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.