“Azov’s history is rooted in a volunteer battalion formed by the leadership of a neo-Nazi group. The Azov Battalion, named after the Sea of Azov to Ukraine’s south, became famous for winning back Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists in 2014. But it is certain that Azov has depoliticized itself,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, a Vienna-based Ukrainian expert on Russia’s connections to Europe’s far-right. “Its history linked to the far-right movement is pretty irrelevant today.”
Azov organization evolution has come full circle. As Maksym Zhorin, the head of Azov Special Operations Battalion put me in a private message: “Politics have been postponed for other times, presently we have to save the country.” Some of the fighters defending Mariupol belong to the Azov Battalion [Ukrainian National Guard Battalion]. Joint to the National Guard currently deployed as a garrison force in the besieged city of Mariupol recently established the Azov Special Operations Battalion joint to the Armed Forces of Ukraine currently positioned in Kyiv, several Azov companies merged with the Territorial Defense Forces and serving as military reserves and defensive units in Zaporizhzhia, Mykolayiv, Chernihiv, and Dnipro-city regions. Kharkiv Territorial Defense companies are of particular interest because they composed the 225th and 226th Special Operation Battalions within the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The city of Mariupol, which has a population of 500,000, is primarily being defended by the Azov Battalion. This is one of the places, along with Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, where Russia is conducting its war particularly brutally. Since early March, the city has been under siege and subjected to heavy bombardment. There is no electricity, little water, and scarce food supplies.
The Azov Special Operations Detachment, also known as the Azov Regiment (Ukrainian: Полк Азов) or Azov Battalion. Ukrainian scholar who has studied Ukrainian nationalism in general and the Azov movement, I thought it is important that I explain exactly who they are and what they are doing to external audiences. Today Azov servicepeople provide humanitarian assistance. Among others, they organized civilian evacuation from Kharkiv, cleared ruins caused by an artillery bombardment in Chernihiv, and collected evidence of war devastation for criminal prosecutions of Russia for committing war crimes in Mariupol. On March 13, they distributed food in a bomb-wasted and besieged Mariupol.
The Origins and History of Azov as a Far-Right Movement
The Azov movement was established in May 2014 during the Donbas crisis to sustain Ukrainian control over Eastern Ukraine.
In 2014, however, Biletsky and his people translated their views into a hodgepodge program of nationalist struggle against Russian-backed separatists and changed the name of the organization to Azov. As such it captured the collective emotions of war veterans, patriots, and nationalists. Beginning in 2016, Azov leaders tried to transform their militia into a broader social movement and even established a political party. Azov’s military and political wings formally separated in 2016, when the far-right National Corps party was founded. The Azov battalion had by then been integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard
To comprehend the origins of Azov, one must look back to 2014. After the Euromaidan revolution, which—as any revolution—provoked a temporary decline in state capacity, Ukraine was on the brink of a disaster. President Yanukovych fled the country; the interim government hardly controlled the state apparatus; Russia annexed Crimea, and brooding societal discontent in Donbas was first exacerbated and next directly aided by Russian special operation forces to fragment the country into pieces.
To contain separatist momentum, the Ukrainian government resorted to volunteers—people with any military experience or even hotheads able to fight with fists and guns. One possible pool of such hotheads were the “ultras”—soccer hooligans who had a semblance of an interpersonal network were seasoned in street clashes with opposing gangs, and united by a kind of a collective identity. As one senior member of Azov told me in a 2020 interview, “When I went to the East, I had no political opinions, I was a tough ‘ultras’ guy neither afraid of to be beaten nor reluctant to smash one’s head—and I kind-a felt this was the sort of people who were needed.”
The Azov Regiment wants the “assuming” symbol from the Nazi era to be understood as stylized versions of the letters N and I, standing for “National Idea.”
Andriy Biletsky, the 42-year-old founder of Azov, is a history graduate of the National University of Kharkiv. He was active in Ukraine’s far-right scene for years. In the summer of 2014, the modest forces of Azov participated in the recapture of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists. It has operated as a regiment since fall of 2014 and according to media reports, it had around 1,000 fighters before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as artillery and tanks.
Another pool of volunteers was the rightists. Another and a more original component of their symbolic repertoire traces back to the 1930s and the legacy of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. This organization waged guerrilla warfare against the Soviets, Poles, and Germans. To complicate the matters even further, the group entered into a tactical alliance with Nazi Germany but turned against the Germans in 1941. Besides, between 1945 and 1960 the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists cooperated sporadically with the American and British governments. This complicated and bloody legacy from a complicated and bloody era is open to conflicting interpretations: Were they “freedom-fighters”? Some admirers think so. “Fascist terrorists”? Others take that view. Ukrainian rightists obviously prefer the first interpretation. Leftists take a different view.
It first saw combat recapturing Mariupol from Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists in June 2014 It initially operated as a volunteer police company, until it was formally incorporated into the National Guard on 11 November 2014. In the wake of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the battalion gained renewed attention for its use by Russia in justifying the invasion and during the Siege of Mariupol for its role in the defense of the city.
The battalion still operates as a relatively autonomous entity. It has been prominent in defending Mariupol in recent weeks, and its resistance has been widely praised by members of the government.
Initially, Azov was a volunteer militia that formed in the city of Berdyansk to support the Ukrainian army in its fight against pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. Some of its fighters came from the small but active far-right group Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), whose core members were from eastern Ukraine and spoke Russian. Originally, they had even advocated the unity of East Slavic peoples: Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians.
The Azov Battalion has been helping to train civilians Mariupol is also where the Azov Battalion, which is part of the Ukrainian National Guard and thus subordinate to the Interior Ministry, has set up its headquarters. Its fighters are well trained, but the unit is composed of nationalists and far-right radicals. Its very existence is one of the pretexts Russia has used for its war against Ukraine. A provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, passed by the United States Congress, blocked military aid to Azov due to its nationalist ideology, but in 2015, a similar ban had been overturned by Congress. Members of the battalion came from 22 countries and are of various backgrounds. In 2017, the size of the regiment was estimated at more than 2,500 members but was estimated to be 900 members in 2022. Azov cadres have also paraded through cities with torches to manifest their strength and unity.
Created in 2014 to fight pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region, the infantry unit first attracted far-right volunteers harboring anti-Russian views. This background has been used by the Kremlin to justify its assertion that Ukraine needed “de-Nazifying.” Now incorporated into the national guard, the regiment has attracted a more diverse crowd and grown more mainstream as it plays a meaningful role in key battles in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol as part of the nationwide resistance effort.
Created in 2014 to fight pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region, the infantry unit first attracted far-right volunteers harboring anti-Russian views. This background has been used by the Kremlin to justify its assertion that Ukraine needed “de-Nazifying.” Now incorporated into the national guard, the regiment has attracted a more diverse crowd and grown more mainstream as it plays a meaningful role in key battles in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol as part of the nationwide resistance effort.The battalion drew controversy over allegations of torture and war crimes, as well as association with nationalistic ideology. Today an effective fighting force that’s very much involved in the current conflict, the battalion has a history of nationalistic leanings, which have not been entirely extinguished by its integration into the Ukrainian military.
For Putin, who has falsely claimed Ukraine’s government is run by “drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” Azov presents an obvious target. The same day, Azov major Denis Prokopenko said in a video shared on the regiment’s Twitter account that the “attempts to organize a safe corridor for the (relocation) of civilian people… failed because of several actions of the enemy (Russian forces) in the assembly area.”
After the bombing of a Mariupol theater that was sheltering civilians and had “children” written in Russian on the ground on either side of the building, the Russian Defense Ministry accused “militants of the nationalist ‘Azov’ battalion” of carrying out the attack.
A legend had grown around Azov because of Russian propaganda. He said that volunteer fighters, including Azov, had been accused of looting and improper behavior in 2014 [was fake provided by the Russian propaganda machine]
“Normally, we consider right-wing extremism to be dangerous, something that can lead to war,” Umland said. But in Ukraine, it is the other way around, he argued. The war had led to the rise and transformation of marginal comradeships into a political movement. But their influence on society is overrated, he said. For most Ukrainians, they are combatants fighting an overbearing aggressor.
This strategically important Ukrainian city Mariupol is being defended not only by regular Ukrainian army troops but also by fighters who swear allegiance to the Azov Battalion.
Azov as a whole has returned to war. It looks like the incorporation of the organization into the National Guard and the Armed Force of Ukraine, a move initially not welcomed by all pundits, was a serendipitous idea by the state officials. They managed to coopt Azov and channel its militancy in a useful way. Now, it is a powerful unit within the Ukrainian army.
Vladimir Putin has been stubbornly insisting that Russian forces are invading Ukraine to “de-nazify” the country. Many Westerners are understandably startled since Ukraine’s president is a democratically elected official who lost family members in the Holocaust. The Highest rabbi of Ukraine wondered whether the denazification targets the Ukrainian president or the head of political opposition both of Jewish descent. Moreover, a professional community of scholars of genocide and Nazism adamantly opposed to “equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime.” Putin, however, is twisting reality because he has some evidence under his belt. He is primarily referring to the Azov movement—a Ukrainian militia-cum-political movement that arose in 2014. In the Kremlin’s depiction, Azov is a Nazi gang that holds sway over the Ukrainian government and is intent on harming Russian-speaking civilians. Putin is not alone in condemning Azov. In 2018, the U.S. Congress banned arms provision to Azov, citing its neo-Nazi ideology.
The core Azov, still headed by Biletsky, was implicated in a number of scandals regarding the financial sources of the movement’s activities. This tarnished the Azov movement in the eyes of the broader audience, even further effectively confining it to the marginal position in the political system. Scholars of Nazism adamantly opposed to “equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime.” It is the first step, and many more should follow, including those to understand why pundits spent efforts speculating about Azov instead of warning about a real fascist threat. This, I expect, will be a soul-searching endeavor. Presumably, many committed a typical fallacy of drawing bullseyes where one hits instead of putting real targets and aiming them. Too many scholars conveniently conducted their research of a far-right subculture in relatively open and democratic Ukraine in lieu of taking chances under repressive Russian authoritarianism. Too many were “concerned about rising nationalism in Ukraine and the government’s seeming unwillingness to rein it in” and did not bother to pay closer attention to developments in Russia.
Although precise numbers are currently unavailable, it has been estimated (through my communication with Azov officials) that there are 1300 men in the Azov Special Operations Battalion and 1500 men in the Azov National Guard Battalion. Presently, Azov detachments have been involved in four different tasks:
First, they confront the enemy in various types of defensive actions. On February 28, they used MANPADs to damage (or down) Su-25 near Mariupol. On February 29, also around Mariupol, their anti-tank units destroyed two Russian armored personnel carriers and one infantry mobility vehicle Tiger. On March 7 they counterattacked and broke detachments of the Russian 150th Armored Division inflicting high casualties including on the command structure. As a result, the Head of the 68th tank regiment was injured, and the regiment’s chief of staff KIA. At the Kyiv theater of war, Azov, in conjunction with the 72nd Mechanized Brigade, destroyed the 6th tank regiment of the 90th Armored Division, killing the regiment’s leader, colonel Zakharov. This move (on March 10) halted the Russian incursion via Brovary. On March 14, the 226th Special Operation Battalion destroyed temporary Russian infantry barracks and an ammunition supply point near Kharkiv. Azov also claimed to have eliminated a Russian major general (roughly equivalent to a U.S. brigadier general) and provided photo proof. The examples I cited are in no way comprehensive of all Azov’s combat activities; rather, they offer a glimpse of its weaponry, inter-unit coordination, and deployment.
Azov actively ensures anti-sabotage security on the territory under Ukrainian control. For instance, on February 25, they detected and eliminated a Russian artillery spotter in Mariupol. On February 27, in a coordinated action with the Security Service of Ukraine, Azov troopers apprehended a group of Russian intelligence officers. On March 9, they disclosed and arrested a sleeping operator whose task was to sap the morale of the civilian population in Mariupol.
Zhorin’s personal trajectory personifies Azov’s evolution. Born in the Russian-speaking Luhansk region he is emotionally attached to his “little fatherland.” In this respect, he is representative of Azov as a whole movement. In 2014 Zhorin volunteered to the eastern as a member of the “Black Corps.” There he acquired considerable combat experience while participating in Illovaisk, Shyrokino, and Pavlopil operations. In 2016, he became the Chief of the Azov Battalion and even tried his luck contesting for a parliament seat in 2019. During his political career, Zhorin was critical of Poroshenko and Zelensky, who allegedly President ignored the Russian threat.
Now, putting political differences behind, he is back to the trenches.
Andriy Biletsky, a founding commander of the Azov forces and a former MP under its splinter political wing, the National Corps, told that they were “the spine of Mariupol’s defenses”, adding that there were about 1,500 Azov fighters in the city. “We are leading in the most serious battles,” he said.Having started as a militia of just over 300 troops, “there are (now) scores of thousands” of Azov fighters, said Biletsky, who in 2008 co-founded the Social-National Assembly, a grouping of the most extreme nationalist Ukrainian political parties. Most are fighting within Ukraine’s territorial defence units, including more than 1,000 in Kharkiv, he said.
Azov as a whole has returned to war. It looks like the incorporation of the organization into the National Guard and the Armed Force of Ukraine, a move initially not welcomed by all pundits, was a serendipitous idea by the state officials. They managed to coopt Azov and channel its militancy in a useful way. Now, it is a powerful unit within the Ukrainian army. True, it has somehow peculiar unit culture, but any battle detachment within an effective battle force should have it, for it is beneficial for esprit du corps. In addition, Azov can tap into additional resources, both financial and human, available since its times as a social movement.
Alex Kovzhun, a Kyiv-based consultant who helped develop National Corps’ political program, said the fighters were “under constant fire from Russian propaganda because Russians don’t like the idea of a Ukrainian nation”. He described the National Corps’ ideology as akin to a “European rightwing conservative party, but it is definitely not ultra-right”.
Azov was, he said, made up of historians, football hooligans and men with military experience. Some were sporting “dubious tattoos” such as the Black Sun and the Wolfsangel used by the Nazis, but which were now claimed as pagan symbols by some battalion members, he added.
With Azov fighters important to the war effort, its volunteers feel they are earning the support of Ukrainians who are more concerned about defending the country than political affiliations.
“Interest in our movement increased even before Russia’s open aggression,” said Serhiy Bevz, an Azov combatant in Kyiv, citing the regiment’s training of civilians in preparation for the conflict. “We are ready to defend our state from the occupiers with all our might.”
In his Telegram post-Kalyna, the deputy commander, said: “Patriotism is when you defend your country and don’t attack others.” Slamming Russian warmongers, he added: “We have never tried to seize foreign lands but we have to confront the real Nazis of the 21st century. “Slava Ukraini!” – ‘Glory To Ukraine!”
Acting as a more independent unit and playing their transnational connection hand, Azov conducts fundraising campaigns. For example, they opened an IBAN account for money transfers from abroad. They also try to procure military-grade equipment (e.g., drones, telescopic sights, bullet-proof vests), munitions, and medical supplies necessary to continue the war effort.
On March 10, after a devastating attack on the maternity hospital in Mariupol, Azov spokesman returned to their battalion’s social movement origins: they mocked the spurious allegations “Azov combatants took a position there” with an acute “This means all of us—women, children, elderly—are Azov now.” Finally, its members have emotional stakes in protecting Mariupol, a city Azov hails from. In its official news feed (see Azov National Guard Battalion Telegram channel), Azov presents the unit as the most redoubtable adversary to the Russian army. Given Ukraine is fighting for its survival, it needs to turn to allies who are willing to fight where it can find them.
Current time, at Mariupol 4/25/2022
Soldiers of the Azov Regiment addressed Ukrainians and the entire civilized world and spoke about the current situation in Mariupol.
‘At the time when you throw Easter pictures, in Mariupol, the enemy drops bombs on children’s heads’ – deputy commander of Azov regiment Palama (callsign fighter nickname Kalina)
In his address, Svyatoslav Palamar said that despite the great Orthodox holiday, the enemy dropped air bombs, fired naval artillery, fired cannons, continued to beat enemy tanks, and infantry tried to storm.
“But I want everyone to think about values on this day, whether at the front, or home or in resettlement. On the 60th day of the war, I think everyone has already realized that the material is nothing compared to hugging their children, talking to loved ones, and enjoying the silence. We want to thank those who are trying to help the civilians of Mariupol to evacuate from this dangerous area, not in words but in deeds.
Thanks to those who make every effort to withdraw from the encirclement of our military, left alone with the overwhelming forces of the enemy. A great honor to the brothers who laid down their lives for the security of the Motherland and the world.
On this Great Day, I call on the entire civilized world to do everything possible so that these soldiers, who performed a superhuman feat in an abandoned city, have the opportunity to tell their relatives about it, to come to the graves of their brothers and sisters. But remember: at this time, when you throw Easter pictures and enjoy the truce, in Mariupol, the enemy drops bombs on the heads of innocent children, “- said in a statement the fighters of the Azov Regiment. Battle for Mariupol is not over, Azov Battalion commander says.
D&F Magazin will dedicate the time to continuing to add the latest news/info about the Azov Regiment for a better understanding of real historical facts about the Ukrainian Azov Regiment and its heroic members and fighters for the freedom and independence of the country of Ukraine and the People Of Ukraine.
May 1, 2022
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It’s associated with “everything will be fine”
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