Ukraine's Azov Regiment visits Israel: 'Mariupol is our Masada'

Azov officer Ilya Samoilenko, one of the defenders of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, led the delegation to Israel.

 People carry placards and flags during a ceremony for Ukraine independence day and a protest against the Russian invasion to the Ukraine in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2022. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
People carry placards and flags during a ceremony for Ukraine independence day and a protest against the Russian invasion to the Ukraine in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2022.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

A delegation from Ukraine's Azov Regiment visited Israel in recent days, meeting with officials and IDF reservists and speaking about the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The delegation arrived in Israel on Thursday and was led by Azov officer Ilya Samoilenko, one of the soldiers who barricaded themselves beneath the Azovstal steelworks during attempts to protect Mariupol from the Russian invasion earlier this year. Joining him in leading the delegation was Yuliya Fedosyuk, deputy head of the Association of Azovstal Defenders' Families.

Samoilenko was taken prisoner by Russia after weeks under siege in the Azvostal steelworks and was released in a prisoner swap in September.

The delegation came to Israel to advocate for members of the Azov Regiment who are still being held as prisoners, to speak about the defense of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol and to counter Russian reports and statements about the regiment and the ongoing war.

The visit was initiated by the Israeli Friends of Ukraine organization and with the support of the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel and the Nadav Foundation.

 Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces are seen within the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works complex in Mariupol, Ukraine, in this handout picture taken May 7, 2022 (credit: Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi/Azov regiment press service /Handout via REUTERS) Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces are seen within the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works complex in Mariupol, Ukraine, in this handout picture taken May 7, 2022 (credit: Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi/Azov regiment press service /Handout via REUTERS)

On Saturday, the delegation visited Masada, where some of the last Jewish rebels held out against the Roman army in 73 CE.

"The feat of the Mariupol defenders in 2022 shocked the whole world," said the delegation. "In this fierce resistance to the Russian occupation, various peoples of the world saw parallels with various episodes of their own history, comparing the Ukrainian heroes of today with their heroes of the past. All of them had one thing in common - an uncompromising, sometimes doomed struggle for their independence. The rank of people who, in the battle for their freedom, sacrifice everything, permeates the entirety of history."

"When today in Israel we talk about the defense of Mariupol, the Israelis, understanding, first of all, the military differences between the war 2,000 years ago and today, constantly repeat: 'Mariupol is your Masada.'"

"When today in Israel we talk about the defense of Mariupol, the Israelis, understanding, first of all, the military differences between the war 2,000 years ago and today, constantly repeat: 'Mariupol is your Masada.' And we will definitely return there."

Samoilenko and Fedosyuk also met with reservists from the IDF during the visit to Israel, including a Ukrainian from Luhansk and another from Mariupol. The Azov delegation spoke with the reservists about service in the regiment and in the IDF and the similarities and differences between the militaries of Ukraine and Israel.

The Azov delegation additionally participated in screenings of a documentary about the siege of Mariupol called "The Untold Truth About Mariupol," which records the stories of people who were sent to Russian "filtration camps" after the siege and experienced torture, harsh interrogations and even had their children abducted from them. The film, produced by the BIHUS team of journalists and attorneys, was screened in Tel Aviv and Haifa this week.

After the screenings, Samoilenko spoke about Russia's actions during the siege of Mariupol and about Ukrainian soldiers who fought alongside him who are still being held by Russia.

Anna Zharova, a founder of Israeli Friends of Ukraine, called the delegation's visit the organization's "most important project since the beginning of the war."

Azov Regiment distances itself from far-right past

While the Azov Batallion, the predecessor of the Azov Regiment, was heavily associated with neo-Nazi and far-right symbolism and ideologies, the Azov Regiment today insists that it has largely purged those sentiments from the regiment.

Russia has pointed to the Azov Regiment in its many claims that Ukraine is a "neo-Nazi state" and has attacked Israel for its support of Ukraine and the regiment.

In May, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed that "Israeli mercenaries are actually shoulder-to-shoulder with the Azov militants.” Russian officials have also accused Israel of supporting a "neo-Nazi regime" in Kyiv.

"The battalion has changed. It has purged itself of its dark past. The only radicalism we embrace today is our radical will to defend Ukraine."

Azov Regiment officer Ilya Samoilenko

In an interview with journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy during the siege of the Azovstal steel factory in May, Samoilenko warned that accusations that the regiment is affiliated with neo-Nazism are "Russian propaganda," stressing that "The battalion has changed. It has purged itself of its dark past. The only radicalism we embrace today is our radical will to defend Ukraine."

Samoilenko additionally noted that there were Jews and people of all faiths among the Azov soldiers killed by Russia, calling them "proud men and good fighters."

In 2016, when the US decided to lift its ban on funding for the regiment, antisemitism researcher Vyacheslav A. Likhachev, speaking on behalf of the Vaad of Ukraine, stated that "It must be clearly understood: there is no kind of ‘neo-Nazi Ukrainian militia’ now. Azov is a regular military unit subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It is not an irregular division or a political group. Its commanders and fighters might have personal political views as individuals, but as an armed police unit Azov is a part of the system of the Ukrainian defense forces."

In an article in the Euromaiden Press from earlier this year, Likhachev stressed that most of the far-right members of the regiment left the regiment by the end of 2014 and the rest were discharged in 2017. "As of today, there are absolutely no grounds for accusations that neo-Nazis serve in the Azov Regiment."

In April, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine, told Politico that he doesn't "buy into" Russia's claims about the Azov regiment, stating “If it was not for the Russian propaganda, I would not even know the neo-Nazis in the Azov group exist, they are such a minority of a minority. We should keep our eyes open, of course, but having said that, when ultra-nationalist right-wing parties run for parliament in Ukraine, they can’t even get a seat.”

Alexander Ritzmann, a researcher at the German Counter Extremism Project, noted in an article on the Euronews site that many reports about the Azov Regiment suffer from a "complete lack of nuance" as the regiment is separate from the far-right Azov Movement.

“If it was not for the Russian propaganda, I would not even know the neo-Nazis in the Azov group exist, they are such a minority of a minority."

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Ukraine

"While the Azov regiment most likely has an above-average number of ultra-nationalists and far-right extremists within its ranks, there is no data available proving the popular claim that all or even a majority of its soldiers are neo-Nazis," explained Ritzmann. "The extremist leadership mostly left the regiment in 2015 and started the above-mentioned Azov movement, which consists of a political party (National Corps) and a network of other smaller (militia) groups, youth clubs, and paramilitary training centers."