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Does Ukraine have a neo-Nazi problem?

BACKGROUNDER | What’s the role of the Azov Battalion today, and do extremists still serve in its ranks?


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Does Ukraine have a neo-Nazi problem?
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When Russian troops first invaded Ukraine in 2014, volunteers and foreign fighters ran to the sound of the guns. The Azov Battalion stood in defense of Ukraine and became famous for its fierce fighting … and its reported neo-Nazi ties. What’s the role of the battalion today, and do extremists still serve in its ranks?

Where did the Azov Battalion get its name? The unit formed in Mariupol, a strategic port city that provides access to the Sea of Azov—and an opening to Ukraine for invaders. The narrow strait that connects the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea is an important and contested sea lane.

How was the battalion formed? After Russia invaded Crimea in February 2014, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense called for volunteer defenders. Andriy Biletsky, head of the now-defunct paramilitary organization, the Patriot of Ukraine, created the Azov Battalion and welcomed Ukrainians and foreign fighters. The volunteers helped recapture Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists that June.

Is the group part of the Ukrainian military? Today it is. The Ukrainian government brought the battalion into the Ministry of Interior in December 2014 and elevated it to a special purpose regiment. According to Stanford University researchers, the unit has grown from 50 volunteers to approximately 1,500 members. The Azov Regiment defended Mariupol again this year as Russian forces attacked the city.

When did complaints of neo-Nazi ties surface? After the battalion achieved battlefield success, media showed members wearing insignia and displaying flags with apparent Nazi symbols: swastikas, a sideways “Z” with a vertical line through the center, and a circle with 12 radial lines similar to the SS insignia. Azov leaders said their symbols portray Ukrainian nationalism.

Is neo-Nazi sentiment prevalent in the unit? Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed this year his troops were “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Russian-controlled media in 2014 published pictures of Ukrainian ­soldiers wearing Azov insignia alongside pictures of civilians in neo-Nazi marches without identifying where the events occurred. Azov leaders have downplayed Nazi ties, but researchers and media reports show battalion leaders expressed white supremacist views before 2014. Past social media posts, tattoos, and ­connections with white supremacist groups in Europe add further evidence. The scholarly consensus is that neo-Nazi elements were present from the beginning and continue today, but diminished significantly after the battalion’s integration into the military.

Is the U.S. backing this group? The United States has spent more than $15.2 billion in security assistance for Ukraine since January 2021. But Congress passed laws to prevent funds, equipment, and training from going to the Azov Battalion.

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