Azov Battalion: far-right Mariupol regiment explained, size of Ukraine unit, flag - and are they neo-Nazis?

The far-right group is defending Ukraine from Russian invaders, but what do they want beyond the conflict?

One of the most inspiring things to come out of the ongoing Russia/Ukraine conflict, is the unity which has brought the resisting Ukrainian people together.

Under a common, agreeable purpose to end the fighting and drive back Vladimir Putin’s invaders, groups from across the political spectrum have come together to lend their support to the war effort.

One such group is the Azov Battalion, a controversial National Guard unit with strong ties to neo-Nazism.

If reports are to be believed, the group has put up staunch resilience in the besieged city of Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped without basic amenities as they shelter from Russian bombardment.

But who are the group, and should their offensive ideologies be struck from the record? What do they really want?

Here is everything you need to know about it.

What is Azov Battalion?

To give the group its full name, the Azov Special Operations Detachment is a right-wing extremist, neo-Nazi unit serving the National Guard of Ukraine and based in Mariupol.

Ukraine’s National Guard should not be confused with the Armed Forces of Ukraine (the ZSU); the National Guard is the Ukrainian national gendarmerie, a military force with law enforcement duties among the civilian population.

The group was formed as a volunteer militia in 2014 to fight Russian separatist forces in the Donbas War, and was instrumental in recapturing Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists that year.

Following Azov’s incorporation into the National Guard of Ukraine, the group gained notoriety after multiple allegations of torture and war crimes were levelled against it.

Servicemen of the pro-Ukrainian Azov battalion attend an oath ceremony in Kyiv in 2014 (Photo: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images)

The group has also been criticised for displaying neo-Nazi sympathies, and has widely used Nazi symbolism, most notably in their logo, which features the Wolfsangel, one of the Nazi symbols used by the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich.

Representatives of the groups have said the logo is an abbreviation for its slogan “Ideya Natsiyi”, which translates into English as "National Idea".

While the Wolfsangel could be interpreted as the letter I overlaid over the letter N, the 2nd SS Panzer Division took part in major battles on the Eastern Front, driving back forces from Soviet Russia.

In 2015, a spokesman for the battalion said around 10 - 20% of the unit’s members were neo-Nazis, and in 2018, the US Congress blocked military aid to Azov on the grounds of its white supremacist ideology.

At its peak, it was estimated that Azov was made up of around 2,500 members, though that number is thought to be much lower in 2022; around 900 members.

Are there British members?

The group has used Facebook and other professional-looking social media pages to recruit far-right individuals from other countries within Europe, including the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Greece, Scandinavia, Spain, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

According to Minsk Ceasefire Agreements, foreign fighters are not allowed to serve in Ukraine’s military, but despite this, the regiment still has foreign fighters, including ex-British army serviceman Chris Garrett.

In 2019, Azov’s use of social media for recruitment saw it hit with a ban under Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organisations policy; this block has since been temporarily relaxed in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In 2020, 23-year-old Alice Cutter and 25-year-old Mark Jones - who bonded over a shared interest in the violent, racist ideology of the extreme-right - were convicted of being members of neo-Nazi terrorist group, National Action.

In December 2019, Jones, then under investigation, had travelled to Ukraine where he met members of Azov Battalion.

Children undergo military training at a Ukrainian volunteer battallion base for the Azov far-right Uklrainian volunteers battalion in Kyiv in 2015 (Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Are they fighting against Russia?

It has been reported that Azov Battalion is the primary unit attempting to defend the city of Mariupol from invading Russian forces.

After an airstrike damaged a maternity ward and destroyed a children’s hospital - killing three and injuring 16 - Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov claimed the building was in fact not in use, and instead was occupied by the Azov Battalion, making it a target for Russian strikes.

These claims have been proven to be false, with photo evidence of injured patients in the wake of the attack - and recent social media activity - proving the facility was indeed in use as a hospital.

However, Russian misinformation persists, with invading authorities claiming the images of injured pregnant women being evacuated were staged, and were actually pictures of actresses wearing "realistic make-up".

Azov has also played a part in the defence of Kyiv, ambushing Russian tank regiments and forcing them to retreat.

But while the battalion is fighting against the Russian threat, a cause which is no doubt worthy, their underlying ideologies should not be forgotten.

The group’s members have regularly been pictured wearing neo-Nazi and SS symbols and regalia, and its founding member Andriy Biletsky - the leader of the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly - has said Azov’s "historic mission" is to lead the "white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival.”

In 2014, Shaun Walker wrote in The Guardian that "many of [Azov’s] members have links with neo-Nazi groups, and even those who laughed off the idea that they are neo-Nazis did not give the most convincing denials", citing swastika tattoos among the fighters.

Of course, the group is also highly beneficial to Putin’s narrative to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

The small group represents a tiny proportion of the population of the country, but in staging fierce resistance against Russia, stories of the Azov Battalion’s might can be used by the Kremlin to justify the need to protect its people from a neo-Nazi threat.

In truth, you would probably be able to dig up a neo-Nazi group within any nation in the world, but that does not mean that country has a problem with extremist views.

What’s next for Azov?

The group could even stand to benefit from the invasion of Ukraine, especially in the wake of a Russian retreat, or a brokered peace deal.

The Telegraph calls Azov a ”well-oiled publicity machine”, and many of the highly produced drone shots and video footage of attacks on invading troops have been created by the group.

Azov is likely hoping these images will help turn average Ukrainians to them, projecting a heroic, freedom-fighting style.

While their ambitions for the future of Ukraine are uncertain, in Shaun Walker’s Guardian article, one prominent member told the reporter that the country needed “a strong dictator to come to power who could shed plenty of blood but unite the nation in the process".

If Ukraine is to emerge victorious from this conflict, an emboldened Azov Battalion could pose a very real threat from within.

A message from the editor:

Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going. You can also sign up to our newsletters and get a curated selection of our best reads to your inbox every day.