KEY POINTS

  • Azov Battalion is a far-right all-volunteer infantry military unit first formed in May 2014
  • The unit was led by Andriy Biletsky until he was elected to parliament
  • The group was forced to purge extremist views after they were incorporated into Ukraine's National Guard

Some far-right, white supremacist fighters have joined Ukraine’s war against Russia as the conflict extends into its sixth week. 

Members of Ukraine’s controversial Azov Battalion have joined Ukrainian forces in fighting the invading Russian troops. The battalion is one of the most adept military units in Ukraine. Members of the group were seen in battles against Russian forces in several key sites, including the war-torn city of Mariupol where at least 5,000 civilians had been killed amid the war.

The Azov Battalion is a far-right all-volunteer infantry military unit first formed in May 2014. The group has been criticized for its ultra-nationalist beliefs and accused of harboring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. 

The unit was led by Andriy Biletsky, who had also led the Patriot of Ukraine gang and Social National Assembly (SNA) group. The SNA has been accused of carrying out attacks on minority groups in Ukraine. Biletsky led the group until 2014 when he was elected to parliament. 

It was estimated that 10% to 20% of Azov Battalion’s recruits were Nazis, as of 2015, the regiment’s spokesperson Andriy Diachenko said then. While the group has denied that it observed Nazi ideologies, Azov members were seen donning uniforms with the swastika symbol. Additionally, individual members have admitted to being neo-Nazis.

The Azov Battalion was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in 2014 under former President Petro Poroshenko’s administration. The integration of the group forced many members to purge their extremist views. 

Today, despite still having extremists in their ranks, the Azov Battalion is fueled by patriotism and its hope to reclaim freedom in Ukraine. 

“You have fighters now coming from all over the world that are energized by what Putin has done,” Colin P. Clarke, director of research at the Soufan Group, told The Washington Post. “And so it’s not even that they’re in favor of one ideology or another — they’re just aghast by what they’ve seen the Russians doing.”

Many new recruits are now being processed and vetted by Ukrainian officials. They are also asked to respond to a series of questions about their ideologies and political leanings. The group now includes writers and liberals. Some are also members of the extreme left and anti-fascists, according to Biletsky.

“These are guys who simply love their country and Ukrainian people,” a former construction worker who has recently joined Azov Battalion told The Post. “I never knew them to be Nazis or fascists, never heard them make calls for the Third Reich.”

The unit has more than a thousand fighters positioned in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Dnipro. There are also smaller units scattered across six cities and towns across Ukraine. There are roughly 10,000 Azov fighters in the country.

The Russian withdrawal from areas around Kyiv and the north is part of a regrouping as it shifts its focus towards Ukraine's southeast The Russian withdrawal from areas around Kyiv and the north is part of a regrouping as it shifts its focus towards Ukraine's southeast Photo: AFP / FADEL SENNA