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The Azov Battalion: How Putin built a false premise for a war against "Nazis" in Ukraine

Family of six escapes Mariupol
Family describes terrifying ordeal leaving their home in Mariupol 03:06

Since Vladimir Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine on February 24, his government has stubbornly defined the attack as a "special operation" to liberate Russia's neighbors from the clutches of a criminal regime beholden to "neo-Nazis." But the premise for Putin's war, and his repeated insistence that Russia's military is carefully avoiding civilians with its artillery barrage, are belied by the reality on the ground in cities like Mariupol.

The southern port has been under siege by Russian forces for weeks, with officials and aid groups saying food, water, and electricity have all been cut to thousands of people still trapped there. Ukrainian authorities say at least 2,300 civilians have been killed in Mariupol alone, with some buried in mass graves amid the relentless shelling.

Still, Moscow sticks to its line: "Kyiv instructed the Nazi battalions in Mariupol to leave the city under the guise of civilians, including through humanitarian corridors," Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Monday.

Russia attacking civilian areas in Ukraine 08:06

"More than 130,000 people are still held by the nationalist battalions [in Mariupol]. People are being held hostage, they are simply not allowed out of the areas controlled by the Nazi battalions, threatened with executions and physical liquidation," Denis Pushilin, head of the Russian-backed separatist regime in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, said a few hours later on Russian state TV.

Russia's alternate reality

References to "Nazi battalions" appear in virtually all Russian news reports about the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has doubled down on the narrative that Russia is "liberating" Ukraine from Nazis, and that narrative has maintained a consistent focus on one extremist militia in particular - the Azov Battalion.

Russian state TV anchors have worked around the clock to portray Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — who is Jewish — as a leader of a neo-Nazi-leaning government infiltrated by the Azov group.

To Russian viewers with little or no access to alternative sources of information, it may indeed appear that Russia's soldiers are fighting hordes of Nazis who are using Ukrainians as "human shields" and committing atrocities against Ukraine's many Russian speakers.

Authoritarianism and the dangers of state-controlled media 06:03

So how widespread are far-right sentiments in Ukraine, and how much influence does the Azov Battalion really have?

What is the Azov Battalion?

"There are no Nazi battalions in Ukraine," said Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, which tracks the Russian military in Ukraine.

"There is [the Azov] regiment... There are [estimated] several thousand people who are in this regiment. It is indeed a group where many members adhere to nationalist and far-right views," Leviev said. "But a lot of people also join it because it is one of the most prepared and fit-for-war units."

The Azov Battalion rose to prominence in 2014, at the start of the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The country's armed forces, which at the time were woefully unprepared for battle, were taken by surprise when Russian-backed separatists started seizing swaths of territory in the Donbas area, along Russia's border.

Members of Ukraine's Azov regiment pray in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv, March 11, 2022, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP/Getty

The Azov Battalion stepped in. It was better-equipped and prepared to do much of the frontline fighting against the separatists. The unit has its roots in aggressive fan clubs that support regional soccer teams, known as "ultras," but as the fighting ramped up, they attracted various far-right activists, who often made no secret of their neo-Nazi sympathies.

The militia was founded by Andriy Biletsky, an ultra-nationalist political figure who previously led groups including the openly neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly (SNA), which preached an ideology of racial purity for Ukraine.

In 2014, the battalion was backed by Ukraine's controversial then-Minister of Interior Affairs Arsen Avakov and was financed by several Ukrainian oligarchs. The new benefactors included some wealthy Ukrainians of Jewish descent, who appeared to be prioritizing the group's efficacy in the battle for Ukrainian sovereignty in Donbas over its ideology.

In late 2014, Azov was expanded from a battalion into a regiment, and was officially embedded into the Ukrainian National Guard — an official law enforcement agency, but not part of Ukraine's national armed forces.

Ongoing Russian attacks on Ukraine
Civilian volunteers for a new group of Territorial Defense Units, set up by veterans of the Azov regiment, train with members of the regiment in a secret location in Dnipro, Ukraine, March 6, 2022. Andrea Carrubba/Anadolu Agency/Getty

On the wave of Azov's battlefield successes in Donbas, Biletsky won a seat in the Ukrainian parliament as an independent candidate in September 2014. That gave Moscow more ammunition to tar Ukraine's central government as sympathetic to Nazis. Biletsky was not re-elected when his term ended five years later.

Over the course of the grinding eight-year war in Donbas, the United Nations human rights commissioner's office documented a litany of human rights violations by both sides in the fight, including allegations of the "extensive use of civilian buildings and locations… and looting of civilian property, leading to displacement" by Azov Battalion forces.

Azov on the digital front

Off the battlefield, Azov became known for its presence on social media, where it regularly posted slickly produced videos of marches and other events.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it has pivoted to posting high-quality videos, often shot by drones and professional cameras, capturing both the devastation of Russia's aerial bombardment, and successful counterattacks on the invading Russian forces. 

Still image from drone footage shows destruction across Mariupol
An aerial view shows an explosion and smoke rising from damaged residential buildings, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Mariupol, March 14, 2022, in a still image taken from drone video posted to social media by the "Azov Battalion." AZOV REGIMENT PRESS SERVICE/Reuters

The Kremlin has seized on the Azov origins of the content to push its narrative that Ukrainian forces are all neo-Nazi sympathizers.

"Azov has achieved levels of mainstream media exposure far in excess of the group's minimal electoral support," Oleksiy Kuzmenko, a Washington D.C.-based investigative reporter who has tracked the battalion for years, wrote in a commentary for the Atlantic Council.

"The far-right in general, and their apparent impunity, have significantly damaged Ukraine's international reputation and left the country vulnerable to hostile narratives exaggerating the role of extremist groups in Ukraine," he concluded.

The Azov group's media presence, in particular, made it something of a magnet for far-right minded people abroad, Kuzmenko said, with foreign men seeking to join the militia to gain combat experience. In a report for the investigative group Bellingcat, Kuzmenko and Ukrainian organizations found links between the Azov Battalion and white supremacist groups in the U.S.

Leviev said the militia's influence had declined in recent years, however, after its main backer Avakov was essentially forced to retire.

"Overall, the influence of various officials, including Avakov, outside of Azov, is very limited," Leviev said. "There were no Nazi battalions roaming around the streets and trying to embed into [the government] system, as the Kremlin is trying to portray."

"So if not for this war, this stage of the war, the far-right movement would have eventually vanished," he said.

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