The new Ukrainian government has recently come under fire for allegedly endorsing growing far-right influence in Ukraine. One of the causes for concern is the volunteer Azov regiment, bearing insignia similar to those used by German Nazis. The core of Azov was formed from activists of the neo-nazi Social-National Assembly, although currently the regiment is ostensibly more ideologically and ethnically diverse.
Recently Timur Olevsky, a Russian reporter working for the independent TV channel TVRain, conducted an extended interview with Andrii Biletskiy, head of SNA, former convict on charges of conspiracy to carry out terrorism, Azov’s commander and a newly-elected member of the Ukrainian parliament. The interview is remarkable in that Olevsky asked the hardest questions posed to Biletsky so far, while the latter gave quite frank, albeit still somewhat evasive, answers. Olevsky has a history with Azov, having been briefly detained by its fighters in Mariupol where the battalion was based during the August Russian army invasion. For obvious reasons, the interview could not be published by any Russian media, TVRain notwithstanding, and had to appear at Kashin.guru, an independent news website/blog run by Oleg Kashin, a prominent Russian journalist currently based in Geneva.
Biletsky describes the regiment as motivated and rather professional, aiming to preserve the lives of its soldiers in a “Western approach to war”. He denies his unit’s No1 status, however, adding that it was the army’s mechanized and airborne brigades who bore the brunt of battle.
He states that they do not consider unarmed pro-Russian people in the conflict zone enemies, even if they do detain many alleged artillery spotters. These, Biletsky argues, are a great problem for both sides, which makes catching even one bona-fide spotter out of ten detainees worth it. He dismisses allegations of his fighters’ misconduct, like a case when a taxi driver was beaten with a rubber slipper and made to learn the Ukrainian anthem by heart for having a text message “Ukrainians are faggots” and pictures from a separatist rally on his phone. He says he hopes the “terrorist supporters” emigrate to Russia after doing their time in Ukrainian prisons, as he doesn’t see the “traitors to the country” peacefully reintegrating into the society.
Biletsky describes the level of violence towards the ostensibly partially hostile population as basically zero. He claims the isolated incidents are characteristic of any army in the world and denies the possibility of a “Somalia scenario” for Ukraine. He believes the fears of a military coup to be unfounded, saying that “this would not be right” while the war is still ongoing.
Talking of prisoner exchange attempts, he claims that the enemy does not want to release Azov prisoners, the unit being heralded as the enemy number one. The only prisoner from Azov, he states, was recently transferred to the Moscow Lefortovo prison and is currently awaiting trial in Russia.
Biletsky says he is used to the “fascist punisher” image in the Russian and pro-Russian media. When asked about his attitude to Jews (the SNA being known for their anti-Semitic and generally racist views) he evades the question, saying that he wouldn’t ask an Israeli officer on a counter-terrorist operation in Gaza about his attitude to Ukrainians.
He mentions that his regiment hasn’t committed any acts of racial violence against Jews, Gypsies or the considerable Turkic-speaking Greek minority inhabiting the unit’s area of operations – a claim which appears to be true. He also claims that the far-right activists with Runic tattoos freely socialize with Georgians in the regiment and fight side by side with them (Georgians and other peoples from the Caucasus are a regular target for nationalists in Russia; in Ukraine, however, it is not the case). Israeli instructors and other foreigners, including Croatians, Biletsky states, enjoy a truly fraternal attitude in the unit (among these foreigners there are Russian and Belarusian nationals, some of them harboring similar far-right views).
Biletsky admits that some men in his unit “are interested in their historical roots”, which may be hard to understand for more modern, “uprooted” nations, like the Americans. “We’ve never denied we were a nationalist battalion. Our insignia are controversial and uncompromising” — he states bluntly. The Nazi-like insignia, he claims, traces 600 years back in Ukrainian heraldry and has been borne by the Ukrainian nationalist movement since the country’s independence in 1991, and for him and his men it represents history, the Maidan and the blood of their comrades-in-arms. Biletsky tells a poignant story of an 18-year-old fighter who died with nothing – neither keys, nor money – but this insignia on him. “I will protect it like my own men,” he states, “Europe’s Freudian complexes be damned”.
When asked if he could guarantee that in five years people won’t be committing atrocities and pogroms under this insignia, hailing the names of Azov heroes, he retorts that their task is building a strong state, not descending into medieval chaos. He finds the possibility of a multi-ethnic Ukrainian nation-state complicated, since the ethnic factor does play a role. While he admits that many Russians are patriots fighting for Ukraine, including in the Azov battalion itself, he claims that it was the cultural and ethnic difference between Donbas and the rest of Ukraine that formed the basis of the current conflict.
While minor ethnic groups, Biletsky believes, may be an organic part of a cultural nation, there is a certain assimilation ceiling. To prove his point, he cites the example of the 17%-strong Turkic party in Bulgaria. Such parties, according to Biletsky, always bear elements of separatism in their programs, which may become stronger given time.
Biletsky says that lots of men in his unit, while not ethnic Ukrainians, are more patriotic and Ukrainian than many Ukrainians by birth. However, he states that no less important is Ukrainian legacy and European civilization, which he considers himself a part of. He concludes that he does ponder the issues of nationality and ethnicity, since ignoring the problem was what partially caused the events in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Another large part of the interview is Biletsky’s stunning account of the war on the Southern front and the heroism shown by his unit when confronted with Russian assault. While it may be better covered elsewhere, this actually represents part of the problem with the far-right fighters in Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians believe them to be heroes fighting for their motherland against all odds. This attitude might be somewhat justified, given that the West has so far failed to supply Ukraine with lethal defense capabilities, leaving the country desperate for any help it can get.