The Special Operations Detachment "Azov", often known as Azov Battalion, Azov Regiment, or Azov Detachment, (Ukrainian: Полк Азов) is a Ukrainian National Guard regiment, based in Mariupol in the Azov Sea coastal region. It saw its first combat experience recapturing Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists forces in June 2014. Initially a volunteer militia, formed as the Azov Battalion on 5 May 2014 during the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, since 12 November 2014 Azov has been incorporated into the Special Operations Forces of the Army of Ukraine. All regiment members are contract soldiers serving in the Special Operations Forces of Ukraine. Since its inception the regiment lost 41 soldiers in the course of the War in Donbass. In 2014 it gained notoriety after allegations of torture and war crimes, as well as the Nazi sympathies and usage of associated symbols by some of its members. Around 10-20% of the unit were Nazis in 2014. At the same time, the regiment's soldiers come from 22 countries and are of various backgrounds, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Americans, Russians and Arabs.
|Azov Special Operations Unit
("Підрозділ спеціального призначення «Азов»")
Sleeve badge of the Azov Regiment
|Active||5 May 2014 – present|
|Branch||Army of Ukraine|
|Garrison/HQ||Urzuf, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. Other HQs and detachments in Kiev, Berdiansk and Mariupol|
|Colours||Blue and Gold|
|Andriy Biletsky, Vadym Troyan, Igor Tcherkass, Ihor Mosiychuk, Dmytro Linko|
More than half of the regiment's members speak Russian and come from eastern Ukraine, including cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The regiment's first commander was far-right nationalist Andriy Biletsky, who led the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly and Patriot of Ukraine. In its early days, Azov was the Ministry of Internal Affairs' special police company, led by Volodymyr Shpara, the leader of the Vasylkiv, Kiev, branch of Patriot of Ukraine and Right Sector. Under the "Azov" umbrella were also created the non-governmental organization "Azov Civil Corps" and the political party National Corps.
The Azov Battalion has its roots in a group of Ultras of FC Metalist Kharkiv named "Sect 82" (1982 is the year of the founding of the group). "Sect 82" was (at least until September 2013) allied with FC Spartak Moscow Ultras. Late February 2014, during the 2014 Ukrainian crisis when a separatist movement was active in Kharkiv, "Sect 82" occupied the Kharkiv Oblast regional administration building in Kharkiv and served as a local "self-defense"-force. Soon, on the basis of "Sect 82" there was formed a volunteer militia called "Eastern Corps".
On 13 April 2014 Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov[nb 1] issued a decree authorizing creating new paramilitary forces from civilians up to 12,000. The Azov Battalion (using "Eastern Corps" as its backbone) was formed on 5 May 2014 in Berdiansk by a white nationalist. Many members of Patriot of Ukraine joined the battalion. Among the early patrons of the battalion were a member of the Verkhovna Rada Oleh Lyashko, and an ultra-nationalist Dmytro Korchynsky and businessman Serhiy Taruta and Avakov. The battalion then received training near Kiev by instructors with experience in the Georgian Armed Forces. The battalion started in Mariupol where it was involved in combat, and was briefly relocated to Berdiansk.
On 10 June, the battalion dismissed deputy commander Yaroslav Honchar and distanced themselves from him after Honchar made criticizing statements about looting and debauchery in Azov battalion.
In early September 2014, the Azov battalion was engaged in the Second Battle of Mariupol. Regarding the ceasefire agreed on 5 September, Biletskiy stated "If it was a tactical move there is nothing wrong with it ... if it's an attempt to reach an agreement concerning Ukrainian soil with separatists then obviously it's a betrayal."
In September 2014 the Azov battalion was expanded from a battalion to a regiment and enrolled into the National Guard of Ukraine as a "special police battalion"; many supporting websites were either shut down, or access to the sites was restricted.
In the 26 October 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary election Biletsky, the battalion's commander, won a constituency seat (as an independent candidate) in Kiev's Obolon Raion (Biletsky hails from Kharkiv) in the Ukrainian parliament. In his constituency Biletsky won with 33.75% of the votes; runner up Vadym Stoylar followed with 17.17%. In parliament Biletsky did not join any faction. Member of the battalion Oleh Petrenko is also a MP for Petro Poroshenko Bloc after winning a constituency seat in Cherkasy in the same election. In his constituency Petrenko won with 41.15% of the votes; runner up Valentyna Zhukovska followed with 23.65%.
On 11 November 2014 the Azov Battalion was officially incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine.
In January 2015, the Azov Battalion was promised a tank company and artillery units to reinforce its ranks. In 2015, "Azov" Battalion was updated to Regiment status and renamed "Special Operations Regiment". Total strength is above 1000 officers and men (June 2015). A tank company (with T-64 and T-72 tanks) was also formed. "Azov" Regiment has then focused its capabilities on light infantry duties, such as reconnaissance, special patrols and tactical interdiction.
As of late March 2015, despite a second ceasefire agreement (Minsk II), the Azov Battalion continued to prepare for war, with the group's leader seeing the ceasefire as "appeasement". In March 2015 Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced that the Azov Regiment would be among the first units to be trained by United States Army troops in their Operation Fearless Guardian training mission. US training however was withdrawn on 12 June 2015, as US House of Representatives passed an amendment blocking any aid (including arms and training) to the battalion due to its Neo-Nazi background. After the vote Congressman John Conyers thanked the House saying "I am grateful that the House of Representatives unanimously passed my amendments last night to ensure that our military does not train members of the repulsive neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, along with my measures to keep the dangerous and easily trafficked MANPADs out of these unstable regions."
In August 2015, the Ukrainian government pulled all volunteer battalions, including the Azov Regiment, off the front lines around Mariupol, replacing them with regular military units. The Azov Regiment was moved to a base in Urzuf, in the former seaside villa of deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the southwest of Mariupol.
On 27 April 2016, 300 troops and light-armored vehicles from the regiment were assigned to Odessa to safeguard public order after Mikheil Saakashvili wrote in social media about a rash of pro-Russian "titushki" attacks on civilians.
Leadership and organisationEdit
The regiment's first commander was Andriy Biletsky. Biletsky stayed out of the public spotlight working on expanding Azov to battalion size. In summer 2014, he took the command of the unit. In August 2014, he was awarded a military decoration, "Order For Courage", by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and promoted to lieutenant colonel of in the Interior Ministry's police forces. Because Biletsky was elected into the Ukrainian parliament in the 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary election he left the battalion in October 2016 (Ukrainian elected officials can not be in the military (nor police)).
A 16 July 2014 report placed the Azov Battalion's strength at 300. An earlier report stated that on June 23 almost 600 volunteers, including women, took oaths to join the "Donbass" and "Azov" battalions. Recruits receive a salary of US$360. The unit included 900 volunteers as of March 2015[update].
The battalion was originally nicknamed the "Men in Black" or "Black Corps" (ukr.: "Chorny Korpus"), a counter to Russia's Little Green Men due to their use of all-black fatigues and masks when raiding pro-Russian checkpoints.
The Ukrainian military decided to turn all volunteer battalions into regular military units for internal policy reasons. The Ukrainian government has opted to deploy only volunteer units to the Donbass front.
In January 2015 "Azov" Battalion was officially upgraded to Regiment and its structures took a definite shape. A mobilization center and a training facility was established in Kiev, in former industrial complex "ATEK" for selection and examination; and the personnel, composed by volunteers from all over Ukraine, has to pass through a screening and vetting process, quite similar to army's mobilization procedures.
Recruits are then assigned to the combat units of the Regiments, or to support and supply units, where they undertake intensive combat drills training. Reconnaissance and EOD units are considered the élite of "Azov" and are manned by most experienced personnel (typically, former Ukrainian Army special forces or similar). Since 2015 the Battalion has been upgraded to Regimental status and "Azov" is now officially called "Special Operations Regiment", with combat duties focused on reconnaissance, counter-reconnaissance, EOD disposal, interdiction and special weapons operations.
According to The Daily Telegraph, the Azov Battalion's extremist politics and professional English social media pages have attracted foreign fighters, including people from Ireland, Italy, United Kingdom, France, America, Greece and Scandinavia. Sweden, Spain and Russia. About 50 Russian nationals are members of the Azov regiment.
Around 20 Croatians joined the Azov Battalion in January 2015, ranging in age from 20 to 45. After Croatia's foreign minister Vesna Pusić confirmed that there are Croatian volunteers in Ukraine, the Russian Foreign Ministry called Croatia to withdraw its citizens from armed conflict. Pusić replied that Croatia opposes any involvement of Croatian citizens in the war, and stated that they went on their private initiative and that Croatia is working on bringing them home. Interior minister Ranko Ostojić said that Croatian volunteers are fighting on the side of the legitimate Ukrainian government and are not committing any kind of crime according to Croatian law.
According to French volunteers fighting for the insurgent side, the Azov Battalion has a French instructor named Gaston Besson who tried to recruit them over the internet and also a former soldier of the French Foreign Legion named Thibault Dupire who fought in the regiment at the beginning of 2015.
According to Minsk Ceasefire Agreements, foreign fighters are not allowed to serve in Ukraine's military: since "Azov" Regiment was granted full military status, its foreign volunteers were compelled either to take Ukrainian citizenship, or to leave the Regiment. Despite the Minsk Ceasefire Agreements, the regiment still has foreign fighters, including an ex-British army serviceman Chris Garrett, a Brazilian nationalist named "Frank Horrigan" and a 33-year-old former soldier in the Greek army and French Foreign Legion known by the nom-de-guerre of "The Greek".
Human rights violations and war crimesEdit
Reports published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR) have connected the Azov Battalion to alleged war crimes such as mass looting, unlawful detention, and torture. An OHCHR report from March 2016 stated that the organisation had "collected detailed information about the conduct of hostilities by Ukrainian armed forces and the Azov regiment in and around Shyrokyne (31km east of Mariupol), from the summer of 2014 to date. Mass looting of civilian homes was documented, as well as targeting of civilian areas between September 2014 and February 2015". Another OHCHR report documented an instance of alleged rape and torture, writing: "A man with a mental disability was subject to cruel treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence by 8 to 10 members of the 'Azov' and 'Donbas' battalions in August–September 2014. The victim's health subsequently deteriorated and he was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital." A report from January 2015 claimed that a Donetsk Republic supporter was detained and tortured with electricity and waterboarding, which resulted in his confessing spying for pro-Russian militants.
Rodnovery, symbolism and neo-NazismEdit
Most soldiers of Azov are followers of a Ukrainian nationalist type of Rodnovery (Slavic Native Faith), wherefrom they derive some of their symbolism (swastika-like symbol kolovrat and the tryzub, a Rurikhid symbol). They have also established Rodnover shrines for their religious rites, including one in Mariupol dedicated to Perun. Because of the use of such symbols, Azov has been described as having connections with neo-Nazism, noting that members wear neo-Nazi and SS symbols and regalia and that the unit has neo-Nazis among its ranks. German ZDF television observed Azov fighters wearing helmets with swastika symbols and "the SS runes of Hitler's infamous black-uniformed elite corps", and on other occasions some of the soldiers have been reported to have SS tattoos.
In writing about the battalion's ideology, Richard Sakwa states that its founding member Andryi Biletsky (leader of the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly) made statements about "historic mission" to lead "white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival ... a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen"; according to Sakwa, this ideology has its root in national integralism of 1920s and 30s.
Ivan Katchanovski in an interview with Radio Sweden described the ideology of the battalion in the following words: "The SNA/PU advocates a neo-Nazi ideology along with ultranationalism and racism. The same applies to the SNA/PU commanders and members of the Azov battalion and many football ultras and others who serve in this formation. Biletsky is called the White Leader."
Despite the accusations of being a far-right[nb 2] or neo-Nazi movement, Ukrainian ministerial advisor Anton Geraschenko has denied the association with Nazism, claiming that the formation is merely a "party of Ukrainian patriots".[nb 3][nb 4] A spokesman for the unit has said this label applies to 10–20% of its recruits, and one commander attributed this ideology to misguided youth.
On 11 June 2015, the United States House of Representatives passed amendments blocking any training of Azov by American forces, citing its neo-Nazi background as the reason. On 26 June, the Canadian defence minister declared as well that training by Canadian forces or support would not be provided to Azov. However the amendment was later lifted when Azov became regular military unit subordinated to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. This move has been protested by Simon Wiesenthal Center which stated that the move highlights danger of Holocaust distortion in Ukraine.
According to Shaun Walker, troops of the Azov Battalion use the logo of the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly, which resembles a Wolfsangel on their banner. Members of the unit have stated that the inverted Wolfsangel has a different history in Ukraine and represents the Ukrainian words for "united nation". In addition to the Wolfsangel, Azov soldiers have also been observed using other aforementioned Nazi-associated symbols on their uniforms. The Azov Battalion has dismissed accusations that their unit promotes fascist symbolism, stating that any association with Nazi symbolism is a result of Russian propaganda.
While Azov Battalion troops have denied that the organization has any neo-Nazi or white supremacist beliefs, journalists stated that "numerous swastika tattoos of different members and their tendency to go into battle with swastikas or SS insignias drawn on their helmets make it very difficult for other members of the group to plausibly deny any neo-Nazi affiliations". The organization has also incorporated the Black Sun into its banner.
A Polish war correspondent managed (in the summer of 2015) to gain access to one of Azov's bases located in former holiday resort Majak and Azov fighters also demonstrated to him Nazi tattoos as well as emblems on their uniforms. Foreign Policy journalists witnessed a teenage girl being publicly punished for drawing a swastika in her diary during one of Azov's 2016 summer camps.
In late 2016, Brazilian investigators uncovered an alleged plot to recruit Brazilian far-right activists for the Azov Battalion.
Civil Corps AzovEdit
The Azov Battalion also has a non-military wing and non-governmental organization called "Civil Corps Azov" created "for political and social struggle". In 2016 members of Civil Corps Azov founded a social center "Cossack House" in Kiev.
National Corps (political party)Edit
In September 2016, the founder of the Azov Battalion, Andriy Biletsky, said that the Civil Corps Azov would be transformed into a political party. In early October 2016, Biletsky stated that the new party would use neither names nor symbols of the Azov Battalion. On 14 October 2016, this political party called National Corps held its first congress. There delegates elected Biletsky to head the party for the next four years. National Corps is based on the (political party) "Patriot Party" (which was named "Civic Movement Honest Business" before 2015,) "Patriot Party" was already registered by the Ministry of Justice.
The party advocates expanding the powers of the President of Ukraine by granting him authority to be the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as well as the head of government. National Corps favors restoring Ukraine's nuclear power status and nationalizing enterprises which were government owned when Ukraine became independent in 1991. The party wants Ukraine to break all ties with Russia (diplomatic, trade and culture ties). It is against Ukraine joining the European Union and against Ukraine joining NATO. It wants to create the "Intermarium Union" with Baltic and Black Sea nations (to include Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, etcetera). The party advocates expanding the right to bear arms and initiate public discussion about restoring capital punishment in Ukraine for treason and the embezzlement of government funds by officials in excessive amounts.
- Arsen Avakov was the first Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine since the overthrow of the Yanukovich government.
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- Early March 2015 spokesman for the Azov Brigade Andriy Diachenko told USA Today "only 10% to 20% of the group's members are Nazis. "I know Alex is a Nazi, but it's his personal ideology. It has nothing to do with the official ideology of the Azov".
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[The] members of Azov Battalion ... have been labeled patriots by some, neo-Nazis by others....
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- Chłopcy z „Azowa” bronią Mariupola. Ukrainy, Europy i… białej rasy, Intera (8 July 2015)
- (in Ukrainian) "Azov" become party, gazeta.ua (28 May 2016)
- (in Russian) Ukrainian battalion "Azov" created his own political party, RBC Information Systems (12 October 2016)
- (in Ukrainian) "Azov" creates a political party, Ukrayinska Pravda (12 October 2016)
- (in Ukrainian) "Azov" created a party who wants to restore the nuclear potential and legalization of firearms, Ukrayinska Pravda (14 October 2016)
- Briefing No. 27 .pdf Ukraine’s volunteer battalions – advantages and challenge article by Margaret Klein for Swedish Defence Research Agency