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Ukraine’s Azov Battalion started off eight years ago as a group of far-right activists who launched attacks against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, they have been incorporated into the Ukrainian military.
Russia has always labeled the Azov Battalion as a neo-Nazi force. In fact, the invasion was intended, in part, to “liberate” Ukraine from its Nazi elements, as CBS News explained. The battalion’s yellow and blue flag features the “Wolfsangel” logo that is similar to the German Nazi SS units’ insignias in World War II. Its membership before the invasion was estimated at around 1,000.
The battalion is reportedly no stranger to fearsome, hateful gestures, either. In March, fighters released a video of them coating their bullets in pig’s fat designed to mock the religion of Muslim Chechens who were fighting on behalf of Russia, for example, Al Jazeera reported.
Some Ukrainians disputed those claims, however. “These are guys who simply love their country and Ukrainian people,” Azov Battalion member Alexi Suliyma told the Washington Post. “I never knew them to be Nazis or fascists, never heard them make calls for the Third Reich.”
A Briton who joined the battalion also told Sky News its fighters were patriots and warriors rather than “monsters and psychos.”
But experts at Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation described the Azov Battalion as extreme, far-right nationalists.
That said, Russian fulminations about the battalion can raise eyebrows. These neo-Nazis are so tough, so craven, that they will even work with Israeli mercenaries, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson recently alleged, according to the Times Israel.
Those comments, incidentally, came after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Hitler had “Jewish blood.” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, by the way. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since apologized for the Hitler comments.
Whether Ukrainians or other folks believe Russian propaganda is not so relevant anymore as members of the Azov Battalion have now become Ukrainian national heroes, as Agence France-Presse wrote.
These fighters have been key in the defense of Mariupol, especially the Azovstal steelworks that is now besieged by Russian troops. Around 100 civilians remain in the steelworks as the fighting rages, Radio Free Europe reported.
In an interview with the Kyiv Post, the second in command of the battalion, Sviatoslav Palamar, who was defending the steelworks, said Russia was concealing mass graves where thousands of Mariupol civilians and others were being interred.
It will take a while. But the world will eventually figure out who the monsters are.