Euromaidan SOS: honest answers to the most common questions about AZOV in the West
1. Neo-Nazi regiment/brigade /battalion Azov?
Informal preamble. I am forced to talk about Azov to foreign journalists from different countries, from India to Brazil, almost every day. Now, against the background of the terrible humanitarian situation in Mariupol, which is being heroically defended by the Azov fighters, I react quite emotionally when the conversation begins, let’s say, with the question: “So to which extent is Azov really a threat?” However, it is important to remember that it is most likely not the person’s fault, that one doesn’t know something, doesn’t understand, or doesn’t know how to critically analyze the information. The fact that the person asks, in my opinion, should be seen as a conscious invitation to enlightenment that should be used.
First of all, when someone, for example, a journalist, asks about the Azov Regiment, I think it is worth finding out what he generally knows about Azov, how does he know about it, and why the question about this unit of the National Guard actually arises. Among Western journalists and everyone who thinks they know something about the “Ukrainian crisis”, almost always the question of “Azov” arises. However, if you ask, a few can even articulate what exactly worries them and where did the reasons for this concern come from.
Most often you have to deal with two options: a) everyone talks about Azov, every media writes about it; b) it is mentioned by Russians in the context of the “denazification”. In the first case, in my opinion, we should limit ourselves to the statement that the media excitement feeds itself: the media write about Azov just and in most cases only because the media write about Azov. It’s just an obsession that is not worth reacting to.
In the second case, we should clearly articulate the absurdity of the idea that any Kremlin assertions have some basis. No one in the right mind would look for the basis for Russian assertions about bio laboratories producing the weapon capable of hitting only ethnic Russians. If the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia claims that Russia did not attack Ukraine, no one will check whether there is really a war going on in Ukraine. Western audiences should just get used to the idea that Russia and its officials are lying, just lying, without any grounds, every time they open their mouths. It is difficult to realize this for a Western person, but it is necessary.
In the cases discussed, it makes sense to limit yourself to the statement that Azov is one of the units of the Ukrainian National Guard, which is right now, while the inquirer is satisfying his curiosity, protecting the civilians of Mariupol from extermination. In most cases, this will be a sufficient answer. It only makes sense to include the details discussed below, when the inquirer really knows something about the subject under discussion.
So, the short answer to the question is no, Azov is not a neo-Nazi regiment.
2. Are all the members of the regiment neonazis?
No, of course. There are no units created based on ideology among Ukrainian National Guard, nor are there any among the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The only possible ideology of any unit of the National Guard of Ukraine is the Disciplinary Statute. Among other rules, it states the obligation to “respect human rights, honor and dignity” and “refrain from expressions and actions which can violate human rights or humiliate honor and dignity of a person”.
Answering not from the technical point of view only, I could add, that there are were individuals with neo-Nazi background and Far-Right views among Azov founders and fighters from the very beginning. However, not all the founders of the battalion had such a background. Among the first fighters of Azov, activists from the Automaidan groups, there were several ethnic Jews (and at least one Israeli citizen) even, for example. Most of the Far Right fighters left the regiment by the end of 2014. The rest of the Right Wing radicals, who clearly articulated their views, were deliberately “cleaned out” by the new commandment of the regiment in 2017. In recent years, there are absolutely no grounds for accusations that neo-Nazis serve in the Azov regiment.
3. Is it a paramilitary or an official structure?
“Azov” is a separate special purpose unit of the National Guard of Ukraine (military unit 3057), an official government unit under command of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. Moreover, in contrast to some volunteer units created in 2014, “Azov” has never been an unofficial unit – it was a part of the MIA from the very beginning. Therefore, it is a mistake to call it “militia”, the term which is still widely used in regards to “Azov”.
4. Who serves in Azov?
Those who are willing to defend the homeland and its people and who have passed the competitive selection process (“Azov” enjoys the benefit of being able to choose – there are a lot of people who are willing to join its ranks).
There are people of different ethnic origins – Russians, Jews, Crimean Tatars among others, of various religious views and political affiliations. There is no limitation on who could be part of it. According to the unit’s officers, the majority of the personnel are Russian-speaking.
5. Is the head of “Azov” also a leader of the far-right party “National Corps”?
No, of course. Active servicemen in Ukraine are not allowed to be members of any political party because defense of the homeland is considered to be above any party interests and political affiliations.
Andriy Biletsky, the head of the political party “National Corps”, who really played a role in the formation of the unit and is rightfully considered to be its founder, headed “Azov” for only a couple of months in the Summer and the beginning of Autumn of 2014, having since returned to political activity. It is no secret that he has been in touch with his own “brainchild”, has been raising money for treatment and rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, has been involving his former brothers in arms to his political projects or commercial organizations (first of all, private security firms), but since October 2014 he doesn’t have any formal relation to the “Azov” unit.
6. Is the National Druzhyny (voluntary detachment for maintaining public order) a part of the Azov Regiment?
No. The National Druzhyny is a public organization, which by the way has not been active for almost two years. It had no direct relation to the National Guard regiment.
However, Ihor Mykhaylenko was a head of The National Druzhyny, who succeeded Andriy Biletsky as a regiment commander.
7. Is the Azov Regiment a fighting wing of the National Corps?
Of course not. The political party has no direct relation to the regiment. The regiment exists separately from the party not only formally but also in the essence. The Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Guard are outside of politics.
However, the creation of Azov is what Andriy Biletsky is the most proud of. It was a participation in the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation), the liberation of Mariupol and the successful PR of the regiment that made Andriy Biletsky famous and popular, ensured his election to the parliament and his presence in the media. That is why Biletsky is trying to exploit the Azov «trademark» in political life.
His first political project after returning to public life in October 2014 was even called the Azov Civil Corps. Andriy Biletsky was happy to join the veterans of the regiment to the National Corps Party, and a set of public organizations around the party he called the “Azov movement.”
Certain informal links continue to be maintained. But it is more about public legitimation and conversion of a certain social capital, which was earned in the ATO, into a political one. The same was done by other public figures who became known to the general public as the founders of volunteer formations – for example, the first commander of the Donbas Battalion Semen Semenchenko.
8. Is the organization considered to be extremist?
It is considered in the Russian Federation, where, as we know, Facebook and Instagram are considered as extremist resources.
However, we can mention that a few years ago in the United States the initiative to recognize Azov as a foreign terrorist organization was discussed. Back then, against the background of the growth of far-right terror in the country, for the first time the congressmen decided to demonstratively include in the list of such organizations some foreign group of “white supremacists”, as they call the far-right in the United States (previously, only Islamists, some national separatist movements and left-wing radicals were on this list).
However, the initiators who were guided by the image created by the media, did not even understand that this was a detachment of a state body and not an informal paramilitary group. After clarification, the initiative has been forgotten, and the first group of “white supremacists” to be included in the list of terrorist organizations was the Russian Imperial Movement.
9. Are the members of the organization involved in war crimes?
It is known that only a court determines whether a person is a criminal. However, with the regard to war crimes committed during the armed conflict, it is more difficult. Even Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu have not been recognized as war criminals, at least not yet. If we rephrase the question: “Are there credible grounds to assume that Azov fighters may be suspected of committing war crimes”, the answer will be yes. There are grounds to believe that in 2014 some fighters violated the laws and customs of war towards civilians. However, such cases were not systemic and those who probably committed crimes have left the unit by 2015 at the latest.
In addition, it is worth adding that there are grounds to believe that in 2014 rare violations of the laws and customs of war took place in almost every unit. Moreover, according to the known information, there were fewer violations like this in “ideological” formations, such as Azov or the Ukrainian Right Sector Volunteer Corps, than in the “ordinary ones“ (for example, the infamous battalion Tornado).
It seems that the SBU (The Security Service of Ukraine) was the biggest human rights violator in the ATO zone (Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone) from the contact line side controlled by the Ukrainian government. However, the scale of the violations cannot be compared to the bloody lawlessness of pro-Russian armed groups on the temporarily occupied territory.
10. Does Azov stand for “the purity of the white race”?
No, never. Not even the National Corps political party stands for this. Yes, Andriy Biletsky personally made racist statements in 2006-2010. However, even in informal communication, no such statements from him have been recorded since at least the beginning of 2014.
11. Does Azov conduct torchlight processions?
I have never asked myself such a question as well as the question of whether Azov plays ping pong. I’m not sure it’s really worth paying attention to. This in no way characterizes either the activity or the nature of the ideology. In Oslo a torchlight procession commemorated the victims of the terrorist attack of the white supremacist Anders Breivik. The victory over Nazism is celebrated in Moscow with a torchlight procession. The torchlight procession is practiced by the Red Cross Society in Italy and the military in Germany, it was practiced by Soviet Communists and pioneers after all.
12. Does Azov glorify Nazi ideology?
“We despise Nazism and Stalinism”, – is stated in one of the last posts on the official Telegram channel of the unit (from March 28). By the way, it is stated in Russian.
13. Azov fighters commit war crimes in Mariupol (both stories of 2014 and from February 24 separately)
As mentioned above, individual cases with a certain probability could take place. However, such cases were not (and are not) systemic at all. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, which was present in Mariupol until the end of February 2022 (and continues to work in Donetsk), did not record such cases at all. Even the Russian side did not provide convincing evidence of such crimes.
Yet, any hypothetical violations by Azov, which protects civilians from the aggressor, cannot even theoretically be compared to airstrikes on the maternity hospital or the drama theater where women and children hid. Against the background of a city with 400,000 pre-war population wiped off the face of the earth, no Russian accusations against the defenders of Mariupol deserve to be even mentioned.
So, if everything is so obvious, why does the Western audience continue to express concern about Azov?
There are three answers to this question.
First of all, the far-right and in some cases neo-Nazi background of some of the founders of Azov is true. This was partly reflected in the emblem of Azov. But this was not reflected in Azov’s activities in any way. For example, in Mariupol there was a fairly large Jewish community, there was a synagogue functioning, which in eight years has never encountered any problems with any Azov fighter.
A similar situation is with Muslims in the city or a large (about 100,000) Greek community. The greatest danger for the ethnic communities of Mariupol, as well as for all the residents of the city, is the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons on civilian infrastructure by Russian aggressors. But the fact that Andriy Biletsky, the founder of Azov, continued to exploit the regiment’s name for years in creating new political projects of nationalist orientations, additionally confused the outside observer.
I hope that the detailed analysis of the questions concerning Azov will help to understand this issue.
But there are two other factors.
Secondly, Russian propaganda is involved in creating the image of a criminal neo-Nazi “national battalion”. It doesn’t neglect outright lies, but using certain objective facts (such as the emblem of the regiment and the political past of its founders), it has managed to create an impressive picture. This picture is virtual, but we should not underestimate Russian propaganda.
It is systematic, professional and surprisingly convincing, especially in Western society, which is not used to such outright lies. Western society tends to reject the black-and-white vision of the world and to consider more complex models. Typically for this vision is to look for the truth somewhere in the middle, between the polar points of view. But the truth, as Adam Michnyk said, does not lie in the middle, it lies where it lies.
Well, finally the most unpleasant. Any propaganda works only when people are ready to believe in it. It seems convincing to a person what he already internally agrees with. It is convenient for the West to lull itself with fables that everything is complicated and ambiguous, because in this case you can just not interfere in anything without reproaches from the sensitive conscience.
One of the factors that determine the viability of the myth about Ukrainian fascism is that it is beneficial not only to Russia. This is a great argument for doing nothing, watching Ukraine fighting alone with the predominant enemy, and not feeling much sympathy for the fighters of the same Azov, who died in an unequal battle, defending Mariupol from the last forces. And that is why, and not just because it is not true, the myth about Ukrainian fascism must die as soon as possible.
Prepared by: Vyacheslav Lykhachov, an Israeli originally from Russia. Historian, political analyst. Member of the Expert Council of the Center for Civil Liberties. Head of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group. For fifteen years he has been leading a Hate Crimes Monitoring Program in Ukraine. For more than twenty years, he has been studying xenophobia and far-right movements in the post-Soviet space. Author of books «Nazism in Russia», «Right-Wing Extremism in Ukraine: The Phenomenon of ‘Svoboda’». Author of research reports «The Far Right in the Conflict between Russia and Ukraine», «Far-right Extremism as a Threat to Ukrainian Democracy», and others. He was actively involved in the preservation of Jewish historical and cultural heritage. A founder of the Chernivtsi Museum of the History and Culture of Bukovinian Jews. He worked at the Holocaust Museum at the Israeli National Memorial to the Victims of the Catastrophe and Heroism of Yad Vashem (Jerusalem). He taught at the Institute of Asia and Africa in Moscow State University and the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”.