A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 8, 2022

The Azov Battalion, Defenders of Mariupol, Rebuild and Rearm For Next Battle

After losing so many of their soldiers in the siege and ultimate surrender of Mariupol, the Azov battalion of Ukrainian volunteers is reconstituting itself, again, as an elite force. 

The battalion is distinguished, among other factors, by the large number of professionals - lawyers, musicians, business owners - in its ranks. They are looking to avenge their brethren in Mariupol. JL 

Vivian Salama and Matthew Luxmoore report in the Wall Street Journal:

Azov fighters who joined the regiment after the Russian invasion come from all walks of life (including) piano teachers, professional musicians, owner of a Kyiv-based store that sells vegan pet food and many lawyers. Many chose Azov over other regiments because it offered a quick path to the battlefield and its reputation as an elite fighting force. After their hard-fought but losing battle against Moscow’s forces in the port city of Mariupol, the men training are determined to retake the lost ground and expel the Russians.

Three special-forces platoons from the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian volunteer militia, fanned out in the woods outside this southern city to practice shooting and ambush tactics they plan to use against invading Russian forces.

After their regiment’s hard-fought but losing battle against Moscow’s forces in the port city of Mariupol, the men training here said they are determined to retake the lost ground and expel the Russians from Ukraine. They are also working hard to shake their reputation as a far-right movement.

“Don’t believe Russian propaganda,” said Vyacheslav Rodionov, 29 years old, a flutist with the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra who now leads a unit of about 20 Azov fighters. “They will bullshit Azov as much as they can, call us Nazis—the real Nazis are the Russian army.”Azov’s widely hailed resistance in Mariupol, which resulted in hundreds of its fighters being taken as prisoners of war by Russia, has bolstered its image, even as the battalion continues to court controversy.

On Feb. 27, three days after Russia launched its invasion, Ukraine’s National Guard posted a video it said showed an Azov fighter dipping bullets in pig fat, a move apparently designed to intimidate any Muslim Chechens fighting on Russia’s side.

Twitter said the tweet violated its rules against hateful conduct.

Few would deny Azov’s origins are problematic. The group’s first commander, Andriy Biletsky, joined Azov in 2014 after leading political groups that openly espoused neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideas. Mr. Biletsky left in October 2016 to head National Corps, a new right-wing party aligned with the regiment.

Mr. Biletsky is still actively involved with Azov, maintaining regular contact with its members and participating in their training. He denies being an ethnic nationalist.

“An ethnic Ukrainian from Donetsk fighting with a St. George Ribbon or Red Star”—a reference to Russian and Soviet military symbols—“is less of a Ukrainian to me than a Georgian born in the mountains,” he said.

Azov was formed as a volunteer battalion in Mariupol in 2014, a time when the Ukrainian army was in tatters. It brought together a ragtag group of fighters who successfully repelled an attack on the port city by Russian-backed separatists. It attracted a collection of disparate characters, among them amateur historians, battle reconstructors, neo-Nazis and hard-core soccer fans.

That summer and fall, the men—instructed by trainers from the Georgian military—fended off further offensives by Russia’s proxy forces and began building their reputation as a formidable force.

“These were the most battle-ready, most motivated fighters who had already proved their mettle freeing Mariupol,” said Oleksandr Kovzhun, a political consultant who said he was dispatched to Mariupol in 2014 by Donetsk governor Serhii Taruta, who helped finance Azov in the early stages.Mr. Kovzhun said a poll he conducted among its members in 2014, when the battalion numbered 345 people, found that 40% had higher education and 18% had history degrees, with two of its members holding Ph.D.s.

Ukraine’s then-Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov said the objective of creating Azov was to combat the Russian narrative about Kyiv oppressing Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

“It was part of Russian propaganda that they were Nazi units, that they were only Ukrainian-speaking and they were all extremists, which is not true,” Mr. Avakov said. “Most of the fighters with Azov speak Russian, just as I am speaking to you in Russian now.”

The influx of members who joined since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 includes self-avowed nationalists, but Azov’s new fighters said they oppose fascism and don’t subscribe to any extremist views. Many Azov fighters prefer to describe themselves as “football hooligans”—a reference to rowdy and sometimes violent soccer fans. Many of them wore patches with the logos of their favorite soccer team on their uniforms.

It is difficult, however, to make sweeping generalizations about Azov’s members.

The Azov fighters at the training, who joined the regiment in February after the Russian invasion, come from all walks of life. There are piano teachers and professional musicians; one of them owns a Kyiv-based store that sells vegan pet food; many of them are lawyers.Many say they chose Azov over other regiments not because of its nationalism, but because it offered a quick path to the battlefield and its reputation as an elite fighting force.

Andrew Milburn, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who founded the Mozart Group, which is helping to train the Azov fighters at their request, says that moving inexperienced people to the battlefield swiftly is a challenge. “Given just 120 bullets, how do you get a guy who has never fired a weapon to a point where he is consistently hitting the target?” he said.

They are so inexperienced that one of them shot himself in the foot during a training session last month, according to Mozart Group trainers.

“It takes more time than we have,” said Mr. Milburn. “But they’re definitely motivated.”

It isn’t just training that is an issue; the fighters lack equipment. Dmytro Kukharchuk, the commander of the 2nd Battalion Special Forces of Kyiv, said most of the volunteers have been forced to buy their own weapons, helmets, flak jackets and boots.

Azov’s tainted reputation as a far-right group had contributed to that lack of equipment.

In 2018, Congress banned Azov from receiving U.S. weapons, arms or training. The following year, 40 U.S. Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding that several international far-right movements, including Azov, be officially placed on the foreign terrorist organization list alongside Islamic State and al Qaeda.

The letter, drafted by now-former Rep. Max Rose, classifies Azov as being among the world’s “violent white supremacist extremist groups,” adding that it “has been recruiting, radicalizing and training American citizens for years, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Azov denies this allegation.

The lawmakers pointed to alleged incidents, cited by the United Nations, of detainee torture by Azov fighters. The U.N. has also raised concern more recently about “credible allegations” of torture by Ukrainian forces in the current war with Russia, including a video shared by the Azov Regiment showing Russian soldiers stripped to their underwear, with hands tied behind their back and eyes covered.

Rep. Jason Crow (D., Colo), who was among the signatories of the 2018 letter, said that he was “not aware of any information that currently shows a direct connection [of Azov fighters] to extremism now.”

“I am sensitive to the fact that the past isn’t necessarily prologue here, that groups can change and evolve and that the war might have changed the organization,” he added.

The battle at Mariupol, where hundreds of Azov fighters held out for weeks on the grounds of the Azovstal plant, may have helped change that image. The 2,000 or so Ukrainian fighters who were taken into Russian captivity in April, many of them from Azov, were hailed as heroes by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

It is unclear, however, if that will have any effect on the U.S. Congress, or its decision to help equip the group.

Today, Azov’s Kyiv Battalion has three U.S.-made Javelins. Mr. Kukharchuk said his fighters also have NLAW short-range antitank missiles, and rocket-propelled grenades, but what they need desperately are high-mobility artillery rocket systems, tanks, and most of all, artillery.

“We have no heavy weapons,” said Mr. Kukharchuk.

Even in the absence of the most advanced weapons, or the most experienced fighters, the bravado that draws so many volunteers to the battalion is evident at the training camp.

Dmytri Rudakov, 32, who owns an online store selling street apparel, and is now a unit leader in Azov, was optimistic, even after Mariupol.

“We’ll invite you to Crimea soon,” Mr. Rudakov said, referring to the picturesque Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. “I packed my swimsuit."


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