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Who are the soldiers of the Azov regiment, accused of being the “neo-Nazis” of the Ukrainian army?

Soldiers from the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard parade in Mariupol, Ukraine, June 15, 2019, on the fifth anniversary of the city's liberation from pro-Russian separatists.

This has become a major argument of the pro-Russians to defend the war in Ukraine: the kyiv army would be infested with neo-Nazis. While Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his invasion by a desire to “denazification” Ukraine, many Internet users have been sharing photos of Ukrainian soldiers with Nazi symbols in recent weeks: those of the Azov regiment. They claim that by supporting Ukraine militarily, Western countries are thus arming ultranationalists.

What are the origins of this Azov regiment which today fights against the Russian invasion in several cities of the country? What are its links with the rest of the Ukrainian Armed Forces? Should the soldiers who compose it all be labeled “neo-Nazis”?

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Originally a battalion of neo-Nazi volunteers to fight the pro-Russians of Donbass

When war broke out in the Donbass in April 2014, the Ukrainian army was disorganized and the government feared losing control of this territory to Russia, as was the case the previous month in Crimea. To counter the pro-Russian separatists, the government allows independent army volunteer battalions to fight. Several far-right armed formations appear.

Among them, we find the “Black Corps”, which will quickly take the name of “Azov battalion” in reference to the sea which borders the Crimea and the south-east of Ukraine. It is a battalion of about a hundred volunteers with nationalist and neo-Nazi ideas, some of whom are “resulting from hooliganism and paramilitary”, explains Adrien Nonjon, researcher at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (Inalco), specialist in the far right and Ukrainian nationalism.

The founder of the Azov regiment, Andrey Biletsky, during a ceremony to welcome new fighters, in kyiv, October 19, 2014.

Originally from Kharkiv, the founder of the battalion, Andreï Biletski, then led the xenophobic, anti-Semitic and racist party Social-National Assembly (SNA). Azov will use the same symbolism inspired by Nazism as that of the SNA. Its emblem, a wolfsangel (“wolf hook”) inverted, very reminiscent of the emblem of the 2and SS division “Das Reich”. Another symbol of Nazi mysticism, ablack sun” representing a rounded swastika with several rays is also incorporated for a time on the logo of the battalion.

On the Internet, assumed references to IIIand Reich by some members of the group are documented. Photos are regularly shared by pro-Russian activists wishing to discredit the Ukrainian army, such as the one – dating back to at least 2017 – where a man poses, Kalashnikov in his arm, in front of several flags, including one from Azov and a Nazi in Ukrainian colors. Another, dating back to at least 2015 according to Releaseshows a group of men in fatigues around a portrait of Adolf Hitler, one of whom is wearing an Azov T-shirt.

In June 2014, the men of the Azov battalion took part in the fight which allowed Ukrainian forces to regain control of Mariupol, the major port city of Donetsk oblast, in the east of the country. This victory against the pro-Russian separatists supported by Moscow forged a heroic image of them in the eyes of the Ukrainian population.

A National Guard regiment since November 2014

The Minsk I agreement, in September 2014, provides in particular for “proceed with the withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine of illicit armed formations and military equipment, as well as irregular fighters and mercenaries”. The battalions then have the choice between joining the Ukrainian National Guard or disbanding. In November 2014, the Azov Battalion officially became a regiment of the National Guard, under the supervision of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.

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“It allowed them to legitimize themselves, to recruit more widely and to obtain modern weapons. It has become an elite unit of the National Guard”, recalls Adrien Nonjon. Ukrainians were won over, foreign fighters (Georgians, Russians, Belarusians and even a few French) came to swell the ranks of a regiment which grew from a hundred soldiers at its creation to nearly 2,500 at the end of 2017, according to a survey by the German magazine Spiegel. Its soldiers are reputed to be tough, and some war crimes in the Donbass (torture, rape) were attributed to them in 2016 by reports from the United Nations as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Members of the Azov regiment at a ceremony in kyiv before their departure for the front in the east of the country, January 3, 2015.

Many volunteers join the Azov regiment without being far-right activists. « Join the Azov Battalion (…) was just a way to fight for their country in the way they thought was most effectivewrote in 2016 Viatcheslav Likhachev, historian and expert in political science, in a note from the French Institute of International Relations. However, all new recruits were indoctrinated with far-right, often xenophobic ideas. »

For Michael Colborne, researcher and journalist for the survey site Bellingcat and author of a book published in 2022 (in English) on “the Azov movement”, only a minority of the soldiers of the Azov regiment today are carried by far-right or neo-Nazi ideas. In 2015, a spokesman for the brigade, Andriy Diachenko, told the website of the American daily USA Today than “only 10 to 20% of the members of the group [étaient] Nazis ».

This minority constitutes the nucleus of the regiment and continues its provocations to racial hatred, as recently when soldiers filmed themselves smearing pork fat on their bullets for Chechen Muslim military personnel helping Russia.

Despite this, “It’s not a militia that can do whatever it wants, recalls Michael Colborne. It is not independent and must respond to the orders of the Ukrainian state”. As Adrien Nonjon points out, “the purpose of their integration into the National Guard was precisely to prevent these battalions from turning against the State”.

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A far-right party founded with veterans of the Azov regiment

The regiment’s founder, white supremacist Andrei Biletsky, tries to exploit Azov’s political popularity. In the 2014 legislative elections, he won a seat as a deputy.

In 2016, he founded the far-right National Corps party with veterans of the Azov regiment. “It is a far-right revolutionary national movement advocating a third way, believing that Ukraine should neither side with Eurasia nor [de celui] from the Westdescribes Adrien Nonjon. He puts forward a military nationalism according to which war is the best way for the nation to complete its solidification. »

In his 2016 article, Ukrainian historian Vyacheslav Likhachev wrote: “Azov is the starkest example of legalizing, even heroizing, ultranationalism in Ukrainian public discourse. »

In 2017, relatives of National Corps and veterans of the Azov regiment also created a “national militia”, which wants “fight against street crime, drug trafficking and public alcoholism, according to an article by Guardian.

Veterans of the Azov regiment take part in the first congress of the far-right National Corps party, in kyiv on October 14, 2016.

An extreme right almost non-existent in the elections

But all these efforts to turn a regiment’s popularity into ballots seem to have failed. During the 2019 legislative elections, Andreï Biletski loses his mandate as a deputy. The alliance between the ultra-nationalist parties Svoboda, Right Sector and National Corps won only 2% of the vote.

“Azov grew too fast to build a solid basebelieves Adrien Nonjon. The Ukrainian nationalist milieu is extremely divided and Corps national has not been able to adapt its program to the problems of the Ukrainians. Because of the Russian threat, we can also consider that all the Ukrainian parties are today nationalist, for the defense of their nation. »

Although the galaxy formed around Azov has failed at the ballot box, Michael Colborne points out that ultranationalists like Andrei Biletsky have succeeded in integrating and becoming normalized in the Ukrainian political landscape. Due to his great freedom of speech and his ability to multiply his branches (military, political, etc.), Azov also enjoyed strong popularity within ultra-right Western movements. American, Norwegian and even French neo-Nazis traveled to Ukraine to meet its members.

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A regiment that represents less than 2% of the Ukrainian armed forces

It is difficult to say precisely how many people the Azov regiment currently has. Michael Colborne estimated this figure at 2,000 before the war with Russia. Adrien Nonjon rather advances a figure between 3,000 and 5,000 members (with reservists).

The ongoing conflict makes assessment much more difficult due to massive recruitments from the population. What’s more, “The Ukrainian state and the regiment deliberately maintain the vagueness on the exact numbers because it is highly strategic military information”recalls the Inalco researcher.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Ukraine had a total of 196,000 soldiers and 60,000 members of the national guard at the beginning of this year. The regiment would therefore represent no more than 2% of the Ukrainian armed forces.

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