The Azov Battalion, and subsequently the Azov Regiment, have been the focus of much reporting in Western and Russian media due to both their large voluntary membership and their neo-Nazi ties. However, due to the Ukraine Crisis being a highly politicised situation, divisive units such as Azov arguably lack objective reporting in the media.
Russian media, under the direction of the Kremlin, has tended to exaggerate the power and the impact of the Azov Battalion to support its disinformation campaign presenting the Ukrainian Government and military as fascistic and genocidal. On the other hand, Western media has often played down Azov’s neo-Nazi ties in an attempt to refrain from aiding Kremlin disinformation. In reality, there is a significant neo-Nazi element within Azov, but despite their offensive ideology the Azov Regiment may be one of Ukraine’s best hope’s for resisting the Russian invasion.
Founding of the Azov Battalion
The Azov Battalion was formed on May 5th, 2014, in Mariupol, in the Azov Sea coastal region, as a volunteer militia during the 2014 Ukraine Crisis.
The bulk of the Azov movement was formed around the charismatic leadership of Andriy Biletsky, a member of the Kharkiv branch of the far-right ‘Social National Party of Ukraine’ and founder of the ultranationalist organisation ‘Patriot of Ukraine’. It was members of the ‘Patriot of Ukraine’ who joined the first incarnation of the Azov Battalion, under the leadership of Biletsky and with the support of the governor of Kharkiv.
The roots of the battalion are also found in football hooliganism, with many of the groups founding members being a part of an ‘Ultras’ fan movement for the Ukrainian football club FC Metalist Kharkiv called “Sect 82”. In February 2014, Sect 82 occupied the primary regional administration in Kharkiv and took on the role as a volunteer self-defence militia, in response to the growing separatist movement in the city. Gaining recognition by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Sect 82 was transformed into the “Eastern Corps” and travelled to Donbas, taking part in the liberation of Mariupol in June 2014. By August 2015 they had officially joined the Azov Battalion.
Azov’s Combat Experience: 2014 Russian Annexation of Crimea
After the withdrawal of Government forces in Mariupol on May 9th, 2014, the Azov Battalion along with the Dnipro-1 Battalion retook the city on June 13th following heavy fighting. The battalions killed 5 separatist militants and destroyed a BRDM-2 armoured vehicle.
Following the Battle of Mariupol, the battalion was relocated to Berdiansk to engage in further recruitment and training.
By the July 16th, the Azov Battalion had 300 volunteers. They fought again in Mariupol in late August and early September 2014, following a rebel offensive attempting to retake the city. During the offensive, Azov soldiers trained citizens of the city to defend themselves as well as helped establish citizen militias. The Azov battalion fought alongside the Donbas battalion, Ukrainian Sea Guard, and ground forces, and notably captured a tank from separatist forces.
After the ceasefire in September 2014, the Azov Battalion was integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine on November 11th, 2014 and received regimental status in January 2015. From this point, the Azov Regiment was given access to heavy arms, and was officially designated as a ‘Special Operations Detachment’. By March 2015 the regiment was comprised of 900 volunteers.
Azov’s Combat Experience: 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine
At the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Azov regiment was largely positioned in Mariupol. As a result, the regiment has acted as the primary defending unit against the ongoing Siege of Mariupol since February 24th 2022.
On March 10th, it was reported that members of the Azov regiment and the 72nd brigade conducted a successful ambush of Russia’s 6th Tank Regiment, inflicting significant losses and liquidating its commander Colonel A. Zakharov, in the Brovarsky district of Kyiv.
On March 16th, Russia conducted an airstrike targeting the Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol killing approximately 600 civilians. Russia accused Azov of perpetrating this attack as a ‘false flag‘ operation.
The abandoned HQ of the Azov Regiment based in the northern Kalmiuskyi District of Mariupol was captured by Russian forces on March 22nd.
By April 16th, the Azov regiment alongside members of the 36th Marine Brigade and reportedly around 1000 Ukrainian civilians retreated to the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works after Russian forces successfully occupied Mariupol’s urban areas. Despite threats of storming the Azovstal facility by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, on April 21st Putin called off the offensive, opting for a blockade instead, in order to minimise troop losses.
It was reported by Ukrainian Authorities that airstrikes and ground offensives against the facility continued on April 23rd, however, these reports have not been independently verified. On April 27th and 28th, Russia conducted heavy bombing of the Azovstal plant. According to a Ukrainian official this included more than 50 airstrikes and resulted in over 430 being injured, however, these numbers have not been independently verified.
Putin called for the continuation of attacks on the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works on May 3rd, with ground assaults being launched against the defending Azov forces and the 36th Marine Brigade.
By May 7th, after Russia agreeing to sporadic openings of evacuation corridors from April 30th, Ukraine released a statement that all women, children and elderly civilians had been successfully evacuated from the industrial facility, with the support of Azov soldiers.
Video evidence released on May 15th suggests that Russian forces have been deploying white phosphorus bombs against the Iron and Steel Works plant.
Speaking from the industrial plant, Azov lieutenant Illya Samoilenko reported that Azov forces had killed approximately 2,500 Russian troops between February 24th and April 25th.
Over 260 soldiers, including 50 who were considered seriously injured, were evacuated from Azovstal and taken to areas under Russian control on May 16th.
On May 17th, the Ukrainian Government announced the end of the ‘combat mission’ in Mariupol, resulting in the surrendering of the besieged troops in the Azovstal industrial facility and the ceding of control of the port city to Russian forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the continued resistance of Azov forces and the 36th Marine Brigade was essential in slowing Russian forces, preventing the rapid seizure of the city of Zaporizhzhia.
By May 18th, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that since May 17th 959 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered from the Azovstal facility. 51 out of the 959 soldiers have been sent for medical treatment due to injuries, while the rest have been transported to a former penal colony in Olenivka, situated in the Russian-controlled territory of the Donetsk region.
The fate of the surrendering Azov troops within Azovstal is still unclear, as Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin suggested a possible ban on the prisoner exchange of Azov Regiment members. Accusing the regiment of war crimes, Volodin stated that they should be tried in Russia rather than exchanged.
There are no official sources confirming the structure of the Azov Regiment. The following structure was presented on several websites, but should be considered unverified.
-1st Commando Battalion
-2nd Commando Battalion (in formation stage)
-5th Tank Battalion
-Field Artillery Battery
-4th (Training) Battalion
-Regimental Depot Kyiv
-Regimental Depot Mariupol
-Regimental Depot Berdiansk
The Azov Battalion was founded with an explicit far-right ideological leaning. The ultranationalist organisation the ‘Social National Assembly’, founded by Azov’s creator Andriy Biletsky, has publicly stated its aims as:
- “To prepare Ukraine for further expansion and to struggle for the liberation of the entire White Race from the domination of the internationalist speculative capital.”
- “To punish severely sexual perversions and any interracial contacts that lead to the extinction of the white man.”
Moreover, The Azov Battalion itself uses the Wolfsangel and the Black Sun within its insignia, both of which are prominent neo-Nazi symbols. However, Biletsky denied the Wolfsangel being a part of their insignia and stated that the symbol is a result of the intersection between letters that signify the slogan “Ідея Нації” (National Idea).
Furthermore, a number of soldiers within the Azov Battalion have been filmed wearing helmets with swastikas and SS runes, and reportedly several soldiers have also incorporated Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols onto their uniforms and have shown reporters tattoos of Nazi symbols.
A spokesperson for the Battalion, Andriy Diachenko, has stated to news organisations that he estimates only 10-20% of the group’s membership are Nazis in 2015. However, even if this estimate is correct, this indicates the military and government’s acceptance of a sizeable minority of explicit neo-Nazis within a National Guard unit.