The “Azov” regiment, the Ukrainian elite unit, has been sitting in bunkers in the Mariupol steelworks, also named after the city of Azov, shortly before their complete capitulation. Since “Azov” is currently firmly rooted in the security structures, society and politics of Ukraine, this defeat will also have far-reaching consequences for this current Ukrainian state.
By Vladislav Sankin
Originally published in German on DE-RT, May 18, 2022
This article from the German language DE-RT website was translated by the New Cold War editorial team with written permission from the publisher.
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For more than eight years, members of the so-called “Azov regiment” have been fulfilling a number of important functions within the Ukrainian state. First and foremost, however, it was the function of the “Attack Dogs” who, on behalf of the still young nationalist regime, were supposed to take the “problem of the separatist regions” in the south-east into their own hands. Azov grew out of the then Kharkov neo-Nazis and football ultras, who as an armed and masked “black corps” promised in their “welcome video” on May 1, 2014, to make all “separatists disappear” without further ado.
For the putsch government of “interim president” Turchinov, it was high time to put an end to the threatening secession of south-eastern Ukraine after the Maidan. At that time, the Crimean referendum was only six weeks old, and the proclamation of the Donetsk People’s Republic only three weeks old. This was also bubbling up in other cities. Kharkov had also dared to proclaim a people’s republic, which, however, was crushed after a few days with the active help of such a “black corps”. In Odessa, tens of thousands demonstrated for federalization of the country, and there were also protests in other cities.
The nationalist coup in Kyiv was not well received in the southeast. In early 2014, the Bandera ideology of western Ukrainians was viewed as something alien and hostile by the vast majority of the population in the south-east. Worshiping Nazi collaborators as heroes was a nightmare in eastern Ukraine.
The “Right Sector” was already on everyone’s lips because of its decisive role on the Kiev Maidan and in the Odessa massacre on May 2 as the neo-Nazi formation with the greatest fighting power. But those of the “Right Sector” alone would not have been able to carry out the “punishment” for the new rulers across the region: the black and red former flag of the Right Sector OUN and UPA would have to be replaced with something else.
The regime understood that the rebellion in the Southeast would have to be crushed there with its own hands, using an ideology that would be accepted, targeting propaganda at the marginalized strata in Russian-speaking cities. These cities had once played in the Soviet Union’s premium imperial league. Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk were able to keep up on an equal footing with Saint Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Alma-Ata and Baku in all areas – in industry, science and sport.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the big country was over. In contrast to the more rural west and center, Ukraine was still too small for the south-east after all the territorial gains of the Soviet era. After all, this region also owed its existence to the imperial expansion of the Russian Empire. Mentally, many Russian-Ukrainians still felt like living in a larger country with Russians, Belarusians, Kazakhs, Moldovans, Azerbaijanis and others, decades after 1991.
The Kharkov Nazis, grouped around their ideologue Andrei Biletsky, who had just been released from prison, rediscovered and modernized Ukrainian nationalism in its Eastern variant. Biletsky dreamed of an even bigger and stronger country than Ukraine as a whole already was; he thought about races, about empire, about being strong. His Nazism was not backward-looking like West Ukrainian Banderism with its eternal Bandera cult.
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His organization slipped under the wing of Arsen Avakov, the former mayor of Kharkov and Interior Minister in 2014-2021 and the mini-oligarch and governor of the Kharkov region in 2005-2010. Avakov, born in the Azerbaijan capital, was a cosmopolitan Russian-speaking Armenian and incidentally an organizer of science fiction festivals. With his help, Biletsky also worked on a utopian techno-fascism that broke the ethnic-national barriers of the Bandera ideology and focused on a clear racist ideology of superiority, perfect technical equipment and an attractive appearance.
Numerous pagan elements were also suitable for this, and the Azov aesthetic is brimming with them. Western nationalist leader Stepan Bandera grew up as the son of a priest in the Greek Catholic Church. The role of this regional West Ukrainian ecclesiastical institution was of great importance in the spread of Banderism. Nationalism took root in the Christian ritual: Ukraine slowly took the place of Jesus Christ in the prayers and the “heroes” of the Maidan were revered as a kind of new saint.
“Azov”, on the other hand, had nothing to do with either Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Named after the city of Azov in the Rostov region in the Russian south-west and at the same time after the neighboring sea bordering on Russia and the Ukraine, Biletskiy included future territorial claims on Russia by using the name Azov for his movement. Azov is about natural elements, geography, space. Azov is geopolitics. This also makes Azov more modern. Pagan aesthetics mixed with Slavic and Germanic elements made Azov popular abroad as well. As an armed unit, Azov became the most successful right-wing extremist movement in the world, just four years after it was founded.
But the movement has not only established itself in the military sphere. It split into three branches – a public movement “Azov”, which played an active role primarily in the field of education and upbringing, the political party National Corps, which also included an army of combative “street activists”, and the well-armed military party Elite unit the “Azov Regiment,” a kind of SS “light”. With its own digital media, publishing house and PR department, Azov now had sufficient social appeal.
At the same time, Azov was in “friendly” competition with other neo-Nazi organizations in Ukraine. Although not all that numerous taken together, they exerted enormous influence on Ukrainian politics as a whole. Under the tireless supervision of the neo-Nazis, all Ukrainian parties had to compete over who was the better “patriot” and who would take an even tougher line against all of Ukraine’s enemies – against Russia, against the “internal” separatists and against all the other “loyalists to Moscow”. Azov did not even need representation in parliament for this. Domestic political rhetoric became more and more unrestrained as a result of this influence, and society became more and more ideologically heated.
Since the beginning of the Donbass war of the Kievans against the eastern Ukrainians eight years ago, “Azov” and similarly minded formations like “Aidar” have also fulfilled the function of the rear blocking unit for troops unwilling to fight, for which, according to a Ukrainian border guard official, it is common to “simply discharge the whole magazine into the crowd.”
Now, “Azov” in Mariupol, at its headquarters, has finally capitulated. In a city where Azov fought its first military battles, it has met its military end. According to estimates by Russian Rossia 1 correspondent Alexander Sladkov, around 800 Azov fighters out of a total of 2,500 are still in the bunkers of the huge steel works of the same name and are about to surrender into the hands of Russian justice after weeks of siege.
The Russian Investigative Committee has had a large team in the region since the military operation began on February 24. The Russian Supreme Court is expected to declare Azov a terrorist organization on May 26. In this case, the Azov fighters face up to twenty years in prison in Russia. It’s no wonder that the “posts of encouragement” written by the Azov founder Biletsky on social media are more like epitaphs on tombstones.
Sitting in Kyiv, the former “white leader” fondly recalls the “glorious” beginnings of his movement. On May 1, for example, he again posted the aforementioned video when his first fighters threatened the separatists in Kharkov with their “disappearance.”
In the text he also recalled the nationalist of the first hour, Nikolai Miknovsky, who in 1900 in Kharkov was one of the first to formulate the comprehensive political program of Ukrainian nationalism and made territorial claims on Belgorod and the North Caucasus:
“This video is eight years old.
On May 1, 2014, we as a partisan group, the Black Corps, prevented the proclamation of the Kharkov People’s Republic. Eight years ago we had almost no arms and ammunition, but we were determined not to give up the city where Ukrainian nationalism originated to the Russians at any price.
Some people in this video have already fallen in the battles of 2022, others are fighting in the ruins of Azovstal.”
Now the fighting is over – with a complete victory for the Donetsk People’s Republic and its Russian allies. Before their capitulation, the bunkered Azov commanders made pleading videos to their own government and the leaders of the western world and asked for “extraction” to safe third countries. The Azov women squeezed out tears on Western talk shows, and with their mission they even made it to the Pope and Erdoğan. Is that how the “men of steel” praised by Biletsky act?
Apparently, after all the massacres, after the deliberate destruction of cities like Mariupol in front of their residents, Azov militants really believe that the Donetsk People’s Republic, which has suffered for eight years from Azov Nazism with its hatred of all “separatists”, will just let them go.
But that won’t happen. The surrender of the Azov regiment in Mariupol is one of the defining moments of this war. With their license to torture, kill and hate, Ukrainian neo-Nazis of all stripes have largely acted in a legal vacuum. For the first time they will now face the equitable wheels of justice and public ostracism.
“The ‘Cossacks’ wanted to storm Moscow and plunder Smolensk, but now, at best, they have to study the flora and fauna of Transbaikalia. … The fate of Azov is interesting from the point of view of influencing young people, who will see what the ‘hunting for Russnyaks and Separs’ [derogatory titles for Russians and separatists),” writes the journalist and expert on the region, Semyon Uralov.
Azov’s military and moral defeat will not only lead to the waning of its previous “gloss” in the nazified Ukrainian society and education. It will lead to alienation between the nationalist battalions and the Ukrainian state. This state is currently still embodied by comedy actor Zelensky and his “creative” PR team, who got lost in the Soviet-era Kiev powerhouses. Neither Zelensky, who is now omnipresent in the media, nor the allied West, which wants to achieve its geopolitical goals without getting its hands dirty, were able or willing to save the Azov warriors.
It is difficult to predict which political dynamics can now be expected in Kyiv. A de facto military dictatorship rules in Kyiv. But the capitulation of Mariupol can be compared to the legendary capitulation of Nazi Germany’s 6th Army in Stalingrad – and this will have very far-reaching consequences and change the Ukrainian power structure.
For like any chimera, Nazism is built on myth. The disenchantment of the neo-Nazi Azov myth thus initiates processes that will ultimately lead to the dismantling of the Ukrainian state in its post-Maidan variant. Massive arms deliveries to Kyiv from the West, the mobilization of all men, coupled with propaganda and victory rhetoric from official Kyiv, will probably prolong this process. But after the Azov-Nazis surrendered in Mariupol, the capitulation of Bandera-Nazis and other hate prophets, say in Lvov, seems like a not-so-improbable future scenario.
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