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Prawa autorskie: AFPAFP
01 kwietnia 2022

The Azov Regiment: Neo-Nazis, Football Hooligans or Defenders of Ukraine?

Putin has accused Ukraine of being ruled by Nazis. Yet everyone knows whom that this epithet is better suited, even though you can single out Ukraine’s Azov Regiment to bolster this allegation. Where did the “nazism” idea come from, and what is its current importance on the Ukrainian scene?

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Publikujemy angielską wersję tekstu "Pułk Azow – neonaziści, kibole czy obrońcy Ukrainy?" , który opublikowaliśmy 16 marca.

The sight of the original logo used by Azov is cringeworthy: Apart from the waves representing the Azov Sea and the Ukrainian national symbol, the tryzub, two emblems stand out which are unambiguously related to the Neo-Nazi movement.

emblemat pułku Azow - wilczy hak i czarne słońce

The first is the Black Sun, a solar symbol with jagged rays echoing the SS insignia. It was used first as a mosaic at the entrance hall of Wewelsburg Castle, which had been rebuilt by Himmler into the headquarters of the SS.

The Black Sun is a commonly used Neo-Nazi symbol, brandished by the gunman who killed 51 Islamic worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019.

The second is the Wolfsangel, or wolfhook, previously used by the Wehrmacht and the SS. The Azovians insist, however, that their use is an initialism of “Ідея Нації,” or “Idea of ​​the Nation.” Since 2015, the regiment has abandoned this version for a simplified logo without the Black Sun.

The history of the Azov Regiment begins with ultranationalists from the Metalist Kharkiv football club, known as Sekt 82. During the pro-Russian separatist movement in Kharkiv in February 2014, it was the ultranationalists who, as a volunteer militia, sided with Ukrainians and occupied the regional administration building of the city—the same building that was just recently destroyed by Russian forces.

It is worth noting that the members of the regiment are Russian-speaking, as are most residents of Kharkiv, and before the war in 2014 they were allied with Spartak Moscow's ultranationalists.

A few months later, the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, founded the paramilitary units which formed the core of what became the Azov Battalion. In September 2014, the battalion was enlarged to a regiment. It became famous during the second siege of Mariupol when it was instrumental in recapturing the city from separatist control.

In the summer of 2015 in Mariupol, Marcin Ogdowski, an polish journalist, went to cover the Azovians. He reported on their praise of the superiority of the white race, their use of slurs—like calling Russian enemies “pederasts”—and remarked about the “Euro windows” painted on their walls—repainted swastikas, which at first glance look like windows with muntins (in Ukraine, “Euro windows” refer to PVC windows).

A UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report accuses the Azov Regiment of war crimes: looting, unlawful detentions, and torture. As far as Ukrainian forces are concerned, similar accusations have been made against Russian-supported separatists. Up until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even supporting Azov on Facebook was illegal.

Information had surfaced that Neo-Nazis from other countries joined and fought with Azov, such as a Swede who told a BBC journalist that “I'd be an idiot if I said I didn't want the white race to survive.”

Just recently, as Chechen troops, called Kadyrovcy, after Ramzan Kadyrov, loyal to Kremlin governor of this part of Russian Federation, were reported to be on their way to join Russian forces in Ukraine, the Azovians decided to welcome the predominantly Muslim troops with ammunition greased with pork fat, forbidden (or haram) to followers of Islam.

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After the Russian bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital, which caused international outrage, the head of Russian foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, called the outcry “pathetic.” He claimed that photos of evacuated pregnant women were staged, and that the hospital was a base for the Azov Regiment.

The video by Associated Press journalist Mstislav Chernov, who was there immediately after the shelling, indicates otherwise. In fact, the building shown in the photo presented by Russia as the Azov base is located ten kilometres away from the hospital.

To learn more about Azov, we turned to Dr. Kacper Rękawek at C-REX, the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, whose research subjects include extremism on the Ukrainian front.

Miłada Jędrysik, OKO.press: Where did Azov come from?

Dr. Kacper Rękawek: Volunteer battalions started to form in Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict in Donbas. One out of the 40 is largely made up of extreme-right activists and football hooligans, mainly from Kharkiv, but also from Kiev.

They want to fight—they’ve always dreamed of it. Maybe not necessarily against Russia, because these are Russian-speakers themselves, and they were in close contact with the Russian extreme-right before the war. But, at the same time, they are Ukrainian nationalists who want to defend their country and its territorial integrity.

This unit would not have been created at all if it had not been for the support of oligarchs from eastern Ukraine, including Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who is Jewish as well. The battalion would not have received weapons, uniforms, and more, if the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs had not given the initiative its blessing, and if the Azov commander himself did not agree to cooperate.

I get the feeling that people think this was a natural process by which Ukrainian Nazism gave birth to a powerful death star. But there would be no Azov if it were not for the helping hand of the oligarchs and the state, as well as the war.

In which they gained fame—not only infamy.

In 2014, they defended Kharkiv from an attempt to ignite the “Russian Spring,” then they fought in Mariupol. They fought well; they recaptured Mariupol, and from that point on their battalion could no longer be dismantled. Azov is successful and effective, and during a war it's better not to play with fire.

The head of the Ministry of the Interior at the time was Arsen Avakov, a former political oligarch from Kharkiv. He knows Azov. To this day there are accusations that he is their silent patron, that he won’t let anyone touch them.

But let's look at it this way: it's one battalion out of dozens. It stands out because it uses eye-catching graphics. These boys did not undergo PR training in 2014—a Jewish American journalist came along and they threw nationalist and anti-Semitic slurs around. Today, the Azovians realize that was a mistake, but are not necessarily ashamed of it.

Then the battalion became a regiment, that is, it grew to have about a thousand people. For some time there was even talk of turning it into a brigade—two-to-three thousand people—but that failed. They became part of the National Guard of Ukraine, which is a kind of gendarmerie, under the authority of the Interior Ministry. However, they position themselves as a special regiment, and they have more heavy equipment than other Guard units. They build their mythology around that. From the beginning, they were interested in cooperation with people who could train them and raise their training to NATO standards. They are also attractive to the trainers, who are impressed when they boast that, “We liberated Mariupol.”

And what is the relationship between the Azov Regiment and the political party that was founded by one of its commanders?

Is the regiment its military arm?

The commander, Andriy Biletsky, returned to civilian life and got elected as a councilmember of a single-member district in Kiev. His political party was largely built by veterans. The regiment itself had a grassroots movement supporting it—collecting supplies, equipment, etc.

At some point, Biletsky turns this movement into a party—the National Corps—which is now the backbone of the “Azov Movement.” There are also charities, a summer school for children, a book club, and an MMA club.

But as more time passes from 2014, the less ties the Azov Regiment has to the Movement. The regiment is in state structures, and it takes in new recruits. While they do remember the fights in Mariupol and Shirokin, it’s not that Nazis and nationalists are purposefully sent there. Anyone who wants to can go.

The Azov Movement is still a socio-political structure with paramilitary foundations. They were preparing for what is occurring now-—they trained, and they trained civilians too. These are veterans, and they have weapons. They are convinced that Ukraine should be ruled by the people who fought in 2014.

They have a history of attacks on LGBTQ+ activists and the Roma people. They are eager to fight and protest. On the other hand, they could be hired—to threaten someone, to stage a demonstration. But they wouldn't exist at all if someone hadn't given them support in 2014.

Did he do that because they needed all hands on deck? This does not reflect well on Ukraine.

Let’s remember that Azov functions within a state that is fighting a war, a state which in the last 30 years has not undergone training in political correctness. They don't realize where the dangers are. But for now Azov can say: “We are veterans, we are entering territorial defense units, come with us. You will be safer, you will do more harm to the Russians, because we already know how to do it.”

This makes everyone think that they see Azov in every corner, but in fact they only dominate one or two territorial defense battalions in Kiev. There is a small company in Dnipro, in Kharkiv, in Bila Tserkva, and in Ivano-Frankivsk. A company meaning 100 men. It is a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who are mobilized to fight.

Azov is also more visible because of their graphic design and Telegram channels. Biletsky’s channel has tens of thousands of followers.

Even before the war, many people were concerned about the appearance of foreign volunteers in Azov—it would be disconcerting if “Neo-Nazis of all countries” found a common haven in its ranks.

I am in touch with people in Azov, and I guarantee you that they wouldn't deceiving me. I would know if they had hundreds of foreign recruits. They care about their cause, and they want to spread news about themselves out to the world. Today in the photo they released of their foreign volunteers, there are only 15 people, three of whom are Ukrainians. Nothing compared to the thousands who are flowing into Ukraine to fight.

And are they really such an elite unit as they proclaim to be?

Hard to say. Their morale and determination are certainly higher, because they realize that the Russians will not allow for less. They build their ethos around it. They do try to show off that they have better skills than other Guard units. They train helicopter landings, they have divers . . . but is all that really useful? They certainly don't have helicopters in Mariupol right now. They also built an unofficial noncommissioned officer school, led by a guy who studied at a military academy in the United States.

Przetłumaczyła pro bono Natalia Heringa. Dziękujemy!

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Miłada Jędrysik

Miłada Jędrysik – dziennikarka, publicystka. Przez prawie 20 lat związana z „Gazetą Wyborczą". Była korespondentką podczas konfliktu na Bałkanach (Bośnia, Serbia i Kosowo) i w Iraku. Publikowała też m.in. w „Tygodniku Powszechnym", kwartalniku „Książki. Magazyn do Czytania". Była szefową bazy wiedzy w serwisie Culture.pl. Od listopada 2018 roku do marca 2020 roku pełniła funkcję redaktorki naczelnej kwartalnika „Przekrój".

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