four questions about the Azov regiment, this Ukrainian battalion accused of having neo-Nazis in its ranks

For several weeks now, Vladimir Putin has presented the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army as a “special operation” in particular aimed at “denazify” the Ukrainian state. In this attempt to justify the Kremlin captain’s offensive against his neighbor, a Ukrainian military unit with a sulphurous reputation, the Azov regiment, is used as a symbolic enemy by the Russian camp. Images of his fighters wearing symbols reminiscent of Nazism are widely shared on social networks, especially by pro-Russian internet users.

The head of Russian diplomacy, Sergey Lavrov, used this controversial battalion to justify the bombing of a maternity hospital on Wednesday, March 9 in the besieged city of Mariupol, claiming that the building served as a base for his fighters. “This maternity ward has long since been taken over by the Azov battalion and other radicals, and all maternity women, all nurses and all support staff have been kicked out”said the Russian foreign minister. Franceinfo answers several questions about this unit that has been integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard since 2014.

1How was he born?

The Azov Regiment is a paramilitary group that takes its name from the Sea of ​​Azov, bordering both Ukraine, Russia and Crimea, a Ukrainian region that has been annexed by Moscow since 2014. It was initially a battalion made up of volunteers, Ukrainians and foreigners. He played a key role in the liberation of Mariupol in the spring of 2014, when this large Donbass city was then in the hands of pro-Russian separatists. The battalion acquired regimental status in November of the same year and was integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine by decree of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The paramilitary group has been part of the institutionalized Ukrainian armed forces ever since. “It is a desire to reintegrate them into a structure to contain the danger that the existence of military groups outside the state could represent”analysis for franceinfo Masha Cerovic, lecturer at EHESS and member of the Center for Studies of the Russian, Caucasian and Central European Worlds (Cercec).

2 What are the connections with neo-Nazi ideology?

The historical core of the Azov regiment is associated with a radical right-wing neo-Nazi affiliation who defends positions on “the white race”, analyze Masha Cerovic. The founder of this armed group, Andriy Biletsky, was a deputy of the Ukrainian parliament between 2014 and 2019. In 2007 was then a member of the organization ultra-nationalist paramilitary patriots of Ukraine, he published a text entitled: “Ukrainian Racial-Social Nationalism”reports Release“However, Andriy Biletsky has never openly claimed a neo-Nazi identity”says the researcher.

In 2016, he took part in the creation of a party: National Corps. “Veterans of the Azov regiment wanted to cash in on their image to turn military action into political action,” explains to franceinfo Adrien Nonjon, researcher at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (Inalco) and specialist in Ukraine and the extreme right. Inside the National Corps, the war is presented as the best way to defend the nation, explains: Adrian Nonjon, who qualifies the party inspiration “soldier nationalist” “Its impact remains very marginal in the Ukrainian political game” however nuance Masha Cerovic.

However, these acquaintances with Nazism were noted on the front. Photos of fighters of the Azov regiment wearing evocative symbols of the Third Reich have been circulating on social networks since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. The esoteric symbol of the “Black Sun”, or the “Wolfsangel” other way aroundthat was that of the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”, are shown on some Ukrainian fatigues. These are old emblems of the paramilitary group, still used by some soldiers, says Adrien Nonjon l’However, the neo-Nazi ideology would not be in the majority among the regiment’s troops currently fighting, the researcher added. “With the regiment’s opening to wider recruiting in 2014, this base has… [néonazie] drowned in the crowd”, he specifies.

3Why are his methods controversial?

The Azov regiment has been accused by the UN and some NGOs of abuses committed during the Crimean conflict in 2014. Two years latera report (in English) from The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has thus: accused the battalion of rape and torture. “A mentally retarded man was subjected to brutal treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence by eight to 10 members of the Azov and Donbass battalions [une autre formation paramilitaire ukrainienne] in August-September 2014″, we can read there.

Also in 2016, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released their joint report (in English) on the situation in Ukraine. The two NGOs report arbitrary detention and ill-treatment accusing various military groups, including the Azov regiment. Same story on the side of theFrench Service for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra), which published its conclusions on the 2014 conflict in 2018. The public institution associated with the Ministry of the Interior denounced torture (deprivation of food, use of electric shocks…) allegedly committed by members of the regiment.

4What is his involvement in this war?

For the researcher Masha Cerovic, de Azov regiment evolved mainly in the Donbass region, in eastern Ukraine, although there are still difficult to pinpoint the positions of combat troops in times of war lit would count Between 3,500 and 4,000 men, according to Adrian Nonjon. The regiment would therefore be less than 2% of the total strength of theThe Ukrainian army, which numbers nearly 200,000 soldiers, is according to figures from the Military Balance of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Iiss), quoted by AFP in late February.