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Heroes of Mariupol or Neo-Nazi Menace?

The messy history of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment.
May 25, 2022
Heroes of Mariupol or Neo-Nazi Menace?
Ukrainian nationalists and servicemen of the Azov battalion demonstrate in Kiev on October 14, 2014 to mark the founding of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a paramilitary partisan movement formed in 1943 to battle for independence against Polish, Soviet and German forces in western Ukraine. The UPA is historically controversial, idolised by Ukrainian nationalists but despised by Russia for collaborating with Nazi forces and fighting the Soviet army. AFP PHOTO/GENYA SAVILOV (Photo by Genya SAVILOV / AFP) (Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week’s dramatic fall of Mariupol, a port city in eastern Ukraine, to Russian forces after a prolonged and brutal siege has revived the controversy about the Azov Regiment, a unit of Ukraine’s National Guard to which most of the city’s defenders belonged. Ukraine’s American critics, particularly those on the maverick left—most vocally, Michael Tracey and Glenn Greenwald—have repeatedly expressed outrage that sympathetic coverage of the Mariupol defenders’ last stand has glossed over or even erased the fighters’ alleged neo-Nazi loyalties.

To state the obvious: Wars are messy affairs in which distinctions between “good guys” and “bad guys” blur. People fighting for a worthy cause—such as the defense of their homeland against foreign invasion—can champion very bad causes in other contexts. Just as obviously, “neo-Nazi” definitely pushes the envelope of “very bad.” Would the Azov fighters whose heroic last stand in the bowels of the gigantic Azovstal steel factory was the stuff of “300 Spartans”-like instant legend still have won the world’s admiration if they were sporting swastika armbands and doing Hitler salutes? It’s safe to say they would not. But are pro-Ukraine Western liberals willfully blinding themselves to Azov’s thinly camouflaged true nature, or are Azov detractors peddling simplistic and discredited propaganda tropes that have already done tangible harm?

The truth about Azov is all the more complicated because the unit has undergone considerable changes since its founding. For instance, both Tracey and Greenwald talk about the “Azov Battalion,” but that name (derived from the Sea of Azov) refers to the paramilitary group founded in 2014, which later changed its name to the Azov Regiment and then became, formally, the Azov Special Operations Unit of the Ukrainian National Guard. But there is also a nationalist “Azov movement” that may or may not have a relationship with the Azov Regiment. (While that is not the unit’s formal name, I will use it for simplicity.)

That the regiment has shady origins is not in question. The Azov Battalion came into existence in May 2014, in the turbulent days after the Euromaidan revolution, when Russia had seized Crimea without a shot fired and seemed on the verge of taking over large chunks of Eastern Ukraine via its “separatist” proxies; Ukraine’s poorly trained regular troops seemed in disarray, and volunteer paramilitary forces stepped into the breach. Azov probably had the highest profile among those militias—and its first head commander and co-founder, ultranationalist historian and activist Andriy Biletsky, was undeniably a pretty creepy guy.

Thus, a 2008 manifesto under Biletsky’s byline described the mission of his “Patriot of Ukraine” movement as “Ukrainian racial Social Nationalism” and advocated the “racial purification of the nation” as well as authoritarian government. The article declared that “Ukrainians are a part (one of the largest and finest) of the European White Race” and that Ukraine’s “great mission” in the twenty-first century was to “lead the White Nations of the world in the last crusade for their survival, a crusade against Semite-led subhumans.” If there’s any daylight between this and neo-Nazism, it’s vanishingly small. In 2013, Biletsky also published a pamphlet titled The Word of the White Chief. While he has more recently tried to handwave these writings as slanderous Russian forgeries, no Ukrainian expert on right-wing extremism takes these claims seriously.

While reports on Azov’s early days are often murky snapshots from the fog of war, it seems clear that most of its original fighters were Biletsky followers from Patriot of Ukraine and a spinoff group called the Social National Assembly. (Other members were recruited from the ranks of hardcore soccer fans known as “ultras.”) Yet, despite Biletsky’s noxious reputation and other image problems, the Azov Battalion—then about a thousand strong—managed to win respect as an effective and well-organized fighting force in the 2014-2015 war for Donbas. Among other things, it was chiefly responsible for wresting Mariupol back from the Russians during a protracted battle in May and June of 2014. At a time when Ukraine’s armed forces were plagued by low morale, Azov’s discipline and combat readiness made a strong impression and drew large numbers of volunteers who either didn’t know about the ultra-right ideology or dismissed it as irrelevant. (“I actually don’t know anything about Biletsky’s early statements,” Mariupol defender Georgi Kuparashvili, a Georgian who came to Ukraine in 2014 and became an Azov officer, told the Ukrainian website in a fascinating recent interview [my translation]. “But in 2014, he didn’t have time to apologize or debunk myths; he was commanding a combat unit. Defending the Motherland was the new phase in his life and his personal choice.”)

To make things even more complicated: in those early months, Azov was financed mainly by a prominent Ukrainian Jewish billionaire, Ihor Kolomoisky (also the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region at the time). The relationship was not always smooth: In August 2014, Kolomoisky assistant Boris Filatov announced that monies to the battalion were being cut off because of “fascistic” Jew-baiting comments Azov deputy commander Ihor Mosiychuk had made about Kolomoisky. However, Mosiychuk and Azov promptly parted ways, and the funding was restored.

In November 2014, the battalion (which had recently upgraded itself to a regiment) was officially incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard under the Ministry of the Interior by the decision of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. According to an August 2017 Foreign Affairs report on Ukraine’s strategy of curbing its far-right militias by coopting them into the armed forces, the merger also included a “de-Nazification” of sorts: “The government’s first act was to root out two groups within Azov, foreign fighters and neo-Nazis, by vetting group members with background checks, observations during training, and a law requiring all fighters to accept Ukrainian citizenship.”

Yet, “first act” or no, it’s unclear when this vetting actually took place. Some media reports from the spring of 2015 portray Azov as still operating more or less independently despite its National Guard affiliation. Conflicting information abounds: for instance, while several sources state that Biletsky severed all formal ties to Azov in October 2014, a March 25, 2015 Reuters story on the Azov Battalion featured an extensive interview with Biletsky and described him as the battalion’s commander. Around the same time, a USA Today story discussed neo-Nazis in Azov ranks and quoted a spokesman as saying that they made up “only” 10 to 20 percent of the force—which is not very reassuring. (On the other hand, a Ukrainian military officer who said he was Jewish told the USA Today reporter that “he spent two weeks teaching shooting and tactics to a group of [Azov] members” and “didn’t see any fascists or anti-Semites.”) In July 2015, the Ukrainian National Guard posted a notice on its website mentioning widespread discussions of Azov’s “allegedly special status” and tersely noting that it was simply a “line unit for special operations” within the Eastern division of the National Guard: “The personnel of the unit serve under a contract and perform assigned tasks.”

Further speculation about Azov’s loyalties was fueled by the fact that, after leaving the regiment, Biletsky—a member of the Ukrainian parliament from November 2014 until July 2019—went on to start another group using the Azov name: the Azov Civil Corps, which later evolved into a political party called the National Corps. (Many observers believe that Biletsky has been trying to capitalize on Azov’s reputation and the high regard in which it is held in Ukraine; if so, that didn’t save him from losing his seat in the parliament in 2019, when the far-right bloc that included his National Corps got just over 2 percent of the vote.)

While Biletsky toned down his rhetoric after 2015 and now professed to be simply a nationalist, it’s difficult to say whether he “evolved” or just adopted a more presentable façade. It’s telling, for example, that he never apologized for his odious past statements but simply tried to scrub them from the Internet and blame them on Russian perfidy. (In a 2017 interview with the Germany’s Deutsche Welle, he also fell back on the familiar talking point that liberals and leftists are prone to slapping the “Nazi” label on anyone “modestly conservative.”) What’s more, while the Azov Civil Corps’ politics were nowhere near as extreme as those of its founder, there were still plenty of indications that bigotry remained a part of his and his followers’ agenda. Thus, in February 2016, the group’s website published a nasty attack on Crimean Tatars who had settled in Lviv after the Russian annexation of Crimea. These Muslim refugees, the article complained, had the temerity to “actively promote their religious beliefs” and even push for the construction of a mosque, “testing the tolerance of fellow citizens” with their “cultural encroachment” on Christian Lviv. Given the high level of sympathy in Ukraine for Crimean Tatars as victims of Russian persecution, the article caused widespread outrage.

Another unsavory group started by Azov veterans from the regiment’s early days was the Azov National Militia (Druzhyna), ostensibly formed to protect public order when the police were ineffective, but involved, among other things, in a 2018 attack that destroyed a Romany camp in a Kyiv public park. (According to Russian-born Israeli Jewish analyst Vyacheslav Likhachev, who has monitored far-right extremism in Ukraine for years, the militia has been inactive for about two years.)

Should any of this reflect on the National Guard’s Azov Regiment? To what extent has that unit distanced itself from its extremist roots? That’s the million-dollar question—quite literally, since it gained salience during a debate on whether Azov should be disqualified from receiving military aid from the United States. In 2018, the U.S. omnibus spending bill, which provided $620.7 million in aid for Ukraine via the State Department and the Pentagon, included the stipulation that none of these funds could be used for “arms, training or other assistance to the Azov Battalion.” (Azov foes led by Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California had tried to attach such a ban to the omnibus spending bill in the previous three years; this time, they finally succeeded.) Khanna referred to Azov as “neo-Nazi” and urged the state department to “pressure” Kyiv to disassociate itself from the group. In response, political consultant Kristofer Harrison, an occasional Bulwark contributor and a former foreign policy advisor to Sen. Ted Cruz, blasted Khanna for getting “duped by Russia” and promoting “Russian propaganda.”

The debate continued in subsequent years. In February 2020, in a New York Times op-ed on combating transnational white supremacist terrorism, then-Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) and former FBI special agent Ali H. Soufan characterized the Azov Regiment as a “paramilitary unit” associated with “neo-Nazi ideology”; they also asserted that several men involved in violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 had previously trained with Azov. In response, Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian-born lecturer at the University of Vienna and expert on right-wing extremism who had been harshly critical of Azov in the past, wrote a blogpost for the website of the Atlantic Council pointing out a number of factual errors in the article and arguing that the Azov Regiment should not be linked to terrorism. Shekhovtsov noted that the claim about Unite the Right rioters training with Azov were based on a single source—an allegation in a since-dismissed complaint against four members of a far-right group called the Rise Again Movement.

Shekhovtsov argued that Azov had made a bona fide effort to “de-politicize” and separate itself from its toxic far-right leadership. This claim, in turn, was challenged by Oleskiy Kuzmienko, a researcher with the respected Bellingcat investigative group, who wrote that the Azov Regiment continued to be in “close alignment” with Biletsky’s National Corps: “National Corps figures routinely visit the regiment, and the party’s ideologists lecture Azov troops. Their blogs are published on the regiment’s site, while Azov’s social media pages promote the National Corps.” Since Kuzmienko gave no specific examples, it’s difficult to assess these claims. My own search of the Azov Regiment’s website turned up several examples of a continuing relationship with Biletsky as recently as two or three years ago. In December 2018, a blog post on the regiment’s site reported on a visit by Biletsky—described as “Azov’s first commander and leader of the Azov Movement”—to Azov’s base to wish its soldiers and new recruits a happy new year. In October 2019, he was quoted in a blog post criticizing the “Steinmeier Formula”—the plan proposed by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to hold elections in the de facto Russia-occupied separatist enclaves of Eastern Ukraine.

It’s fair to conclude that the Azov Regiment has not entirely rid itself of its toxic legacy. For that matter, its symbolism remains unchanged from the days of Biletsky: it’s still an emblem that strongly resembles the Nazi Wolfsangel—supposedly an intersection of the letters N and I, for “National Idea.” (Coincidentally, that was also the logo of Patriot of Ukraine.) But does that make it “neo-Nazi”? We know from America’s own experience with the Confederate flag that people who don’t share a hateful idea can insist, however misguidedly, on seeing its symbols as merely representations of “heritage.” It is perhaps especially understandable that after eight years of Russian aggression—mostly covert and low-level, currently overt and brutal—many Ukrainian soldiers would see something positive in the symbols of a fighting force that played a key role in Ukraine’s defense at a previous pivotal moment.

The same is true of Azov’s connections to its deplorable founder. “Biletsky has the respect of some members of the regiment because he was its first commander,” Shekhovtsov told me in a telephone interview last week. “There’s nothing to be done about the regiment’s history; it is what it is.” That doesn’t mean, he stressed, that the Azov Regiment currently has an ideology or takes orders from anyone but its actual superiors. Indeed, Shekhovtsov believes that contacts between Azov and Biletsky have been less about Azov’s loyalty to its former chief than about Biletsky’s eagerness to use Azov for his own public relations purposes. (Kuparashvili, the Azov officer, takes a different view in his recent interview, asserting that the National Corps was founded as Azov’s “own political platform”; but he also sees its agenda solely as advocating a strong defense of Ukraine against ongoing Russian aggression.)

Finally, it is worth noting that the “neo-Nazi Azov regiment” has never been implicated in any actual extremist acts—with the sole exception of credible reports of human rights violations, including torture of detainees, by Azov fighters in the Donbas in 2015-2016; however, after 2016, the Ukrainian authorities took meaningful steps to curb such abuses by their troops, while similar and worse violations by pro-Russian separatist bands continued unchecked.) On the site of Ukraine Center for Civil Liberties, Likhachev, the far-right extremism watcher, notes that over the course of eight years of a strong Azov Regiment presence in Mariupol, there were no complaints about its fighters from the city’s large Jewish, Muslim, and Greek communities.

Another testimony comes from the French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who recently spoke to a number of senior Azov members and told Unherd correspondent David Patrikarakos that they came from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, including Greeks, Georgians and Jews. “They are definitely not Nazis,” Lévy said categorically. “This is just a slander.”

It is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of current Azov Regiment fighters were not a part of the original Azov Battalion. (The many changes in its makeup include gender: while the original Azov had a “men-only” policy, the unit started admitting women in early 2015; watching videos of the Azovstal defenders’ surrender a few days ago, I was struck by the number of young women among them.) Do some of them harbor extremist views? No doubt. But it’s ludicrous to refer to the regiment as “openly neo-Nazi”—words really should mean something!—and it is equally absurd to claim that no one in the mainstream media ever questioned Azov’s Nazism. As documented above, the extent of its extremism, and its evolution, has been the subject of debate and polemics almost from the moment of its founding.

The “Azov Nazis” trope has been invaluable for the Kremlin, of course; it is an essential part of the “Nazi Ukraine” narrative in which, these days, anyone with a Ukrainian national identity separate from Russia qualifies as a Nazi. They provide a convenient scapegoat for atrocities: the Russian propaganda machine has tried to frame Azov fighters for the murders in Bucha (where Azov troops arrived shortly after the withdrawal of Russian forces) and is already trying to blame them for the death and destruction in Mariupol.

This trope is, of course, screamingly hypocritical, considering the prominence of far-right extremists in Russia’s own war effort. But it is also actively damaging. In an article in April, Shekhovtsov argues that some Westerners’ “misguided obsession” with Azov’s alleged white supremacism, and the resulting ban on arming and funding it, resulted in Mariupol’s defenders being tragically underequipped for their battle against Russian invaders.

Those fighters, who have surrendered after performing an incredible feat of bravery in holding out as long as they did, are now in serious danger. Russia, which originally seemed open to a prisoner exchange, has now made noises about designating them as “terrorists” or “Nazi criminals” outside the normal protections of international law. (Whatever abuses may have been committed by Ukrainian troops in the course of the war, “find the war criminals” is really not a hard task in this case.) Western support for the “Azov Nazis” trope unquestionable emboldens the Russians to do their worst.

Under those circumstances, continuing to collectively attack those fighters as neo-Nazis is not only false but staggeringly irresponsible.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.