Azov is a far-right all-volunteer infantry military unit whose members, estimated at 900, are ultra-nationalists and accused of harbouring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology.
The unit was initially formed as a volunteer group in May 2014 out of the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang, and the neo-Nazi Social national assembly (SNA) group. Both groups engaged in xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideals and physically assaulted migrants, the Roma community and people opposing their views.
As a battalion, the group fought on the front lines against pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, the eastern region of Ukraine. Just before launching the invasion, Putin recognised the independence of two rebel-held regions from Donbas.
A few months after recapturing the strategic port city of Mariupol from the Russian-backed separatists, the unit was officially integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine on November 12, 2014, and exacted high praise from then-President Petro Poroshenko.
“These are our best warriors,” he said at an awards ceremony in 2014. “Our best volunteers.”
Who founded Azov?
The unit was led by Andriy Biletsky, who served as the the leader of both the Patriot of Ukraine and the SNA. The SNA is known to have carried out attacks on minority groups in Ukraine.
In 2010, Biletsky said Ukraine’s national purpose was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen (inferior races)”.
Biletsky was elected to parliament in 2014. He left Azov as elected officials cannot be in the military or police force. He remained an MP until 2019.
The unit received backing from Ukraine’s interior minister in 2014, as the government had recognised its own military was too weak to fight off the pro-Russian separatists and relied on paramilitary volunteer forces.
These forces were privately funded by oligarchs, the most known being Igor Kolomoisky, an energy magnate billionaire and then-governor of the Dnipropetrovska region.
In addition to Azov, Kolomoisky funded other volunteer battalions such as the Dnipro 1 and Dnipro 2, Aidar and Donbas units.
Azov received early funding and assistance from another oligarch: Serhiy Taruta, the billionaire governor of Donetsk region.
Denies adhering to Nazi ideology
In 2015, Andriy Diachenko, the spokesperson for the regiment at the time said that 10 to 20 per cent of Azov’s recruits were Nazis.
The unit has denied it adheres to Nazi ideology as a whole, but Nazi symbols such as the 'Hakenkreuz' and SS regalia are rife on the uniforms and bodies of Azov members.
For instance, the uniform carries the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel symbol. The group said it is merely an amalgam of the letters “N” and “I” which represent “national idea”.
Individual members have professed to being neo-Nazis, and hardcore far-right ultra-nationalism is pervasive among members.
In January 2018, Azov rolled out its street patrol unit called National Druzhyna to “restore” order in the capital, Kyiv. Instead, the unit carried out pogroms against the Roma community and attacked members of the LGBTQ community.
“Ukraine is the world’s only nation to have a neo-Nazi formation in its armed forces,” a correspondent for the US-based magazine, the Nation, wrote in 2019.
Human rights violations and war crimes
A 2016 report by the United Nations office of the high commissioner for Human Rights (OCHA) has accused the Azov regiment of violating international humanitarian law.
The report detailed incidents over a period from November 2015-February 2016 where Azov had embedded their weapons and forces in used civilian buildings, and displaced residents after looting civilian properties. The report also accused the battalion of raping and torturing detainees in the Donbas region.
Recently as Ukraine as been battered by the Russia forces, Ukraine’s national guard tweeted a video showing Azov fighters coating their bullets in pig fat to be used allegedly against Muslim Chechens, allies of Russia, deployed in their country.
Azov has also been involved in training civilians through military exercises in the run-up to Russia’s invasion.