Azov: The Face, Strategy, and Future of Ukraine’s leading neo-Nazis

By Eduard Popov and Alexander Podsechin – translated by Jafe Arnold for The Greanville Post
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Eduard Popov is a doctor of philosophical and historical sciences and the founder of the Center for Ukrainian Studies at the Southern Federal University of Russia. Popov is also a leading researcher at the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the author of numerous scholarly works on Russian conservatism and Ukrainian nationalism. His works are frequently featured at Fort Russ.

Alexander Podsechin is an applicant of the Southern Federal University of Russia and a specialist on far-right movements in Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe.

Foreword by Jafe Arnold: The following essay is a continuation of Dr. Eduard Popov’s voluminous article from 2010 on the history, trends, and future of Ukrainian neo-Nazism, generously written for The Greanville Post. In this installment, Dr. Popov and his colleague, Alexander Podsechin, present the dynamics of the fastest-growing and most dangerous neo-Nazi organization in Ukraine, Azov, and its offshoots. According to Dr. Popov’s earlier work, it is none other than Azov that represents the future of Ukrainian neo-Nazism and, quite possibly, one of the future ruling factions of what is left of “Project Ukraine”. If Dr. Popov’s assessment is correct, then his and Mr. Podsechin’s investigation of the face, strategy, and future of Azov will prove to be an ominous warning and timely analysis of a force whose real bite has yet to be fully felt. 

On November 21st, the center of Kiev hosted a widely-advertised protest action by so-called “radicals” – at least this is how Ukrainian neo-Nazis and their numerous parties, organizations, and movements are called in Russia. As a rule, Russian media rather abstractly presents the varieties of Ukrainian neo-Nazism, while Ukrainian media have learned to distinguish between these groups by pointing to the ideological and organizational differences between them.

According to a number of publications in the Ukrainian press, the protest was prepared by Ukrainian neo-Nazis organized into two main columns. One was headed by the widely notorious (even abroad) Right Sector, and the other by the no less famous Azov battalion/regiment and its political “daughters.” It was in regards to none other than this organization that the famous journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was later assassinated in Kiev, said: “Azov is the most organized ideological force in Ukraine.” We have to agree with this assessment.

The authors of these lines belong to those few Russian authors who have long been interested in the history and background of this organized formation, not so much in its fighting and punitive operations in Donbass as in its social and political plans and methods of struggle.


Officially, Azov is only three years old. However, over this brief period of time it has succeeded in forming one of the most combat-capable (primarily in terms of motivation[1]) units of the Ukrainian Army/National Guard and gained valuable combat experience in many of the key battles of the war in Donbass, such as Mariupol and Ilovaysk in 2014 and Shirokino and Mariupol in 2015-16. Of course, Azov is far from the only volunteer formation, but there are several key points that qualitatively distinguish Azov from the host of other Ukrainian nationalist battalions and units that were formed in 2014-15.

First of all, this concerns Azov’s specific ideology of social-nationalism, which all of its members must share, and whose volunteer nature is capable of weeding out all of those who do not fit their ideological criteria. It should be noted that the genesis of Azov’s ideology dates back to the Kharkov-native Social-National Assembly and Patriot of Ukraine organizations and, in turn, the Lvov-native Social-National Party of Ukraine. Out of all of the large contemporary formations of this kind, only Azov and the public and political structures generated by it openly profess the ideology of social-nationalism, i.e., the Ukrainian version of German National Socialism.

Azov propaganda poster.
Azov propaganda poster.

Secondly, Azov’s leaders, such as Andrey Biletsky or its chief ideologist, Oleg Odnorozhenko, participated in the Ukrainian nationalist (neo-Nazi) movement in the early-mid 2000’s and even served prison sentences under Yanukovych for their activities. In other words, these people have consistently followed the path of realizing their ideals for many years without fear of going to prison and without any discouraging vested interests. This separates them from the outright criminals and “businessman in nationalism”, such as Konstantin Grishin (the Donbass Battalion) or the open bandits like Ruslan Abalmaz (the Aidar Battalion).

Thirdly and most importantly, in addition to combat units (first the Azov Battalion, then the Azov Regiment), over literally only a handful of years, Azov has managed to establish a fully-fledged social structure called the Civic Corps, which deals with social work and promotes their ideology not in words (as is customary in Ukrainian politics), but in deeds. In autumn of this year, the National Corps political party was founded. Thus, Azov managed to establish a structure which boasts a clear and articulated ideology and includes:

– a constantly combat-ready unit numbering more than 1,000 people armed with heavy artillery, armored vehicles, plus reserve personnel and experienced, earlier demobilized soldiers;

  • a social movement realizing a number of diverse projects ranging from cultural, educational, and charitable ones to scholarly and technological research;
  • a political party relying on a social army and seeking to promote its interests through legal politics
Azov's Civic Corps marches through downtown Kiev.
Azov’s Civic Corps marches through downtown Kiev.

Comparing this to the German SS (which had a widely-branched structure in many spheres of society during the Weimar Republic and then the Nazi state) would probably flatter Azov’s representatives, even though Azov has not itself drawn any official reference to German National Socialism. Nevertheless, Andrey Biletsky, the leader of the ultra-right Patriot of Ukraine group and historian by profession, is obviously familiar with the effective practices of the Third Reich. It is no accident that he is nicknamed the “White Master” among his like-minded associates.

Formed on the basis of an aid-collection point set up by Azov fighters in August 2014, the Azov battalion’s Civic Corps has in two years succeeded in organizing activities in numerous areas of work in society and widely promoted its ideas. Its public work includes:

1. Work with children

   – Organizing and holding joint sports activities, touristic forays, and military training activities and competitions, as well as “lessons of courage” in schools, free sports leagues, and free patriotic military camps

   – Charity fundraising to aid orphans

2. Work with youth

   – Organizing free sports leagues and patriotic military camps

   – Organizing various sports tournaments ranging from football to martial arts

   – Organizing concerts, festivals, and music groups, including from Russia, who have a kind of cult status in working with youth subcultures

   – Seminars and lectures for students in higher educational institutions (of course, with ideological overtones)

3. Work on promoting their ideology in society and presenting an alternative (a “third way”) against the backdrop of growing frustration with liberal ideology and practice. This work is done even in Ukraine’s “ally,” the European Union. Azov and its public and political structures position themselves as an ideological and political alternative to liberalism, portraying themselves as the only force capable of defending Ukraine from “foreign occupation” (by which is understood Russia) and saving the regime from “internal occupation” (which the ultra-right in Ukraine understands as the regime of the illegitimate President Poroshenko). Work in this field includes:

  – Publishing video productions (documentaries)

  – Holding art exhibitions and literary evenings

  – Organizing and holding public lectures on historical and political topics

  – Paying homage to their national and historical heroes. A special place in the pantheon of Azov’s heroes is reserved for Prince Svyatoslav, which is no coincidence. Svyatoslav was a pagan (just as many, if not the majority of Azov fighters profess paganism or “native faith”, rodnoverie) and destroyed the “Jewish” Khazar Khaganate. The commemoration of this historical figure was crowned with Azov’s installation of a monument to him in Mariupol. Svyatoslav represents a cult-like figure for many of the ultra-right in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The erection of a monument to him in Mariupol appears to be an act of “privatizing” this figure for Ukraine.[2]


4. Work not directly related to their own politics

– Supporting protest actions by ordinary citizens against illegal construction

– Providing organizational and manpower assistance to protests in Kiev. An example of this was the assistance afforded to the miners’ trade union when it demanded the payment of delayed salaries and the reduction of utility bills. The purpose of such actions is to increase the recognizability and popularity of Azov’s Civic Crops and the National Corps party in society and expand its social base. In other words, Azov seeks to go beyond the narrow confines of the nationalist electorate (over whom it is already waging a fierce struggle with its competitors like Right Sector, etc.). This speaks to its leaders’ strategic-minded approach.

– Organizing raids against drug traffickers and narcotics distribution points

5. Work with the military and intelligence services

  – During the period that Patriot of Ukraine functioned, according to some testimonies, close contacts were maintained with military intelligence (the GUR of Ukraine’s defense ministry) and the SBU, thanks to which Patriot of Ukraine’s fighters were trained with the help of paratrooper officers, special forces, and even underwent full courses for young soldiers. As a result, Kharkov’s neo-Nazis turned out to be the most prepared fighters of all volunteer units to participate in combat operations.

  – Combat training was regularly improved through drills and establishing the necessary contacts with officers from the Ukrainian Armed Forces and SBU. Behind the scenes, Biletsky and his entourage advocated the idea that the “internal occupation” regime is not eternal, and that the state’s security services would need their own man in power, and even better, at the head of the state. The “White Master” Biletsky himself claims such a role. The success of such work is perhaps evidenced by the following fact: a number of generals on the level of brigade commanders immediately went on vacation so as to not participate in the dispersal of Azov and other ultra-right groupings’ protest in Kiev on November 21st.

  – The establishing of contacts with representatives of foreign (mainly American) intelligence services and commando officers from NATO countries’ armed forces now operating in Ukraine, as well as with the numerous mercenaries and volunteers from neo-Nazi circles in Europe and Western countries. The aim of these contacts is creating and strengthening international ties with an eye to the future.

6. Political activity

AZOV's de facto furrier, Andriy Biletsky.
AZOV’s de facto Fuhrer, Andriy Biletsky. He resigned his official leadership position in the regiment in October 2016, due to conflict with his new duties as a member of the Ukrainian parliament.

– Operating in tacit alliance with Interior Minister Avakov. The Azov battalion/regiment, unlike the majority of volunteer formations, is organizationally subject not to the Ministry of Defense or even the SBU, but is a structural unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Biletsky himself has the rank of colonel of the interior ministry. This is an apparent contradiction since the interior ministry (known as the “cops”) have always held contempt for the ideologically-strong neo-Nazis. In terms of ideology, the leader of Azov has violated the purity of the ranks of those subordinate to the interior ministry. However, Biletsky follows the example of his idol, Adolf Hitler, in taking advantage of even enemy resources to achieve political and other goals. We believe that the notion that Avakov is using Azov for his own political aims is profoundly mistaken. On the contrary, Azov is exploiting a temporary and tactical alliance with Avakov (who is racially, ethnically, and ideologically alien to them) to resolve important intermediate tasks. Avakov remains just as alien to the white racists and neo-Nazis as Poroshenko.

  – Azov is also involved in the Baltic-Black Sea Forum on issues of security, economic, cultural, and political cooperation, which has a broad circle of participating countries in Eastern Europe. Azov and its political wing, the National Corps party, are expanding their international ties and gradually promoting the old idea of Patriot of Ukraine on establishing a Central European Confederation.

  – Preparing and holding political protests and demonstrations, the latest of which on November 21st was thousands-strong in the center of Kiev and called “A Question for Petro Poroshenko” (organized under the auspices of the National Corps).

Thus, in the activities of Azov and its social and political “daughters,” we can see a wide swathe and conceptual plan aimed not so much at the immediate situation as towards the more or less distant future. Hence the increased attention to working with children and youth, as well as the close attention devoted to ideological issues. Such work demands huge and concentrated efforts and a strategic approach.

The Azovs have never hidden their allegiance to Nazi ideology.

Azov is the only force of Ukrainian neo-Nazism which has shown an ability to skillfully combine military, political, social, and parliamentary opportunities while simultaneously building a network of international relationships, all the while trying to saddle a wide protest movement against Petro Poroshenko’s regime. The leader of this combined structure, Andrey Biletsky, consciously keeps in the shade in contrast to his noisier and less effective like-minded competitors (in the likes of Yarosh, the former head of Right Sector), and is in no rush to sever partnership with the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Avakov.

These ideological and organizational advantages of Azov and the networks of social and political structures based on it, as well as the charismatic qualities of the White Master Biletsky, make Azov an attractive force in the eyes of many “radical youth” in Russia. Hence the phenomenon of Russian volunteers in Azov’s ranks, which to this day has not been met with adequate explanation in Russian expert circles and the media.

In 2010, one of the authors of this article prepared an extensive scholarly article on the phenomenon of Eastern-Ukrainian (Russian-speaking) nationalism and concluded that the future of Ukrainian nationalism (neo-Nazism) will belong to this generation and its various expressions. That article was written in the hope of provoking discussion and giving impetus to scholarly and expert studies on contemporary Ukrainian nationalism. Alas, this did not happen. Today, after more than six years, the relevance of this phenomenon has increased manifold, while official Russian scholars on Ukraine, as before, still do not realize the necessity of studying it, preferring instead to engage in mere “tearing off the masks” and “labeling.” As a result, the geographical center of this phenomenon has long since moved from the territory of Ukraine to Russia’s regions. This is the cost of scholarly laziness and inertia in thinking.


[1] The generally weak motivation and morale of regular Ukrainian soldiers has been confirmed by sources from both the republics of Novorossiya and the Ukrainian side.
[2] The significance of monuments to historical figures should not be underestimated. One of the most famous scholars of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, directly write on the enormous importance of monuments in the shaping of national consciousness. Moreover, even though the Ukrainian state legally exists only since 1991, it is attempting to privatize the heritage of Kievan Rus and its princes, which makes up more than a thousand years of history of Rus and Russia.

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