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The Azov battalion: Not worth your sympathy


by Evgeny Norin

Much less than the heroic defenders they are made out to be, the extremist regiment’s many crimes are well documented

Ukrainian propaganda has elevated the Azov Battalion’s protracted but ultimately doomed final stand in Mariupol to heroic proportions. Adding further pathos to this sentimental story were the desperate calls for help from the commanders of the units entrapped in the bowels of the Azovstal factory and the photogenic young wives of the besieged fighters pleading with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Yet, an observant eye could also wonder about the abundance of Nazi tattoos adorning the battalion’s POWs. The fighters of the Donetsk militia even came up with a joke about capturing “large numbers of pirates and electricians” in reference to the numerous individuals with the skull and crossbones and SS lightning bolts – the widely recognizable Totenkopf and Schutzstaffel symbols – emblazoned on their skin.

Western media has been bending over backwards trying to explain how people covered in Nazi tattoos are not neo-Nazis. However, it turns out that sporting symbols related to Adolf Hitler's odious Third Reich is not even close to being the worst of the crimes committed by the Azov.

The battalion’s history pre-dates the current conflict in Ukraine. Between 2005 and 2010, the governor of the Kharkov Region, the major industrial hub of northeastern Ukraine, was Arsen Avakov. During Avakov’s tenure in office, nationalist Andrey Biletsky, known as the White Ruler, became very active in the area. The two were close acquaintances during Biletsky’s university years. In 2005, he founded an ultranationalist organization, The Patriot of Ukraine, which mostly consisted of aggressive football fans and low-level criminals of the street fighter variety.

According to media reports, the movement didn’t bother doing much that was patriotic but preferred involving itself in various semi-legal and shadowy activities. Biletsky ended up doing some jail time, though not for political reasons, but rather for plain and simple hooliganism.

After the 2014 Western-backed Maidan coup in Kiev, Biletsky was set free as a ‘political’ prisoner of the fallen Viktor Yanukovich government. He used his connection to Avakov, who by then had become Ukraine’s new minister of the interior, to set up a territorial defense battalion to fight in the east of the country. This became known as the Azov.

In Eastern Ukraine, the protests of locals in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions against the Maidan movement escalated to an armed rebellion, and Biletsky’s newly formed battalion was tasked with suppressing it.

Unlike many other territorial defense volunteer units, the Azov had a very distinct ideological flavor from the very start. It was a far-right organization that welcomed all sorts of neo-Nazis ranging from mild to radical ones. The Azov fighters were known for their obsession with pagan rituals and were considered freaks by regular military units.

That, however, was what made the battalion a good fit for the task. Being fanatics, these people did not shy away from killing. Before the Donbass militia was established, the Azov carried out killings of a number of pro-Russian activists.

These acts of individual terror had a philosophy behind them. “It will suffice to kill about fifty ‘vatniks’ (a pejorative term used for those with pro-Russian sympathies) in every town to put a stop to all this,” as one of the fighters with the battalion put it. On June 13, 2014, Azov put this motto into practice by defeating, as part of a larger combat group, a small unit of the Donbass people’s militia in Mariupol. The Azov Battalion was able to put forward quite a few combat-ready soldiers and several gun trucks, while the militia in Mariupol was weak and poorly armed. Five insurgents were killed. The Azov and Ukrainian security services did not hesitate to open fire on local civilians in the Mariupol standoff. There is a video showing the Ukrainians wounding and killing several unarmed people by gunfire. One of the victims is ‘armed’ with a plastic chair.

However, because it was not part of the army – at least formally – the Azov Battalion rarely engaged in actual combat operations. In the summer of 2014, a small group of its fighters attacked the town of Ilovaisk, and in the winter of 2015 they launched an assault on Shirokino, a village located on the Azov Sea coast, where they interacted with officers from the Ukrainian Army who later recounted that the battalion had left the impression of an undisciplined unit, one that was hard to deal with.

So, until 2022, Azov had no serious combat record of which it could boast about. However, being stalwart followers of Ukrainian nationalist ideology, fighters of the Azov – which was by then transformed into a regiment – later played a significant role in the conflict with Russia. Meanwhile, a full-fledged nationalist movement featuring an array of diverse groups of nationalists had sprung up around Azov. Biletsky ended up eventually stepping down as commander and worked to integrate the regiment into Ukraine’s National Guard, while keeping the ideological slant of the unit. This ended up being confirmed by the large number of Nazi symbols and paraphernalia found on the captured fighters and in the regiment’s barracks seized during combat.

The evidence of the Azov's true nature, however, is much more visible in the reports by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, not to mention the crime news. Right from the start, Azov was often found in the midst of some of the darkest and grimmest events and news stories in Ukraine, because of its unofficial special status and the status of ‘vatniks’ who were de facto outlawed in Ukraine.

Initially, the unit attracted people of vague and dubious backgrounds. For example, it was in this battalion that the killers of pro-Russian activists Aleksey Sharov and Artyom Zhudov served. The two men were shot dead in street clashes in Kharkov on March 14, 2014 – even before the armed conflict broke out in the Donbass. Their killers were never identified – we don’t know their names, but we know that the activists were shot from the office of The Patriot of Ukraine, while they were standing right in front of it.

The UN reports said that in May 2014, after a short skirmish, a civilian named Vladimir Lobach was murdered near the city of Poltava by Azov Battalion fighters. His killers threatened the police officers who arrived at the crime scene and then simply fled. In June of that year, Azov soldiers in Mariupol abducted a local newspaper editor and journalist named Sergey Dolgov, who sympathized with the idea of federalizing Ukraine. Nothing is known about this man’s whereabouts up to this day.

Arguably Azov's most twisted crime, as reported by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, was the gang rape of a mentally ill man by about 10 members of the battalion in 2014. The victim was hospitalized with severe physical and psychological trauma. The incident wasn't investigated, and the perpetrators were never brought to justice.

The Azov Battalion has a long record of crimes and offenses of all kinds, from harassment of homosexuals and cases of looting in a war zone, to torture and murder. According to the testimonies of victims, the most common scenario usually involved a random person being kidnapped and taken to a location belonging to the regiment. There, the victim would be tortured and forced to confess to being a member of an insurgent group. After that, the person would be handed over to the SBU, Ukraine’s security service. Moreover, according to victims' reports, SBU officers were often present at the torture sessions.

For example, in May 2017 in Mariupol, Azov fighters used torture and threats to force a woman to sign an interrogation protocol they had written about her alleged involvement in an insurgent cell. The confession was filmed on camera, and the woman was forcibly stripped naked. Later, she was handed over to the SBU. In another case, a man reported having been subjected to electric shock torture, with wires attached to his genitals.

In the Zaporozhye Region, Azov fighters abducted a woman, had her hands and feet bound with cable ties, kicked her, hit her with rifle stocks, shoved needles under her fingernails and threatened to rape her. A man detained in late January 2015 reported being tortured by oxygen deprivation and electric shocks. After an entire week of this ordeal, he was handed over to the SBU and 'formally' arrested. The UN has published records of numerous similar incidents, but it's safe to say these records amount to only a portion of what actually took place.

This peculiar connection between the neo-Nazis and the SBU is far from a coincidence. Thanks to the Azov Battalion, the Ukrainian security services found the perfect way of proving to their government that they had been successful in dealing with the pro-Russian 'insurgent cells' in Mariupol and Eastern Ukraine – even if such organizations were not actually there.

Most of the real insurgents and their sympathizers had fled to the territories held by the rebels, or at least kept their mouths shut about their allegiances. Yet, somehow, the nationalist regiment was always able to capture the proper number of 'traitors', so that their performance, on paper, looked good.

Even as the bulk of the Azov Battalion’s forces have been defeated and have surrendered in Mariupol, a significant group of nationalists remains at large. For example, the Kraken unit, which was formed in Kharkov, serves as a special forces unit under the Azov Battalion. In recent months, the fighters of this newly formed regiment have already gained infamy for shooting Russian prisoners of war in their legs and filming it on camera.

In short, the Azov Battalion is, despite all the Western and Ukrainian efforts to portray them as heroic defenders of freedom, the most odious group to have operated in the country since 2014.

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