-Russian resistance and national pride.
This makes it difficult to easily separate, based on icons alone, Ukrainians angered by the Russian invasion from those who support far-right groups in the country.
Units such as Da Vinci’s Wolves, the better-known Azov Regiment, and others that began with far-right members were incorporated into the Ukrainian army and played an important role in the defense of Ukraine against Russian troops.
The Azov Regiment was celebrated after holding out during the siege of the southern city of Mariupol last year. After wolf commander Da Vinci was killed in March, he was given a hero’s funeral, which Mr Zelensky attended.
“I think some of these far-right entities are mixing quite a few of their own myths into the public discourse about them,” said Mr Colborne, the researcher. “But I think the least that can and should be done everywhere, not only in Ukraine, is to prevent far-right symbols, rhetoric and ideas from entering public discourse.”
Kitty Bennett and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.