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Azov Regiment - answers to the most frequent questions about the special operations detachment of the National Guard of Ukraine.

Azov Regiment - answers to the most frequent questions about the special operations detachment of the National Guard of Ukraine.
Answers were prepared by Vyacheslav Likhachev, a historian, political analyst, member of the Expert Council of the Center of Civil Liberties, head of the National Minorities Rights Monitoring Group, etc.

Because of the Russian narratives and propaganda, members of the foreign press and public might have a false impression that the special operations detachment “Azov” of the National Guard of Ukraine, which at this moment protects Mariupol from complete occupation, is a so-called “neo-nazi regiment”. This, however, was never true. A historian and a member of the Expert Council of the Center of Civil Liberties (CCL), Vyacheslav Likhachev, provided answers to the most frequent questions asked in the Western world about “Azov”, and published by the head of the board of CCL, Oleksandra Matviychuk.

Are all the members of the regiment neo-nazis? Of course not.

It is specified that neither the National Guard of Ukraine, nor the Armed Forces of Ukraine, include units that were created based on ideological views. 

“The only possible ideology of any unit of the National Guard of Ukraine is the Disciplinary Charter. It specifies the obligation to observe the rights, honor and dignity of a person, as well as to deter from expressing thoughts or performing actions that violate human rights or encroach honor and dignity of a person” - says Likhachev.

And even though at the very beginning there were people with neo-nazi background and ultra-right views among Azov’s founders and soldiers, certainly this wasn’t true for all of them. For instance, among the very first Azov’s fighters were a group of “AutoMaidan” activists that included a few ethnic Jews and at least one Israeli citizen.

It is known that the majority of fighters with  far-right views left the regiment before the end of 2014. The rest of the far-right radicals, who openly articulated their views, were removed from the regiment by the new leadership that took over in 2017.

Is it a paramilitary or an official organization?

Azov is a separate special operations detachment of the National Guard of Ukraine, it is an official and national regiment under the authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. At the same time, unlike some other volunteers-based regiments created in 2014, Azov was never an unofficial detachment. Right from the start, it was part of the Ukrainian Navy.

“That’s why it would be a mistake to call Azov a militia, as it is often done” - notes the historian.

Who serves in Azov?

Those who want to protect their country and people, and passed the screening process. As Likhachev notes, there are many of those who want to serve in the regiment, hence Azov can afford to be picky.

“Ukrainians of various ethnic origins (Russians, Jews, Crimean Tatars, etc), with different religious and political views serve in Azov. There are no limitations from this perspective. “As the leadership of the regiment confesses, the majority of the personnel are Russian speakers” - says historian.

Is the leader of the far-right political party National Corps also the head of the Azov? Of course not.

Serving military personnel in Ukraine cannot be members of political parties. It is known that the head of the National Corps party, Andriy Biletskiy, who was indeed involved in the creation of the regiment and is considered being its founder, was leading Azov only for the first few months. Afterwards he returned to political activities.

“Indeed, he always was, and still is, in touch with his ‘creation’, he crowdfunded for the treatment and rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, actively involved former soldiers in his own political projects or commercial organizations (private security companies mainly), but starting from October 2014 he has no formal connection to the regiment” - says Likhachev.

Are National Militias part of the regiment Azov? No, they are not.

National Militias - is an NGO that is inactive for almost 2 years. It also wasn’t directly related to the National Guard. However, Militias were led by Ihor Mykhailenko, who was in charge of Azov right after Andriy Biletskiy.

Is the Azov regiment a military wing of the National Corps? Of course not.

There’s no direct link between the political party and the regiment. Regiment and the party exist in separate worlds, since the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Guard are beyond politics.

The historian also adds that the creation of “Azov” is what Andriy Biletskiy is most proud of. It is the participation in the Anti-terrorist Operation, liberation of Mariupol back in 2014, and a solid PR of the regiment that made Biletskiy famous, and guaranteed his election to the parliament and presence in the media.

“This is why Biletskiy tries to exploit the ‘trademark’ of “Azov” in his political life. His first political project after his return to public life in October of 2014 was called Civil Corps “Azov”. Biletskiy likes to invite veterans of the regiment to join his party National Corps, and he calls a group of NGOs around his party the “Azov’s movement”. Some informal connections are still being maintained, however, it is more about public recognition and conversion of the social capital that was earned during Anti-terrorist operation into a political one” - says Likhachev.

Are fighters from Europe/US with far-right views serving in “Azov”? No, they are not.

Foreigners cannot serve in the National Guard, as opposed to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Likhachev says that in 2014, when not all formalities were followed in “Azov”, it did have foreigners in its squad. “Azov” was interested in people with experience in serving in Western armies.

“On the other hand, “Azov” attracted foreigners because of its far-right image. Personal connections also played a significant role in 2014. There was an influential group of activists with a far-right background among Azov’s founders that attracted attention from foreigners with similar views. However, a lot has changed in 8 years. There hasn’t been a single foreigner from the West in Azov for a few years already. There were a few cases in the recent years when Western far-right adventurists tried to make it into the regiment. In best cases they had to enjoy cheap and high quality Ukrainian beer and return home, and in worse cases, those too persistent and radically oriented, were forced out of the country by the Security Service of Ukraine” - added the historian.

Is the organization considered an extremist one?

Regiment Azov is called an “extremist organization” by Russia that started a full scale invasion in Ukraine on 24th of February. For instance, Russia considers Facebook and Instagram as extremist as well.

“Although, it is worth mentioning that an initiative to recognize Azov as a foreign terrorist organization was discussed in the US a few years ago” - adds member of the Expert Council of CCL.

”However, those behind the initiative were inspired by the image created by the press and didn’t realize that this is about a regiment of the national organization, and not some informal paramilitary group. After clarifications were made, initiative was dropped and forgotten, and the first group of “white supremacists” that was added to the list of terrorist organizations was “Russian Imperial Movement””.

Did members of Azov participate in war crimes?

“Only the court can decide if a person is a criminal. However, it’s more complicated when it comes to war crimes that were performed during a military conflict. Even Vladimir Putin and Sergey Shoygu are not recognized as war criminals, at least not yet. If we reformulate the question to be “are there strong reasons to believe that Azov soldiers could be suspected in performing acts of war crimes”, then the answer would be yes” - says Likhachev. He adds that there are reasons to believe that particular fighters in 2014 broke laws and customs of war against civilians. However, as the member of Expert Council of CCL adds, such cases didn’t have a systematic character, and persons that likely performed crimes left the unit in 2015 at the latest.

“Also, it is important to add, that there are reasons to believe that sporadic violation of laws and customs of war in 2014 had happened in almost any unit.. However, the extent and the number of violations cannot be compared to the bloody lawlessness demonstrated by the pro-Russian military groups on the temporary occupied territories” - added Likhachev.

Is Azov standing for the “purity of the white race’? No, they never did.

Member of the Expert Council of CCL points out that this is not even on the agenda of the political party National Corps. Andriy Biletskiy personally made racist remarks in 2006-2010. However, at least from the beginning of 2014, even in the informal setting, none of the similar remarks were noticed from him.

Does “Azov” organize torchlight processions?

“I’ve never thought about this question - similarly to how I never thought if “Azov” plays table tennis. Not sure this question is even worth attention. This in no way tells us anything neither about the activities, nor the character of the ideology of Azov” - points out the historian. For instance, in Oslo, torchlight procession was held in memory of victims of terrorist act of white supremacist Anders Breivik. In Moscow, torchlight processions are celebrating victory over nazism. It is practiced by the Red Cross in Italy and by military forces in Germany, and finally, was practiced by the Soviet communists and pioneers.

Does “Azov” glorify nazist ideology?

“We are despising nazism and stalinism” says one of the latest posts in the official Telegram channel of the regiment (from March 28th). It is in Russian, by the way” - responds Likhachev.

Do “Azov” soldiers perform war crimes in Mariupol (similar to the story from 2014, as well as from the 24th of February)?

As mentioned earlier, there’s a chance that singular cases might have taken place. However, as a member of the Expert Council of CCL points out, such behavior in no way has (or had) a systemic character.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which was present in Mariupol till the end of February of 2022, and keeps working in Donetsk, hasn't registered a single case.

“Convincing evidence of such crimes wasn’t provided even by the Russian side. But, whatever hypothetical violations by “Azov” that protects civilians from the aggressor are made, they even remotely cannot be compared with aviabombings of the maternity hospital or the drama theater, where women and children were hiding. From the perspective of the city, which has been erased from the face of the Earth and had 400.000 citizens before the war started, no Russian accusations of protectors of Mariupol are worth attention” - says Likhachev.

Справка ZN.UA
Answers to the most common questions were prepared by Vyacheslav Likhachev - Israeli citizen, native of Russia. Historian, political analyst. Member of the Expert Council of the Center of Civil Liberties. Head of the National Minorities Rights Monitoring Group. He’s been leading the program for monitoring hate crimes in Ukraine for 15 years. For over 20 years he studies xenophobia and far-right movements in post-Soviet countries. Author of books “Political Anti-Semitism in Post-Soviet Russia”, “Right-Wing Extremism in Ukraine: The Phenomenon of 'Svoboda'”, research works “The Far Right in the Conflict between Russia and Ukraine”, “Far-right Extremism as a Threat to Ukrainian Democracy”, etc. Actively participated in preserving jewish historical and cultural heritage. Founder of Museum of History and Culture of Bukovinian Jews. Worked in the Holocaust History Museum of the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem (Jerusalem). Lectured in the Institute of Asian and African countries of Moscow National University and in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

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