Ukraine’s Azov battalion was once a volunteer force doing most of the fighting on the frontline in the Donbas. It was dubbed as the army’s ‘greatest weapon’ and biggest wild card. The battalion is infamous for stoking nationalist sentiment and attracting far-right volunteers from all over the world. Its fighters are known as some of the most battle-hardened and experienced in the country’s armed forces.
Now, the group is part of the National Guard and its official name is the "Azov" Special Forces battalion.
Its predecessor was the “Black corps” which was already involved in the anti-terrorist operation in the Donbas. Most of its members were originally from eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. They were unofficially called "black men" in response to Russia’s "green men". When unmarked soldiers began appearing all over Crimea just before Russia annexed the Black sea peninsula, they were often referred to in the media as “little green men”.
Azov battalion’s Role in Donbas
At the beginning of May 2014, there were more than 150 men in the battalion. Most of them participated in defending the strategic coastal city of Mariupol, in the Donetsk region). In August, the volunteer group was involved in the ill-fated battle of Ilovaisk. The battle for the town became known as one of the key moments in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. During the encirclement in the town of Illovaisk hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were ambushed and shelled.
On August 20, "Azov" commander Andriy Biletsky ordered his forces to withdraw after losing at least seven of his men. While military prosecutor Anatoliy Matios said that "Azov" left Ilovaisk without a fight. Biletsky, in turn, denied this saying the regiment took part in the operation for more than 13 days. And it did not receive any backup from the armed forces.
Following ill-fated Ilovaysk, "Azov" kept the majority of their fighters in Mariupol. The battalion’s troops managed to destroy an enemy tanks, self-propelled guns and mortars.
On September 17th the "Azov" battalion was expanded to the size of a regiment. The battalion’s leader Andriy Biletsky won local elections and became a member of parliament.
Some of the battalion member’s nationalistic views have often been compared to those of the far-right Russian nationalists fighting on the other side. There is no reason to hide the far-right discourse of Azov and Biletsky. In particular, cited by Andreas Umland, prominent researcher of post-right radicalism Vyacheslav Likhachev (Euro-Asiatic Jewish Congress) illustrates the neo-Nazi nature of the so-called "white leader:"
... We openly stand on the anti-migrant positions. There is no legal or illegal migration for us. Migration is clearly a negative factor for the existence of our people and our country. It undermines the biological, economic and civilizational foundations of the existence of our people. <...> Migrant issue is essential. Our credo is “Destroy everything that destroys our people.” As you know, you can restore almost everything: the economy, the order on the streets, demographics, strong army and navy, nuclear weapons, but the only thing that cannot be recovered is purity of blood.
In the article "Language and Race: the primacy issue" Biletsky writes:
Ukrainian social-nationalists consider Nation [sic!] a hard-racial community. <...> Race is essential for nation-building - Race is the foundation on which the superstructure grows in the form of national culture, which again comes from the racial nature of the people, not language, religion, or economics.
Biletsky also stands on the opened anti-Semitic positions:
Treatment of our national body should begin with racial cleansing of Nation. <...> Ukrainians are part of European white race, of its highest quality. Race that created the greatest civilization, the highest human achievement. The historic mission of our nation in turning point is to lead the White Nations of the world in the last crusade for their existence. Crusade against sub-humans led by Semites.
November 12, 2014 "Azov" was a part of the National Guard of Ukraine. Since the beginning of February 2015, together with the soldiers of the regiment battalion "Donbas" and the 37th brigade of Ukraine’s Armed Forces took part in the offensive, establishing control over a number of settlements in the sector "M": Pavlopil, Berdyanske, Shyrokyno, and Lebedynske.
Hostilities in Shyrokyno virtually razed to the ground this village. July 1, the militants announced Shyrokyno demilitarized zone as a "gesture of goodwill." "Azov" was taken back from the front line.
Wolfsangel, symbol of “Azov”
"Azov" is often mentioned in the context of "Nazism", but its members claim that they do not believe in Nazi ideology. But at the same time some mebers have the Wolfsangel symbol on the uniforms. This symbol was used by Nazi Germany. However, "Azov" explains that the similarities between these symbols are only visual.
Andreas Umland notes that “this symbol is also the mirror image of the so-called "wolf hook" (German Wolfsangel), which was used, among others, by the SS division "Das Reich" and Dutch SS division "Landstorm Nederland" during World War Two, and numerous neo-fascist organizations since 1945. The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine in response to criticism said that this sign is also the emblem of the Nobel. Minister Avakov also argued that most of "Azov" volunteers have their own world view.
In addition to a military formation, "Azov" has created a public organization, the Civil corps (CC). CC "Azov" conducts public order patrols, collects humanitarian aid, conducts military training, public events, and rallies.
In July 2015, soldiers of "Azov" came to the building of the State Fiscal Service in the city center and blocked the entrance, institution officials were not allowed. The group demanded to stop the work of "Atek" factory. The plant produced and repaired military equipment. According to “Azov” statements, “Atek” sold their products to Russian businessmen.
In October 2015, the regiment joined the blockade of Crimea, which was initiated by members of Pravyi Sektor, another Ukrainian far-right organization.
In January 2016, a video appeared on behalf of "Azov" battalion where hooded figures threatened to perform acts of terror in the Netherlands. This incident brought to many people’s attention the upcoming Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The regiment immediately reported that the video was fake.
January 19, “Azov” has beaten some participants of the memorial rally dedicated to the lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. Police made no attempt to apprehend the attackers.
January 29, representatives of "Azov" prevented the event "Ukrainian choice," accusing the organizers of separatism.
In February, they blocked the building of the TV channel "Inter", demanding that the management of the channel "renounced Kremlin censorship."
February 29 Ukraine’s Security Service detained the head of the Civil Corps "Krym" Stanislav Krasnov. Ukraine’s Security Service claimed that he and his girlfriend Oksana Shelest illegally stored weapons and explosives. Also allegedly Krasnov was an agent of the Russiansecret service, and he was preparing terrorist acts in Ukraine. Investigators accused him of treason, illegal possession of weapons, and planning acts of terror. In response to the detention of Krasnov, "Azov" came to the Security Service headquarters with flares, and began staging protests outside the jail where Krasnov was held.
The night before the Odesa fire anniversary "Azov" fighters came to the port city ‘to protect public order’. On May 6, “Azov” celebrated its second anniversary, it organized a march in Berdyansk, they sang the national anthem, burned flares, and staged a march.
On May 20, 2016 "Azov" made threw smoke bombs in front of the Ukrainian parliament. According to Biletsky, the aim was to warn lawmakers that holding local elections in Donbas represents ‘a great danger to the state’. If elections will be held "Azov" members promised to "demolish the parliament".