The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is the hometown of the Azov Battalion, a special operations detachment of the Ukrainian National Guard with a former neo-Nazi association, which is an obvious reason why the Russian high command chose the city for serve as an example. for Vladimir Putin’s “denazification” campaign. In recent months, the siege of Mariupol has witnessed the most complete destruction of a European city since the bombing of Dresden. Committing numerous war crimes (and probably crimes against humanity), the Russian army razed the city’s housing stock. The fighting is believed to have killed tens of thousands of civilians, and most of the city’s nearly half a million residents have fled, even as tens of thousands more remain trapped in basements and bunkers under ruins with no access to medicine, water, electricity or basic health care. These include the relatives of several of my friends and acquaintances – incidentally Jewish and Armenian citizens of Ukrainian origin. One of them, Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius, was killed in Mariupol while filming the war.
The Ukrainian army put up remarkable resistance to the Russian invasion of the city, which was of course numerically and technologically superior. In the process, the defenders of Mariupol would have linked at least 12 tactical groups of Russian battalions. After the Russians besieged the city, many of the surviving Ukrainian fighters retreated to the Azovstal steelworks, which provided refuge for between 1,000 and 2,000 besieged Ukrainian soldiers, a third of whom were reportedly injured. These soldiers and servicemen belonged to the Ukrainian Marines, border guards, army and territorial defense battalions, as well as the Azov battalion.
While talks were underway to release those stranded in Azovstal for the past few weeks, Russian artillery and cruise missiles continued to bombard the compound daily and apparently massacred scores of soldiers and civilians there. were taking refuge. The survivors swore never to surrender and pleaded with the Ukrainian government and the international community for intervention and extraction. (According to available reports, individual members of the Ukrainian forces who surrendered to the Russians were summarily executed.) On May 11, the wives of the Azov soldiers traveled to the Vatican to plead with Pope Francis for humanitarian intervention.
A Ukrainian Jewish soldier from Azovstal, Vitaly Barabash, called on the Israeli government to intervene, and on May 12, the deputy commander of Azov, Svyatoslav Palamar, gave an interview to Ha’aretz showcasing the Ukrainian-Israeli connection. (“As in Israel, there is also terror against us. We are not Nazis.”) Palamar pleaded for more help from the Jewish state and the rest of the civilized world to save his beleaguered unit. “The Azovstal plant is already compared to Masada”, Ha’aretz Palamar informed, “where the Jewish fighters who rebelled against the Roman Empire barricaded themselves and, in the end, they were all killed.” Palamar seemed to agree with the analogy – which is not normative behavior, needless to say, for a “neo-Nazi” group.
On Tuesday, after lengthy negotiations involving top-level foreign diplomats, civilians hiding inside the metallurgical plant were reportedly evacuated and wounded Ukrainian soldiers were exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. Azov commander Denys Prokopenko said Ukrainian forces in Azovstal had “carried out their orders and had been a distraction for the Russian army for 82 days”. The Battle of Mariupol seems to have come to an end.
The Azov Battalion was originally one of several volunteer formations forged in 2014 to resist Russian proxies and the Russian regular army in eastern Ukraine. At the time, the hollow Ukrainian state lacked the capacity to retaliate against Moscow. As countless critics with a limited understanding of Ukrainian politics never tire of pointing out, Azov founder Andriy Biletsky is indeed a figure with racist and white supremacist views. Early Azov was home to all sorts of bizarre characters, and Biletsky certainly sought out and nurtured relationships with neo-Nazi groups across Russia and Europe. Like many other private militias of the early post-Maidan period, there were also allegations of criminal activity against recently demobilized men from Azov who were often used as mercenaries to settle local disputes.
In the summer and fall of 2014, Azov stood out for the ferocity with which he successfully fought against the Russian-led separatists then attempting to occupy Mariupol. Paradoxically – at least for the purveyors of Kremlin propaganda, who argue that Ukrainians have oppressed ethnic Russians – most members of Azov are actually Russian-speaking and come disproportionately from Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. Even more ironically, according to my friend Anton Shekhovtsov, the eminent expert on the Russian and Ukrainian extreme right: “On average, they speak Russian better than the Russian invaders. This fact alone dismisses the Kremlin’s blatant lies that Azov fought against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. In June 2014, when Azov helped liberate Mariupol from pro-Russian forces, it “proved not only Azov’s combat effectiveness, but also his genuinely pro-Ukrainian stance. Due to his proven combat abilities, Azov began to attract more volunteers, and many of them had no political experience.
There were certainly valid concerns about radicalism and warlordism at the time, and far-right elements within Azov were suspicious of the majority of the public, as well as senior government officials. When Azov was integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard in the fall of 2014, placing him in the Interior Ministry’s chain of command, then-President Petro Poroshenko rightly feared the possibility that veterans disgruntled or out of control Azov and other volunteer groups pose a possible threat to the state. Poroshenko arranged for members of the security services to be embedded in the battalion to keep tabs on men identified as potentially independent loose guns.
Today, battalion ranks are drawn from the regular pool of Army and National Guard recruits nationwide. Biletsky’s influence dissipated as soon as he left Azov in October 2014; his later attempts to create a parallel movement, the “National Corps”, were the result of his de jure exclusion from the army and its declining influence. The confederation of right-wing political parties he brought together in a common platform in the 2019 elections won no more than 2% of the national vote, while Jewish presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky won 73%. Azov’s original post-Maidan lineup was quickly watered down, and Biletsky’s ghost was replaced with regular officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In 2017, the battalion as a whole remained distinguished, but for its martial prowess, not for a distinct political ideology. It was naturally at this time that the Ukrainian government came under increased international pressure, including from the US Congress, for its “normalization” of Azov.
There’s no denying that Azov was home to all sorts of villainous characters when it was first created, and like many (including American) fighting forces, it undoubtedly contains white supremacists, racists, and chauvinists even today. But it is no longer a practically or ideologically racist organization, any more than the American army could still be called segregated after 1948. I myself drank with former Scandinavian volunteers who were members of Azov – they were pagans and odinists, and had the rune tattoos to show for it. A Swedish sniper who had served in the battalion once told me that his experience in the unit, which included service alongside soldiers of Greek, Turkish, Georgian and Azerbaijani origin, had transformed him from a white racist into a conservative nationalist – progress! A Donbass-born Jewish political consultant with whom I drink regularly in kyiv remains a proud Azov reserve officer.
When I recently asked another Azov officer about the battalion’s reputation for racism, he objected to the premise. “We are not racist,” he insisted without irony. “We have right-wing patriots serving with us of all races! Every creed! Every color! All religions!” But even the unit’s “right-wing” ideological heritage has waned, forced by circumstances to professionalize. If Azov started in 2014-15 by attracting volunteers drawn to its a reputation for fierce fighting ability, he now depends for recruits on stipends from the Home Office, which closely oversees his promotions and officer commissions.
Understanding Azov’s real trajectory over the past eight years is important because ignoring it plays into decades-old tropes of Ukrainians as inherently anti-Semitic fascist collaborators. This does not excuse the canonization in certain neighborhoods of Nazi collaborators or Ukrainian ultranationalists of the interwar period like Roman Shukhevych or Stepan Bandera. But neither is it useful, fair or sensible to hold these brave and patriotic fighters – who for months fought in Mariupol and who for weeks have been trapped in the Azovstal steelworks – responsible for the heritage of some of their countries. ancestors of the 1940s. Perhaps it is too much, or too strange, to call Mariupol the new Masada, and therefore Azov the new Israelites. But it is certainly no exaggeration to sing the glory of every Ukrainian hero who continues to resist Russian imperialism and barbarism.