How does Russian propaganda systematically discredit the Azov Regiment?
As a battalion, the group fought on the front lines against Russian-backed terrorists in the temporarily Russian-occupied Donetsk region of Ukraine. Just before launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin recognized the independence of two rebel-held parts of Donbas.
A 2016 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHA) had accused the Azov regiment of violating international humanitarian law. The report detailed incidents from November 2015 to February 2016, where Azov had embedded their weapons and forces in used civilian buildings and displaced residents after looting civilian properties. The report also accused the battalion of raping and torturing detainees in the Donbas region.
In June 2015, Canada and the United States announced that their armed forces would not support or train the Azov regiment, citing its neo-Nazi connections. The following year, however, the US lifted the ban under pressure from the Pentagon.
In 2016, Facebook first designated the Azov regiment a “dangerous organization.” Under the company’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, Azov was banned from its platforms in 2019. The group was placed under Facebook’s Tier 1 designation, which includes groups like the Ku Klux Klan and ISIL (ISIS). Users engaging in praise, support, or representation of Tier 1 groups are also banned. However, on February 24, 2022, the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Facebook reversed its ban, saying it would allow praise for Azov. “For the time being, we are making a narrow exception for the praise of the Azov regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine national guard,” claimed a spokesperson from Facebook’s parent company, Meta, and added, “But we are continuing to ban all hate speech, hate symbolism, praise of violence, generic praise, support, or representation of the Azov regiment, and any other content that violates our community standards.” The reversal of policy will be a big headache for Facebook moderators, American website the Intercept, a US-based website has said. “While Facebook users may now praise any future battlefield action by Azov soldiers against Russia, the new policy notes that “any praise of violence” committed by the group is still forbidden; it’s unclear what sort of nonviolent warfare the company anticipates,” the Intercept wrote.
It is important to define what neo-Nazism actually means and how it differs from other far-right political movements. While both movements share common ideas, such as conservative values, white supremacy, law and order, and others, neo-Nazism is distinct in its aspirations to revive the Nazi ideology in line with Hitler’s ideas about race and society.
The Azov fighters call themselves nationalists – but it is important to understand that the nationalism declared by Azov is underpinned by a history of repression of the Ukrainian identity, becoming all the more visible in the face of the Russian aggression in Ukraine today. As such, the nationalist ideology Azov identifies itself with is inclusive of ethnic minorities and different religious faiths, quite far from the ideals propagated by the Nazi ideology. Azov’s outright proclamation of associating with nationalism has been weaponised and manipulated by Russian propaganda to be demonstrated as a proud expression of Nazi ideology – such claims are sharply contrasted by Azov’s own March 28 statement posted on their Telegram channel (in Russian): “We despise Nazism and Stalinism.” While there’s no denying that Azov’s origins lay in having far-right affiliations amongst some of its original co-founders, most soldiers with a far-right background had left the regiment by the end of 2014 and the remainder were discharged by an order from the regiment’s new commanders in 2017. Having been integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine, Azov is an official government regiment reporting to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Amongst many Ukrainians, the Azov Battalion servicemen are considered heroes. Having previously liberated Mariupol in 2014, the battalion put up a strong fight with the Russian troops in their defense of Mariupol this year, which culminated with a severe battle at the Azovstal steel plant where the unit held ground while completely surrounded, with no access to medication, food, or water.
Their brave defense of Azovstal and Mariupol in 2022 led to an international outcry of support for the battalion – only when images of the conditions in which Azov defenders had been living in while maintaining their stronghold at the steel plant had surfaced, coupled with their documentation of Russian shelling and heavy wounds endured by Azov soldiers, did the world understand the scale of their courage.
With this background information in mind, allow us to dispel some of the main myths and false narratives spreead by Russian propaganda regarding the activities of the Azov regiment.
Russia calls them Nazis, but for Ukraine, they are today’s heroes.
Here are some myths and false narratives about Azov.
‘Denazification’ as one of the main goals of the ‘special military operation’
On February 24, in his announcement of the start of a “special military operation,” Vladimir Putin stated that he was seeking the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine.
Although Russian high-rank officials maintained a continuous use of this term, further explanations or its definitions were never provided. Even the ambassador of the Russian Federation to the UN Vasiliy Nebenzya only stated that “Ukraine needs to be denazified and demilitarized to ensure that it is no longer a threat to Russia,” without explaining anything to the world community.
Even though references to the “denazification” of Ukraine gradually disappeared, the purpose of using this narrative at the beginning of the full-scale aggression against Ukraine is obvious — to justify the war to the citizens of Russia.
Creating a story about neo-Nazism in Ukraine
Throughout the past eight years, Moscow has consistently tried to legitimize the discourse about “neo-Nazis in Ukraine,” and the Ukrainian military, but the Azov Regiment in particular (as well as many Ukrainian volunteer battalions), became the main target.
Truth be told, the Kremlin had successfully chosen subjects that would evoke an emotional reaction and probe action from the West — namely, the issues of Nazi and white supremacist ideology – and did everything to stigmatize the Azov regiment, systemically portraying them as a “far-right” and “extremist” paramilitary group.
Azov Regiment activities since 2014-2015, successful operations
Azov’s strong motivation and determination have always caught the attention of Russian propaganda, so disinformation attacks on the regiment have not stopped since 2014.
In 2014, many volunteer battalions were established in response to the Russian aggression, including Azov (named after the Sea of Azov, which borders the Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions in the south of Ukraine). The core of the unit consisted of fans of the Kharkiv-based football club Metalist, activists from ‘Automaidan’ (a car-based protest movement during the Maidan Revolution – ed.), and members of several Kharkiv-based far-right groups such as the Patriot of Ukraine as well as members of the Social Nationalist Assembly (SNA).
After participating in the liberation of Mariupol from separatists and Russian forces in May-June 2014, Azov established a strong reputation among the Ukrainian public and started attracting more volunteers.
The legal basis of the Azov regiment activity. Azov is not the military branch of a political party
Usually, the propaganda narrative about the “Nazi” regiment revolves around the personality of its founder, Andrii Biletsky, known for his far-right ideas, and the logo resembling a “wolfsangel” symbol. However, Biletsky was Azov’s leader only for a period of several months, since in September 2014, the Azov Battalion was reorganized, and a regiment was created on its basis. The regiment was then integrated into Ukraine’s National Guard (internal military force) under the command of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine.
As any military unit, it does not express any ideological principles except for defending its country since Ukrainian legislation prohibits political activity for the military.
Biletsky, for his part, chose the exact political way, having created his own “National Corps” political party and tried to use the image of Azov for his reputational benefit in the parliament. However, this still does not make the Azov the “military wing” of any political party nor does it give the battalion Nazi or far-right attributes. During the 2019 parliamentary elections, Biletsky’s party only won 2.16% of the vote, and Biletsky lost his seat in parliament, which once again proves the low level of support for far-right parties in Ukraine and makes Russia’s claims about a “Nazi Ukrainian government” even more absurd.
Azov symbol and slogan
The symbol included in Azov’s logo doesn’t really belong to the battalion. The monogram, including the letters “I” and “N” signifying the phrase “Idea of a Nation” was created in the 1990s in Western Ukraine. This slogan has been in use by Ukrainian patriots and nationalists since then.
Azov Regiment and full-scale war in Ukraine
When the Russian full-scale invasion began in 2022, Azov played a major role in fighting off Russian forces in the south of Ukraine. For 86 days, alongside members of a subdivision of the Mykolaiv 36th separate marine brigade, they resisted the occupying forces. In their last month of defending Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters were pushed inside the territory of a massive steel plant called Azovstal and forced to make it their stronghold. Despite the constant bombardment, artillery shelling, and superior attacking positions, Russian forces were never able to fully take over the plant. Because of a shortage of food, water, and critical medical supplies, the soldiers of Azov and marines were ordered to surrender by the Ukrainian government on May 19, 2022.
Azov became not only the symbol of Ukraine’s fierce resistance but also a symbol of Russia’s weakness.
Trying to “save the face” of its bloody regime and get at least a metaphoric “victory over Nazism,” Russia does everything possible to demonize and discredit the captured defenders of Azovstal. While the Kremlin has officially stated they would be treated in line with international norms, some Russian lawmakers have already accused them of war crimes, and one said Azov should face the death penalty. Leader of the puppet “Donetsk People’s Republic” Denis Pushilin has said that Azovstal defenders are being held on the territory of the “republic” and will face an “international tribunal” there.
“Like heroism generally, such brave last stands appeared to belong to the past, legend or even myth,” Bloomberg’s columnist Andreas Kluth wrote on April 21, 2022, about the battle in Azovstal.