Editor's note: This story was first published in June, soon after the Azovstal garrison surrendered to Russians in Mariupol. NV is republishing the story of Azov in memory of those 53 Ukrainian PoWs from the regiment, killed in Olenivka.
In a dramatic standoff that ended in May, members of the Azov Regiment withstood Russian forces for more than 80 days at the Avozstal steel plant in Mariupol.
As images trickled out of wounded and weary soldiers being transported out of the area by Russian soldiers, many Ukrainians celebrated the last holdouts as brave patriots who, by holding the southern border, had provided the country with crucial time to regroup and strengthen its defenses.
Yet in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian media often used images of the Azov Regiment to justify its stated goal of “de-Nazifying” the country. Russian news media, including state-controlled broadcaster RT, also regularly refer to the Azov as Nazis.
However, in this case, Russian propaganda wasn’t far from Western media coverage of the group: the Azov Regiment, organized as a regular part of Ukraine’s National Guard, was often dubbed as Nazis by Western media as well. And in 2019, 40 U.S. senators signed a letter demanding that the group, along with other far-right movements, be added to a list of terrorist organizations.
A year earlier, Washington passed a spending bill that specifically banned funding for the regiment, which California Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat, referred to as “the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion fighting in Ukraine.”
For all the back-and-forth and claims that some in the Azov Regiment are neo-Nazis, who they are and what their motivations remain a murky topic. The truth is complicated, made only more so by the war and its competing forces.
Heroes or Nazis?
While the group has been held up by the Kremlin as an example of Nazi elements in Ukraine, for many Ukrainians, the Azov fighters are seen as heroes. To them, they are best represented as those holdouts in Mariupol, or as the fighters who were the first to report to the front line when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.
Their readiness to sacrifice their lives for Ukraine makes it hard for the Ukrainian government to form a clear position on how to deal with the far right elements in their ranks.
“Since 2014 Azov has been protecting Ukraine, in particular Mariupol, from Russian aggression,” said Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Azov Regiment, who was still based at the Azovstal steelworks when The New Voice of Ukraine spoke with him on May 17. Several days later he got into Russian captivity.
“It was convenient for the Kremlin to justify its invasion by fighting mythical Nazis. That is why Azov and other Ukrainian servicemen were dubbed Nazis back in 2014.”
Palamar has, however, previously praised Azov Regiment founder Andriy Biletsky, who has expressed far-right and white nationalist views.
Yet the blanket term “neo-Nazi cannot be used to describe Azov,” argues Michael Colborne, investigative journalist and author of the book “From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right.”
According to Colborne, neo-Nazi is a very specific term that refers to someone who explicitly sees Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler as examples to be followed and emulated, or someone who uses Nazi swastika imagery, for instance.
In Azov’s case, things are a little more complicated - due to Nazi-linked imagery being used openly in the unit’s symbology. These links have created a fertile ground for Russian propaganda to take root.
“The Kremlin abuses the term ‘Nazi’ at home or abroad,” Colborne explained.
“Anyone who in their view opposes or threatens Russia is a ‘Nazi,’ and that includes ordinary Ukrainians who simply define themselves as belonging to Ukraine, even if they use the Russian language in everyday life.”
In February 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russian then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Moscow after riot police killed 100 people during the EuroMaidan protest. Russia used the turmoil in the country to annex Crimea and fuel astroturfed uprisings that started the war in Donbas.
“Ukraine could hardly defend itself,” Anton Shekhovtsov, director of the Center for Democratic Integrity, noted on YouTube.
“Years of corruption had almost destroyed the Ukrainian armed forces. The Ukrainian military was not ready to fight with their neighbors.”
Volunteer battalions were created in response. The “original battalion consisted mostly of football hooligans and members of the Ukrainian far-right movement,” Shekhovtsov added.
Eventually, EuroMaidan protesters and everyday Ukrainians also joined, Shekhovtsov said.
The now-Azov Regiment was created as a police battalion in May 2014 by the leaders of the Patriots of Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization.
“Patriots of Ukraine was one of the most racist and antisemitic far-right groups of Ukraine,” Shekhovtsov explained.
“Its members were involved in spreading political and criminal violence. It was almost impossible to trust them, especially given their anti-democratic and anti-establishment rhetoric.”
Neither Azov nor other groups properly screened volunteers, many of whom came from Russia, he said, adding that it then left the Azov Battalion vulnerable to being controlled by Russian operatives. One such case may have already occurred – Serhiy Korotkikh, aka “Botsman” (boatswain in Russian) – a former commander in the unit, has had extensively documented ties to Belarusian intelligence and Russia's FSB.
But in June 2014, the Azov Battalion — as it was called then — played an important role in liberating Mariupol from pro-Russian forces.
“That proved not only Azov combat effectiveness but also their pro-Ukrainian position,” Shekhovtsov said.
That victory and other successes against Russians in Donbas grew the reputation of the Azov group, drawing more volunteers of various backgrounds.
With the Azov Battalion growing in number and recognition, by the fall of 2014, the Ukrainian government decided to take control of the group, transforming it into the National Guard of Ukraine regiment, based in Mariupol. The decision was seen by many as a legitimization of the far-right.
But their enrollment into the National Guard of Ukraine created a reporting structure that ensured the battalion would remain loyal to the state, Shekhovtsov said.
Colborne believes that the move “was partly about controlling Azov, keeping them within state structures. It was also Azov’s strategy to solidify its presence in Ukrainian politics and society, even if they’re a fringe who can’t get more than a few percent at the ballot box.”
Then from 2016 to 2017, the Azov commanders rid the regiment of people who openly supported Nazi views, according to Viacheslav Likhachev a research analyst at ZMINA, a nonprofit Ukrainian human rights organization.
Soon after the transformation, controversial Azov commanders left the regiment to focus on politics, Shekhovtsov said in his video post. They started the National Corps political party – notably founded by Azov founder Andriy Biletsky – and the National Militia. These organizations became known for squads of aggressive men marching through Kyiv’s central square — the images the Kremlin media used to justify invading Ukraine.
But in reality, the Azov-affiliated National Corps party gained less than 1 percent of votes in the last parliamentary election in 2019. Soon after the National Corps lost the elections, the National Militia forces disappeared from the streets of Ukraine.
National Corps leaders were involved in several corruption scandals, including participation in the alleged business raiding attempts in Kharkiv. Desperately searching for ways to attract new followers, they started pushing new anti-Western rhetoric and anti-Soros conspiracies, playing for the Kremlin’s narratives in Ukraine. But that has not worked in attracting wide support to the far-right group.
Simply put, “the far-right movement in Ukraine has no wide support,” said Ukrainian political scientist Oleh Bahan.
“But there is a demand for a strong nationalistic idea, especially among the younger generation. They search for a strong ideology that could clean up corruption and chaotic political institutions in Ukraine.”
Bahna said that nationalism should not be confused with Nazism. The current Azov Regiment claims it stands for nationalistic values of pride and love for Ukraine. And the influence of the more openly far-right and white supremacist former members of the regiment is hard to quantify, and experts following the regiment have different opinions on the matter.
The National Corps publicly says the party now helps many front-line regiments as a volunteer organization. For its part, the Azov Regiment says it has no connection to the political party.
In eight years, the Azov regiment has had four commanders. The current one, Denys Prokopenko, now also in Russian captivity, has publicly said he follows the orders of Ukrainian military command, not former members.
Palamar, the Azov deputy commander, said accusations of Nazism among the Azov are Russian propaganda. He claims the only ideology of the current regiment is Ukrainian patriotism. Greeks, Crimean Tatars, Jews, Moldavians, Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians serve in the regiment together, he claimed, saying that the soldiers serving in the Azov Regiment have different religions and use different languages.
“Everything else is a personal matter. Any kind of harassment or restrictions are not tolerated,” Palamar said.
“But it is important to say we hate Nazism and communism.”
What the West thinks
Western observers are still quite critical of Azov, claiming that while publicly the regiment may have stopped spreading hate, elements of far-right ideology remain among its ranks.
Many such critics point to Azov’s logo, which resembles a medieval German symbol called the Wolfsangel – used by the German SS Panzer Division Das Reich during World War II.
Azov denies their emblem has anything to do with Nazis.
“Those who wear that chevron swear to be faithful to their people and be ready to protect and even die for them, but never invade other nations,” Palamar said.
Instead, the group says the symbol comes from the “Idea of a Nation” monogram that consists of the early Cyrillic letters I and N and has no relation to the Wolfsangel, which was modeled off medieval wolf traps that had hooks shaped like Zs.
While symbols can be interpreted in various ways — the Russia Z emblem has been criticized as representing half of a swastika, for instance — Likhachev said actions are what ultimately matter. He pointed to Russia’s invasion of another sovereign nation as a prime example.
Colborne also warned against calling the Azov Regiment Nazis based on the logo.
“Even if there are and have been such individuals within their ranks — and the fact they have used symbolism arguably drawn from neo-Nazi subcultures — calling the regiment ‘neo-Nazis’ as a whole simply isn’t accurate,” Colborne thinks.
“I would say that people who use symbols drawn from far-right ideologies and subcultures are signaling alliance to other far-right. The Russian side does that too.”