A little over a year old boy takes his first steps in a room full of weapons. He moves between kalashnikovs, mortar shells, pistols and boxes of ammunition stored in the barracks of one of the Azov Battalion units in kyiv. He is the son of the head of the group, Andrei, nicknamed The Philosopher. With a mixture of pride and concern, this doctor-turned-military remembers Sunday, February 27, the day the Russians arrived in Bucha, on the outskirts of the capital. “It was the first time I had to face a helicopter attack. It was scary. We were working with mortars, surrounded very closely, ”he says in the office of the official building they occupy and which also serves as a bedroom.
The men of the Azov Battalion, an important pillar in the military but a zero to the left in the political field, can be seen everywhere in Ukraine. They are under the umbrella of the National Guard both on the Mariupol front, the city that is suffering the most damage in the war, and integrated into the Army in Bucha or Borodianka, the towns on the outskirts of kyiv where the Russian withdrawal has uncovered the death of hundreds of civilians who did not participate in the conflict. They are very active from the front line of combat to the rear of volunteers or at simple roadblocks. They do not hide and are identified with badges on their uniforms and shirts, although none of them openly claims to profess Nazi ideology. This is the main accusation leveled against this ultranationalist group, which on the battlefield has become a real headache for Russian President Vladimir Putin in his attempt to subdue the former Soviet republic.
Controversy has surrounded this movement since it was born in 2014, made up of a significant number of Nazi militants and far-right volunteers and supported by the tension that surrounded Ukraine between the influence of the European Union and that of Moscow. He did it to deal with the uprising of pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, spurred on by the Kremlin. Its fame as a seasoned and well-prepared movement to fight on the front began to grow —and it hasn’t stopped— when, that same year, it stopped the fall of Mariupol into the hands of pro-Russians and that led its militants to end up as part of the Ukrainian National Guard. Its founder, Andrei Biletski, is an ultra-nationalist and former far-right parliamentarian whose environment does not escape controversy, either inside or outside Ukraine, due to attacks on the Roma community or those who do not agree with his ideas.
Today, eight years later, Maxim Zhorin, one of the men who laid the foundations of the Azov Battalion from the beginning together with Biletski, rejects the idea that they are a Nazi movement. The two met during the Maidan revolution in kyiv in 2014. “When the Russians publicly proclaim that they want to denazify Ukraine, they mainly mean Azov, but they have achieved the opposite result, and now Azov has spread throughout the country, including kyiv. ”, says Zhorin, dressed in hunting green, wearing a hat and, although loquacious, not fond of smiling. “In the last eight years Putin has invested a lot of money and resources to create in the world this myth of the demonic Azov”, but “in Ukraine there is no one to denazify” and “Putin needs this story to be able to justify his actions”.
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Sergey Movchan, an anarchist militant and student of extreme right-wing movements in Ukraine, essentially agrees with Zhorin’s analysis. Despite the fact that both are at the opposite poles ideologically, in separate interviews with EL PAÍS, both point to a single enemy at present, Russia, which keeps all Ukrainians on the same side. The war has served to neutralize criticism of the president, Volodymyr Zelenski, a Jew questioned by some and others until Putin stepped on the accelerator of the invasion on February 24. Since that date, political differences have been frozen in Ukraine behind closed doors. “Whether you like it or not,” Zhorin acknowledges, is not the time to question the president.
Mariupol, the city bathed by the Sea of Azov that gives its name to the battalion, is today for them the main concern in the development of the war in Ukraine. Besieged and bombarded by Russian troops since the end of February, it is there that the most prepared men in Azov try to prevent this town, which had some 450,000 inhabitants before the war, from falling into the hands of the invading military. Mariupol, where according to the mayor’s office there have already been more than 5,000 deaths, is “the biggest problem and threat” they face and its evolution “depends on the future of the entire country,” Zhorin argues. He is referring above all to the possibility that Putin will succeed in connecting the Crimean peninsula, which Russia has occupied since 2014, and the Donbas region. “The first large operation in which I personally participated as a soldier was the liberation of Mariupol in 2014,” says this Azov official, who was promoted to commander two years later.
Zhorin estimates that in this strategic city in the southeast there are 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers, of which approximately half belong to their units, facing some 14,000 Russians. He does not hide that the battle is being hard and bloody, but he does not want to give details because that would mean giving clues to the enemy. “I can say that unfortunately we have casualties every day. Some days more, other days less. But the enemy’s casualties significantly exceed our casualties, ”he assures at the Azov headquarters in kyiv. Losing Mariupol, moreover, he believes would give Putin wings to advance more safely in other regions of the country and organize a new attack after the failed attempt to take kyiv.
At the other extreme, a nightclub located in a basement in the capital is the center of operations for several radical leftist groups that have joined forces these weeks to try to also make a stand against the Russian invasion. The premises have been ceded by some Belarusian opponents, a country whose government is an ally of Putin. Its activity goes more and more unnoticed amid the reopening of other businesses and establishments around it that recover their activity as the Kremlin military has moved away from the country’s main city. As evening falls, several of the militiamen from the anarchist unit, recently arrived from fighting on the front lines, can even be seen sitting on the bar stools. There are no statements —nor the possibility of taking photos— beyond a cordial exchange of greetings with the reporter. They are surrounded by several activists leaning out of their computer screens and dozens of boxes loaded with material and security equipment, including bulletproof vests, which have come from different countries where there are activists who are collaborating with the cause.
In a small booth, the 36-year-old anarchist Sergei Movchan laughs as he admits that they have to acquire what they need to send their men to the front lines in countries they consider “imperialist”, but that they have no other choice. Not without logistical difficulties, they bring everything except weapons, which the kyiv government has distributed everywhere on the eve of the invasion. That can also be a problem in the future, he points out, when the population has to be disarmed, although that spigot of access to pistols and rifles has been open since 2014. “Azov is not the first problem right now in Ukraine. The first problem is the Russian Army,” says Movchan, who coordinates Marker, an observatory of violence carried out by extreme right-wing movements.
The popularity of the Azov Battalion and its military successes made many people want to enlist with them and that caused the Nazi stamp that the movement had at the beginning to be diluted, he explains. “Compared to 2014, it’s still far-right but not quite as Nazi,” Movchan estimates. For him, however, the main danger to Ukraine’s politics right now is represented by the National Corps, the political arm of the Azov Battalion, made up largely of former combatants and “more radical” on an ideological level than those who make up the military arm. . However, this formation did not obtain any seat in Parliament in the last legislative elections, held in 2019, which it attended with other formations and obtained 2% of the vote.
Somewhat away from the center of kyiv, a public building has been converted into the headquarters of one of the Azov units fighting the Russians. They prefer that no further details of their location be given, but both inside and outside you can see people of all ages in uniform hanging out when they are not going to the front. On the ground, there are blankets, mattresses and hammocks for comfort. Its leader is Andrei the Philosopher, who became commander of a mortar battery in Mariupol in 2014. “Our mission is one, to defend our land. I don’t want anyone, not even a drunken Russian, walking on my land. We are not fascists as some paint us”, answers Andrei when asked about the group’s ideology. Regarding the presence of foreigners, he says that he has only worked alongside Belarusians, Russians and Georgians.
Maxim Zhorin insists on separating Azov’s military activity from that of the National Corps, a formation made up largely of battalion veterans. He also adds that the top leader, Biletski, is now concentrating solely on the battlefield: “All political activity will resume after the victory in this war.” As for the foreigners in his ranks, he insists that those who come from abroad do not constitute a majority and that they are mainly citizens of Belarus and Russia dissatisfied with the regimes in Minsk and Moscow. Asked about the arrival of volunteers from outside the country with Nazi ideology, Zhorin assures that they have filters to control who joins his ranks. Furthermore, to defend himself against accusations that they are supremacists, he says that they do not close the doors to Jews and Muslims. “We don’t care about religion or race. The only thing that matters to us is the defense of our country,” he comments. However, it was not difficult for him to find, at the beginning of March, Miguel, a 23-year-old from Tarragona who had been arrested in 2017 in Hungary for making the Nazi salute in a synagogue. He was training in one of the Azov camps organized in the courtyard of a school in kyiv, as the chains could verify CNN of Portugal and the Basque ETB. “Generally, Nazis say they are not Nazis,” the anarchist Sergei Movchan concludes with a smile and a shrug.
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