The Azov Special Operations Detachment, also known as Azov Regiment or Azov Battalion, became part of the National Guard of Ukraine in 2014. This neo-Nazi Battalion is based at Mariupol in the coastal region of the Sea of Azov. “The ascendency of a transnational global fascist terrorist network has drawn accelerationists seeking military training with openly neo-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-Semitic organizations like the Azov battalion.” (Bacigalupo, James; Valeri, Robin Maria; Borgeson, Kevin (14 Jan 2022). This Azov Battalion was formed in May 2014 as a volunteer paramilitary militia and since then has been fighting the Russians in the Donbas region. In its first combat action, it took Mariupol from Russian fighters in June 2014. This Battalion got attention in Feb 2022 for its defenses of the Mariupol against the special military operation of Russia.
However, the Battalion attracted controversy due to its role in war crimes and other atrocities, its alleged neo-Nazism ideology, and its symbol Wolfsangel sign, which the Nazi SS division used. In March 2015, the spokesperson of the Azov Brigade confirmed that 10% to 20% of the Battalion are Nazis.(Oren Darell, USA Today, 10 March 2015). Members of the regiment come from 22 countries and are of various backgrounds. In 2017 the strength of this outfit was 2,500; however, it was dropped to about 1000 in 2022. A provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, passed by the US Congress, blocked the military aid to Azov Battalion due to its neo-Nazi ideology.
It is believed that the Azov Battalion has its roots in ‘Sect 82’, a group of ultras of FC Metalist Kharkiv founded in 1982. Until Sept 2013, ‘Sect 82’ was allied with FC Spartak Moscow ultras. But during the Ukraine crisis in 2014, ‘Sect 82’ occupied the Kharkiv Oblast, a regional administration building in Kharkiv and aided as a local self-defense force. Very soon, a Special Tasks Patrol Police company known as ‘Eastern Corps’ was formed by absorbing the elements of ‘Sect 82’.
During the early phases of the War of Donbas, the Ukrainian Armed Forces suffered humiliating defeats and losses in the hands of separatists, supported by Russia. Ukrainian Armed Forces were ill-prepared, ill-equipped, lacking professionalism, morale and fighting spirit. As a result, a willing civil populace formed militias and paramilitary groups to fight the separatists. These groups later came to be known as ‘Volunteer Battalions’. People with diverse backgrounds created these battalions, linked to various political parties- both leftist and far-right- and sponsored by multiple oligarchs of Ukraine.
On 13 Apr 2014, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, Arsen Avakov, issued a ruling sanctioning the set-up of new paramilitary forces of up to 12,000 people. The Azov Battalion was formed on 05 May 2014 at Berdinsk by a white nationalist. This outfit was regulated by the Ministry of Interior of Ukraine and branded as ‘Special Tasks Patrol Police’. Initially, it was funded independently, and one of the leading financiers was a Jewish-Ukrainian billionaire and oligarch, Igor Kolomoyskyi. Many political party members of the ‘Patriot Party’ of Ukraine joined this organization.
On 11 Aug 2014, this organization, backed by the paratroopers of Marinka, defeated pro-Russian fighters, entered the suburbs of Donetsk and encountered Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) fighters. In Sep 2014, the Azov Battalion was engaged in the Second Battle of Mariupol. In 2016, veterans of this outfit formed a political party called ‘National Corps’.
In Mar 2022, it was reported that the organization was responsible for the defenses of Mariupol, and it is noted for producing drone videos and other media for various military activities. On 19 Mar 2022, the President of Ukraine awarded a Hero of Ukraine title to its commander in Mariupol, Major Prokopenko Denys Hennadiyovch.
The ideology of the Azov Battalion.
The Azov Battalion has been labelled a far-right militia, with its alleged connections to neo-Nazism. Its logo features the Wolfsangel, a German heraldic charge inspired by historic wolf traps adopted by the Nazi Party and World War II military units. Its logo also used the feature of Black Sun. Nazis used both these symbols in Germany. Azov soldiers have been detected wearing Nazi-associated symbols on their uniforms and tattoos on their bodies.
Azov’s founding member Andriy Biletsky, a leader of the far-right Social-National Assembly, had specified in 2010 that the historic task of our nation was to lead white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival, a drive against Semite-led Untermenschen.
Ukrainian affairs writer Lev Golinkin wrote in The Nation in 2019 that post-Maidan Ukraine is the only nation to have neo-Nazi formation in its armed forces. Michael Colborne of Bellingcat, writing in Foreign Policy in 2019, called the Azov movement a dangerous neo-Nazi friendly extremist movement with global ambitions. In a 2020 Atlantic Council article, Bellingcat’s Olesky Kuzmonko writes that the far-right significantly damaged Ukraine’s international reputation.
For the West, such a group as Azov Battalion may be a noble outfit because it is involved in checking the efforts of Russia. Sadly, they don’t consider such a group a global threat to democratic values, peace and security. Instead, they believe such like-minded groups as sticks to beat their enemies.
The West often claims lofty moral principles to project themselves as morally superior to their opponents through sanctions. But the fact is they are not holy but also vulnerable. The Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens to expose the double standard of the West. The US-led NATO blinked over Ukraine’s alliance with neo-Nazi elements, and this is very sad.
Though nothing can justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine yet, it doesn’t absolve the West from fostering and nurturing an ideology that threw this world into World War II about eighty years ago.
The West must tell Ukraine’s government to maintain the rule of law and stop allowing the far right to act with immunity. There’s no easy way to eradicate the toxic far-right extremism intoxicating Ukrainian politics and public life. Still, it may soon imperil the state itself without robust and instantaneous efforts to counteract it.