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Azov Regiment

Updated: Mar 11, 2023


Insurgency Overview


The Azov Regiment ‘Полк Азов’ (formally Battalion) is a Special Purpose Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard. Comprised solely of volunteers, the Battalion was founded on May 5th 2014, by Andriy Biletsky, the ‘Vasyl’kiv Terrorists’ Serhiy Bevz, Ihor Mosiychuk, Volodymyr Shpara, and Oleh Odnorozhenko, in Berdyan’sk, near Ukraine's Azov sea – from which the group derives its name (1). As self-proclaimed Ukrainian nationalists, the group formed as a response to the Ukrainian military’s inability to effectively counter Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of the nation (2). Azov gained infamy due to the far-right leanings of its commander Andriy Biletsky, and its use of far-right symbolism such as the inverted wolfsangel (utilised by the SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’), as well as the Schwarze Sonne – a design commissioned by Heinrich Himmler, and which decorated the floor of the SS’s Wewelslburg Castle (3)(4). In light of this, in Azov’s early stages, it was primarily bankrolled by Jewish Oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi (5).


In the present day, Azov has morphed and divided into a military, paramilitary, and political system. The incorporation of the Azov regiment into the regular Ukrainian armed forces means that it is distinct from the wider ‘Azov Movement’ which includes the political party National Corps, headed by Andriy Biletsky, and the Centuria group (formally National Militia), a paramilitary street patrol (6). Due to its use of far-right symbolism, various political commentators have marked the regiment and wider movement as neo-Nazi (7). Furthermore, Azov has become a key target of Russian propaganda in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian information war, with Azov being labelled a principal ‘casus belli’ for Russia's special ‘de-Nazification’ operation in Ukraine, since which, the group has operated in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Bakmut and Kyiv (8)(9)(10).


History & Foundations

The birth of Azov is found in the closing weeks of the Euromaidan protests (2013-2014), a period of civil unrest which resulted in the ousting of the nation's Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych (11). In the aftermath, draft bill 4271 “On the Granting of Amnesty in Ukraine” was passed through the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) (12). The bill exonerated political prisoners – including Andriy Biletsky, Oleh Odnorozhenko and the ‘Vasyl’kiv Terorrists’ Serhiy Bevz, Ihor Mosiychuk, and Volodymyr Shpara – who had been charged with plotting to blow up a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the town of Boryspil’ (13). Biletsky, who had in 2005 and 2008 created the far-right, ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine and Social Nationalist Assembly political parties (which also utilised the wolfsangel and Schwarze Sonne symbols), alongside far-right football ultras ‘Sect 82’ and ‘Dynamo Kyiv’ created the ‘Black Corps’, a street patrolling militia based in Kharkiv (14)(15)(16).


Later, in April 2014, the nation's interior minister issued a decree enabling the creation of volunteer paramilitary units as the military became increasingly unable to deal with Russia’s covert operation in Crimea and the ongoing conflict in the Donbas (17). On May 5th 2014, Azov officially became a volunteer battalion (18). Not long after, on June 13th, the Battalion recaptured Mariupol, a strategically important port city, which connects the Donbas to Crimea, from insurgents of the newly-created Donetsk people’s Republic (19). The success of this offensive earned Azov its initial credibility and subsequent infamy as images released after the battle illustrated the battalion's persistent use of far-right and Nazi symbolism (20). In September, the Battalion formally became a Regiment and came under the command of the Ukrainian National Guard in November 2014 (21)(22).


Objectives & Ideology


The Azov Battalion’s (now Regiment) overarching objective since its conception has been the defence of Ukrainian territory from first, Russian-backed separatists with the onset of the war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Donbas in 2014, and continues to the present, with the onset of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, the objectives and ideology of the wider ‘Azov Movement’ which includes a political party, the ‘National corps’ and a paramilitary structure, ‘Centuria’ are murkier (23). Andriy Biletsky’s direct influence on the Regiment dissipated with his entry into Politics in October 2014, although many veterans of the first and second sieges of Mariupol still view Biletsky as the Azov movement's de-facto ideological leader.


Initially, the Battalion's ideology came from a convergence of the far-right leanings of the Sect 82 and Dynamo Kyiv football ultras, as well as the ultranationalist, white supremacist rhetoric of the Patriot of Ukraine and Social-National Assembly. In the current period, the Azov Movement has referred to the works of Dmytro Donstov (an advocate of militant nationalism), Ernest Junger (referred to frequently by the Azov Movements spokeswoman Olena Semenyaka) and Dominique Venner of France’s 1960s ‘Nouvelle Droite’ movement (24). The Regiment, however, has distanced itself from the Azov movement on paper, and as a unit of the Ukrainian military cannot be politically aligned (25). Furthermore, after the surrender of a vast majority of the Azov regiment following the capture of the Azovstal iron and steel works by Russian forces on May 20, 2022, the creation of a new ‘Azov Kyiv’ territorial defence unit was announced (26). The new unit, which forms part of a Special Operations Force ‘Azov SSO Regiment,’ has dropped the Wolfsangel and Schwarze Sonne symbolism completely, in favour of the ‘Tryzub’ (Ukrainian Three Tridents) (27). The original Azov Regiment, however, retains the Wolfsangel and Schwarze Sonne Symbols (28).


Military & Political Abilities


Since its integration into the Ukrainian National Guard, Azov has existed as a regularly armed unit. However, since 2018, the United States in its annual defence appropriations budget has banned Material support from reaching the Regiment (29). Despite this, since 2019, the regiment has incorporated a T-64 tank company, two motorised infantry battalions as well as surveillance and drone reconnaissance squads, sniper teams, canine units, as well as engineering, logistics and research teams (30). Furthermore, its fierce fighting tactics (such as dipping bullets in pig fat to be used against Muslim Chechen fighters) have somewhat mythologised the Regiment and its off-branches (31).


Formally, the Azov regiment is no longer aligned with the Azov movement nor its political party the National Corps, which was referred to as a nationalist hate group by the US Department of State in 2018 (32). Additionally, National Corps is an advocate of the ‘Intermarium Project’, a politico-military alliance which advocates the creation of a union of states from nations west-east of the Baltic and Black seas to nations north-south from the arctic ocean to the Mediterranean sea (33). However, National Corps has continuously struggled to garner wide support due to its hardline ideology, with the party gaining less than 3% of votes in Ukraine's 2019 parliamentary election (34).


Approach to Resistance


Prior to Azov's conception, its soon-to-be members played a crucial role in the Euromaidan protests, as their knowledge of street fighting proved invaluable to the wider pushback against President Yanukovych and his Berkut (Ukrainian riot police) (35)(36). With Azov’s materialisation into a lightly armed volunteer Battalion and later a fully armed Regiment, it has faced various accusations of human rights abuses regarding its frontline actions, from arbitrary detentions, abuse, torture and weapons trafficking (37). Following the capture of the majority of the Azov Regiment at Mariupol’s Azovstal iron and steel works in May 2022, the Regiment's remaining members regrouped and are currently training under the guidance of American private security company ‘Mozart Group’ (38). Furthermore, during the early stages of the Russian invasion, a special sabotage unit ‘Kraken’, consisting of Azov veterans and Azov movement members, has been operating alongside Ukraine’s main intelligence Directorate (HUR) (39). In addition, the Azov movement uses various campaigns to attract new members as well as garner support for the Regiment.


International Relations & Alliances


Since its incorporation into the Ukrainian armed forces, the Azov regiment has released many of its foreign fighters and distanced itself from the far-right organizations which originally formed its ideological and cultural foundation. Prior to the Regiment’s incorporation however, the Azov Battalion housed various foreign fighters such as Swedish white nationalist and sniper, Mikael Skillt (now commander of the Ukrainian SSO), as well as a former Greek army serviceman and French Foreign Legion veteran, nicknamed “the Greek” (40).


Furthermore, the various articles pushed by both Western and Russian news channels have increased Azov’s visibility in the international realm. This is seen through the deportation of two American ‘Atomwaffen’ members who sought to join the regiment in 2020 (41). In addition, some Azov members have been seen at various Mixed Martial Arts tournaments with members of ‘Ouest Casual’ (a French nationalist group) and ‘Zouaves Paris’ (a French neo-nazi militant group which has now disbanded) (42)(43). The Azov Movement also utilises music festivals such as ‘Asgardei’, through which fans of National Socialist Black Metal gather in Kyiv (44). Formally based in Russia and founded by Neo-nazi Alexey Levkin, the festival draws in metal heads and members of far-right organizations from all over Europe (45). Thus, while the abilities of the Azov Regiment to interact and recruit from inside the Ukrainian and wider European far-right scene have diminished, those of the Azov Movement have not.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Andreas Umland, “Irregular Militias and Radical Nationalism in Post-Euromaydan Ukraine: The Prehistory and Emergence of the ‘Azov’ Battalion in 2014,” Terrorism and Political Violence 31, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 105–31, https://doi.org/10.1080/09546553.2018.1555974.


(2) Michael Colborne, From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right (BoD – Books on Demand, 2022).


(3) - Federico Borgonovo, “Azov Battalion: Extreme Right-Wing Militarization and Hybrid Warfare,” Sicurezza Terrorismo Soceità 15, no. 1 (2022): 53–61.


(4) - Stanford University, Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Freeman Spogli Institute, “MMP: Azov Battalion,” cisac.fsi.stanford.edu, 2022, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/azov-battalion.


(5) - Andreas Umland, “Irregular Militias and Radical Nationalism in Post-Euromaydan Ukraine: The Prehistory and Emergence of the ‘Azov’ Battalion in 2014,” Terrorism and Political Violence 31, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 105–31.


(6) - Natalia Shapovalova, “The Two Faces of Conservative Civil Society in Ukraine” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2018).


(7) - AlJazeera, “Profile: Who Are Ukraine’s Far-Right Azov Regiment?,” www.aljazeera.com, March 1, 2022, https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/1/who-are-the-azov-regiment&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1674224835572450&usg=AOvVaw1sHDoR6QTvhHnwOydbsCRD.


(8) - Andreas Umland, “Irregular Militias and Radical Nationalism in Post-Euromaydan Ukraine: The Prehistory and Emergence of the ‘Azov’ Battalion in 2014,” Terrorism and Political Violence 31, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 105–31.


(9) - Don Rassler, “External Impacts and the Extremism Question in the War in Ukraine: Considerations for Practitioners,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, June 23, 2022, https://ctc.westpoint.edu/external-impacts-and-the-extremism-question-in-the-war-in-ukraine-considerations-for-practitioners/.


(10) - Eviane Leidig, An Interview with Bellingcat Journalist Michael Colborne on the Azov Movement in Ukraine, Icct.nl, March 29, 2022, https://icct.nl/publication/ukraine-bellingcat-journalist-michael-colborne/.


(11) - Andreas Umland, “Irregular Militias and Radical Nationalism in Post-Euromaydan Ukraine: The Prehistory and Emergence of the ‘Azov’ Battalion in 2014,” Terrorism and Political Violence 31, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 105–31.


(12) - Ibid.


(13) - Ibid.


(14) - Ibid.


(15) - Federico Borgonovo, “Azov Battalion: Extreme Right-Wing Militarization and Hybrid Warfare,” Sicurezza Terrorismo Soceità 15, no. 1 (2022): 53–61.


(16) - Sébastien Bourdon, “At Ukraine’s Asgardsrei, a French Connection,” bellingcat, May 1, 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/05/01/at-ukraines-asgardsrei-a-french-connection/.


(17) - Stanford University, Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Freeman Spogli Institute, “MMP: Azov Battalion,” cisac.fsi.stanford.edu, 2022, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/azov-battalion.


(18) - Andreas Umland, “Irregular Militias and Radical Nationalism in Post-Euromaydan Ukraine: The Prehistory and Emergence of the ‘Azov’ Battalion in 2014,” Terrorism and Political Violence 31, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 105–31.


(19) - Michael Colborne, From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right (BoD – Books on Demand, 2022).


(20) - Federico Borgonovo, “Azov Battalion: Extreme Right-Wing Militarization and Hybrid Warfare,” Sicurezza Terrorismo Soceità 15, no. 1 (2022): 53–61.


(21) - Andreas Umland, “Irregular Militias and Radical Nationalism in Post-Euromaydan Ukraine: The Prehistory and Emergence of the ‘Azov’ Battalion in 2014,” Terrorism and Political Violence 31, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 105–31.


(22) - Ibid.


(23) - Michael Colborne, From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right (BoD – Books on Demand, 2022).


(24) - Michael Colborne, From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right (BoD – Books on Demand, 2022).


(25) - Alasdair McCallum, “Much Azov about Nothing: How the ‘Ukrainian Neo-Nazis’ Canard Fooled the World,” Monash Lens, August 19, 2022, https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2022/08/19/1384992/much-azov-about-nothing-how-the-ukrainian-neo-nazis-canard-fooled-the-world.


(26) - Stanford University, Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Freeman Spogli Institute, “MMP: Azov Battalion,” cisac.fsi.stanford.edu, 2022.


(27) - Ibid.


(28) - Ibid.


(29) - Stanford University, Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Freeman Spogli Institute, “MMP: Azov Battalion,” cisac.fsi.stanford.edu, 2022.


(30) - Ibid.


(31) - Rimal Farrukh, “Ukraine’s ‘Neo-Nazi’ Battalion Is Greasing Bullets in Pig Fat for Russia’s Muslim Soldiers,” www.vice.com, March 1, 2022, https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgd73j/ukraine-neo-nazi-battalion-azov-bullets-pig-fat-chechen-russia.


(32) - Don Rassler, “External Impacts and the Extremism Question in the War in Ukraine: Considerations for Practitioners,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, June 23, 2022.


(33) - Federico Borgonovo, “Azov Battalion: Extreme Right-Wing Militarization and Hybrid Warfare,” Sicurezza Terrorismo Soceità 15, no. 1 (2022): 53–61.


(34) - Don Rassler, “External Impacts and the Extremism Question in the War in Ukraine: Considerations for Practitioners,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, June 23, 2022.


(35) - Federico Borgonovo, “Azov Battalion: Extreme Right-Wing Militarization and Hybrid Warfare,” Sicurezza Terrorismo Soceità 15, no. 1 (2022): 53–61.


(36) - Michael Colborne, From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right (BoD – Books on Demand, 2022)


(37) - Don Rassler, “External Impacts and the Extremism Question in the War in Ukraine: Considerations for Practitioners,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, June 23, 2022.


(38) - Stanford University, Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Freeman Spogli Institute, “MMP: Azov Battalion,” cisac.fsi.stanford.edu, 2022.


(39) - Fredrick Kunkle and Serhii Korolchuk, “Ukraine’s Volunteer ‘Kraken’ Unit Takes the Fight to the Russians,” The Washington Post, June 3AD, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/06/03/ukraine-kraken-volunteer-military-unit/.


(40) - Kacper Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood: The Limited 2022 Far-Right Foreign Fighter Mobilization to Ukraine,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, June 23, 2022, https://ctc.westpoint.edu/a-trickle-not-a-flood-the-limited-2022-far-right-foreign-fighter-mobilization-to-ukraine/.


(41) - Sam Biddle, “Facebook Allows Praise of Neo-Nazi Ukrainian Battalion If It Fights Russian Invasion,” The Intercept, February 24, 2022, https://theintercept.com/2022/02/24/ukraine-facebook-azov-battalion-russia/.


(42) - Federico Borgonovo, “Azov Battalion: Extreme Right-Wing Militarization and Hybrid Warfare,” Sicurezza Terrorismo Soceità 15, no. 1 (2022): 53–61.


(43) - Sébastien Bourdon, “At Ukraine’s Asgardsrei, a French Connection,” bellingcat, May 1, 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/05/01/at-ukraines-asgardsrei-a-french-connection/.


(44) - Ibid.


(45) - Michael Colborne, “Kyiv, Ukraine: A New Hub for International Neo-Nazi Concerts,” Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, October 3, 2019, https://www.radicalrightanalysis.com/tag/alexey-levkin/.

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