The Azov Battalion

The onset of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine in early 2014 saw Russian backed separatists and Russian troops enter the east and south of the Ukraine, the Crimea, in an attempt to annexe the region. The conflict put pressure on a weakened Ukrainian army that allowed an increase in military capability to be filled through pro-nationalist paramilitary, known as battalions. One of these was the Azov Battalion. This article will explore how the Azov Battalion fit within the theoretical framework and how they are distinguished differently from insurgents and terrorists. It will also explore the role the Ukrainian government played in letting paramilitary groups grow during the conflict and whether Azov have ultimately achieved their goals

The origins, grievances and goals of the group

The Azov Battalions history has been linked to football hooliganism and small right-wing movements that existed in Ukraine before the conflict started.[1] Two of these groups, the Social-National Assembly (SNU) and the Patriot of Ukraine (PU), were linked under the common leadership of Andriy Biletsky, went on to form the Azov Battalion.[2] Following the Euromaydan protests that occurred in Ukraine between November 2013 and February 2014, a draft bill, 4271, was passed by the Ukraine government that allowed the release of 28 political prisoners.[3] Amongst this group were the founding five leaders of the Azov Battalion.[4] From an ideological viewpoint, the Battalion was keen to push for an independent future and to this end, sought to link Kievan Prince Svyatoslav as a new hero for a combined Ukraine.[5] They believed that linking this barely remembered historical figure to a pro-nationalist cause would rally Ukrainians to make a patriotic stand.[6]

It is this right-wing stance that the group became quickly associated with through actions and rhetoric in the public sphere, even though they have attempted to steer away from this perception.[7] A considerable amount of the ultra-nationalist association is linked to their initial leaders, who were openly racist in their rhetoric towards foreigners, mainly Russia, even though they supported the Russian neo-Nazi scene.[8] The symbolism the group adopts has also been viewed as linking to Nazi imagery. However, the use of the letters N and I in their logo is claimed to stand for National Idea.[9] The logo is not necessarily a Nazi symbol either as it is used in the coat of arms of many German municipalities, given the German effort following World War 2 to eliminate any Nazi symbolism, it may be somewhat difficult to claim a single image as depicting racist notions. Contradictory to the Western European notion of far-right being linked to anti-Semitism, the group is funded by a Jewish Ukrainian oligarch.[10]

It is difficult to determine the broader goals Azov may have been looking to achieve as the speed of their formation and rise to prominence was certainly accelerated by the conflict. After forming, they were used as a special police unit in the city of Mariupol and came to prominence through their successful defence of the city.[11]

Azov — Terrorist, insurgent or a paramilitary organisation?

Definitions of terrorism can be somewhat murky as different intentions, targets and outcomes being sought by groups are many and varied. It is clear though that the Azov Battalion was not involved in terrorism activities in the arena in which they existed. The same could be said if trying to describe them as an insurgency. At no stage where they attempting to revolt against the standing Ukrainian government. However, this could be narrowed to Azov being classified as pro-Ukrainian rather than pro-government.[12] It can therefore be argued that the Azov battalion fit the definition of a pro-government paramilitary (PGM), given their support of the incumbent Ukrainian government. A PGM can be defined by the following 4 attributes,

1. They are armed

2. They have an organised structure

3. Not part of the regular armed forces, and

4. Can be identified as pro-government.[13]

Do the above apply to the Azov Battalion? There is no doubt that they are armed and equipped for violence as is shown through their action in Mariupol. Carey et al (2013), highlight that their definition will also fit those that equipped with clubs or machetes.[14] Azov do have an identifiable structure that includes a leader and/or leadership team. They were separate to the state armed forces initially and, under the definition requirement, fought alongside or shared intelligence with the state forces.[15] Point 4 states that they are pro-government, just sharing an enemy does not fit the above definition. However, it also states that an operational link between the group and the government exists.[16] Again, this is demonstrated in their use in law-and-order functions in Mariupol.

Operationally, paramilitary units allow the state armed forces to be multiplied and cover more space and engage the enemy more often.[17] Paramilitaries can also give the government space for deniability and less accountability in the case of human rights violations and repression.[18] In the case of the Azov Battalion, and others in the conflict, the state gave these paramilitary units legal status, this would mean that a certain level of accountability could still be possible for transgressions.[19]

How the government have responded to the group

The onset of hostilities in 2014 caught the Ukrainian armed services in a severely under prepared position with approximately only 15% of the total 150,000 troops in any position to be deployed.[20] Ukraine was in the top ten countries in relation to arms exporting yet only a small portion of the funds being generated where used on the upgrading of equipment and training of their own forces.[21] The conflict in the Crimea forced the governments hand in allowing the creation of battalions to be able to mobilise ground forces to stem the tide of the separatists advances. A hybrid mixture of volunteer units were formed through compulsory conscription and others, like Azov, made up of volunteers. In total, the number of these groups is estimated to have been between 37 and 50, with even higher estimates being claimed by some sources, with a total number of personnel in the order of 13,500.[22]

Even amongst all these groups, the Azov stood out through their use of Nazi symbolism and the rhetoric they used.[23] The Azov Battalion was transformed into a regiment by the government in September 2014 as part of the Ukrainian National Guard that comes under the Minister of Internal Affairs.[24] It has not all been an easy transformation though for the government as calls of favouritism being shown towards Azov by other groups. Evidence that preferential treatment has been given to Azov through a lack of pressure from security and police forces, allowing it to grow its membership.[25]

At higher government levels also, there is concern with the volunteer battalions receiving access to armoured vehicles and requesting heavy artillery, equipment outside the scope of the policing roles they were expected to perform.[26]

Has Azov achieved its goals?

When reviewing the rise of the Azov Battalion from football hooliganism to its current position as a regiment with the government, you could certainly say that they have achieved a level of success. In October 2016, they also launched their own political wing and have had members elected to the Ukrainian Parliament.[27] This has helped realise their goals of pushing a pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian agenda to a broader voter base. As part of the Ukrainian right, there is an opportunity for them to make social change through unemployment and welfare policies.[28] The increase in a political focus is also assisted through a level of stability existing in the conflict zone and growing discontent with the Ukrainian youth, previously apolitical, who are embracing right-wing ideology.[29] Azov use this unrest through their online presence to increase membership and appeal to those wishing to join up on a global scale.

What has not been successful is the regaining of the disputed territories in Crimea. Azov played a part but were never going to be singularly successful. There is also the ongoing negative sentiment that exists as some of their actions have been linked to human rights breaches and has caused them to use considerable efforts to counter.[30]

Conclusion

This case study has demonstrated that the Azov Battalion fits neatly in with the above definition of a paramilitary unit. Their early successes in the Crimean conflict allowed them to build up volunteer numbers and reputation that then saw them subsumed within the Ukrainian National Guard, giving them access to training and heavier military equipment. Their overt right-wing and pro-nationalist views have let them gain further credibility through the unresolved conflict. Even though they have managed to make some headway into Ukrainian politics, there are ongoing claims against the group for crimes. How they develop post any peace compromise, militarily and politically, is yet to be seen.

[1] Saressalo, Teemu, and Aki-Mauri Huhtinen. 2018. “The Information Blitzkrieg — “Hybrid” Operations Azov Style.” The Journal of Slavic Media Studies 31 (4): 423–443. doi:10.1080/13518046.2018.1521358, 432.

[2] OpenDemocracy. 2016. “The rise of Azov.” OpenDemocracy 1–7. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/rise-azov/docview/1765141915/se-2?accountid=10382, 2.

[3] Umland, Andres. 2019. “Irregular Militias and Radical Nationalismin Post-Euromaydan Ukraine: The Prehistory and Emergence of the Azov Battalion in 2014.” Terrorisn and Political Violence 31 (1): 105–131. doi:10.1080/09546553.2018.1555974, 112.

[4] Umland, “Irregular Militias,” 112.

[5] Bateson, Ian. 2017. “”A People WIthout History A History Won’t Fight”: The battle to control Ukraine’s past.” World Policy Institute 34 (1): 42–46. doi:10.1215/07402775–3903712, 45.

[6] OpenDemocracy, “The rise of Avov,” 5.

[7] Saressalo, Teemu, and Aki-Mauri Huhtinen, “The Information,” 428.

[8] Umland, “Irregular Militias,” 110.

[9] Saressalo, Teemu, and Aki-Mauri Huhtinen, “The Information,” 437.

[10] Saressalo, Teemu, and Aki-Mauri Huhtinen, “The Information,” 439.

[11] OpenDemocracy, “The rise of Avov,” 1.

[12] Malyarenko, Tetyana, and David J. Galbreath. 2016. “Paramilitary motivation in Ukraine: beyond integration and abolition.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16 (1): 113–138. doi:10.1080/14683857.2016.1148414, 121.

[13] Carey, Sabine C., Neil J. Mitchell, and Will Lowe. 2013. “ States, the security sector, and the monopoly of violence: A new database on pro-government militia.” Journal of Peace Research 50 (2): 249–258. doi:10.1177/0022343312464881, 250.

[14] Carey, Mitchell and Lowe, “States, the security sector, and the monopoly,” 250.

[15] Carey, Mitchell and Lowe, “States, the security sector, and the monopoly,” 250.

[16] Carey, Mitchell and Lowe, “States, the security sector, and the monopoly,” 250.

[17] Malyarenko and Galbreath, “. “Paramilitary motivation in Ukraine,” 115.

[18] Carey, Sabine C, Michael P. Colaresi, and Neil J. Mitchell. 2015. “Governments, Informal Links to Militias, and Accountability.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 59 (5): 850–876. doi:10.1177/0022002715576747, 852.

[19] OpenDemocracy, “The rise of Avov,” 1.

[20] Saressalo, Teemu, and Aki-Mauri Huhtinen, “The Information,” 431.

[21] Saressalo, Teemu, and Aki-Mauri Huhtinen, “The Information,” 431.

[22] Umland, “Irregular Militias,” 110.

[23] Saressalo, Teemu, and Aki-Mauri Huhtinen, “The Information,” 428.

[24] OpenDemocracy, “The rise of Avov,” 2.

[25] OpenDemocracy, “The rise of Avov,” 6.

[26] Puglisi, Rosaria. 2015. “Heroes or Villains?: Volunteer Battalions in Post-Maidan Ukraine.” Istituto Affari Internazionali 1–20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep09840, 10.

[27] Bateson, “A People Without”, 44.

[28] OpenDemocracy, “The rise of Avov,” 2.

[29] OpenDemocracy, “The rise of Avov,” 5.

[30] Saressalo, Teemu, and Aki-Mauri Huhtinen, “The Information,” 442.

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warren coppard

Interested in history, culture, business and the pursuit of knowledge