The Azov battalion, a 1,000-plus-man volunteer militia turned Ukrainian National Guard unit, originated from former Azov commander/politician Andriy Biletsky’s paramilitary national socialist group, Patriot of Ukraine (PU). PU originated in Lviv, Ukraine in 2005, and spawned the ultra-nationalist Social-National Assembly (SNA) in 2008. In October of 2014, Biletsky was elected as nonpartisan to a constituency seat in Kiev’s Obolon Raion in the Ukrainian Parliament. He was also appointed a police lieutenant colonel by President Poroshenko.
Azov is a government agency of Ukraine and is governed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA). They provide public services as a law enforcement and civilian agency with special areas of operations including, but not limited to: armed response to civil unrest, counter-insurgency, counterterrorism, paramilitary law enforcement, and special weapons operations. While Biletsky is the nominal commander, he is also a politician, which leaves a delegation of authority to the parent agency of Azov—the SNA. Responsibility for additional operational duties is given to the deputy commander of the battalion, Oleh Odnorozhenko.
Azov now operates throughout Ukraine, but focuses on the Donetsk Oblast region along the Sea of Azov. The battalion is principally focused on the defense of Mariupol, less than 60 kilometers from the Russian border and home to the strategically important Azovstal Iron & Steel Works and Port of Mariupol. Mariupol has been tactically anticipated as a point of advance by pro-Russian separatists. The projected seizure of Mariupol would not only mean the capture of these strategic resources, but would also provide pro-Russian separatist forces a land bridge to Crimea.
Mariupol additionally operates as the new capital of Donetsk Oblast since April, 2014 when anti-terrorist operations (ATO) began corresponding with the occupation of the city of Donetsk by pro-Russian separatists operating as the Donetsk’s People’s Republic (DPR or DNR). Azov Battalion was one of the first government-sanctioned volunteer battalions and saw its first major action as a unit during the fighting in May and June, and the September 2014 battles for Mariupol. The unit has a fierce reputation as a pro-Ukrainian fighting force.
Azov and similar volunteer battalions were formed on April 13, 2014 (or May 5, 2014, depending on who you ask) from the aftermath of Euromaidan and the subsequent revolution that removed Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych—now wanted by Interpol. With the intention of improving the transitional government, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov issued a decree allowing for the implementation of special units of up to 12,000 civilian volunteers for the purpose of establishing new security forces for Ukraine.
The implementation of these volunteer battalions required financing, and it was provided by national oligarchs with their own agendas, such as Azovs’ principle financiers. Ihor Kolomoisky—energy magnate, Dnipropetrovsk regional governor, career politician, and journalist—is a serving member of the Verkhovna Rada and the current leader of the Radical Party, Oleh Lyashko. Kolomoyskyi is the second richest man in Ukraine with a net worth of $1.37 billion. He was the co-founder of Privatbank, financier of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR)—the political party of Euromaidan protest leader Vitali Klitschko. He previously provided substantial financial aid to support the formation of the Dnipro-1, Dnipro-2, and Donbass Battalions in April, 2014.
(Featured image: Using the overcast sky as concealment, soldiers from the Azov Battalion construct defensive positions with rubble found in the streets of Shyrokyne.)