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Azov Battalion

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Azov Battalion
Emblem of the Azov Battalion
Sleeve badge of the Azov Detachment.
Country Flag of Ukraine.svg Ukraine
Branch Emblem of the National Guard of Ukraine National Guard of Ukraine, Ukrainian Armed Forces
Service history
Active 5 May 2014 – present
Role Light infantry, armored infantry
Size Approx. 1000 men in various sub-units
Battles * War in Donbass
Commanders
Commanders Colonel Andriy BiletskyAndrey Biletsky, Vadim Troyan, Igor Mosijchuk, Dmytro Linko
Insignia

The Azov Battalion (Ukrainian language: Батальйон Азов ) is a far-right neo-Nazi[1][2][3][4] all-volunteer infantry military unit forming part of military reserve of National Guard of Ukraine.[5][6][7][8] The unit is based in Mariupol in the Azov Sea coastal region.[9] It saw its first combat experience recapturing Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists forces in June 2014.[7] Initially a volunteer militia, formed as the Azov Battalion on 5 May 2014 during the 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine, Azov has since been incorporated into and is armed by Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs.[10] All members of the unit are under contract of National Guard of Ukraine.[11] The Azov Battalion has been labelled neo-Nazi, "patriots", "a far-right Ukrainian militia".[12][13][nb 1] German ZDF television observed Azov battalion fighters wearing helmets with swastikas 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.[14][15][16] Spokesmen and other members of the Azov Battalion and government officials have denied that the organization has any neo-Nazi or white supremacist beliefs; although a spokesman did state that "10% to 20% of the group's members are Nazis".[10][17][nb 2][nb 3] The regiment's commander and founder is Andriy Biletsky who in the past made statements about "crusade" of "White races" against "Semitic Untermenschen"[20] and is a leader of a Ukrainian organisation called the Social National Assembly which according to the BBC has "typical neo-Nazi narrative".[21] Its polished English-language social media pages and far-right ideology have attracted fighters from other locations in Europe.[2] On 11 June 2015 the US House of Representatives passed amendments blocking any training of Azov by US forces, citing its neo-Nazi background as the reason.[22] On 26 June, Canadian defense minister declared as well that training by Canadian forces or support would not be provided to Azov.[23]

More than half of the Battalion members are from eastern Ukraine and speak Russian,[24] and many of its recruits come from the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.[25] The regiment's commander is Andriy Biletsky. 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.[26][27][28] 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 his own hands; Shpara remained in the battalion as the commander of the 1st Company. Biletsky is also the head of two neo-Nazi political groups, the Patriot of Ukraine and Social-National Assembly.[29] 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.[30]

Patrons of the battalion included Oleh Lyashko, a member of the Verkhovna Rada,[31] and billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskyi.[32]

HistoryEdit

Arsen Avakov, the new Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine after the overthrow of the Yanukovich government, issued on April 13, 2014 a decree authorizing creating the new paramilitary force from civilians up to 12,000.[33] Avakov's deputy, Anton Heraschenko, Ministry of the Interior, was tasked with overseeing the process of establishing of the new security force created from civilian volunteers.[31]

The Azov Battalion was formed on May 5, 2014 during the 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine. Among the patrons of the battalion are a member of the Verkhovna Rada Oleh Lyashko, and an ultra-nationalist Dmytro Korchynsky.[31] The battalion started in Mariupol where it was involved in combat,[7] and was briefly relocated to Berdyansk.[34]

On June 10, the battalion dismissed deputy commander Yaroslav Honchar and distanced themselves from him after Honchar made criticizing statements about looting and debauchery in Azov battalion.[35]

On 11 August, Azov battalion, backed by the Ukrainian paratroopers, captured Marinka from pro-Russian rebels and entered the suburbs of Donetsk clashing with Donetsk People's Republic fighters.[2]

In early September 2014, the Azov battalion was engaged in the Second Battle of Mariupol.[13] 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."[36]

In September 2014 the Azov battalion was 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.[1]

On 14 October, Azov Battalion servicemen took part in a march to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in Kyiv organised by Right Sector.[37]

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.[38][39][40] In his constituency Biletsky won with 33.75% of the votes; runner up Vadym Stoylar followed with 17.17%.[41][42] In parliament Biletsky did not join any faction.[43] 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.[44] In his constituency Petrenko won with 41.15% of the votes; runner up Valentyna Zhukovska followed with 23.65%.[41][45]

On 31 October 2014 deputy commander of the Azov Battalion Vadym Troyan was appointed head of Kiev Oblast (province) police (this police force has no jurisdiction over the city of Kiev).[46]

In January 2015, the Azov Battalion was promised a tank company and artillery units to reinforce its ranks.[1] 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 has continued to prepare for war, with the group's leader seeing the ceasefire as "appeasement".[1] 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.[47][48] On 12 June 2015, the US House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act blocking any aid (including arms and training) to the battalion due to its Neo-Nazi background.[49] 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."[48]

OrganisationEdit

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Colonel and Member of Parliament Andriy Biletsky, commander of Azov Regiment

Key figures in the battalion include its commander Andriy Biletsky and his deputy Oleh Odnoroshenko.[6]

A 16 July 2014 report placed the Azov Battalion's strength at 300.[6] An earlier report stated that on June 23 almost 600 volunteers, including women, took oaths to joined the "Donbass" and "Azov" battalions.[50] Recruits receive a salary of US$360.[51]

The Social-National Assembly (led by the battalion's leader Biletsky) calls for the expansion of Ukraine, the "struggle for the liberation of the entire White Race," and seeks to "punish severely sexual perversions and any interracial contacts".[6] Swedish volunteer Mikael Skillt told the BBC that while the Battalion did include others sharing his views - those calling themselves national socialists or adorned with swastikas - not all agreed, and one member was even "a liberal".[6]

Interviewed while engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine, one member of the battalion stated that the unit was on edge because they were "behind enemy lines" and opposed by "the police, the army and the people" whom he said they did not trust.[7] According to London's Sunday Times, the Azov Battalion was deployed against militants by the Ukrainian government because it feared its regular forces were infiltrated by Russian sympathizers.[7] The basic monthly salary of its members has been reported to be 10,000 ukrainian Hryvnias (US$400).[52]

Concerning "Azov" soldiers' performance in the field, col Oleksy Nozdrachoc, of Ukraine's Armed Forces Joint General Staff, declared to USA Today: They are tough and fierce fighters, who stand and can fight, and will not yield an inch of soil".[53]

The battalion is also referred to as the "Men in Black" or "Black Corps" (ukr.: "Chorny Korpus").

Current statusEdit

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.[54] 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.[55]

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).[55] 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.

Neo-Nazi ideology and symbolsEdit

Richard Sakwa writing about the battalion's ideology points out that it's founding member Andryi Biletsky, leader of the extremist Social Nationalist 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.[56]

Ivan Katchanovski in an interview with Radio Sweden described the ideology of the battalion in the following words: "The SNA/PU advocate 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'."[57]

Troops of the Azov Battalion use the logo of the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly, an inverted Wolfsangel — a widely used symbol in Nazi Germany — on their banner,[4] and some members are openly white supremacists or antisemites.[2][58] Members of the unit have stated that the inverted Wolfsangel has a different history in Ukraine and represents the Ukrainian words for "idea of a nation".[46] In addition to the Wolfsangel, Azov soldiers have also been observed using stylized SS runes and swastikas on their uniforms.[59] The Azov Battalion has dismissed accusations that their unit promotes fascist symbolism, stating that any resemblance to Nazi symbols is a result of Russian propaganda. It also states that the battalion's logo is based on the Coat of arms of Ukraine, which has been used to symbolize Ukraine since 1918.[60] 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 on their helmets make it very difficult for other members of the group to plausibly deny any neo-Nazi affiliations".[17] The organization has also incorporated the neo-Nazi Black Sun into its banner.[61][62] The unit has denied being a Ukrainian nationalist group and states that a majority of its members are Russian-speaking Ukrainians and that multiple Russian citizens have joined the unit.[60]

Foreign membershipEdit

According to The Daily Telegraph, the Azov Battalion's extremist politics and professional English social media pages have attracted foreign fighters.[2] The Russian and Ukrainian security expert at New York University, Mark Galeotti, has described groups like the Azov Battalion as magnets attracting violent, fringe elements from around and outside Ukraine, warning that they will continue to play an outsized role in Ukrainian affairs after the war.[2] However, Ukraine's military official sources have assured that incorporation into national Armed Forces has turned "Azov" Regiment into a regular military unit and extreme right-wing elements, although present in its ranks, do not represent the unit in its whole, which officially remains politically non-aligned.

Azov's leader, Biletsky, states that he has received recruits from Ireland, Italy, Greece and Scandinavia.[2] In mid-July 2014, the BBC reported that the battalion had recruited the former Swedish Army and Swedish Home Guard sniper Mikael Skillt.[6] Skillt, a Swedish former white supremacist,[63] joined the Azov Battalion for ideological reasons.[6] Anton Gerashenko denied this but did claim "foreign journalists, from Sweden, Spain and Italy, who have come to report on the heroic achievements of the fighters in their struggle against terrorism" were accompanying the unit.[6] Gerashenko insisted he had never heard of Mikael Skillt.[6] Asked about Skillt in a late-July interview with Swedish Radio, Gerashenko pointed out that it's forbidden by law for foreign citizens to fight and asked for understanding that he'd "stay tight-lipped" about the topic.[64] Political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov told the Swedes that at this time four Swedish neo-Nazis were fighting with Azov, while the Swedish national police confirmed "several".[64] In August 2015, Skillt said that his experience in Ukraine had changed him, that he no longer believed in National Socialism (Nazism), and that his previous views were "misguided" and "idiotic".[63]

In December 2014, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group condemned Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko for granting Ukrainian citizenship and awarding a medal to Belarusian neo-Nazi and Azov Battalion commander of reconnaissance Sergei Korotkykh. According to Anton Shekhovtsov, Korotkykh founded a Russian neo-Nazi group, and he also was charged in Belarus for alleged involvement in a Moscow bombing and detained there for allegedly stabbing an anti-fascist organizer.[65]

Azov was also active in recruiting Russian FSB lieutenant Ilya Bogdanov who defected to Ukraine during the War in Donbass, however the former Russian officer decided to join the Right Sector as he stated the organization is more active in the war than the Azov battalion.[66][67] About 50 Russian nationals are members of the Azov regiment.[68]

Around 20 Croatians joined the Azov Battalion in January 2015, ranging in age from 20 to 45.[69][70] 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.[71] 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.[72]

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.[73] According to Polish researcher Kacper Rekawek, on each of the sides in the Ukrainian conflict there are around 300 foreign citizens, including some 100 Serbs and around 25 Croats.[74]

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.

See alsoEdit

NotesEdit

  1. The BBC's Fergal Keane has described the unit as "a far-right Ukrainian militia".[13]
  2. A ministerial adviser, Anton Geraschenko, has stated late 2014 "The Social-National Assembly is not a neo-Nazi organization," he said. "It is a party of Ukrainian patriots..."[6][12][18]
  3. 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".[19]

ReferencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Baczynska, Gabriela (25 March 2015). "Ultra-nationalist Ukrainian battalion gears up for more fighting". Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/25/us-ukraine-crisis-azov-idUSKBN0ML0XJ20150325. Retrieved 15 June 2015. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Parfitt, Tom (11 August 2014). "Ukraine crisis: the neo-Nazi brigade fighting pro-Russian separatists". http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/Europe/ukraine/11025137/Ukraine-crisis-the-neo-Nazi-brigade-fighting-pro-Russian-separatists.html. Retrieved 14 August 2014. "'The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival,' [Biletsky] wrote in a recent commentary. 'A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.'" 
  3. Ayres, Sabra (24 July 2014). "Driven by far-right ideology, Azov Battalion mans Ukraine's front line". Al Jazeera America. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/24/ukraine-azov-battalion.html. Retrieved 24 April 2015. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Walker, Shaun (10 September 2014). "Azov fighters are Ukraine's greatest weapon and may be its greatest threat". The Guardian Media. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/10/azov-far-right-fighters-ukraine-neo-nazis. Retrieved 24 April 2015. 
  5. Margarete Klein (April 2015). "Ukraine's volunteer battalions – advantages and challenges" (PDF). Swedish Defence Research Agency. http://www.foi.se/Documents/RUFS%20Briefing%20No.%2027%20.pdf. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 Newman, Dina (16 July 2014). "Ukraine conflict: 'White power' warrior from Sweden". http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28329329. "The Azov Battalion was formed and armed by Ukraine's interior ministry. A ministerial adviser, Anton Gerashchenko, [was asked] if the battalion had any neo-Nazi links through the Social National Assembly. 'The Social National Assembly is not a neo-Nazi organisation,' he said. 'It is a party of Ukrainian patriots...'" 
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  11. "Роз’яснення щодо статусу спецпідрозділу "Азов"". ngu.gov.ua. http://ngu.gov.ua/ua/news/rozyasnennya-shchodo-statusu-specpidrozdilu-azov. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Rico, R.J. (10 September 2014). "The ultras, Azov Battalion, and soccer from inside Ukraine". https://sports.vice.com/article/the-ultras-azov-battalion-and-soccer-from-inside-ukraine. "[The] members of Azov Battalion ... have been labeled patriots by some, neo-Nazis by others...." 
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  23. Brewster, Murray (26 June 2015). "No training for Azov regiment: Kenney". Kyiv, Ukraine: The Canadian Press. http://www.northumberlandnews.com/news-story/5697639-no-training-for-azov-regiment-kenney/. Retrieved 27 June 2015. 
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  29. Andreas Umland and Anton Shekhovtsov. Ukraine's Radical Right. Journal of Democracy25/3
  30. (Ukrainian) УКАЗ ПРЕЗИДЕНТА УКРАЇНИ № 631/2014 "Про відзначення державними нагородами України", August 15, 2014.
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  54. [1][dead link]
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