Ukraine’s Azov Battalion: Neo-Nazis or Russian Propaganda?

The infamous Ukrainian right-wing extremist Azov Battalion – Полк Азов – was founded on the 5th of May 2014, in the port city of Berdyansk, in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast province in South-eastern Ukraine near the Sea of Azov. Hence, its name. Initially was set up as a voluntary militia in the turmoil of the Euromaidan protests and the subsequent political instability of the country, Asov rose to prominence. Asov-men operated against the illegal armed intrusion by Russia into Donbass and Crimea. The co-founder and the first leader of the Azov Battalion is Ukrainian Andriy Biletsky.

At that time, he was a 35-year-old graduate of the history faculty at the National University in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Yet, previously he was highly active in Ukraine’s far-right circles and had been a leader of several right-wing extremist micro-parties – including a political party called Patriot of Ukraine, which has been said to have merged into the Azov Battalion in 2014.

In August 2014, Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs – Arsen Avakov – awarded Biletsky the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. On 2nd September 2014, the business oligarch and then President of Ukraine – Petro Poroshenko – awarded him the rather dashy Order For Valor. From 2014 to 2019, Biletsky was a member of the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

Already in 2014, Biletsky’s Azov Battalion started to recruit ultra-nationalists, far-right militias, ultras, Neo-Nazis, as well as football hooligans – many were former Maidan fighters. Meanwhile, the Canadian journalist Michael Colborne noted in an interview (February 2022) with Germany’s progressive news-outlet Belltower, “right-wing extremists were indeed a minority on the Maidan, but they were necessary to prevent the police from putting down the protests.”

During the founding phase of the Azov Battalion and as a direct response to the Russian seizure of the Donets Basin (Donbass) and the Crimea, plenty of very close connections and rather “fluid” personnel links to far-right extremist and ultra-national movements emerged. These links included a political party called All-Ukrainian Union – Svoboda or Freedom. It also included more militant groups that later became part of Ukraine’s infamous Right Sector and the Radical Party.

Andriy Biletsky, the original commander of the Azov unit (May-October 2014) was also a co-founder and an active member (2008-2016) of Ukraine’s far-right Social-National Assembly that subscribes to a neo-fascist ideology.

Initially, the militia group was largely privately funded, but soon started to receive support from the Ukrainian government. One of the main supporters – in financial terms – is considered to be the Ukrainian billionaire and oligarch of Jewish descent, Igor Kolomoyskyi. These militia fighters were paid around €400 per month.

For the first time, the right-wing extremist militia unit – the Azov Battalion – was deployed in actual combat in June 2014 supplying about 400 soldiers. Their “work” constituted a significant part in the successful recapture of the city of Mariupol – temporarily occupied by pro-Russian separatists. Mariupol lies on the Sea of Azov and is a city of about half a million people.

Above all, the activities of Asov gave rise to a certain acceptance among the Ukrainian population. This continues to this day – especially in the area around Mariupol. By September 2014, the battalion grew into the Special Operations Battalion Azov. In October 2014, the then Ukrainian Interior Minister – Arsen Avakov – announced the incorporation of Asov into the Ukrainian National Guard.

This meant that Asov fell under the jurisdiction of Ukraine’s Ministry of the Interior. Since then, the battalion has not only been integrated into the extended chain of military command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but has also been subjected to the Ukrainian legal system, international law, and the Geneva Convention.

Meanwhile, Asov’s original headquarters in Berdyansk was moved to Ursuf in Donetsk Oblast which is about 35km southwest of the geo-strategically important port city of Mariupol. In June 2015, Asov’s commander – Andriy Biletskyi – announced that the Azov Battalion would be transformed into a special unit with a targeted strength of 2,500 men.

Before the start of Russia’s war on 24th February 2022, Asov’s true fighting power was estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500men. The current strength isn’t known – at least not in reliable numbers. According to a report by Germany’s state-owned Deutschlandfunk, the number of soldiers could well be between 2,000 and 3,000 men.

Beyond all that, some sources have argued that Asov has up to 5,000 men. But this isn’t credible for logistical, as well as organizational reasons. Yet, it is still noteworthy that since its inception, the Azov Battalion has accepted foreign fighters and self-appointed right-wing extremist militiamen. Others see Asov as relatively apolitical. Occasionally, even Jewish volunteers fight for the Azov Battalion.

Yet, the proportion of foreigners fighting for the Azov Battalion can’t be precisely quantified. On the basis of various reports, it is generally assumed that foreigners are in the low double-digit percentage range.

As an immediate reaction to the Russian invasion (25th February 2022), the Azov Battalion announced that it would increasingly accept foreign volunteers. In a very short time, right-wing volunteers followed that call. It is worth noting that the Asov Battalion had its headquarters near the now heavily destroyed city of Mariupol, which was encircled and subsequently taken by Russian forces. Asovwas engaged in fierce battles against the Russian invasion forces.

Relationship to right-wing nationalism and right-wing extremism

The widespread and aggressive use of right-wing extremist symbolism by Asov is particularly striking, as Time Magazine reported recently. This carries connotations to White Supremacist ideologies. Unsurprisingly, Asov’s main insignia is the Nazi’s Der Wolfsnagelor wolf’s hook. It was used, among others, by the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division – a branch of Germany’s Waffen SS.

Today, it can be found on Asov’s coat of arms. Above the Wolfnagel is Asov’s “A30B” that infers its status as a military unit of the National Guard of Ukraine – formerly based in Mariupol. The Nazi Wolfsnagel is placed on every Asov badge. Officially, Asov wants the Nazi symbol to be understood as a stylized slogan meaning National Idea or Ideya Natsii.

In March 2015, Andriy Diachenko – a spokesman for the Azov Battalion – told the US daily, USA Today, that 10-20% of Asov members are active Neo-Nazis. Meanwhile, it has become public knowledge that prominent Western European Neo-Nazis have been taking part in Asov-led fights in Ukraine. It has also been reported that there is a cooperation of members of the Asov Battalion with right-wing radical troops such as, for example, the Neo-Nazi militia Misanthropic Division.

All in all, the Azov Battalion should not be confused with the even more openly right-wing Azov movement. However, both are closelyconnected and intertwined. Meanwhile, the Russian government argues that its war of aggression – which remains contrary to international law – seeks to combat an ultra-nationalistic and far-right danger – that of Ukrainian Nazism. And this includes Russia’s fight against the Azov Battalion.

Mysteriously, or perhaps rather conveniently – some say that after the torture and murder – an explosion in July 2022 at a Russian-held prison has killed dozens of Ukrainian captives – some of whom were Asov soldiers.

Meanwhile, and in view of the utter devastating destruction of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, the Bucha massacre, and the indiscriminate killing of scores of Ukrainian civilians, Russia’s we-fight-Nazism claim is not even remotely credible.

Rather, the Russian leadership itself – through its armed intervention and violation of international laws as early as 2014 – the occupation and separation of significant parts of sovereign Ukraine, which is also contrary to international laws, actually produced precisely this ultra-nationalistic gathering in the Ukraine. The Asov Battalion is all but one part of that.

The existence of Neo-Nazis, ultra-nationals, and other right-wing extremist tendencies – including anti-Semitism – within the Azov Battalion is indeed undeniable. More recently, the Asov Battalion has sought to free itself from many unsavory people in the course of its self-proclaimed professionalization – particularly after 2014. Today, it even seeks to depoliticize itself.

Yet, in 2018, the US Congress, when pledging assistance in the amount of $520 million to Ukraine, it specifically ordered a training and weapons’ embargo against the Azov Battalion. In fact, it is conceivable that foreign right-wing extremists who feel a Neo-Nazi calling to fight in Ukraine may try and continue to join the Azov Battalion.

However, according to all available information on Asov, to argue that the battalion is a monolithic Neo-Nazi, ultra-nationalist, and anti-Semitic unity is unjustified. German-extremism researcher, Alexander Ritzmann at Berlin’s Counter Extremism Project said recently, the Azov Battalion is definitely not a right-wing extremist Battalion in the Ukrainian army.

Riztmann noted that many of Asov’s right-wing extremist founding members had, in fact, left the Azov Battalion in the course of its integration into Ukraine’s National Guard. Once outside, they founded the right-wing extremist Azov movement.

Finally, the Azov Battalion and other right-wing extremists operating at Ukraine’s national level are insignificant for Ukraine as a whole. For example, all right-wing extremist parties combined received only 2.15% of public support in the last election.

This is not to say that the Azov Battalion is not right-wing. But even if one were to assume an ultra-national and right–wing radical share of 25% in Asov – favoring the Russian propaganda of rooting out Nazism – this would still be close to Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.

While the often assumed maximum manpower of Asov of 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers is actually more close to only 500 to 750 fighters, they are, however, part of an army of a total of over 250,000 men. That was before the outbreak of war. In other words, the trumped-up Russian threat of Nazism in the Ukraine – when measured on the Asov Battalion – is an absolute minority. Perhaps, Asov can even be neglected for being insignificant.

Yet, on the other hand, one might still say, one Fascist is one too many. Given the facts outlined above, Russia’s claim to be fighting fascism in the Ukraine is pure propaganda. In the past, Russia itself provided sustained support to Neo-Nazis and right-wing extremist forces in Ukraine in order to destabilize the country. Since the 1990s, the Kremlin has also maintained close relations with inner-Russian Neo-Nazi groups. They are being exploited for the purpose of maintaining domestic political power.

For these reasons, Moscow’s reference to a problem that is real and problematic – but in reality is not very significant at all – as a justification for its war against the Ukraine does not hold much water.

This is particularly the case in light of multiple war crimes committed by Russian Armed Forces against the civilian population. Yet, the founding of the Azov Battalion took place in direct response to the Russian invasion of 2014. In conclusion, the Asov Battalion might best be understood as a reality-distorting propaganda element.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).