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The Azov Battalion: Separating Truth from Fiction

 According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its second phase. Russia's top priorities are the 'complete liberation' of the separatist republics of the Donbas and the consolidation of Russia's gains in Ukraine's south. 


 


The war has evolved into a protracted conflict with pitched battles and fronts. There are two broad conclusions we can draw from these recent developments. First, Ukraine has managed to engage the might of the Russian Army in head-on combat, holding a solid defence, and in some instances repelling Russian advances. Second, the Russian leadership has shifted its objectives to best suit their capabilities, possibly even accepting that Kyiv will not be taken without massive bloodshed. The most recent barrage of missile attacks in the western city of Lviv marked a significant expansion of the geographic scope of the dispute as Russian munitions continue to rain down on the eastern flank of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


           


Reports of Russian troops and heavy amour experiencing logistical difficulties, low morale, and the innumerable deaths of high-ranking military leadership certainly give Ukrainians a cause for hope. Yet these should not be taken as a definitive statement about the condition of Russian combat forces in Ukraine. Logistical difficulties are unavoidable in a war of this magnitude, as is the case in almost every other conflict of the 19th and 20th centuries, and demotivation is a compulsory feature of a nations wartime experience. As a result, predicting how the war will unfold as it enters its so-called 'Phase two' is difficult. One thing is definite- the war has devolved into an industrial-scale battle of attrition, with Russia holding the upper hand due to its sheer size. This state of affairs is no more so visible in the southern port city of Mariupol. 


          


 As of yesterday, Mariupol has endured nearly three weeks of siege by Russian forces and is now in a state of ruin. Around 140,000 citizens have managed to evacuate, yet some 170,000 people remain within the city. Many among them have sought shelter in the few remaining edifices that can accommodate large numbers of families. On March 16, the Russian Army shelled the Donetsk Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol, causing the building to collapse inwards, trapping an unknown number of civilians, of which 130 survived. On March 25, based on eyewitness accounts of the events, the local authorities of Mariupol announced that approximately 300 people had died in the initial attack. A missile attack against a maternity ward on March 9 captured global attention. Pictures of blood-stained and soot-covered mothers and children instantly circulated across the globe. On March 20, an art school was similarly attacked. There are no clear accounts of how many bodies may be buried under the remains of the building, with some estimates putting the number somewhere in the range of a couple hundred. In a desperate attempt to deter Russian airstrikes, the parents sheltering with their children scrawled the word 'Children' in Russian on both ends of the building, visible to any pilot. These attacks are linked in a way that speaks to Russia's justification for launching a general ground war on its neighbor's territory. In both instances, the Russians claim that these buildings were not destroyed by Russian munitions but rather by an element of the Ukrainian military known as the Azov Battalion. Depending on who you ask, the Azov Battalion is either a hero or a villain, a freedom fighter or a Nazi. They are simultaneously criminals and angels, defending the Ukrainian nation or condemning it to death. They are the source of much debate in the west and the product of extreme nationalistic fervor in Ukraine. Between Russian disinformation and Ukrainian counter-propaganda, it may be difficult for external observers to form a nuanced and informed opinion about the exact nature and role of the Azov Battalion. It may be tough to unravel the complex web of competing narratives when claims and counterclaims from either side of this war are constantly expanding the web. While the regime under Putin may want you to accept its claims at face value, it is crucial to address the controversy of the Azov Battalion in the context of Ukrainian society itself.


        Russia’s propaganda war is so well documented, popular and so widely accepted that it scarcely bears even mentioning. It has become a predictable feature of the media diet of millions of people. Yet, ignoring Russian propagandists and pundits is a losing proposition. Pretending like they don’t exist is akin to closing one’s eyes and praying for a problem to disappear. Russia’s foray into Ukrainian territory was sold to the Russian people by Vladimir Putin on false grounds of historical and ethnic justifications, and it is worth remembering what some of them were. Perhaps the foremost justification has been the so-called “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. In Russia’s narrative, Ukraine is swimming with far-right and fascistic paramilitary elements, who act on behalf of the government in Kiev and commit war crimes against their people with shocking ease. To substantiate this narrative, Putin’s government and its media outlets have focalized on the Azov Battalion. 


           To begin unraveling the tangled web that shrouds the Azov Battalion, it is important to establish a base understanding of its recent history. In 1919, the Second Polish Republic and Ukrainian People’s Republic concluded a brief but no less bloody war over the territorial status of Poland’s post-war borders. As the Russian and Hapsburg Empires dissolved away in the wreckage of the First World War, they left scores of ethnic Ukrainian and Poles living in a state of chaotic partition. The Polish emerged victorious, exerting control over western the territories of Galicia. As the interwar period progressed, the spasms of war in Ukraine refused to subside. Stephan Bandera, a militant Ukrainian nationalist, split the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), to form a more radical and active faction of the organization, one which was willing to agitate the fragile peace agreement and comfortable with using violence as a tool of political expression. If one listens to Russian state media today, one can hear Russian politicians and pundits referring to their opponents in Ukraine as “Bandera”. This is not an arbitrary choice, Russia deliberately refers to the Azov Battalion and Ukrainian soldiers as such for a very specific political reason. 


           When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1942, the leadership of the OUN saw an opportunity. Yaroslav Semenovich Stetsko, the leader of the Bandera faction of the OUN at the time, unilaterally declared Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union. Stetsko was an alleged anti-semite, and while some doubts have been raised about his more vociferous anti-Jewish remarks, one thing which remains clear is that there are considerable amounts of evidence that the anti-communist and anti-Soviet elements in Ukraine collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War. Stetsko’s declaration of a sovereign Ukrainian state was soon followed by an unreserved declaration of fealty to Adolf Hitler. When Russia alludes to the legacy of Stephan Bandera, they are dredging up aspersions to a long-dead history that is poorly remembered by most people alive today. It is bound to elicit visceral reactions when combined with the admixture of Russian nationalism and irredentism. While this history seems neat and simple, it is a convenient reduction of a far more complex story. Russia’s historical justifications for de-Nazifying present-day Ukraine are rooted in the premise that Ukrainian sovereignty is directly linked to its “liberation” by the Third Reich. The OUN sent a brief memorandum signed by Bandera to the German government in 1941 which stated the following:


 


“German troops entering Ukraine will be, of course, greeted at first as liberators, but this attitude may soon change, in case Germany comes into Ukraine without appropriate promises of its intentions to reestablish the Ukrainian state”.


 


To quote a researcher who worked for over three decades in the “archive of the Security Service of Ukraine”, “whether we are talking about the Andriy Melnyk faction of the OUN or the Stephan Bandera faction, the crucial issue for both was the re-establishment of an independent Ukrainian state. Other issues were subordinated to this objective”, including the fight against Fascism. As the combat of the Second World War apexed at the Battle of Stalingrad, the various elements and units of the OUN formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a partisan formation that fought against the Soviet Union and Nazi German forces alike. During the war, the UIA committed various atrocities, among which were the wholesale massacres of Polish people in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, a mad attempt to force national borders to conform to ethnic boundaries. As the war concluded, this organization continued to fight against the USSR as well as the Polish Communists, even enjoying funding from the CIA for a brief time. Accordingly, the Russian state uses the legacy of these partisan formations to develop a narrative of foreign terrorist groups threatening Russian historical interests. It should be mentioned that these groups are long defunct and moribund. They no longer exist in our present time or even in an evolved, tamer form. 


           Fast forward to the 21st century, the war over the Donbas broke out in 2014 when pro-Russian separatists began to seize government and military infrastructure in Ukraine’s east. In response, pro-Ukrainian forces mostly made up of nationalist football fans referred to as Ultras, occupied regional administrative buildings as a sort of ad hoc self-defense force against Russian-backed militants. One such group of Ultras in Kharkiv, Sect 82, formed the Special Tasks Police Patrol in an apparent attempt to better organize these efforts. As the events of Maidan and the annexation of Crimea by Russia sent Ukraine into a state of political shock, the then Interior Minister of Ukraine, Arsen Avakov, set up a call for the establishment of paramilitary militias to the number of about 12,000. The Azov Battalion was formed in Berdiansk in May of that year. Its first commander, Andriy Biletsky, was an avowed white nationalist, having made statements before about the struggle of the white races against the Jewish-led Untermenschen. Biletsky is no longer the commander of Azov, having left the organization in 2016 to serve in Ukraine’s legislature. 


           Since then, Azov has undergone a mutation from a far-right paramilitary to being a fully incorporated unit of Ukraine’s National Guard. It still uses the Wolfsangel emblem as its logo, the same emblem used by the SS and other military units in Nazi Germany, but also widespread among the modern-day Slavic pagan movement. Its use of this symbolism has led to several unsavory accusations of antisemitism from the western community. When the Christchurch mosque shooter in New Zealand videotaped himself murdering his Muslim neighbors, he was visibly wearing a flak jacket emblazoned with the very same symbol used by the Azov Battalion. Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who heads up the Soufan Group, has been incredibly vocal about the alleged connection between far-right terrorists across the world and the Azov Battalion. His main piece of evidence is ostensibly the video of the Christchurch shooter wearing this symbol. Soufan’s fixation on this symbol is a valid response to an event that emanated from a place of intense hatred. Symbols mean a variety of things to a variety of people, which is why they are, in fact, symbols and not written words. Plenty of white nationalist groups use the Wolfsangel without reference to Azov, or perhaps even without knowledge of Azov’s existence. It is a relatively widespread symbol in the white nationalist movement, but even so, the Third Reich doesn’t have a copyright on its use. It would be ridiculous to tell a Hindu, for example, that he can no longer use the millennial old symbol of the swastika as an expression of his religious faith simply because the Third Reich appropriated its image for some decades. Many left-leaning people today may consider the State of Israel to be an apartheid state and many left-leaning political figures in Europe and the US have explicitly condemned Israel as such. Even as they condemn Israel for its illegal and horrendous treatment of Palestinians, it is unimaginable that these same politicians would demand that a synagogue take down any representation of the Star of David simply because it happens to be on the flag of Israel. Yet, this same level of nuance, rather hypocritically, is not extended to the Ukrainian context.


           According to the group's members, their horizontal version of the symbol is a logo incorporating the first two letters of ‘Ідея Нації’ (National Idea). The symbol itself is commonly used across Europe and historically had nothing to do with Nazism. It is used on the municipal arms of the French city of Wolxheim, as well as on the arms of the German cities of Erwitte, Eppelborn, and Burgwedel to name a few. Yet, Russia and its backers in the west are not accusing these French and German cities of being neo-Nazi safe-havens. Scarcely anyone even notices them. Originally, the symbol was derived from an ancient Germanic rune, and appropriated in the 17th century as an inscription used to demarcate the extent of forestry rights and land ownership. Its shape resembles that of a wolf trap, and as such is referred to today as the ‘Wolf’s Hook’. Fixating on its use by Nazi units in the Second World War ignores the symbol’s history and pre-Nazi connotation. Russian disinformation operates on the condition of simplicity. One is not meant to dig deeper, to research and form one’s own opinion. You are meant to take it at its face value. It is predicated on people accepting its open innovation to ignorance. A quick Google search can rather quickly dispel Russia’s ahistorical claims. 


           While this may be, Azov has had a problem with far-right and fascistic elements joining its ranks. It has indeed attracted many radical individuals seeking to role play as weekend soldiers for a few months in the Donbas, perhaps looking for merit points back home with their respective far-right political organizations, and any organization which uses a symbol that was appropriated by the Third Reich should at least expect several applications from a large number of undesirable individuals. A number more have reportedly become combat-hardened and well experienced by years of urban warfare, giving western law enforcement agencies a certain degree of concern should these individuals decide to repatriate themselves back home. The presence of well-trained, combat-hardened extremists is always a headache for any law enforcement agency, as the experience of EU nationals fighting for and against the Islamic State in Syria aptly demonstrates. 


           Writing for the Guardian in 2014, Shaun Walker recounted his conversations with members of the battalion in the early days of the Russo-Ukrainian War. One member, when asked about a swastika tattoo on his comrade’s arm, said "the swastika has nothing to do with the Nazis, it was an ancient sun symbol”, and then proceeded to call himself a "national socialist”. Walker may have possibly mistaken the ancient Slavic sun symbol as a highly stylized swastika, but it is more likely that Azov certainly did harbor certain individuals with less than palatable political agendas. Bear in mind, this report was written in 2014. The battalion is not the same unit today as it was back then. 


           After the government incorporated it into its armed forces, it underwent a process of de-politicization and many of its former leadership, which were indeed anti-semitic, have either left or were pushed out of its ranks. Andreas Umland, from the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies, is quoted as saying that “in 2014 this battalion had indeed a far-right background, these were far-right racists that founded the battalion”. He says that in the years after its formal acceptance as a Ukrainian military unit, it became “de-ideologized”. Before its incorporation, the battalion was funded by Igor Kolomoisky, Ukraine’s richest Jewish billionaire, and boasted many Jewish Ukrainians in its ranks. The Battalion was funded as well by the then governor of the Donetsk region, Serhiy Taruta. Alex Kovzhun, a confidant of Taruta, is quoted in the Guardian as saying:


“The views of some of them is their own affair as long as they do not break the law, and the symbol [of Azov] is not Nazi. Trust me, some of my family died in concentration camps, so I have a well-developed nose for Nazi sh**.”


This sentiment illustrates an interesting feature of how ordinary Ukrainians view the Azov Battalion and it is worth listening to the voices of Ukrainian citizens who view the battalion as a force for peace. A man in Odessa who is involved with Ukraine’s territorial defence against the Russian invasion, who has chosen to remain anonymous, tells me that Azov is not the same battalion as it was in 2014. He talked about its connection with NATO and US service members, “Since the volunteer regiment became part of the current army and underwent major NATO training, it changed big time, and so did the army.” His claim is supported by reporting from The Intercept and some amateur videos he shared of the western (American-sounding) combat veterans currently serving with and formerly training members of Azov.


            “Everything’, he says, ‘I have experienced myself and saw with my own eyes. They trained for several rotations, spent here about ten months, and then a lot of them got hot Ukrainian girlfriends and some got married. That all started in 2018 and kept growing. By now, we have those guys actively helping in combat”. Not all of these foreign fighters he refers to have served in the Azov Battalion, though many have and continue to fight alongside Azov. He referred me to the Sheik Mansour Division, made up of anti-Kadyrov Chechen fighters, as well as to a “Brazilian/Portuguese division nearby Kiev”. His attitude towards Azov is one of respect and admiration. “Russian propaganda created an image of them being total Nazis,” he says, but this is hardly believed by any ordinary Ukrainian living under the specter of Russian airstrikes and naval bombardment. 


           I spoke as well to Lina Barinova. Barinova is a 22-year-old Ukrainian expatriate living in Austria. Since the war started, she has thrown herself into volunteering and organizing work on behalf of Ukrainian refugees flooding into the EU. She has spoken at mass rallies in support of Ukraine and has been a present face on Austrian television making the case against Putin’s war of aggression. Besides being a Ukrainian woman, she is also a proud member of Ukraine’s Jewish community. I asked her if, as a Jewish woman from Ukraine, she has ever felt threatened or in danger by a battalion many claims to be violently anti-Semitic. “I think the only ones who pose a danger to me or my family and my country at the moment are Putin and his supporters. All those who are fighting for our territory as of right now are not terrorists to me since the main terrorism acts are organized by the Putin regime”. This appears to be the dominant attitude prevalent among Ukrainians about Azov’s role in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It is not only a statement of internal national unity, but it is also a forceful denunciation of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda war. “I am 22, half my life I spent in Ukraine, and until Russian troops walked into my country to take over our homes, nothing put our lives at risk, not Azov, not any other military organization”. 


           Russia has spent a considerable amount of effort in attempting to pin the atrocities in Mariupol on the Azov Battalion. It has become the primary scapegoat of choice for Russian state media outlets, as they spin fables about how it may look like Russia is killing Ukrainians, but it is Ukrainians who are killing themselves. This ‘Orwellian inversion of reality’, to borrow a phrase, is done to absolve Russia of any responsibility for shelling and bombing theaters and hospitals packed with civilians. In both instances, the destruction of the drama theater and maternity ward were blamed on the Azov Battalion. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that Russia was forced to bomb the maternity hospital because Azov “and other radicals” were using it as a base of operations, as well as using pregnant mothers as human shields. This is not a very convincing denial, appearing almost ad hoc and impromptu. What Lavrov essentially has said was that his country was forced to bomb pregnant women, that they had no choice in the matter. Ostensibly, no one is ever “forced” to drop a bomb, it is a deliberate choice, a decision that has to pass through a chain of command, with various military and civilian defense officials involved in the decision-making process. Orders have to be relayed, commands have to be given, and finally, the orders have to be executed by a team of not only pilots but also the various ground support personnel who maintain and arm the combat aircraft between sorties. There is no such thing as an ambiguous airstrike. This is why international instruments and jurisprudential bodies like the Geneva Convention and the ICC exist, to identify and punish not only those who execute war crimes but those who order them to be done. The Azov Battalion did not drop a bomb on itself, the Russians did. 


           Barinova also tells me that she never even considered the connection between her Ukrainian Jewish heritage and the status of the Azov Battalion in her country’s armed forces. The two contexts never intersected before I asked her. This is rather telling because while a political storm of controversy has billowed in Washington DC for years over the status of the Azov Battalion, Ukrainians seem to be insulated from these foreign political disputes to the degree that many hardly pay attention to them at all. They are regarded as irrelevant chatter distracting from the real and bigger problem of Russia’s military machine. At any rate, the Russian narratives about Azov have little to zero adherence among Ukrainians and are more widely accepted by certain segments of its intended western audience. 


           Judging from the past years, it is safe to say that the Azov Battalion is not the same unit as it was in 2014. The Ukrainian military likely was willing to incorporate it into the wider structure of the armed forces because it is far better to work with armed groups than it is to keep them in the cold. The strategic value of doing so has already paid off; Azov is one of the most effective combat units in the Ukrainian military. However, Russian efforts to paint the Azov battalion as a rabid neo-Nazi group seem to have also paid off immensely valuable dividends. The US Congress has at various times refused to supply weapons to Azov only to have the Pentagon reverse the policy. Ilhan Omar, a congressional representative from Minnesota, has cast aspersions on the prospect of arming the Ukrainians with more weaponry, citing concerns over the future of weapons proliferation in Ukraine. What Ms. Omar misses is that most of the military aid is defensive. A Javelin missile, for example, cannot be used for any purpose other than tank defence. Ukraine will not descend into a civil war based on American weapons designed to combat invading Russians, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. The war in Ukraine has turned into a war of attrition, and Russia holds a strategic advantage in personnel. Thus, the Ukrainian military leadership does not feel at the liberty to turn away fit men willing to fight, irrespective of their political ideologies. Barinova says, “I know hundreds of boys who I used to be in school with, who are now fighting for my country and I am living in constant fear of never being able to talk to them again just because Putin is delusional about his idea of this sick imperialism”. Ukraine can only hemorrhage so many lives before the tide turns and the defense breaks. Now, as of today, Mariupol is under constant bombardment and assault. It is in a state of siege. Since the Second World War, this is the first time that we have witnessed prolonged siege warfare. Azov is undertaking Mariupol's defence, which is likely why Putin has thrown so many soldiers and military hardware at the city. When the city falls, he will be able to say that he not only captured a major enemy city but that the Azov Battalion is no more. Consequently, a propaganda victory will be provided to him, as he will now be able to say that the 'Denazification' of Ukraine is on track to completion. The best that we can do at the present moment as we watch the catastrophe unfold is engage in an honest and truthful discussion about the actors who dance in this macabre theatre of death.





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