Volunteer battalion Azov might become a political problem for the government in Kyiv.
Several volunteer formations are participating in combat in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts together with the regular Ukrainian army. Among them are Donbas, Aydar, and Azov battalions, which usually act in the highest danger zones. Russian propaganda regularly calls Azov fighters murderers, saying that it is formed out of extreme nationalists. In Ukraine, volunteer battalions get the respect they deserve, since, as opposed to regular servicemen, these fighters have outstanding bravery and readiness to carry out missions in the most difficult conditions.
Some Azov battalion fighters don’t hide their radical political views even in interviews to western media outlets, others prefer to speak of good civic feelings that motivated them to go fight “the war for liberation.” Opinions on Azov in Kyiv also differ: some consider Azov fighters dangerous nationalists, others – sincere patriots that are countering Russian aggression. Some experts assume that a modernized Ukrainian army will be created based on Azov and other volunteer battalions to soon replace the outdated regular armed forces. However, there are grounds to assume that after the end of active combat in the east of Ukraine, Azov could constitute some kind of political problem for the new Ukrainian government.
The Azov battalion was created in May 2014 and, like other volunteer formations, is part of the structure of Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In May-June Azov participated in the liberation of Mariupol. According to the deputy commander of the battalion Oleh Odnorozhenko, now one of its tasks is establishing control over the Azov coast and fighting separatist underground networks. This is the region through which separatists were supplied with weaponry, and Azov aimed to close off this corridor.
“What is more, dozens of supporters of the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR, including officials and representatives of law enforcement, were arrested in this region,” says he. The battalion’s actions are not limited to the Azov sea-coast. In the beginning of August, Azov entered the town of Mariinka west of Donetsk. According to Odnorozhenko, one fighter was killed and dozens were injured as a result of the operation. According to Russian media reports, in July part of the battalion was surrounded near Izvarino in Luhansk Oblast. However, the commander of the battalion denies this.
According to Odnorozhenko, the battalion includes about 400 fighters. Azov’s skeleton consists of activists belonging to the radical right wing Socio-National Assembly and the movement Patriot of Ukraine, which is part of it.
“Azov also includes representatives of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), parties Svoboda and Bratstvo, as well as ultras football fans,” says Odnorozhenko. Bratstvo is headed by a very right-wing Ukrainian politician, Dmytro Korchynsky, who was accused in light of recent event in Kyiv of working for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovнch and organizing the provocation that led to the clashes between Berkut and the protesters of Bankova Street on December 1, 2013.
The battalion also included departments of so-called “black men” – volunteer regiments of Ukrainian nationalists created in April of the current year to fight against “green men” (Russian saboteurs and mercenaries). Azov battalion is also known as “the Black Corps.”
According to Odnorozhenko, the battalion includes foreign volunteers – mostly from Russia (about a dozen) and Belarus: “The Russians represent various organizations that are fighting against the anti-Russian Putin regime.” Odnorozhenko claims that these are the organizations that were subject to repression in Russia and were forced to go underground. In July representatives of Right Sector picked up Roman “Zukhel,” an activist of the Russian national-social organization WotanJugend, from Boryspil airport. Right Sector representative Ihor Kryvoruchko then said that Zukhel may head the “Russian Corps” within Azov. Five representatives of WotanJugend were recently arrested in the Czech Republic on accusations of “founding, supporting and spreading information about a movement that violates human rights and freedoms.”
Besides Russians and Belarusians, Azov also includes volunteers from Sweden, Italy, and France. Among them are representative of the ultra-right-wing Swedish Party and radical right-wing Italian movements National Advance and Youth Front.
The movement Patriot of Ukraine (part of Right Sector), which founded the Azov battalion, is frequently accused of neo-Nazism. However, Odnorozhenko denies these allegations, insisting that the ideology of the organization, socio-nationalism, is “self-sufficient and wholesome”: “The ideology of Patriot of Ukraine is not rooted in German national-socialism but in the integral nationalism of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists of the 1930’s. People are vaguely aware of the difference between political movements. Socio-nationalism emphasizes the importance of the social aspect, but it is not socialist (as opposed to national-socialism).” According to Odnorozhenko, this party does not have an official position regarding national-socialism: “We stand for objective attitudes towards national-socialism and communism. They should not be demonized or venerated.”
Critics of the movement claim that some points of Patriot of Ukraine’s program are reminiscent of German national-socialism and Italian fascism. The program documents of the party say: “The main principles of Natiocracy are national solidarity (lack of class and party), authoritarianism (personal responsibility of leader of all levels for their actions), quality social hierarchy and discipline, social control, self-organization and self-governance.” The program of Patriot of Ukraine also prescribes “the dismounting of the economic system of capitalism as such, which supports robbery of working social classes by groups of economic and political parasites.” Another point is “the liquidation of all institutes and forms of political democracy as a political system, which services the economic system of capitalism.” The program claims that “all the best and most prized on our planet has to do with the White Man” and prescribes a superpower and nuclear state status for Ukraine.
Like representatives of other volunteer battalions, fighters of Azov battalion are dissatisfied with the fact that, to their mind, the key demands of Maidan have not yet been met by the government in Kyiv: no lustration, mass corruption has been preserved. Odnorozhenko agrees with this evaluation and thinks that “the entire system is rotten.”
On August 5 the leader of the headquarters of Azov volunteer battalion Valentyn Lykholyt states that after the end of the war Aydar, Azov, and Donbas fighters would return to Kyiv with weapons in hand in order to help the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko beat corruption. However, Odnorozhenko thinks that it is too early to say: “The main goal is to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, but we have big political plans.” Some experts predict a conflict between the government in Kyiv and the commandment of the battalion, however, according to Ukrainian political expert Olexiy Arestovych, “the political situation has to change radically” for such a conflict to emerge.
A new-type army
Azov and other volunteer battalions consist of people who consciously went to the combat zone in Donbas and that are therefore more motivated than the regular army.
“The motivation is higher in volunteer battalions, but there is no heavy weaponry and integration into the system, and the regular army has weapons and integration but less motivation,” Arestovych claims.
Odnorozhenko says that the army has a good relationship with the battalion, and actions are coordinated between the two. However, MIA battalions are radically different from the army: “Volunteer battalions are a new-type army, and the regular army is the successor of the Soviet army with all of its negative traits, such as excessive centralization and the inability to make operative decisions.”
Azov stands out among other volunteer battalions with its efficiency, and its commander Andriy Biletskiy (who is also head of the Patriot of Ukraine movement) is the most talented volunteer battalion commander, thinks Arestovych. However, the fighters don’t have military education, and they did not have any war experience before the antiterrorist operation, he thinks.
Source: Radio Liberty
Translation by Mariya Shcherbinina, edited by Alya Shandra