Along with Kyiv and Kharkiv, Mariupol is one of three cities around which Russia is waging a fierce war against Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities claim that the South Ukrainian port city on the shores of the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million, is practically wiped off the face of the earth. Since March, the city has been surrounded without water, electricity and limited food supplies.
During his speech before special operations in Ukraine, Russian President Putin spoke about Ukrainian Nazis and the need to denazify them. The attack on Mariupol was imminent as it is the home of Ukraine’s infamous right-wing military unit, the Azov Regiment.
Azov Regiment started in May 2014 as a volunteer battalion in Berdyansk, neighbouring Mariupol. Some fighters had previously participated in opposition protests on the Kyiv Maidan [independnce square Ed.] as part of the Right Sector, a small but active association of radical nationalists. Its leaders were people from eastern Ukraine. Many spoke Russian and were initially supporters of the unity of the Eastern Slavs – Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Russian is still spoken by many in Azov Regiment. It can be heard both on fresh videos from Mariupol about the battles in the Svitlodarsk Bulge in the Lugansk region, published on the regiment’s YouTube channel in January 2021. Even the commander spoke Russian.
The beginnings of the Azov Regiment and Wolfsangel symbol
The first fighters of the Azov unit were football hooligans and representatives of marginal nationalist circles. In the summer of 2014, a small group of Azov fighters took part in the liberation of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists. The value of their participation is not known, but it is now a part of Azov legend. In the fall of 2014, the battalion became a regiment. The Kyiv authorities decided to integrate the nationalists under the Ministry of Interior.
Azov Regiment has two infantry battalions, an artillery battalion and a tank company. More than 1,000 fighters serve here, and the regiment is called one of the most professional military formations in the country. Despite this, it does not perform combat missions at the forefront. Instead, the Azov fighters have been patrolling and guarding in the rear. The main reason is the specific worldview of the regiment.
The regiment has three bases on the Azov coast – in Urzuf (Donetsk Oblast), Yuryevka (Belgorod Oblast) and Mariupol itself. The main one, Urzufskaya, is the former dacha (seasonal or second home) of the Yanukovych family.
The Azov symbol was considered controversial from the beginning and is called the “wolf hook” (Wolfsangel) or Crampon. Azov unit claims that this is not a symbol of the times of Nazi Germany but stylised Latin letters N and I, “national idea”. “The wolf’s hook has a right-wing connotation. It is a pagan symbol that was also used by Germany’s infamous Schutz Staffel (S.S.). The Ukrainians do not perceive it as a fascist symbol.
Andrei Biletsky, the founder of Azov
The founder of the Azov unit is Andrey Biletsky, a graduate of the history department of Kharkiv National University. He had been an activist in right-wing radical circles for many years before that.
After 2015, a movement emerged that became the political wing of Azov. Biletsky resigned as commander and founded the National Corps party with veterans, which did not succeed in the elections. According to Adrien Nonjon, there are only informal ties between the regiment and the party. Biletsky himself entered the parliament in a single-mandate district, but no party representatives were left after the early elections in 2019. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biletsky, in his own words, is fighting in the Kyiv region.
The equipment of the Azov Unit
In 2014, the Azov unit had ZSU-23/2 anti-aircraft guns and an armoured MT-LB amphibious vehicle. The bulletproof glass was embedded in the MTLB, giving a better view to the driver.
The regiment has its own clothing. The uniform is supplied by the Ukrainian manufacturer M-Tac with British Multicam camouflage colours. The shoes are from Italian Crispi boots and American Saucony sneakers. Helmets and body armour are also purchased from Ukrainian manufacturers. The men have been issued regular uniforms of the National Guard unit.
Nazi or Nationalists?
The Russians address Azov Regiment as neo-Nazis, but some Western countries term them, radical nationalists.
The unit was formed based on the neo-Nazi organisations “Patriot of Ukraine” and “Social-National Alliance” under the leadership of the ideologist of Ukrainian Nazism, Andriy Biletsky, known as the White Leader for his writings about the domination of the white race.
The unit was based solely on racist slogans, under the symbols of the ultra-right (“wolf hook” is banned in several European countries ) and was even officially recognised as a neo-Nazi organisation in a resolution of the U.S. Congress in June 2015.
The word denazification has become a contentious issue between Russia and the West. The Times, a British newspaper, called it “far-right warriors” and “far nationalist forces” who were preparing to fight against Russia. As per the western press, after Andriy Biletsky left the regiment, his right-wing supporters were also ousted, and the organisation is now depoliticised.
In 2019, the U.S. based think tank ‘Soufan Center’, in the research article ‘White Supremacy Extremism: The Transnational Rise of the Violent White Supremacist Movement’, writes that Azov had become an international recruiting agency for recruiting and training ultra-right radicals around the world.
There are different versions of the unit’s neo-nazi status, even in Ukraine. Mykola Serhiyovych Kravchenko, one of the founding fathers of “Patriot of Ukraine”, was the chief ideologue of the Azov Regiment till the Russian forces killed him on 14 March 2022 in Kyiv. On the other hand, some Ukrainians argue that the current president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jew and Azov Regiment works under him.
Today, on 29 March, the Mayor of Mariupol, Vadim Boychenko, said the city would require complete evacuation. On 25th, as per social media, Azov suffered the most and possibly ceased to be a cohesive unit. They had been facing the Russian and fierce Chechen fighters.