Too Much Ado About Ukrainian Nationalists: the Azov Movement and the War in Ukraine
Azov as a whole has returned to war. It looks like the incorporation of the organization into the National Guard and the Armed Force of Ukraine, a move initially not welcomed by all pundits, was a serendipitous idea by the state officials. They managed to coopt Azov and channel its militancy in a useful way. Now, it is a powerful unit within the Ukrainian army.
Vladimir Putin has been stubbornly insisting that Russian forces are invading Ukraine to “de-nazify” the country. Many Westerners are understandably startled since Ukraine’s president is a democratically elected official who lost family members in the Holocaust. The Highest rabbi of Ukraine wondered whether the denazification targets the Ukrainian president or the head of political opposition both of Jewish descent. Moreover, a professional community of scholars of genocide and Nazism adamantly opposed to “equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime.” Putin, however, is twisting reality because he has some evidence under his belt. He is primarily referring to the Azov movement—a Ukrainian militia-cum-political movement that arose in 2014. In the Kremlin’s depiction, Azov is a Nazi gang that holds sway over the Ukrainian government and is intent on harming Russian-speaking civilians. Putin is not alone in condemning Azov. In 2018, the U.S. Congress banned arms provision to Azov, citing its neo-Nazi ideology.
While the Azov movement finds its roots on the white supremacist right, the Azov phenomenon has evolved in more complex ways since its founding. The movement emerged in 2014 and has gone through a notable transformation, which significantly changed its nature and its ideological basis. As a Ukrainian scholar who has studied Ukrainian nationalism in general and the Azov movement, I thought it is important that I explain exactly who they are and what they are doing to external audiences.
The Origins and History of Azov as a Far-Right Movement
The Azov movement was established in May 2014 during the Donbas crisis to sustain Ukrainian control over Eastern Ukraine. Initially known as the “Black Corps,” it was a paramilitary unit of radical nationalists. Scholars suggested that the name “Black Corps” was itself a reference to the official German Schutzstaffel (SS) periodical published in 1935-1944 (Das Schwarze Korps). Some members, including the unit’s leader Andriy Biletsky, espoused nationalist socialists views. In 2014, however, Biletsky and his people translated their views into a hodgepodge program of nationalist struggle against Russian-backed separatists and changed the name of the organization to Azov. As such it captured the collective emotions of war veterans, patriots, and nationalists. Beginning in 2016, Azov leaders tried to transform their militia into a broader social movement and even established a political party. However, they overestimated their capabilities and the allure of their message and culture for the wider public. Yet, the Russian invasion revived the militant spirit of the movement’s origins.
To comprehend the origins of Azov, one must look back to 2014. After the Euromaidan revolution, which—as any revolution—provoked a temporary decline in state capacity, Ukraine was on the brink of a disaster. President Yanukovych fled the country; the interim government hardly controlled the state apparatus; Russia annexed Crimea; and brooding societal discontent in Donbas was first exacerbated and next directly aided by Russian special operation forces to fragment the country into pieces.
To contain separatist momentum, the Ukrainian government resorted to volunteers—people with any military experience or even hotheads able to fight with fists and guns. One possible pool of such hotheads were the “ultras”—soccer hooligans who had a semblance of an interpersonal network, were seasoned in street clashes with opposing gangs, and united by a kind of a collective identity. As one senior member of Azov told me in a 2020 interview, “When I went to the East, I had no political opinions, I was a tough ‘ultras’ guy neither afraid of to be beaten nor reluctant to smash one’s head—and I kind-a felt this was the sort of people who were needed.”
Another pool of volunteers was the rightists. Products of the culture of militancy, often hardened in clandestine training camps since the late 2000s, they were washed in a particular organizational culture with recognizable Nazi paraphernalia (a swastika, a sun wheel, a Black Sun, and a Wolfsangel). In this, they were similar to other anti-liberal counter-cultural rightists active all over Europe and the United States. Another and a more original component of their symbolic repertoire traces back to the 1930s and the legacy of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. This organization waged guerrilla warfare against the Soviets, Poles, and Germans. To complicate the matters even further, the group entered into a tactical alliance with Nazi Germany but turned against Germans in 1941. Besides, between 1945 and 1960 the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists cooperated sporadically with the American and British governments. This complicated and bloody legacy from a complicated and bloody era is open to conflicting interpretations: Were they “freedom-fighters”? Some admirers think so. “Fascist terrorists”? Others take that view. Ukrainian rightists obviously prefer the first interpretation. Leftists take a different view.
Ukrainian ultras and rightists merged in 2014. Some established the Black Corps—as a counterpart Russia’s “little green men” who were instrumental in annexing Crimea and destabilizing the Donbas. At the moment of inception, there were no more than 50 members, but they were growing. The successful defense of Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, was the Black Corps’s moment in the sun. To commemorate the victory, the group changed its name to Azov Battalion. And they began to grow even faster, their reputation as fearsome defenders of Ukraine bringing in torrents of new recruits.
The Azov Battalion was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard (a militarized branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) in October 2014. Since this time, as a military formation it follows the official line and orders. They have been constantly engaged in the war against the eastern separatists since they first started fighting.
Like many militant groups before, Azov sought to capitalize on its new members and resources to transform itself into a broader social movement. Then its leaders took the next natural step in 2016, establishing a political party, Natsionalnyi Korpus (National Corps). By 2018, the Azov movement—from its militia to its party—was a rising star of the Ukrainian far-right. It enjoyed media coverage, attracted activists from other rightist organizations, and even branched out into animal rights and environmentalism.
In addition to its attempts to institutionalize and enter politics, Azov was and remains active as an extra-legal force. Azov leaders and members position themselves against the LGBT community, sometimes violently and this intensifies around important events like the Pride cultural events related to LGBT. In 2017, an Azov spokesman declared the group would not oppose the Pride celebration, but they still condemned this community on their official web page. In 2021, Azov activists assaulted a journalist whom they believe to represented the LGBT movement, but Azov leaders described the attackers as hotheads and deplored their actions. Azov cadres have also paraded throughout cities with torches to manifest their strength and unity. Azov activists committed several attacks on members of the Roma ethnic minority across Ukraine in 2018 and 2019. Finally, most recently Azov clashed with police in Lviv and Kyiv, in protest of situations in which they claim the government has adopted a pro-Russian policy. Many in Ukraine and abroad remained understandably wary. Given this sort of violent politics, international observers (were) and are concerned. Some believed its leaders sought to launch a coup d’état or were set to use street violence to advance Azov’s agenda. Others feared a rightist power grab through electoral politics. Some suggested Azov would provide a training ground for transnational terrorists and cooperate with other far-right movements, including in the United States. These voices warned of a rekindled Nazism reincarnated in Azov.
Instead of growing into uncontrollable rightist juggernaut, something different happened: the Azov movement stagnated. First, it failed as a political party. Its party, the National Corps, did not participate as an independent party in the parliamentary elections of 2019. They tried their luck in the local elections of 2020 with dismal results. Out of 43122 seats contested for in local councils, the party secured only 18! In Lviv oblast, the presumed stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism, they managed 2 seats (out of 2332) in a village council and no seats in regional or city councils. The National Corps failed to secure any seat in Mariupol, the city that brought the Azov movement to fame.
Azov also languished as a social movement. By 2020, Azov not only exhausted its pool of possible recruits but also went through a painful—and almost unnoticed by observers—process of fractionalization. First, Oleh Odnorozhenko, responsible for crafting the Azov ideology, publicly condemned the movement for becoming “a part of the political system,” thus losing its subversive potential and left the movement. Next, a number of nasty infights fractured the organization into several feuding parts. Leaders of the Kyiv and Kharkiv nuclei, the deputy head of Azov, and some other key personalities left the movement. A faction of the dissenters formed its own organization Honor (Dignity). They even came to physical blows with the old leader Biletsky. The Kharkiv nucleus splintered as well and waged its separate warfare, both with words and guns, against the National Corps, because of—as I was told in a 2020 interview with a member—conflicting business interests. Finally, the core Azov, still headed by Biletsky, was implicated in a number of scandals regarding the financial sources of the movement activities. This tarnished the Azov movement in the eyes of the broader audience, even further effectively confining it to the marginal position in the political system.
Where Could One Find Fascists in Ukraine
Given the rightist origins, symbolic repertoire, historical legacies it appeals to, and its extra-legal activities, Azov is easily presented as a neo-Nazi phenomenon. Even in 2022, pundits point to symbols, like the Black Sun, discernable on the buck belts of Azov soldiers deployed to fight Russian invaders as evidence of this. They cite an alleged 2010 interview with Biletsky in which he makes white supremacist statements to prove that Ukraine faces a Nazi threat (no source is provided for this interview by the interviewer and the quote appears to be drawn from the 2009 program of the Social-National Assembly Party, which Biletsky headed). These concerns are neither new nor well-grounded. It is certainly true that Azov was an ultra-nationalist and even neo-Nazi organization at its founding. The movement originated in the far-right culture and used Nazi symbols. Its leaders tried to build transnational alliances with organizations skeptical about liberalism and democracy, and some members made statements that could fairly be described as sympathetic with fascism.
However, like any militant and social movement, it has evolved beyond its origins. Terrorist organizations can morph into political parties, and radical views can become moderate. Examples are abundant. They include the Irgun, a Jewish terrorist group that became Israel’s Herut Party—the predecessor to today’s Likud party—Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and India’s ethnic Mizo National Front (MNF). MNF case is particularly alluring. This militant group of Mizo ethnic group (dwells in Assam, near Myanmar-Indian Border) was headed by Laldenga since early 1960s. Having received arms and money from East Pakistan, the MNF launched an anti-Indian uprising in 1966. MNF attacked government offices, looted banks, and disrupted communications. In March 1966 the MNF announced that the territory had seceded from the Indian Union and was now an independent republic. The Indian-Mizo fighting continued into 1980s. In June 1986 the government signed a peace agreement with Laldenga. By its terms, the MNF rebels laid down their arms. The government agreed to grant full statehood to Mizoram, and Laldenga himself assumed office as chief minister. As Ramachandra Guha puts it in his book India after Gandhi, “MNF had made a spectacularly successful transition; once insurgents in the jungle, they were now politicians in the secretariat, put there by the ballot box.” The state is still ruled by MNF party: it won the latest elections in 2018.
This and many other examples show that a comprehensive interpretation of any social movement requires attention to what it is doing in a given period, not what its leader used to say or do. And in more recent interviews, Azov leaders claim to harbor no anti-Semite feelings and to be eager to fight oligarchs and to have become less radical.
Whatever its inner culture and symbols, the National Corps party always presented itself to a broader public as a patriotic organization eager to work within the democratic system. Contrary to the claims that Azov (alongside other far-right organizations) could imbibe youth or the larger public with anti-democratic values, the extreme xenophobic views remain marginal in Ukrainian civil society today. Antisemitic behavior does occur in Ukraine, but in 2020, there were 49 instances, mostly in the form of impropriate speech in social media—far fewer than antisemitic hate crimes in the United States. Moreover, in 2020 no right-wing attacks on Jews have been detected in Ukraine—thus the situation improved as compared with 2005–2007, when observers detected the maximum of far-right violence in Ukraine. Sociological surveys confirm that xenophobia in Ukraine is declining since 2015. Therefore, using anecdotal evidence, like the vandalization of a monument, to prove systemic antisemitism is methodologically unattainable. Besides, to appeal to the broader public, Azov activists launched initiatives as diverse as ensuring animal rights, fighting against illicit communal land seizure, and protecting the environment. In other words, they moderated their ideological fervor or modified it altogether. The best sign of Azov’s pro-democratic evolution is, as a prominent specialist in fascist studies Kay Struve has recently noted, is the fact that people from Azov “risked and sacrificed their lives to defend their country’s democratic way of life.”
Meanwhile, too narrowly focused on the issue of “fascists in Ukraine,” the professional community missed the real fascism that emerged farther to the east. One can espouse a purely academic definition of fascism following the “new consensus” school that defines the notion as a “palingenetic ultra-nationalism.” Or s\he can opt for a less arcane interpretation of fascism as a nationalist ideology disdainful of human rights, focused on scape-goats, obsessed with national security, protective of corporate power, focused on crime and punishment, and plagued with cronyism. One way or another, it cannot be denied that Putin’s regime fits the definition of fascism much more than anything in Ukraine these days.
Putin alleged that extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis seized power in Kyiv and promised “denazification.” His troops shelled hospitals and deliberately targeted civilians behaving precisely as Nazis had done some 80 years before on the very same lands. Russian artillery even shelled the Babyn Yar memorial complex, the same site where dozens of thousands of Jews were exterminated by German Nazis in 1941. Moreover, Putin’s promise to “resolve the Ukrainian question for future generations” he (inadvertently) cites the Nazi “Final Solution.” Putin is enamored with historical parallels, but they seem to be backlashing: his actions invoke the very demon he claims to be willing to purge.
Western observers have noted iconography like the black sun pinned to some Ukrainian uniforms. Symbols, as they are being used, evolve in their meaning. People who now join Azov to fight Russian invasion do not think about the Wewelsburg mosaic or Russell McCloud—those cultural references, albeit consciously conceived by the narrow circle of Azov far-right founders in 2014, are lost for the majority of Ukrainians today. For them, the Black Sun is likely just an emblem of a successful fighting unit that protects Ukraine. In other words, contrary to the fear that Azov might indoctrinate the public, I expect its illiberal paraphernalia to be appropriated for the broader goal of fighting Russia and saving Ukraine as an independent country.
Scholars of Nazism adamantly opposed to “equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime.” It is the first step, and many more should follow, including those to understand why pundits spent efforts speculating about Azov instead of warning about a real fascist threat. This, I expect, will be a soul-searching endeavor. Presumably, many committed a typical fallacy of drawing bullseyes where one hits instead of putting real targets and aiming them. Too many scholars conveniently conducted their research of a far-right subculture in relatively open and democratic Ukraine in lieu of taking chances under repressive Russian authoritarianism. Too many were “concerned about rising nationalism in Ukraine and the government’s seeming unwillingness to rein it in” and did not bother to pay closer attention to developments in Russia.
Another important issue the academia must sincerely discuss is the weaponization of academic research by states with malicious intentions for informational war purposes. The scholarly community should be aware that disproportionate attention to phenomena of their narrow professional interest might be greatly abused and purposefully misrepresented in the age of social media warfare.
Azov is the case in study. Both scholarly and media attention to the movement, being incommensurable with the real impact it enjoyed within the Ukrainian political system, provided Putin with a pretext to attack. Sure enough, locked into his worldview where Ukrainian patriotic sentiments equal fascism, Putin would have invented “a Nazi complot” in Ukraine had Azov not existed. However, uncritical reports about neo-Nazis within the movement (who constituted approximately 15 percent of the membership) and agenda-driven research were instrumental to and immensely facilitated the launch of the “denazification campaign in Ukraine.” A tragic illustration of the Nazi bogeyman tactic used by Russia is the destruction of Maternity Hospital No.2 in Mariupol (March 9, 2022). The day before Russia delivered an airstrike on this piece of purely civilian infrastructure, Russian media claimed that “Azov nationalists forced people out of the building and organized there their firing points.” Later, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated the claim. The allegation was false, but the lives of babies and pregnant women became sacrificial lambs put on the altar of the god of propaganda.
Azov’s Role in Fighting the Russian Invasion
After Azov failed as a political party and stagnated as a social movement organization, is it relevant in any conceivable way today? The Russian invasion ensured that it was: As of March 2022, Azov movement comprises (1) the Azov National Guard Battalion (Ukrainian: polk) joint to the National Guard currently deployed as a garrison force in besieged city of Mariupol; (2) recently established the Azov Special Operations Battalion joint to the Armed Forces of Ukraine currently positioned in Kyiv; (3) several Azov companies (Ukrainian: rota) merged with the Territorial Defense Forces and serving as military reserves and defensive units in Zaporizhzhia, Mykolayiv, Chernihiv, and Dnipro-city regions. Kharkiv Territorial Defense companies are of particular interest because they composed the 225th and 226th Special Operation Battalions within the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Although precise numbers are currently unavailable, it has been estimated (through my communication with Azov officials) that there are 1300 men in the Azov Special Operations Battalion and 1500 men in the Azov National Guard Battalion. Presently, Azov detachments have been involved in four different tasks:
First, they confront the enemy in various types of defensive actions. On February 28, they used MANPADs to damage (or down) Su-25 near Mariupol. On February 29, also around Mariupol, their anti-tank units destroyed two Russian armored personnel carriers and one infantry mobility vehicle Tigr. On March 7 they counterattacked and broke detachments of the Russian 150th Armored Division inflicting high casualties including on the command structure. As a result, the Head of the 68th tank regiment was injured, and the regiment’s chief of staff KIA. At the Kyiv theater of war, Azov, in conjunction with the 72nd Mechanized Brigade, destroyed the 6th tank regiment of the 90th Armored Division, killing the regiment’s leader, colonel Zakharov. This move (on March 10) halted the Russian incursion via Brovary. On March 14, the 226th Special Operation Battalion destroyed temporary Russian infantry barracks and an ammunition supply point near Kharkiv. Azov also claimed to have eliminated a Russian major general (roughly equivalent to U.S. brigadier general) and provided a photo proof. The examples I cited are in no way comprehensive of all Azov’s combat activities; rather, they offer a glimpse of its weaponry, inter-unit coordination, and deployment.
Second, Azov actively ensures anti-sabotage security on the territory under Ukrainian control. For instance, on February 25, they detected and eliminated a Russian artillery spotter in Mariupol. On February 27, in a coordinated action with the Security Service of Ukraine, Azov troopers apprehended a group of Russian intelligence officers. On March 9, they disclosed and arrested a sleeping operator whose task was to sap the morale of the civilian population in Mariupol.
Third, Azov servicepeople provide humanitarian assistance. Among others, they organized civilian evacuation from Kharkiv, cleared ruins caused by an artillery bombardment in Chernihiv, collected evidence of war devastation for criminal prosecutions of Russia for committed war crimes in Mariupol. On March 13, they distributed food in a bomb-wasted and besieged Mariupol.
Four, acting as a more independent unit and playing their transnational connection hand, Azov conducts fundraising campaigns. For example, they opened an IBAN account for money transfers from abroad. They also try to procure military-grade equipment (e.g., drones, telescopic sights, bullet-proof vests), munitions, and medical supplies necessary to continue the war effort. On March 10, after a devastating attack on the maternity hospital in Mariupol, Azov spokesman returned to their battalion’s social movement origins: they mocked the spurious allegations “Azov combatants took position there” with an acute “This means all of us—women, children, elderly—are Azov now.”
Azov organizational evolution has come full circle. As Maksym Zhorin, the head of Azov Special Operations Battalion, put me in a private message: “Politics have been postponed for other times, presently we have to save the country.” Zhorin’s personal trajectory personifies the Azov’s evolution. Born in the Russian-speaking Luhansk region he is emotionally attached to his “little fatherland.” In this respect, he is representative of Azov as a whole movement. In 2014 Zhorin volunteered to the eastern as a member of the “Black Corps.” There he acquired considerable combat experience while participating in Illovaisk, Shyrokino, and Pavlopil operations. In 2016, he became the Chief of Azov Battalion and even tried his luck contesting for a parliament seat in 2019. During his political career Zhorin was critical toward Poroshenko and Zelensky, who allegedly President ignored the Russian threat. Now, putting political differences behind, he is back to the trenches.
Azov as a whole has returned to war. It looks like the incorporation of the organization into the National Guard and the Armed Force of Ukraine, a move initially not welcomed by all pundits, was a serendipitous idea by the state officials. They managed to coopt Azov and channel its militancy in a useful way. Now, it is a powerful unit within the Ukrainian army. True, it has somehow peculiar unit culture, but any battle detachment within an effective battle force should have it, for it is beneficial for esprit du corps. In addition, Azov can tap into additional resources, both financial and human, available since its times as a social movement. Finally, its members have emotional stakes in protecting Mariupol, a city Azov hails from. In its official news feed (see Azov National Guard Battalion Telegram channel), Azov presents the unit as the most redoubtable adversary to the Russian army. In his declaration of war, Putin claims that Russia goes to war against “extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine.” Since Azov serves as “the best proof of neo-Nazis” in Ukraine, he all but pretends to wage war on Azov. It is small wonder that Azov is emboldened both by being in limelight of international attention and on the direst front where they confront Russian forces. Given Ukraine is fighting for its survival, it needs to turn to allies who are willing to fight where it can find them.