Longstanding claims that this photo is manipulated stem from a qualitative computer-aided analysis that Snopes disputes for several reasons: The photo was first posted by an Azov Battalion member in 2014; that person's social media profile confirms a publicly-held belief in National Socialism and it frequently includes photos of swastikas; the image itself has been conclusively geolocated to a space that was, at the time, in front of the headquarters of the Azov battalion.
A photograph of soldiers standing in front of a NATO flag, an Azov Battalion flag, and the swastika-bearing flag of the Hitler Youth frequently goes viral, often in the context of debates about providing Western military aid to Ukraine in its fight against invading Russian forces. It is also frequently used by Russian propagandists as evidence to support their false talking point that the Ukrainian government is presently run by Nazis.
The photo, in point of fact, predates the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It was taken in 2014, following the rise of Russian-backed separatist movements in the Donbas. Debates about its legitimacy are as old as the image itself.
The Origin of the Photo
The earliest version of this photograph that Snopes can identify dates to Nov. 18, 2014, when it was posted to the VK profile of "Oleg Pyenya." The image posted to VK, which is a Russian-language clone of Facebook, includes Pyenya himself is in this photo as one of the few faces without a censor bar, suggesting he did not reshare someone else's image found on the internet but uploaded it himself.
The photo went viral nine days later on both Facebook and Twitter, but with differing explanations attached. On Nov. 27, 2014, the photo went viral on Twitter with the description "Picture of Azov battalion in eastern #Ukraine. Just to show both sides of the medal."
That same day, the Facebook group Boycott Russian Products shared the image as well, warning its followers that the image was a fake and actually showed Russian mercenaries [via Google translate] :
The Internet is spreading a fake photo of an [Azov regiment] with Nazis. In fact, it was identified that these are militants of Motorola terrorist. So don't spread the fake. And don't fall for the provocation of dumb Muscovites.
Differing Conclusions from Fact-Checkers
The controversy attracted fact-checkers when the picture first went viral in 2014. The photo-debunking website HoaxEye included the photo in a December 2014 post about photos purporting to show Nazi symbolism amongst Ukrainian troops. Citing the forensic analysis tool FotoForensics, HoaxEye concluded that the swastika had been added to the photo after the fact:
Fotoforensics analysis revealed that the Nazi-flag with swastika is photoshopped. [...] [T]his analysis is based on Camera Color and Principal Component Analysis (PCA), not on the Error Level Analysis (ELA). [The] original picture was not found. Several variants of the picture can be found, but due to the low quality, none of them can be analyzed. It's possible that [the] original photo has not been found.
The Fotoforensics analysis comes from the founder of that tool, Neal Krawetz, who declared in a 2014 Twitter thread that the flag is "fake." In an email to Snopes, Krawetz argued "the third flag (swastika) is too sharp for the focal distance. It lacks the focal blur and graininess (ISO settings) that is found over the rest of the objects that are at the same focal distance. This means it was altered."
Krawetz's conclusion was cited not only by HoaxEye and also by the Ukrainian fact-checking outlet Stop Fake in 2022 as evidence of the swastika flag having been added to the image for propaganda purposes.
Snopes has reached out to Krawetz regarding his confidence in that conclusion, as it differs from the conclusions reached by other outlets and does little to explain away the presence of Nazi salutes and Azov Battalion insignia in the allegedly non-edited portions of the photo. In response, Krawetz told us that he "had found a larger version of the photo" that predated the VK version "by a half day," making it unlikely that the image Snopes identified was the original. Krawetz did not provide evidence of this claim to Snopes, and accused Snopes of "trying to blame a tool because you disagree with the expert."
Other bloggers reporting on the photo's first round of virality came to the opposite conclusion as well. These posts identify the original image on the VK profile of Oleg Pyenya and point out other content on that profile indicative of both Azov participation and Pyenya's Nazi sympathies.
In March 2022, the Greek fact-checking outlet Ellinika Hoaxes concluded that the photo was in fact, genuine, citing both the history of the image on VK as well as geolocation evidence demonstrating that the picture was taken in front of a building used by the Azov regiment in 2014:
After relevant research, we were able to identify the location where the photo in question was taken using the geolocation method. The shot in question was taken in the courtyard of the Azov Battalion military base in Mariupol. [...] [T]he layout of the building combined with the identification of an inscription with two letters of the Cyrillic alphabet at a certain point prove that Oleg's photo was taken at the base of the Order of Azov in Mariupol.
Claims the Image Is Fake Lack Historical Context
As Snopes previously reported, The Azov Battalion grew out of the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Ukraine region of Donbas in 2014 and initially, as Radio Free Europe reported, was composed of volunteers known in Eastern Europe as "ultras," or "hard-core, far-right soccer fans, including many violent hooligans."
As reported by Al Jazeera in 2022, many in the group's ranks professed Nazi sympathies at that time, and their uniform contains apparent Nazi symbolism:
In 2015, Andriy Diachenko, the spokesperson for the regiment at the time said that 10 to 20 percent of Azov's recruits were Nazis.The unit has denied it adheres to Nazi ideology as a whole, but Nazi symbols such as the swastika and SS regalia are rife on the uniforms and bodies of Azov members.
The unit was reformatted into "a separate special operations unit as a part of the 12th Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine" in 2015. According to the Brigade's current leadership, the military wing has less and less to do with the political Azov "movement" from which it originally derived. Members of the military battalion Azov Regiment fighting in Ukraine today are widely viewed as heroes for their defense of Mariupol during the Russian siege of the city in 2021.
Oleg Pyenya, the Azov volunteer who posted the photo in question, apparently deleted his VK profile after the Azov photo went viral in 2014. His profile has since returned, however — this time with that one infamous photo deleted. His profile, Snopes reports here, is consistent with far-right political views of the early Azov movement, making the need to digitally insert a swastika into any of his images — many of which still contain swastikas — questionable at best.
Well before the Azov Battalion was a thing, Pyenya's profile glorified Nazi soldiers and espoused hardcore, far-right Ukrainian nationalism. In several photos prior to 2014, he is seen performing a Nazi salute. He was active in protests organized by the far-right political group Right Sector in 2013 and 2014. On a 2015 VK photo of him in front of a swastika, Pyenya explicitly described his political views as pro-Nazi (via Google translate):
I profess national socialist views, as in the 3rd Reich - and I want the Ukrainian nation to dominate the world.
By July 2014, a few months prior to the infamous group photo, he was seen on VK in Azov Battalion-branded gear. The photo, as previously discussed, was taken at the Azov headquarters in Mariupol. All of these facts raise the same question the blog Putin at War did in 2014:
If this photo is fake, then WHY does AZOV-member and Nazi-sympathizer Oleg Pyenya have it on his profile?
A related question would be why would someone need to insert a swastika into these photos when Pyenya's profile is full of other photos that unambiguously include swastikas and other Nazi regalia. Further, even without the flag, several individuals of the photograph in parts of it allegedly unaltered by editing are still giving a Nazi salute. Simply put, this photo had everything it needed to support Russian propaganda claims without any manipulation.
The Bottom Line
Outside of alleged forensic artifacts suggesting that the Nazi flag in this picture was added after the fact, Snopes has identified no evidence to suggest the picture is fake. Context provided by the profile of the person who first posted the image lends further doubt to that claim.
Because the picture comes from the VK profile of a self-avowed Ukrainian national socialist Azov volunteer whose other posts are littered with swastikas, because that individual's public postings are consistent with the evolution of some aspects of far-right Ukrainian nationalism in 2014, and because the photo's location is consistent with the Azov headquarters at that time, Snopes concludes that the image is real.
As a result, the claim that a photo shows Ukrainian soldiers in front of a Nazi flag is "True."