On the frontlines of the new offensive in eastern Ukraine, the hardcore Azov Battalion is ready for battle with Russia. But they're not fighting for Europe, either.
- By Alec LuhnAlec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications.
MARIUPOL, Ukraine – Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fly over Mariupol’s burned-out city administration building and at military checkpoints around the city, but at a sport school near a huge metallurgical plant, another symbol is just as prominent: the wolfsangel ("wolf trap") symbol that was widely used in the Third Reich and has been adopted by neo-Nazi groups.
The Azov Battalion — so named for the Sea of Azov on which this industrial city is located — is one of dozens of volunteer battalions fighting alongside pro-government forces in eastern Ukraine. After separatist troops and armor attacked from the nearby Russian border and took the neighboring town of Novoazovsk, this openly neo-Nazi unit has suddenly found itself defending the city against what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a Russian invasion.
Pro-Russian forces have said they are fighting against Ukrainian nationalists and "fascists" in the conflict, and in the case of Azov and other battalions, these claims are essentially true.
With the incursion from the Russian border, Mariupol, which had been peaceful since pro-Russian protestors were forced out in May, has become a third theater in the eastern Ukrainian conflict along with the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Pro-Russian forces claim this week’s advance along the coast has been made by separatist rebels, but Oleh Odnorozhenko, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, comprised of some 500 men, said the Ukrainians are facing thousands of regular Russian Army troops. He claimed that his men have captured dozens of Russian soldiers over the past week and destroyed a Russian fighting infantry vehicle.
"Despite all its wishes, the Russian Army will have a difficult time taking Mariupol," Odnorozhenko said, cradling his Kalashnikov as two more fighters jogged laps with their weapons behind him. "We have left our positions so it’s not possible to shell us from Russia. That’s why they came to Novoazovsk. Mariupol won’t be taken without blood."
Odnorozhenko said the city’s defenders are "first and foremost volunteer battalions," with numbers of National Guard and regular Ukrainian Army troops playing a smaller role. Overall, there are more than 50 volunteer battalions fighting in eastern Ukraine, he said. The pervasiveness of these paramilitary units has raised concerns about their influence over the government. National Guard spokesman Ruslan Muzychuk said the volunteer battalions play a role in the city’s defense but insisted that "all the battalions in the anti-terrorist operation cooperate according to the military chain of command."
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has come, in some ways, to resemble a battle between Ukrainian and Russian nationalists. Volunteers from the nationalist groups who clashed with riot police on Kiev’s Independence Square this past winter have filled out the ranks of the many battalions fighting alongside Ukraine’s small, dilapidated regular army in the east, including Azov.
Meanwhile, the pro-Russian forces are striving to reunite what they say are historically Russian lands to create Novorossiya ("New Russia"). Each side refuses to see anything of itself in the other. The pro-Russians call the Ukrainians fascists, who in turn portray their opponents as imperialists. Odnorozhenko said the conflict involved "people with a European identity fighting with Sovietness."
But the "European identity" to which Odnorozhenko aspires is one estranged from mainstream European and American liberalism. The Azov Battalion, whose emblem also includes the "Black Sun" occult symbol used by the Nazi SS, was founded by Andriy Biletsky, head of the neo-Nazi groups Social-National Assembly and Patriots of Ukraine. Although the Social-National Assembly website linked to by the Azov Battalion’s social network pages said its program was undergoing "development and modernization," other materials on the site give a clear idea of the group’s political leanings.
"Unfortunately, among the Ukrainian people today there are a lot of ‘Russians’ (by their mentality, not their blood), ‘kikes,’ ‘Americans,’ ‘Europeans’ (of the democratic-liberal European Union), ‘Arabs,’ ‘Chinese’ and so forth, but there is not much specifically Ukrainian," read one text. "The reason for this situation is the mass propaganda of trans-myths that are foreign to us through advertising, television, laws and education. It’s unclear how much time and effort will be needed to eradicate these dangerous viruses from our people."
According to Odnorozhenko, the battalion’s political platform supports the natsiokratiya, a system of government devised by the Ukrainian nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s, who fought Soviet forces but were also guilty of atrocities such as the murder of thousands of Jews and Poles. It supports a national government based on syndicates representing different classes of the population, as well as a strong foreign policy including the nuclear re-armament of Ukraine, he said.
The battalion has a number of foreign volunteers, including numerous Russians, four Swedes and one Canadian, but no Americans, Odnorozhenko said — as two jeeps full of tanned fighters in sunglasses and bandannas rolled into base, a wolfsangel painted on each side.
Although he declined to provide details, Odnorozhenko said the Ukrainian forces are deploying armor, building fortifications, and "activating different military groups" in the Mariupol area. Local activists have been digging trenches in some places outside the city and organizing "civil defense" forces.
Ukrainian forces have been falling back in the face of the Russian advance. According to various reports, they had retreated to the west of the town of Bezimenne ("No Name"), which would put them within 20 miles of Mariupol itself.
Besides a strong defense, Ukraine needs the support of the West to defeat the invaders, Odnorozhenko argued. He called for the Europe and the United States to take a more aggressive stance on Russia and begin shipping weapons to Ukrainian pro-government forces. Oddly enough, he compared the conflict to World War II, when his battalion’s ideological forebears were fighting Soviet and Western troops.
"The blindness and stupidity of the European political elite will lead to Russian aggression being open and unhidden, and Russian forces will soon be everywhere," he said. "A hybrid war? We have the kind of normal war that was last seen in Europe in 1945."