As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its sixth day, a Ukrainian far-right military regiment is back in the headlines.
Russian President Vladimir Putin referenced the presence of such units within the Ukrainian military as one of the reasons for launching his so-called “special military operation … to de-militarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”.
On Monday, Ukraine’s national guard tweeted a video showing Azov fighters coating their bullets in pig fat to be used allegedly against Muslim Chechens – allies of Russia – deployed in their country.
Azov has also been involved in training civilians through military exercises in the run-up to Russia’s invasion.
So what is the Azov regiment?
Azov is a far-right all-volunteer infantry military unit whose members – estimated at 900 – are ultra-nationalists and accused of harbouring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology.
The unit was initially formed as a volunteer group in May 2014 out of the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang, and the neo-Nazi Social National Assembly (SNA) group. Both groups engaged in xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideals and physically assaulted migrants, the Roma community and people opposing their views.
As a battalion, the group fought on the front lines against pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, the eastern region of Ukraine. Just before launching the invasion, Putin recognised the independence of two rebel-held regions from Donbas.
A few months after recapturing the strategic port city of Mariupol from the Russian-backed separatists, the unit was officially integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine on November 12, 2014, and exacted high praise from then-President Petro Poroshenko.
“These are our best warriors,” he said at an awards ceremony in 2014. “Our best volunteers.”
Who founded Azov?
The unit was led by Andriy Biletsky, who served as the the leader of both the Patriot of Ukraine (founded in 2005) and the SNA (founded in 2008). The SNA is known to have carried out attacks on minority groups in Ukraine.
In 2010, Biletsky said Ukraine’s national purpose was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [inferior races]”.
Biletsky was elected to parliament in 2014. He left Azov as elected officials cannot be in the military or police force. He remained an MP until 2019.
The 42-year-old is nicknamed Bely Vozd – or White Ruler – by his supporters. He established the far-right National Corps party in October 2016, whose core base is veterans of Azov.
Before becoming part of Ukraine’s armed forces, who funded Azov?
The unit received backing from Ukraine’s interior minister in 2014, as the government had recognised its own military was too weak to fight off the pro-Russian separatists and relied on paramilitary volunteer forces.
These forces were privately funded by oligarchs – the most known being Igor Kolomoisky, an energy magnate billionaire and then-governor of the Dnipropetrovska region.
In addition to Azov, Kolomoisky funded other volunteer battalions such as the Dnipro 1 and Dnipro 2, Aidar and Donbas units.
Azov received early funding and assistance from another oligarch: Serhiy Taruta, the billionaire governor of Donetsk region.
In 2015, Andriy Diachenko, the spokesperson for the regiment at the time said that 10 to 20 percent of Azov’s recruits were Nazis.
The unit has denied it adheres to Nazi ideology as a whole, but Nazi symbols such as the swastika and SS regalia are rife on the uniforms and bodies of Azov members.
For example, the uniform carries the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel symbol, which resembles a black swastika on a yellow background. The group said it is merely an amalgam of the letters “N” and “I” which represent “national idea”.
Individual members have professed to being neo-Nazis, and hardcore far-right ultra-nationalism is pervasive among members.
In January 2018, Azov rolled out its street patrol unit called National Druzhyna to “restore” order in the capital, Kyiv. Instead, the unit carried out pogroms against the Roma community and attacked members of the LGBTQ community.
“Ukraine is the world’s only nation to have a neo-Nazi formation in its armed forces,” a correspondent for the US-based magazine, the Nation, wrote in 2019.
Human rights violations and war crimes
A 2016 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHA) has accused the Azov regiment of violating international humanitarian law.
The report detailed incidents over a period from November 2015-February 2016 where Azov had embedded their weapons and forces in used civilian buildings, and displaced residents after looting civilian properties. The report also accused the battalion of raping and torturing detainees in the Donbas region.
What has been the international response to Azov?
In June 2015, both Canada and the United States announced that their own forces will not support or train the Azov regiment, citing its neo-Nazi connections.
The following year, however, the US lifted the ban under pressure from the Pentagon.
In October 2019, 40 members of the US Congress led by Representative Max Rose signed a letter unsuccessfully calling for the US State Department to designate Azov as a “foreign terrorist organisation” (FTO). Last April, Representative Elissa Slotkin repeated the request – which included other white supremacist groups – to the Biden administration.
Transnational support for Azov has been wide, and Ukraine has emerged as a new hub for the far right across the world. Men from across three continents have been documented to join the Azov training units in order to seek combat experience and engage in similar ideology.
The oscillation of Facebook
In 2016, Facebook first designated the Azov regiment a “dangerous organisation”.
Under the company’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, Azov was banned from its platforms in 2019. The group was placed under Facebook’s Tier 1 designation, which includes groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and ISIL (ISIS). Users engaging in praise, support or representation of Tier 1 groups are also banned.
However, on February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion, Facebook reversed its ban, saying it would allow praise for Azov.
“For the time being, we are making a narrow exception for praise of the Azov regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine national guard,” a spokesperson from Facebook’s parent company, Meta, told Business Insider.
“But we are continuing to ban all hate speech, hate symbolism, praise of violence, generic praise, support, or representation of the Azov regiment, and any other content that violates our community standards,” it added.
The reversal of policy will be an immense headache for Facebook moderators, the Intercept, a US-based website, said.
“While Facebook users may now praise any future battlefield action by Azov soldiers against Russia, the new policy notes that ‘any praise of violence’ committed by the group is still forbidden; it’s unclear what sort of nonviolent warfare the company anticipates,” the Intercept wrote.