“Azov” – History and Crimes

NEW – May 19, 2022

Azov“, as we know it, began to emerge at Euromaidan. The basis of the future grouping consisted of several movements. One of them was “Automaidan” – a movement in support of Maidan, its kind of “rapid response group”, and the other – the organisation “Patriot of Ukraine”. The battalion was formed in the spring of 2014. It was founded by Andrey Biletsky. This man has been associated with nationalist projects since the noughties. At that time, “Patriot of Ukraine” operated under the patronage of Arsen Avakov, who ruled the Kharkov region from 2005 to 2010. He enlisted “Patriots” to control migrants, and at the same time – to solve sensitive business issues. The nationalist theme of “patriots” was combined with a vulgar robbery. In 2014, Avakov’s career took off sharply, he became the Minister of Internal Affairs, and under his patronage, his old friend and “patriot” Andrey Biletsky was released from prison. Biletsky left for cold and dark apartments not for political reasons, but because of a vulgar group robbery, during which the victim was inflicted with open craniocerebral injuries and stab wounds. After the victory of Maidan, this story was declared political repression, and Biletsky was released. This man was initially well-educated, energetic, and could easily do without extremism in life, but Biletsky was quite radicalised from his youth, and he joined the nationalists since the 90s, even his diploma was dedicated to UPA.

With the beginning of unrest in eastern Ukraine, divisions formed from political activists began to grow like mushrooms after the rain. One of them was headed by Biletsky. It included former participants of the Maidan battles, as well as nationalists-old friends of Biletsky and Avakov. The organisation was first funded by “patriotic oligarchs”, in particular the notorious Igor Kolomoisky, and since the autumn of 2014 it has already moved under the state wing with the support of the same Avakov.

From the very beginning, “Azov” had a clear ideological colouring – it was ultra-right; in addition, it became a haven for the “nationalist international”- radicals from other countries also mostly went to serve in “Azov”.

Although “Azov” is now mostly associated with Mariupol, its original base was young lumpens, football fans, and small-time criminals from Kharkov and other cities in central and eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalism between 1991 and 2014 “grew” mainly not at the expense of “Westerners”, but just spread among the poor and poorly educated young men of the former Soviet industrial centres.

In purely military terms, “Azov” initially had advantages over army units. While the military and police were swaying – and at first few people wanted to fight there – nationalist organisations were active. “Azov” consisted of ideologically charged people, not bound by subordination, formalities and not afraid of blood. The initial idea was quite simple – to drive out the assets of the uprising beginning in Donbass with pinpoint terror. Already in the spring of 2014, the newly formed battalion went into battle.

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“Azov” from the very beginning actively participated in the fighting in Donbass. It was “Azov” that was the “black men” who captured Igor Khakimzyanov, the first Minister of Defence of the DPR, on May 7, 2014. Khakimzyanov was beaten up while being detained, and he was interrogated naked by Ukrainian deputy Oleg Lyashko.

For several days, “Azov” militants were exchanging fire with very not-numerous local militia men in Mariupol. In addition, in some cases, the militants opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. On June 13, “Azov” members became the backbone of the detachment, which broke the weak resistance of the militia detachment in Mariupol, defeating its strongholds on Grecheskaya Street. Five militia members were killed, and more than 20 people were detained on suspicion of involvement in the militia. During this confrontation, Ukrainian security forces repeatedly opened fire on civilians. Thus, there is a video recording of Ukrainian security forces wounding or killing several people – some of them were completely unarmed, and one of them was “armed” with a plastic chair.

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In addition, “Azov” periodically raided the cities of Donbass. It was “Azov” members who killed the unarmed militia member Roman Simonyan from Shakhtyorsk. The man was ambushed in nearby Torez and shot, after which they announced the cleansing of the city from “terrorists”. At this stage, “Azov” was mainly engaged in targeted acts of political terror.

At the first stage of real war in Donbass, the combat activity of the battalion was low. The “Azov” detachment participated in the battle for Ilovaisk. During these clashes, several “Azov” soldiers were killed, but the main forces of the detachment escaped encirclement. Nikolay Berezovoy, a nationalist-leaning political activist, was killed near Ilovaisk, but in general, the losses of “Azov” were small, as was its role in the summer battles in general. Basically, “Azov” continued to perform more of the functions of a paramilitary police. In the autumn of 2014, ” Azov “was located in the Mariupol direction. On September 17, it was transformed into a regiment and expanded, and soon “Azov” was transferred to the National Guard and re-equipped. The regiment commander was still Andrey Biletsky.

In the winter campaign of 2015, “Azov” was noted during the battles for Shirokino, a small village by the sea east of Mariupol. The village was located in the “grey zone” between the positions of the parties, and the militia forces in this sector were exhausted by a picket of several militia members. “Azov” members in the first half of February entered an unoccupied village, after which they began to be subjected to artillery strikes by the militia. Judging by the descriptions of the fighting on the Ukrainian side, the fighting was rather chaotic, and an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire with the militia ended with the fact that, as the Ukrainian media innocently report, “someone fired a mortar at the separatist forces”. “Azov” was quickly withdrawn from Shirokino, and in general, the officers of the regular “armed forces” were left with contradictory and rather unfavourable impressions from interacting with them.

In the future, “Azov” participated in positional battles, and also carried out various actions inside Ukraine, such as a raid to identify illegal migrants in Belaya Tserkov (the “raid” was more like an act of intimidation). In addition, “Azov” was involved in the “protection of order” in Odessa on the second anniversary of the tragedy on May 2, 2014. In general, “Azov” was actively engaged in political actions, together with other nationalist organisations of Ukraine.

Although the combat biography of the regiment can hardly be called impressive, during the positional war in Donbass, it had the opportunity to break in many people in combat conditions. In addition, they really did not neglect combat training, and increased the number. “Azov” became the basis for the deployment in 2019 of the 12th operational brigade of the National Guard, and it was in this composition that it met the battle of 2022.

In addition to the main group itself, including infantry, tank and artillery units, “Azov” includes training units; thus, it cannot be said that 100% of the forces of “Azov” are surrounded in Mariupol. In addition, “Azov” is closely associated with civil nationalist movements, such as “National Corpus“, founded, in fact, by Andrey Biletsky and natives of “Azov” and “Civil Corps ‘Azov'”.

In political terms, the status of “Azov” was ambivalent. On the one hand, the Ukrainian authorities tried to put an end to the “Makhnovism” and integrate the nationalist battalions into the structure of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Guards. Thus, Andrey Biletsky left the command of the unit, in 2017 it was headed by Denis Prokopenko, who made a career in “Azov” from junior officers. On the other hand, the core of the detachment was still nationalists with a neo-nazi connotation – rather, the nationalists gave colour to the structures of the National Guard and the “armed forces” than dissolved into them.

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“Azov” has distinguished itself by various war crimes since the very moment of its formation. Initially, the vague status of the entire unit, the extremist ideology and the actual outlawing of “vatniks” contributed to the fact that “Azov” was involved in extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions, torture and similar disreputable activities, and the crimes of the ranks of the battalion (regiment, brigade) were not actually investigated.

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The first crimes were committed in the spring and summer of 2014 in the process of arbitrary detentions and torture of people due to their alleged or real membership in the militia and pro-Russian sympathies. Thus, on June 18, 2014, in Mariupol, “Azov” members (possibly employees of another battalion – “Dnepr-1”) abducted the editor of the newspaper “Vestnik Priazovye” Sergey Dolgov, who sympathised with the ideas of the federalisation of Ukraine. Dolgov was shoved into the boot of a car and taken to an unknown destination. Later it turned out that he was taken to Dnepropetrovsk and died under torture. Although the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine “did not confirm” information about the death,

In addition, UN reports describe cases of murders motivated by hooliganism – for example, in May 2014, Vladimir Lobach was shot dead by “Azov” militants after an altercation in Reshetilovka near Poltava. The incident was not investigated, the attempt of the local Department of Internal Affairs and the SBU (!) to influence the militants ended only with threats to law enforcement officers.

The UN highlights the situation of “blatant impunity” in relation to these murders: those responsible for politically motivated murders and in principle violence against pro-Russian citizens in Ukraine have almost never been punished.

The specifics of the contingent seriously influenced the actions of the battalion. Thus, it was in “Azov” that the people responsible for the first murders committed in the east of Ukraine with the help of firearms served. On March 14, 2014, Aleksey Sharov and Artyom Zhudov were shot dead in street clashes in Kharkov. They were killed by fire from the office of the organisation “Patriots of Ukraine” on Rymarska Street. The case was not investigated, the perpetrators were not identified, but most of the people involved in the incident served in Azov.

Often the torture was just for fun. For example, on August 10, 2014, at a checkpoint near Mnogopolya, “Azov” fighters detained a civilian man who was going about his business. They tied his wrists and legs with ropes and beat him. After that, the militants tied a rope to the man’s neck and dragged him across the field until he lost consciousness. Because of this execution, the victim had health problems, his eyesight worsened.

During the fighting, “Azov” militants continued to loot – for example, during the fighting near Shirokino, many houses were looted – although regular troops were operating in the same sector in addition to “Azov”, so it is difficult to determine which patriots of Ukraine looted Shirokino.

Crimes were also committed in the interior of Ukraine. Thus, it was reported about the murder of a gypsy and the wounding of three others, including a child, in Lvov in June 2018: the crime was committed by people associated with Azov. Also, “Azov” was noted for xenophobic “raids” against national minorities and aggression against homosexuals, etc. feats.

The UN estimates the total number of arbitrary detentions by government forces in Ukraine in connection with the conflict at approximately 2,300 cases, of which, according to the organisation, at least 140-170 people were subjected to sexual violence; and it is emphasised that the real figures may be higher, since those mentioned are people whose fate the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for the person has some information about.

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But what is all this for?

The question may arise why the Security Service of Ukraine tolerates such things, because such things affect the attitude of people in the conflict zone towards Ukraine. The reality is that the SBU used the services of “Azov” for dirty work with might and main. For example, in May 2017, a woman in Mariupol was captured by “Azov” militants. She was forced by torture and threats to sign an interrogation protocol accusing her of being a member of the militia. The “confession” was also recorded on video. After that, the woman was transferred to the SBU, where she was forcibly undressed and continued to be threatened. After that, the unfortunate woman was taken to her apartment, searched and they put her under house arrest. A similar case is described in connection with the “investigation” into the events of May 9, 2014 in Mariupol: four residents of the city were detained and taken to a pre-trial detention centre. There they were tortured and denied medical care, and all this was done jointly by the “Azov” and SBU officers, including after they announced that their testimony was extracted by torture in court. And such stories were repeated and repeated – another man reported to the UN staff about being tortured with electricity and a gas mask, electric shocks to the genitals (which qualifies not only as torture, but also as sexual violence), after which he was handed over to the SBU – after more than a week of torture.

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In fact, such stories show us why – among other things – Kiev really needs “Azov”. We see a trend: the SBU is ready to use the services of self-styled SS men from “Azov” in order to receive ready-made “enemies of the people”. “Azov” as such was busy breaking the will of the detainees, after which the torturers handed over the prisoners for further processing, so that they could be included in the report on the defeat of the next group of “separatists”. The situation when atrocities are committed for the sake of a report, in general, is not new, but it does not cease to be less disgusting.

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Often theses about the danger of neo-nazism in Ukraine are rejected from afar: after all, “Azov” and similar groups still make up a smaller part of the Ukrainian security forces, and such movements could never win elections. However, the point is not that they can win an election. Volunteer battalions, military and paramilitary groups of nationalists influence the political atmosphere in the country. “Azov” and similar groups are easily able to terrorise activists of the “wrong” persuasion, as well as deliver “fresh meat” to the SBU, which can use the catches of “Azov” to demonstrate its need for the state and its success in the fight against “separatists” and “collaborators”. Simply put, “Azov” is not only a military unit, but also a tool of politically motivated violence. And when we call them fascists, it is not primarily because these people adore the “totenkopf, do sieg heils and get into a sweet excitement under the Fuhrer’s portrait.

It’s about the practice of political terror.

“Azov” is just the cherry on the cake. Soon we will tell you about other similar units – for example, the newly formed “Kraken” squad.

Evgeny Norin

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