Ukraine’s Ultra-Nationalist Azov Regiment Pledges to Fight to the Last Man Against Advancing Russian Forces in Mariupol
On February 23rd, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an official declaration of
war, announcing the launch of a “special military action ... aimed at demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine”. These words, given the grave context in which they were used, fuelled immense controversy in the international media.
Putin’s propaganda and his strategy of slandering Ukrainian security forces as ‘Nazis’ are quite clearly purposed to stigmatize wide swathes of the armed resistance as extremists.
Yet, putting this Russian rhetoric aside, there are certainly some Ukrainian territorial defence groups who are overtly and unabashedly hard-right in their ideological orientation. Militarily, forces like the infamous Azov Regiment have been active in southeastern Ukraine, though not exclusively.
These actors have developed media apparatuses to recruit, raise funds, and build international support amongst ideological sympathizers. In recent months, during Russia’s massive military buildup and in the period since the invasion began, said elements have intensified their media warfare against Russia, posting propaganda to build morale amongst its rank and file as well as its supporters around the country, and putting out funding requests for weapons and supplies to fight the Russians.
The ultra-nationalist forces are accused of war crimes (Moscow uses “genocide”) against Russian-speaking people in contested breakaway areas, allegedly committing torture, shelling of civilians, and other atrocities.
The Azov Regiment is a hard-right formation that was formally established during the 2014 Ukrainian crisis and incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard. The broader movement and media network is spread throughout parts of the country, and one of their operational hotspots is Mariupol, a city on the north coast of the Azov Sea.
As Russia was increasing its troop buildup prior to the invasion, Azov posted propaganda materials showing their fighters training and planning for the coming escalation. Then, when Vladimir Putin issued his official declaration of war, the militia switched gears and quickly began to make their final war preparations in anticipation of advancing Russian forces.
Another notable development has been the online back and forth between Azov and Chechen soldiers on the Russian side. It is unclear how the exchanges began, but audio statements, reportedly made by Chechen military personnel taunting Azov, essentially told of how they look forward to hunting the nationalists. In response, Sergei Korotkikh, a figure associated with Azov, released multiple videos of him wielding weapons goading on the Chechens, at one point reportedly saying that he will play football with their heads. A video posted on February 27th, which was also shared by the verified Ukrainian National Guard Twitter account, showed Azov fighters coating their bullets with pig grease to kill “the Kadyrov orcs.”
As invading forces have been moving to surround Mariupol, the information warfare between Azov Regiment and the Russian side has been intensifying. Azov posted photos of dead civilians they claim had been killed by Russian shelling as well as images of destroyed houses. The group promised reprisal, saying “the Russians will be punished for this. Shortly! Let's take revenge for everyone, we will not forgive any victims, we will destroy hundreds of invaders for every killed Ukrainian!”
Then, at a press briefing, Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov made counter-allegations, saying:
From 4:00 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. on February 26, Ukrainian nationalists of the Azov battalion carried out strikes using Grad multiple-launch rocket systems on the residential quarters of the Sartana populated locality in a Mariupol and on School No. 8 of the city of Mariupol. As a result of the attack, several residential houses have been destroyed, and there are fatalities among civilians.
With the Russians moving in on Mariupol, Azov has been posting much more frequently asking for donations (cryptocurrency/bank transfers) and calling for foreign fighters to join the resistance. With the announcement of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s initiative to form an international brigade of militants from abroad, Azov instructed their followers to travel through Poland to staging and logistics points in designated cities to be equipped with weapons, uniforms, and supplies before joining the “Azov territorial defence units.”
Azov’s latest propaganda narratives stress the need to maintain high morale and the obligation to dig in and fight the Russians. Their rhetoric is very bellicose and full of bluster; on February 27th, for instance, they gave the Russians one final chance to surrender.
In a February 26th statement, they reassured their followers and residents of Mariupol:
There is no reason to panic, the defenders continue to fight the enemy for the city and every citizen! Defenders steadfastly and confidently defend the borders of Mariupol from the Russian invaders, leaving them with nothing, suppressing attempts to enter the city. We promise that every Muscovite who comes here to kill and destroy himself will be destroyed.
To lift the spirits of their forces and to try and intimidate their enemies, Azov posted pictures of their militants posing with a dead Russian soldier and videos of them blowing up a military vehicle plus showing tanks they destroyed. Another post included a photo of what they say is a captured Russian spy, something they have been frequently warning about.
In an attempt to demoralize Russian forces, Azov posted a video on February 28th of captured soldiers and threatened to behead them. They also published pictures of their fighters in a tank accompanied by a claim that they have destroyed multiple Russian military vehicles.
Members of far-right channels on Telegram have shared Azov’s fundraising and recruitment posts, with some individuals claiming they intend to travel and join the militia.
Azov channels are also disseminating instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails and showing where to most effectively strike Russian military armour and equipment.
It is unknown how much of the Azov network is positioned in Mariupol since there have been recent reports of their fighters attacking Russian positions in Melitopol, recruiting in Kharkiv, and photos posted by them in Kyiv where they have a presence, but, as invading forces surround and advance into the city, it looks like some segment of the ultra-nationalist militia is in for an increasingly difficult fight.