The Pro-Russian Attempt to Link the Buffalo Shooting to Ukraine

Disinformation peddlers link a controversial battalion to Payton Gendron, even though the white supremacist was avowedly a Putin fan

The Pro-Russian Attempt to Link the Buffalo Shooting to Ukraine
A vigil in Buffalo, NY, on May 17, 2022 / Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Ten people lay dead and a teenager armed with an assault rifle and a written tirade promoting white supremacy had been arrested. Yet just hours after the horrific mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, a small corner of the internet was trying to pin the blame nearly 5,000 miles away, in Ukraine.

The link was tenuous at best: A photo of the shooter, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, shows him wearing clothing emblazoned with a “sonnenrad,” a neo–Nazi symbol also known as the Black Sun.

In Ukraine, a regiment of the country’s armed forces with ties to the far right called the Azov battalion previously used the symbol when it was an independent paramilitary group. But Azov dropped the symbol after it was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard and its controversial founder left the group.

And that was it. The 180-page manifesto that Gendron wrote before his attack never mentions Azov, and there is no evidence the two have ever met or communicated. Or even that Gendron has visited Ukraine. In fact the diatribe, uploaded to the online forum 8Chan, indicated that, like a lot of white supremacists in America and Europe, Gendron supports Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Nevertheless, the sonnenrad was sufficient evidence for a handful of American commentators who, with the help of Russian state media and top-level Russian diplomats, used it to make the case that U.S. military assistance and aid to embattled Ukraine was actually funding white supremacy.

Aaron Maté, whose conspiracy theories about Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Douma in 2018 have been highlighted by the Russian government at the United Nations, tried to cement the supposed link between Gendron and Azov, claiming it was “awkward” as it showed the U.S. was “allying with neo-Nazis” in order to “use Ukraine to fight a proxy war against Russia.” Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative to the U.N., was more than happy to amplify this non sequitur to exploit an American atrocity. On Twitter, Benjamin Norton compared it to the “blowback” of funding Afghan militants who would later form al Qaeda. And Glenn Greenwald, a Substack columnist, retweeted another journalist, also trying to link Azov to the Buffalo shooting.

“What it appears to be is a disingenuous attempt to use the Buffalo shooting to undermine support for arming Ukraine, sending aid to Ukraine and helping them to defend themselves against Russian aggression,” behavioral scientist and disinformation researcher Caroline Orr tells New Lines.

So where should the focus be when looking at the inspiration of Gendron? Uncomfortably for the U.S. journalists mentioned, a lot closer to home than Ukraine.

For starters, an insight into the preferred news sites favored by Gendron can be gleaned from the fact that the manifesto he wrote referenced two websites read by the anti-imperialist left, Mintpress News and Jacobin Magazine. Mintpress has been accused of promoting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and also regularly pushes pro-Russian propaganda, most notably the unfounded claim that a 2013 chemical weapon attack in Syria that killed more than 1,400 people was perpetrated not by the Syrian regime but by rebel groups with weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia.

Mintpress News, alongside The Grayzone, which Maté writes for, has continued to publish Russian-backed narratives that the Syrian regime has been framed for further chemical weapon attacks during the years-long war in the country. The sources of both websites’ funding are unknown.

On one page of his document, Gendron cited Mintpress News in a section questioning the role of Israel as a U.S. ally, the page illustrated by a caricature of a Jewish man in control of the media pushing a black man down the throat of a bound white American.

And herein lies another problem for those trying to associate Azov with Gendron. In an interview with Haaretz earlier this month, the deputy commander of Azov expressed sympathy for Israel, stressing that “people from different nationalities are serving with us—Greeks, Jews, Muslims, Crimean Tatars,” and reiterated calls for Israel to help them. Thus, a battalion portrayed by the far left as neo-Nazi appeals to the world’s only Jewish state to be rescued.

Another awkward fact is that Gendron’s own writings make clear that he has more sympathy for Russia than Ukraine, calling for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to be killed because it would help Russia and “fracture” NATO. And in a post on Discord, an online chat app on which he kept a diary, Gendron referred to Ukraine as a “corrupt shit hole” and criticized the U.S. government for sending aid.

Moreover, the sonnenrad and other far-right symbols can be spotted in numerous countries other than Ukraine, not least of which is the U.S. itself. Notably, it made an appearance during the infamous Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017. No one is claiming Ukraine doesn’t have issues with white supremacy, but far-right parties in Ukraine performed disastrously at the last election, gaining only 2.15% of the vote and failing to win a single seat, whereas their counterparts in Germany, France and Austria are actually represented in those national legislatures. And to point to Ukraine as the inspiration for the Buffalo shooter is to ignore the lengthy and undeniable record of white supremacist violence—a significant majority of which occurs in the U.S.

And that’s before you even begin to look at Russia. Despite claiming to be fighting Nazism in Ukraine, the use of neo-Nazi imagery, symbols and even tattoos among Russian militias such as the notorious Wagner Group, which has fought in Ukraine since 2014, is well documented. Even Wagner’s founder, Dmitry Utkin, a former GRU Special Forces officer, sports numerous Nazi tattoos. Yet there has been no attempt to link these groups to the Buffalo shooter.

Most controversial of all—and what shifted the debate far from anything even remotely to do with Ukraine—was the fact that the Buffalo shooter didn’t mention the Azov battalion even once but did repeatedly reference the “great replacement theory”—the idea that white Americans are being deliberately replaced by immigrants and Jews in order to permanently alter the country’s demography.

The most infamous propagator of this theory is Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who has pushed the idea in more than 400 of his shows.

Carlson himself tried to distance himself from Gendron’s diatribe, calling it “crazy” and “the product of a diseased organized mind,” but numerous other articles appeared pointing to the similarity of Carlson’s words of support for replacement theory with those written by the Buffalo shooter. So it wasn’t long before the debate had shifted from a disingenuous discussion about Gendron’s motivations to a spirited defense of Carlson and replacement theory.

Despite being a right-wing commentator, Carlson also regularly promotes ostensibly left-wing journalists including Greenwald and Maté, giving them a platform on his prime-time show to air their views on chemical weapons denial or to support the false claim the U.S. was developing “experiments on highly dangerous pathogens” in Ukrainian biolabs.

On “The Hill’s Rising” show, political commentator Briahna Joy Gray, a former press secretary to Bernie Sanders, argued that the media’s focus on Carlson was a “red herring” and that he was in fact “fastidiously race neutral in his language”—despite once referring to Iraqis as “semiliterate primitive monkeys” and saying that immigrants make the U.S. “dirtier.”

In a Substack post written just the day after the shooting, Greenwald wrote: “That Carlson was primarily responsible for the ten dead people in Buffalo was asserted despite the fact that there was no indication that Gendron even knew who Carlson was, that he had ever watched his show, that he was influenced by him in any way, or that he admired or even liked the Fox host.”

The obvious irony in the above quote is that if you replace “Carlson” with “Azov,” it’s a direct argument against the very narrative Greenwald and others were making themselves.

So why the rush to defend Carlson and ignore all the obvious flaws in the attempt to link the Buffalo shooter to Azov? Well, Carlson hosts one of the most-watched news shows in the U.S., and keeping your access as a guest is a savvy career move.

Yet as much of the debate in the U.S. focused on whether Carlson was a victim of liberal hysteria, elsewhere another actor with an obvious vested interest in undermining U.S. support for Ukraine was getting in on the original idea that Azov was to blame.

Polyanskiy echoed the claims about Azov made by Greenwald and others, which were then amplified by Russia state media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, a perfect example of the Russian state-backed disinformation echo chamber.

This convergence of the “anti-imperialist” left and Russia isn’t the only one at play. Andrew Beers, a disinformation researcher at the University of Washington, says the episode has a “particularly Greenwaldian twist” that speaks to the seemingly contradictory overlaps in today’s disinformation space online.

“It not only advances pro-Russia narratives but also narratives which align with the pro-Trump right,” Beers tells New Lines. “My election research documented how, at least as of 2020, Greenwald was a ‘bridge’ between pro-Trump communities and a certain type of left-wing ‘socialist’ communities. His regular appearances on Tucker Carlson suggest that he has continued to be a reliable source of information for pro-Trump audiences on Twitter.”

One fact that risks being lost in all the disinformation surrounding the Buffalo shooting, and barely acknowledged among those seeking to link it to Azov, is that 10 people lost their lives in a senseless act of white supremacist violence.

“It’s a very disingenuous and dishonest campaign on their part,” Orr says. “And it does a disservice to the 10 people who were murdered … to use the circumstances of their death to push a narrative that does nothing to try and understand or come to grips with why they’re dead.

“It does a disservice to them and all of the other people who’ve been killed by white supremacist violence. They deserve to have this looked at in an honest way.”

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