AT A GLANCE
Overview Organization Strategy Major Attacks Interactions
Maps HOW TO CITE
Mapping Militant Organizations. “Azov Battalion.” Stanford University. Last modified March 2022. https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/azov-battalion.
Formed: March 2014
First Attack: April 20142
Last Attack: 2022
OVERVIEW The Azov Battalion is an extreme-right nationalist paramilitary organization based in Ukraine. Founded in 2014, the group promotes Ukrainian nationalism and neo-Nazism through its National Militia paramilitary organization and National Corps political wing. It is notable for its recruitment of far-right foreign fighters from the U.S. and Europe as well as its extensive transnational ties with other far-right organizations. In 2022, the group came to prominence again for fighting against Russian forces in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol.
TheAzov Battalion formed in March 2014 as a volunteer brigade to fight Russian-backed separatist in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The battalion’s origins lie in the extreme-right “Patriot of Ukraine” militant organization.
In 2005, Andriy Biletsky created the Kharkiv-based Patriot of Ukraine (PU) to champion white nationalist, anti-immigrant extreme-right ideas in Ukraine. In November 2008, Biletsky created the umbrella Social Nationalist Assembly (SNA) movement.
The movement was a derivative ofthe earlier political party Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), which later became known as Svoboda.
The SNA contained members from a collection of nationalist and extreme-right groups in Ukraine which promoted a neo-Nazi ideology.
The PU became the de facto armed wing of the SNA.
In March 2014, following the annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense encouraged volunteer military units to mobilize a resistance campaign against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas.
Volunteer military units would help “fill the gap” in the Ukrainian military’s defenses.
Biletsky and several other Patriot of Ukraine members formed the Azov Battalion in response to this call. The group’s first violent attack occurred shortly after its formation in April 2014 when fighters clashed with Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk.
In June 2014, the group gained international notoriety when it helped re-capture the southeastern city of Mariupol from Russian-backed forces.
Approximately half of the 400 pro-Ukranian forces who took control were from the Azov Battalion.
Regaining control of Mariupol for the government in Kyiv had critical strategic implications for the larger War in Donbas.
Mariupol lies on major roads from its port on the Sea of Azov in Southeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, as an access point into the rest of Ukraine.
Azov’s role in retaking, and holding, Mariupol from the separatist forces was the group’s first significant victory, and earned it international credibility.
During the Battle for Mariupol, the group came to attention for its neo-Nazi iconography on the battlefield including the battalion patch, which featured a Wolfsangel symbol.
The Wolsfangel is a historical symbol of independence that was later co-opted by the German Nazi Party.
Originally, Biletsky’s PU claimed the symbol was actually an amalgamation of the letters “I” and “N” (the Idea of the Nation), representing the organization’s nationalist beliefs. However, the symbol is widely associated with the modern far-right.
Azov leaders publicly downplay or deny the group as a white supremacist or Neo-Nazi organization. The Azov Battalion denies the symbol’s far-right associations and invokes the reasoning as the PU.
However, the Woflsangel is far from Azov’s only allusion to Nazi ideology.
Biletsky once stated in 2010 that it was Ukraine’s national mission to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade…against semite-led untermenschen (subhumans)”
Furthermore, interviews with members of the Battalion openly espouse neo-Nazi and white supremacist views. Many fighters hold an aspirational belief of marching on Kyiv once the war is over, and that Ukraine “needs a strong dictator to come to power who could shed plenty of blood but unite the nation in the process.”
After months of fighting in 2014, the Azov Battalion cemented its status as a core defense unit.
On September 17, 2014, Ukraine designated the Azov Battalion “regiment” status.
This gave it official recognition as an auxiliary security force. In October 2014, Biletsky left the group to participate in politics. He used his unit’s victory in Mariupol to launch a successful political campaign. Biletsky was elected to Ukrainian Parliament as an independent in November 2014, and remained a member until 2019.
On November 12, 2014, Ukraine designated the Azov Battalion “Special Purpose Regiment” status and formally integrated it into the National Guard.
In December 2014, the Patriotof Ukraine formally disbanded and remaining members integrated into the Azov Battalion.
Early on, the Azov Battalion was able to fund itself due to patronage support from interior minister of Ukraine, Arsen Avakov.
The Azov Battalion was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard while Avakov was the Interior Minister.
A direct relationship between Avakov and Biletsky predates the formation of Azov though. From 2005-2010 Patriot Ukraine, Biletsky’s precursor to the Azov Battalion, was active inthe city of Kharkiv, where Avakov was governor.
During this time Patriot Ukraine coordinated closely with local police and authorities, particularly in monitoring migrants and raiding kiosks, whose owners were not loyal to Avakov’s government.
Biletsky,first with Patriot Ukraine and subsequently with Azov, benefited from the patronage of Avakov for nearly a decade during Avakov’s time as governor and then as Minister of the Interior.
As the Azov Battalion continued to grow, it pursued international relationships and recruitment of foreign fighters. The group was initially composed of half eastern Ukrainians and half foreign fighters from Sweden, Spain, Italy, Canada, France, and Russia.
The group later recruited from Belarus, Germany, and possibly the United States.
The Soufan Center reported that between 2014-2019 approximately 50,000 people from 17 countries –including the United States –traveled to fight in Ukraine although it is hard to determine how many specifically fought with Azov.
Foreign fighters also reported traveling to Ukraine to join the group due to their attraction to the group’s white ethno-nationalist views.
The group’s ability to inspire and recruit foreign fighters has contributed to Ukraine’s reputation as a bastion for the far-right.
The Azov Battalion specifically cites its desire for American recruits to join Azov and help counter perceived “pro-Kremlin” narratives in the U.S.
In interviews with far-right researchers, the Atomwaffen Division claimed to have sentmembers to Ukraine to obtain battlefield experience.31Members of the American “Rise Above Movement” (RAM) have also openly publicized meetings with members of the Azov Battalion and National Corps. Robert Rundo, leader of RAM, traveled to Kyiv and foughtin mixed martial arts matches with members of the Azov Battalion in a facility owned by Azov, called the “Reconquista Club.”
Greg Johnson, an American white nationalist author also traveled to Kyiv to give a lecture and meet with members of the Azov.
A number of Russian nationals have also joined the Azov Battalion, due to their lack of political dissent options against Putin’s regime from within Russia, and the fact that Azov is a largely Russian speaking organization.
In 2015, as intermittent fighting in Donbas continued, the U.S. government placed a ban on any of its material or financial aid to Ukraine going to the Azov Battalion due to its far-right association. While the ban was lifted in 2016, Congress reinstated it again as part of a Defense Appropriations bill in 2018.
In 2016, Olena Semenyaka, a new spokeswoman and head of Azov’s International Outreach Office, embarked on a new set of efforts to grow the group’s international ties. She is the principal coordinator behindAzov’s vast transnational network in and around Europe. Semenyaka networked and organized events with far right organizations and ideologues fromEurope and the U.S.36Since 2016, she has regularly traveled across Europe, meeting with far right groups, including Italy’s CasaPound, and Germany’s National Democratic Party, largely attempting to win their support instead of Putin.
Semenyaka also spoke at the far right Scandza Forum in Sweden, alongside Mark Collett, a Neo-Nazi activist from Britain’s National Party and self described nazi sympathizer.
Azov has also hosted members and communicated with members of several different American organizations. In 2020, two members of the U.S. based neo-nazi group, Atomwaffen Division, were deported by the Ukrainian government after they attempted to set up a local affiliate and join the Azov Battalion.
In 2016, Biletsky partially returned to the Azov Battalion to found a far-right ultra-nationalist political wing called the National Corps. As part of this political wing’s creation, he toned down some of his political rhetoric and white supremacist views.
Olena Semenyaka became actively involved in the National Corps’ leadership.41In 2017, Azov created an umbrella organization with other far-right groups to boost the National Corp’s presence in elections.
Described as a nationalist hate group by the U.S. government, National Corps barely registered in the national polls in 2019 And failed to meet the 5% threshold to obtain Parliamentary seats.
In 2018, the National Corps was estimated to have less than 20,000 members, and ran on a platform of re-establishing Ukraine as a nuclear power, and opposing European institutions.
The National Corps also supports Azov’s international recruitment, providing housing and logistical support to arriving foreign volunteers.
It is difficult to know exactly how many foreign fighters have joined the Azov Battalion. A report by the Counter Extremism Project estimates that foreign fighters with ties to right wing extremism number in the hundreds, and cites the Azov Battalion as the key organization at the center of this recruitment.
In 2017, the organization created a new street wing faction known as the National Druzhyna orNational Militia.
The National Militia patrolled neighborhoods in small groups to ostensibly promote law and order. It also harassed public officials and clashed with police in January 2018.
The National Militia conducted attacks against Roma and other minority targets.
In February 2018, the National Militia formally announced its existence during a public assembly and torchlit march of 600 followers in Kiev. During the march, members swore allegiance to Andriy Biletsky and the Azov Battalion.
In 2019, Ukraine’s Central Election Commission granted the National Militia permission to officially monitor the presidential election. Although the commission specified the group was not permitted to use force, members openly stated they were willing to take matters into their own hands to stop election fraud.
Members of the Azov Battalion, the National Corps, and the National Militia appear to flow between the three branches.
Since the creation of all three groups -the Azov Battalion, the National Corps, and the National Militia -collectively they are often referred to as the “Azov Movement”.
In February 2022, the group came to prominence again during the Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine. When Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “special military operation… to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”, the Azov Battalion wasthought to be one of the organizations he referred to.
In response to the Russian invasion though, far right militia leaders across Europe are posting declarations to join the fight against Russia.
Members of the Azov Battalion see the invasion as an opportunity to raise their profile, and gain increased political influence.
Olena Semenyaka, spokeswoman for Azov, referenced Azov’s role in Ukraine as an opportunity to play a bigger role in Ukraine’s future politics.
Prior to the invasion, Azov ran training for civilians in Mariupol including medical care, survival and evacuation, and weapons training.
In Kyiv, roughly 350 attended a paramilitary training event run by Azov.
Azov leadership has been using the threat from the Russian military as a recruitment tool, amplifying their online recruitment resources.
On February 24, Russian forces began to lay siege to the city of Mariupol. Azov fighters took up arms yet again and were one of the central defense forces in the city.
Reporters also noted Azov regiments fighting against Russian forces in Kyiv and Kharkiv.
In early March 2022, President Zelensky of Ukraine again announced the formation of an “international legion” to facilitate the arrival of pro-Ukrainian foreign fighters.
In a similar call to 2014, the Ukrainian government once again encouraged “Territorial Defense Forces” to mobilize and help resist the Russian invasion As of March 6, 2022, approximately 16,000 international volunteers have estimated to have signed up, although it is difficult to estimate the number specifically joining Azov and its affiliates.
●Andriy Biletsky (March 2014 to October 2014): Biletsky was the original leader of the group. He was formerly the leader of the extreme-right Patriot Ukraine and nationalist Social Assembly Organization.64In 2011, he was arrested as part of a larger round-up of Patriot of Ukraine members for an attempted murder. In February 2014, he was released from prison following a government law exonerating all political prisoners.65He left the group in October 2014 to become a member of Ukraine’s Parliament. He held this position until 2019.66
●Ihor Mosiychuk (2014 to 2014): Mosiychuk was a founding member and deputy commander of the group.67He was charged with trying to bomb a statue of Vladimir Lenin in 2011, which led to his arrest as part of the “Vasylkiv 3” along with Serhiy Bevza and Volodymyr Shpara. In February 2014, he was released from prison following a government law exonerating all political prisoners and helped create the Azov Battalion.68In the fall of 2014, he left the Azov Battalion to run for Parliament with the nationalist Radical Party and won.69He served in Parliament from November 2014 to October 2019 until his party lost all its seats.
●Oleh Odnorozhenko (2014 to ?): Odnorozhenko was a deputycommander of the group in its initial phase.70
●Ihor Mykhailenko (October 2014 to November 2016): Mykhailenko was a member of the Patriots of Ukraine prior to 2014. He joined the group early on and took over as the principal commander following Biletsky’sdeparture to Parliament.71He later became the head of the National Militia wing in 2018.72●Maksym Zhorin (August 2016 to September 2017): Zhorin briefly served as the group’s commander before transitioning to a spokesman role.73●Olena Semenyaka (2016 to Present): Semenyaka is the head of the National Corps political wing and head of international outreach for the Azov Battalion.74She has met with members of other far-right organizations including French Identitarians, the Italian CasaPound, German NDP, and U.S. Rise Above Movement. Prior to joining, she was the press secretary for Right Sector from 2014 to 2016. She became the de facto head of the National Corps in 2016.75●Denis Prokopenko (? to Present): Prokopenko joined the group in 2014 and was one of their earliest members. By 2020, Prokopenko was leading the group in Mariupol.76In February 2022, he was overseeing the Azov Regiment in Mariupol.