KYIV, Ukraine — Inside a warehouse, in a bustling section of this capital, the incessant cracking sound of gunfire echoed off walls. Men in olive-colored camouflage were training for war. Most wore helmets and bulletproof jackets. Some wore high-top sneakers. All clutched AK-47 rifles and waited for their turn to shoot at a round target 50 yards away.
It was centered with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face — and peppered with bullet holes.
Invisible, yet palpable, was the shadow cast over this new regiment, like every unit of the Azov Battalion. Alexi Suliyma knew about its ugly past, but he joined anyway. Two friends were in the force, and he felt the Azov would best train him to defend his motherland.
“These are guys who simply love their country and Ukrainian people,” said Suliyma, 23, a former construction worker. “I never knew them to be Nazis or fascists, never heard them make calls for the Third Reich.”
Of all the Ukrainian forces fighting the invading Russian military, the most controversial is the Azov Battalion. It is among Ukraine’s most adept military units and has battled Russian forces in key sites, including the besieged city of Mariupol and near the capital, Kyiv. With Russian forces withdrawing from areas north of Kyiv last week and possibly repositioning in southern and eastern Ukraine, which Moscow has declared as its primary focus, the Azov forces could grow in significance.
But the battalion’s far-right nationalist ideology has raised concerns that it is attracting extremists, including white supremacist neo-Nazis, who could pose a future threat. When Putin cast his assault on Ukraine as a quest to “de-Nazify” the country, seeking to delegitimize the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian nationalism as fascist, he was partly referring to the Azov forces. While they are now fighting for a Jewish president whose relatives were killed fighting the Nazis, they have continued to be fodder for Russian propaganda as Putin seeks to convince Russians that his costly invasion of Ukraine was necessary.
Yet interviews with Azov fighters and one of its founders, as well as experts who have tracked the battalion from its beginnings, provide a more nuanced picture of its current state, which is more complex than what is conventionally known.
The battalion’s own leaders and fighters concede that some extremists remain in their ranks, but it has evolved since its emergence in 2014 during the conflict in eastern Ukraine against Russian forces and Moscow-backed separatists.
Under pressure from U.S. and Ukrainian authorities, the Azov battalion has toned down its extremist elements. And the Ukrainian military has also become stronger in the past eight years and therefore less reliant on paramilitary groups. Moreover, today’s war against Russia is far different than in 2014, fueled less by political ideology than a sense of patriotism and moral outrage at Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, especially its civilian population. Extremists do not appear to make up a large part of the foreigners who have arrived here to take up arms against Russia, analysts said.
“You have fighters now coming from all over the world that are energized by what Putin has done,” said Colin P. Clarke, director of research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consulting firm. “And so it’s not even that they’re in favor of one ideology or another — they’re just aghast by what they’ve seen the Russians doing.”
“That certainly wasn’t the same in 2014,” he added. “So while the far-right element is still a factor, I think it’s a much smaller part of the overall whole. It’s been diluted, in some respects.”
Analysts also noted that Ukraine’s far-right movement is not just small in Ukraine, but also is dwarfed by far-right movements in other parts of Europe.
In an interview, the force’s co-founder and top commander, Col. Andriy Biletskiy, did not dispute his far-right ultraconservative leanings or the presence of some extremists in his units. But he rejected the allegations of Nazism and white supremacist views, describing such charges as Russian propaganda.
“We don’t identify ourselves with the Nazi ideology,” said Biletskiy, 41. “We have people of conservative political views, and I see myself as such. But, as any person, I don’t want my views to be defined by others. I’m not a Nazi. We completely reject it.”
Michael Colborne, who monitors and researches the far right and wrote a book about the Azov, said that he “wouldn’t call it explicitly a neo-Nazi movement.”
“There are clearly neo-Nazis within its ranks,” said Colborne, author of “From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right.”
“There are elements in it who are, you know, neo-fascist and there are elements who are maybe more kind of old-school Ukrainian nationalist,” he said. “At its core, it’s hostile to liberal democracy. It’s hostile to every everything that comes with liberal democracy, minority rights, voting rights, things like that.”
The Azov rose up initially in the spring of 2014 as a volunteer force launched by the ultranationalist Patriot of Ukraine and the extremist Social National Assembly. Both groups engaged in xenophobic assaults on migrants, the Roma community and other minorities.
Biletskiy, who served as the leader of both groups, said in 2010 that Ukraine’s purpose was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [inferior races],” according to local reports. His supporters called him “Bely Vozd” — “White Ruler.”
Biletskiy denied the allegations of xenophobia, saying that Azov forces have attracted Jews from the Israeli Defense Forces as well as Muslim Chechens, which “doesn’t really go along with white supremacy.” Still, Biletskiy has been quoted in the past expressing white supremacist beliefs; he has denied making those statements.
In 2014, Biletskiy was elected to parliament, where he remained a lawmaker until 2019. In 2016, he created the far-right National Corps party, made up largely of Azov veterans.
The paramilitary unit was initially funded by wealthy Ukrainians and assisted by the nation’s then-interior minister, and the investment soon paid off. After the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Azov fighters fended off Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and kept the strategic port city of Mariupol in Ukrainian hands. “These are our best warriors,” Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, said publicly at the time.
Transnational support for Azov has been wide, and Ukraine has emerged as a new hub for the far right across the world. Both the Ukrainian and Russian sides have attracted neo-Nazis and far-right extremists, although Moscow’s use of them has attracted far less attention in the Western media. Men from across three continents, including members of American and European extremist groups, have been documented to join the Azov units to seek combat experience, engage in similar ideology and as a training ground for operations in their home countries.
Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director at the Counter Extremism Project, an independent group following extremist organizations, said the war’s allure for far-right volunteer fighters is not surprising.
“There’s nothing shocking about it,” he said. “It’s the only conflict you can join.” He added: “Where you want to go? To Syria, where Muslims killing Muslims, to West Africa, where Black people kill Black people? As you’re a Nazi, that’s not the conflict you want to join.”
Biletskiy disputed this, describing stories about foreign fighters as “strongly exaggerated.” Azov’s forces are between 95 to 98 percent Ukrainian, he said, adding that most foreigners are from Georgia and Belarus with some Americans, Europeans and Canadians. They include, he said, “military adventurists,” “devoted anti-communists” and Americans and Europeans of Ukrainian origins fighting for “their ancestors’ motherland.”
Despite their military successes, the Azov continued to be criticized as adherents to neo-Nazi ideology. Even as they have consistently denied any Nazi affiliations, their uniforms and tattoos on many of their fighters display a number of fascist and Nazi symbols, including swastikas and SS symbols. In 2015, Andriy Diachenko, the spokesperson for the regiment at the time, told USA Today that 10 to 20 percent of Azov’s recruits were Nazis.
In the following years, U.N. human rights officials accused the Azov regiment of violating international humanitarian laws; both the United States and Canada declared that its forces would not train the Azov fighters because of the unit’s links to neo-Nazis, though Washington has since lifted the ban. Some U.S. lawmakers have continued to urge for Azov to be designated a foreign terrorist organization.
Facebook, too, designated the Azov as a “dangerous organization” and banned it from its platforms two years ago. But after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Facebook reversed its ban, saying it would make “a narrow exception for praise of the Azov regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine national guard.”
The social media giant stressed that it had not lifted the ban on “all hate speech, hate symbolism, praise of violence, generic praise, support, or representation of the Azov regiment.” Today, the Azov battalion is getting much praise for strong stand against Russia in Mariupol. The battalion’s various Telegram channels post news of their exploits in addition to battlefield videos, detailing their victories in gruesome detail.
The battalion has more than a thousand fighters in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Dnipro, and smaller units in six other cities and towns across the nation, said Biletskiy, who estimated the total number of Azov forces at little more than 10,000. In Mariupol alone, he said last week, there were roughly 3,000 fighters taking on 14,000 Russian troops “fighting on the ground, on water and in the Navy SEALs.”
Unlike them, the broader Azov political movement, which has a stronger extremist bent, is far less popular, judging by their performance in Ukraine’s last elections. Despite slickly produced videos that gave the impression of a massive movement, National Corps, the Azov political arm, won only about 2 percent of the vote, even though they ran on a united slate with other far-right parties. Most experts put the figures of their core adherents in the hundreds.
The Azov battalion is also not what it was in 2014. Ever since it was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard late that year, they “had to purge a lot of those extremist elements,” said Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst at the Soufan Group. “There was much more control exerted over who is affiliated with the battalions.”
In contrast to the earlier conflict, many recruits are processed through the official conduit of the newly formed International Legion, where Ukrainian officials said they are properly vetted and asked to respond to questions about their ideology and political leanings.
The war in Ukraine today is also different than it was in 2014. It is attracting volunteers of all political stripes, including from the far left as well as the far right. For even the more hardcore elements in the Azov regiments, ideology has taken a back seat for the moment, analysts said.
“I honestly don't see them pushing a hard line right now,” says Colborne. “They want people who know how to fight, and that's going to include some people on the far right and some who don't come from far-right backgrounds.”
The Azov forces today, said Biletskiy, now include writers and other liberals, even members of the extreme left and antifascists. “We are at war for the very existence of Ukraine at the moment,” he said. “In the past month, I have never asked a person that came to join us about his political views. Today, Ukrainians have only one option of political orientation: for or against Ukraine.”
Russia, too, has a long history of supporting or turning a blind eye to neo-Nazi groups and individuals, and far-right figures in the United States and elsewhere have praised Putin since the invasion began. Putin has provided safe haven for the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist militant organization that previously helped Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, according to the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation. Members of the Wagner Group, a secretive Russian mercenary organization, also have neo-Nazi leanings and are now widely believed to be operating in Ukraine.
If the war drags on, the extremists’ presence and influence among the Ukrainians, however minute it is now, could grow, analysts said. Foreigners who joined the fight for other reasons could become radicalized from fighting alongside extremist individuals, the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome or frustration at Western countries for not doing more to help Ukraine.
“Do these people go back to their countries of origin, particularly in Europe, with a newfound anger against their host nation governments?” asked Clarke of the Soufan Center.
Kyrylo, 35, a bespectacled soldier who wears an Azov patch on his sleeve, said he joined the nationwide call to arms because he wanted to protect his home city of Dnipro. He enlisted in Azov because he shared its far-right nationalist ideology. Before the war he gave “private historical lectures” for the group and previously served on Dnipro’s city council, he said.
“People who come to us already have a specific set of values,” he said, but he claimed that Azov is not neo-Nazi. “Would Nazis be fighting for the liberal democratic government in Ukraine?”
The pride of the Azov is its special forces battling in Mariupol, as Russian troops have put the city under weeks of siege, choking off supplies and cutting communications, water and electricity. Since Russian forces broke through their front lines earlier this month, they’ve been waging a guerrilla war against the Russian forces in the city.
“The guys are holding strong against the enemy and will never capitulate,” said Andriy, 26, who joined Azov when he was 18 years old and has a “Valhalla Awaits” tattoo stamped on his neck and now commands a unit. “They will fight to their last bullet and their last breath.”
Some desperate civilians who arrive in battered cars to the safety of Zaporizhzhia, 135 miles northwest, hailed Azov as “heroes” for holding the lines.
In Kyiv, Suliyma described the Nazi accusations as propaganda peddled by Russia. He said the only convictions that’s shared by all Azov fighters was to defeat Moscow. He and his unit, he said, had already engaged in clashes outside of Kyiv, including in Moshchun, a village north of the capital where they pushed the Russians out.
“Moshchun is Ukrainian now,” Suliyma said with pride.
Biletskiy said they are trying to weed out the neo-Nazi tattoos and other symbols among Azov fighters, but in the current war he cannot afford to lose any soldier because of political ideology, left or right.
“Every soldier that fights for Ukraine is of value now,” he said. “And of value to the Western world, because if Ukraine will break, the next in trouble will be the collective West.”
Elizabeth Dwoskin in San Francisco contributed to this report.