Did an infamous Ukraine unit inspire Putin's 'denazification' claim?

The Azov Special Operations Unit, which in the past was a hotbed of extreme right-wing ideology, fought pro-Russians in the Donbas war.

 Members of Azov battalion attend a rally on the Volunteer Day honouring fighters, who joined the Ukrainian armed forces during a military conflict in the country's eastern regions, in central Kiev, Ukraine (photo credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)
Members of Azov battalion attend a rally on the Volunteer Day honouring fighters, who joined the Ukrainian armed forces during a military conflict in the country's eastern regions, in central Kiev, Ukraine
(photo credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly listed the "denazification of Ukraine" as one of his motives for invading the country.

While Ukraine, along with many other European countries, has far-right political parties and neo-Nazi organizations, the fact that since its turn to the West in 2014, there have been prominent Jews in the Ukrainian government and its current president is Jewish make this claim seem ludicrous.

Other than pure propaganda, could there be another reason for this? 

What is the Azov Battalion? 

In Russia's drawn-out campaign against Ukraine in the southeastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk since 2014, which continued at low intensity despite the Minsk agreements in 2014 and 2015, one of the leading Ukrainian forces was the Azov Special Operations Unit, or Azov Battalion as it has been known in the past. The former independent militia, which was integrated into Ukraine's National Force (its gendarme) in 2014, was deeply involved in battles over the strategic port city of Mariupol in 2014 and has fought in the region ever since. Some of its leaders have even received awards for their valor. 

The battalion has been a bastion of neo-Nazis and extreme right-wing figures. As an independent militia, Azov originally sported the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel symbol which resembles a black swastika on a yellow background, and its founders came from the ranks of a paramilitary national socialist group called “Patriots of Ukraine.” It was also accused of committing torture and war crimes.

 Ukrainian tanks move into the city, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Mariupol, February 24, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA) Ukrainian tanks move into the city, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Mariupol, February 24, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)

No longer a pariah

On June 2015, the US Congress passed a resolution intended to block American military funding for Ukraine from being used to provide training or weaponry to the battalion, with one congressman calling it a "neo-Nazi paramilitary militia." The ban was lifted in 2016.

However, since its incorporation into Ukraine's official armed forces it has moved away from neo-Nazism, and a Ukrainian Jewish group as early as 2016 did not oppose lifting the US ban.

Relative to other units, the Azov Battalion has been heavily engaged in fighting pro-Russian separatists since 2014. This frequent engagement may be what has led to a distorted view of Ukraine's armed forces, or at least as a basis for Putin to build his farfetched ideology upon.