The infamous Azov battalion is still fighting for the devastated Mariupol: but who are they?

1. How long has the Azov Battalion existed?

The Ukrainian group was founded eight years ago in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in eastern Ukraine. “In 2014, the Ukrainian military was still of little importance,” says Hubert Smeets, historian and founder of the Raam op Russia knowledge platform. “The Russians and the separatists had to be stopped by volunteer battalions. Azov was one of them.”

The group grew to about a thousand people and became part of the Ukrainian National Guard. ‘Azov’ operates as an independent unit, in other words a battalion. Battalion fighters wear uniforms with Wolfsangel, a famous Nazi symbol also used by the SS.

2. What makes them so infamous?

The Azov Battalion was founded by Andri Biletski, a nationalist extreme right-wing politician from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. “A neo-Nazi,” Smeets says. “He was in the Ukrainian parliament from 2014 to 2019, but was not re-elected. There is now only one fascist in the 450-seat Ukrainian parliament, and that says a lot about supporting ultranationalism in Ukraine.”

The group itself has had controversial results, says correspondent Eva Hartog. “Including ultranationalist and racist statements, the use of Nazi symbols and hate crimes against Roma and the LGBTQ community.”

Smeets believes Azov is getting disproportionately much attention in the West. “It is an exaggeration and does not correspond to their military significance in the war with Russia. They are especially important as a symbolic, not a military force.”

3. The Azov Battalion itself denies being a Nazi, Putin obviously sees it differently. who is right

It is clear that given its founder and his previous statements, Azov has extreme right-wing ties. But how many fighters we can currently call neo-Nazis is not clear.

According to Hartog, it is important to understand that Azov is a small group that is not representative of the Ukrainian army, government or the population as a whole. “Putin combines these two things, rejecting anyone who fights the Russians as Nazis. By doing so, he is trying to justify the Russian war and its victims and dehumanize the Ukrainian population.”

Most Ukrainians are fighting to defend their own country, she says. “Not because they have right-wing ideas. The harsh truth is that the Russian invasion makes ordinary Ukrainians partly dependent on Azov to defend their country from a common enemy. So what Putin is doing is only stronger but the role of groups like Azov. But you won’t soon to hear from the Russian state media. “

4. Why is the Azov Battalion now defending Mariupol?

Mariupol is the headquarters of the Azov Battalion. The southern port city, which is important for Ukraine, is located on the Sea of ​​Azov, the border sea of ​​the Black Sea. One of the companies in the city is Azovstal, one of the largest steel mills in Ukraine. While the Ukrainian army practically withdrew from heavy bombing and fighting, the Azov Battalion was allegedly hidden in one of the steel mills.

Hartog: “Azovs are highly motivated to fight against Russia, so it is not surprising that they play an important role in defending places like Mariupol. Although they take on other tasks, such as training civilians and volunteers for self-defense units.”

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