Azov Battalion: Neo-Nazis or Patriots
The Azov Battalion, also known as Special Operations Detachment, was founded in 2014 as a volunteer paramilitary militia designed to fight the Russian Military during the War in Donbas. The group is now part of the National Guard of Ukraine and is surrounded by media attention due to its alleged ties to Neo-Nazism, White Supremacy, and potential broad political ambitions. Although the group is officially a paramilitary group and has formally declared itself ‘depoliticized,” many suspect it has political motives that would promote neo-nazism and other far-right ideologies. Part of the reason there is so much focus on Azov is due to Russian President Vladimir Putin suggesting it is groups such as Azov that are “nazifying” Ukraine–n which much of the justification of the war is based.
Although Azov has a reputation for its links to neo-nazism and white supremacy, many fighters within the battalion are trying to clean up its image and even deny the extent of the allegations. In one Wall Street Journal article, “Vyacheslav Rodionov, 29 years old, a flutist with the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra who now leads a unit of about 20 Azov fighters,” is quoted saying, “Don’t believe Russian propaganda; they will bullshit Azov as much as they can, call us Nazis—the real Nazis are the Russian army.” (Salama and Luxmore, 2022) So is the discourse around Azov Russian Propaganda? Firstly, as mentioned in the Wall Street Journal Article, the beginning of the battalion had troubling origins, and many actions of Azov members, such as
trouncing their weapons in pig fat to offend Russian Muslim soldiers, demonstrate many in the group have troubling views. However, as also mentioned in the WSJ article, “The influx of members who joined since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 includes self-avowed nationalists, but Azov’s new fighters said they oppose fascism and don’t subscribe to any extremist views. Many Azov fighters prefer to describe themselves as “football hooligans”—a reference to rowdy and sometimes violent soccer fans. Many of them wore patches with the logos of their favourite soccer team on their uniforms.” (Salama and Luxmore, 2022) It is not only this, but Azov has been able to train and prepare recruits at a much quicker pace than other battalions, which is suggested to be a critical factor in the growth of membership, along with its “reputation as an elite fighting force.” (Salama and Luxmore, 2022)
Azov struggles to obtain weapons due to its presence on many foreign nations’ blacklists. For example, in 2018, former member of Congress Max Rose wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, classifying Azov Battalion as one of the most “violent white supremacist extremist groups.” (Salama and Luxmore, 2022) Allegations of torture and other war crimes were raised, leading several Congress members to sign onto that letter. It is important to note that several members of Congress who signed onto that letter regret their decision and have even been quoted as saying they are no longer aware of extremism within Azov’s ranks. Due to the change in the attitude of many members, Azov now has three US anti-tank javelins but lacks
much of the heavy equipment they say they need.
Many Ukrainians view Azov’s role in Maripoul as an embodiment of the heroic defence of their country. In 2014, the group was a leader in recapturing the city from Russia and is known for their firm holdout at the Azovstal iron and steel plant, which eventually led to hundreds of Azov members being taken as prisoners of war by the Russian Army. According to the DW, “Russia has not rushed to negotiate an exchange. The chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, has even gone so far as to claim that Ukrainian prisoners of war — whom he described as “Nazi criminals” — cannot be handed over.” (DW, 2022) In other statements, Russian officials have gone so far as to say that Ukrainian nationalists only deserve execution.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Putin deeply fears Azov for their’ fight till the end’ mentality. His primary justification for war is based on the notion of Azov being Neo-Nazis. Although there is some truth in this, such that founder Andriy Biletsky was a “typical far-Right [indvidual], steeped in both thuggery and pseudo-intellectual, anti-Semitic thought. Among his more absurd and sinister claims was the one that Ukraine would “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade… against Semite-led Untermenschen”. (Patrikarakos, 2022) It is overly hard to now look at Azov and see all members who are filled with hate. As the various articles claim, Azov has Jewish, Georgian, and other members from around Europe.
Al Jazeera News Desk. “Profile: Who are Ukraine’s far-right Azov regiment?” Al Jazeera, 1 March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/1/who-are-the-azov-regiment.
Accessed 14 June 2022.
Patrikarakos, David. “Why Russia fears the Azov battalion.” UnHerd, 24 May 2022,
Accessed 14 June2022.
Shelton, Jon. “Prisoners of war from Azov: Do the fighters face the death penalty in Russia?”
DW, 21 May 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/prisoners-of-war-from-azov-do-the-fighters-face-the-death-penal
Accessed 14 June 2022.
Vivian Salama and Matthew Luxmoore. “Ukraine’s Azov Battalion Looks to Regroup and Clean
Up Image.” Wall Street Journal, 5 June 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraines-azov-battalion-looks-to-regroup-and-clean-up-image-11654453889.
Accessed 14 June 2022.
Young, Cathy. “Heroes of Mariupol or Neo-Nazi Menace?” The Bulwark, 25 May 2022, https://www.thebulwark.com/heroes-of-mariupol-or-neo-nazi-menace/. Accessed 14 June 2022.