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Ukraine: Fragile Ceasefire Marred by ...
Shyrokyne
By Azad Safarov
18 Apr 2015

Ukrainian members of the Azov Batallion exchange machine gun fire with pro-Russian separatists on the Shyrokyne front line, near Mariupol in east Ukraine. Despite the recent ceasefire, firefights and shelling resume, amid fears that the fragile ceasefire is on the verge of breaking down. The commander of the battalion says that the situation in Shyrokyne is very unstable, as pro-Russian separatists continue to fire machine guns and mortars towards their positions.

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Inside of Ukraine's 'Azov' battalion
Mariupol
By Arturas Morozovas
07 Oct 2014

They are considered fearless patriots in their own country, while Russia accuses them of Nazism and sees them as the greatest threat to the Russian nationals. Claiming to be “anti-communist”, today the Azov Battalion is no doubt the most powerful weapon in Ukraine.

The potency of this weapon comes from an effective combination of patriotic young men and professional instructors. The well-earned trust of the society and important missions handed down from the government enabled the Azov to gain foothold on the front lines. Today the battalion’s main task is to find and destroy pockets of separatism in Mariupol area and to prevent the smuggling of weapons along the shoreline of the Azov Sea.

Paradoxically, young patriotic Ukrainians, often coming from the neo-nationalist background of football hooligans, became a pillar of Ukrainian unity from the very beginning of the Maidan uprising.

From football fans to foreign soldiers

The volunteer Azov Battalion created in May this year has already taken part in several important battles to liberate a number of towns from pro-Russian separatists. The major victory was regaining control over Mariupol. The battalion’s rate of casualties is among the lowest compared to other volunteer outfits in Ukraine. The soldiers claim that this is due to their rigorous internal discipline, motivation, readiness, and the fact that seasoned commanders always take part in action with their companies.

Today, the battalion has up to a thousand fighters. Most of them have arrived from the towns and cities of Eastern Ukraine and therefore often ask to conceal their faces in the pictures. Officially a task-force of the Ukrainian police, the battalion is headed by Andriy Biletsky, the leader of the Ukrainian political organisation the Social-National Assembly (SNA).

The Azov Battalion is quite unique. It welcomes foreign volunteers and unites people advocating neo-nationalist ideas. Although the ideology is no secret in the battalion, it receives no emphasis either.

“We are the most nationalist international battalion,” laughs Andriy, one of the staff officers, and asks to translate the quotation accurately. Andriy is a history teacher, but he has put aside pedagogy to fight on the front lines of his homeland.

The Azov has some 20 foreigners in their ranks, mostly hailing from Scandinavian countries as well as from France, Canada, Italy, Greece, Slovakia, Poland, Georgia, Belarus, and Russia.

Based in Yanukovych’s villa

The Azov is headquartered in the resort town of Urzuf on the shore of the Azov Sea, 45 km from the city of Mariupol. When we reach the town behind several Ukrainian checkpoints, the driver stops by a couple of locals to ask for directions. They keep it short: “You are going to Yanek’s? Head straight.”

Urzuf is famous for its glorious sandy beaches as well as the summerhouse of the toppled president Viktor Yanukovych. The villa had been occupied by the Donbas separatists until recently, but now they have been replaced by the Azov Battalion.

The metal gate of the headquarters is decorated with the battalion’s emblem “inherited” from the SNA. The Wolfsangel logo borrowed from the Nazi Germany consists of overlapping letters N and I meaning the “National Idea.”

Azov instead of the university

The men are lifting weights in the courtyard. A phone is playing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” When the refrain starts, the men break into a chorus without the slightest disruption in their activities: “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good!”

One of them is Dartanyan “Dart” from Kharkiv. The 19-year-old sportsman entered the School of Law in his hometown, but has not yet opened a single book. “When I registered with the university, I sat down, took a deep breath and realised that it would be weird to sit at a school desk while my fellow countrymen are fighting, so I enlisted in the Azov Battalion. I received a call from the university some time later. They asked me why I hadn’t been showing up, and I said that I had been with the Azov. I am glad they understood my choice and wished me good luck.” Dart added that he would definitely go back to school the next year.

The well-set young man has been doing all sorts of sports from early childhood. He has also spent a year in the army and worked as a bodyguard in a private security company. Dartanyan comes from Kharkiv, which had been one of the first to flare up in the fire of separatism. “Supporting a united Ukraine and enlisting in the Azov has cost me many friends. Only a few remain – perhaps the ones that were really true. But it was a 'healthy' and necessary screening. Here, in the battalion, I have found my second family.”

When the training is over late at night, Dart joins his friend Roma from the company to take a bath in the sea, as there is still no hot water in the summerhouse. Treading across the territory of the former president’s villa, the boys stop to watch the other fighters from the battalion play football. “Look at those faces. The difference from the separatists is obvious. The battalion consists of educated volunteers who love their country and have been united under a single purpose – to free our homeland from the grip of Russian-backed separatism. This makes us all a single family with strong ties. The atmosphere here is proper.”

Tired of putting up with Russia

The highest number of legionaries in the battalion comes from Sweden. One of them, Leo, arrived to the Azov from Malmö a few weeks ago.

Leo has the Poseidon’s trident tattooed on his cheek. In Sweden, the symbol is used by the Kustjägarna, or Costal Rangers, the amphibious special operations unit. The legionary claims to be a fresh graduate from the Swedish Military Academy and says he was brought to Ukraine by two reasons: to fight pro-Russian separatists and to help the Ukrainians who share similar nationalist ideas.

“I cannot stand aside when national boundaries are shifting in the 21st century, and I cannot stand aside when a state rides a tank into the sovereign territory of another country,” says Leo, and promises to stay in Donbas as long as he is needed.

Carolus arrived from central Sweden and says he was disappointed with Sweden’s tolerance towards Russia. “I am here to fight the separatists. I resent Sweden for putting up with the imperialist occupant. But, I believe that in time my country will reconsider its relations with Russia.”

During the conversation Carolus is gutting fish in the spacious kitchen of the resort where the Azov battalion is based. “Until recently, we [the foreigners] have been excluded from cooking and fighting activities due to the vital language barrier”, says the Swede and hopes to join the battles once he has proven himself in food preparation.

When asked if he is ever going home, the Swede ponders for a moment and then replies that he is not sure whether he wants to go back to the “tolerant Sweden” after his experiences here in Ukraine.

Only a couple of foreigners serving in the battalion have seen real action in Donbas. According to Leo, they have been left behind because they can’t speak Ukrainian or Russian which could lead to communication failure in critical situations, and because of a lack of political will to use the English language in radio communication.

Foreigners do not deny that the Azov Battalion is forming an English speaking unit of legionaries, which is expected to be commanded by the legendary sniper of the Swedish army Mikael Killt.

Secret arrival

Perhaps the most seasoned among the legionaries is the soldier from Thessaloniki dubbed the “Greek.” “I was thrown in the middle of fighting in Donetsk region as soon as I arrived,” recalls the Greek. “I hadn’t even received a uniform yet.” The professional Greek army officer claims to have already taken part in a lot of combat action during the couple of months in the Azov battalion. “Perhaps too much,” he adds with a sigh.

He arrived on personal grounds: “Every foreigner has his own motivations and causes. Some are yearning for adventure, some are professional soldiers, and some have come to support a Nazi ideology. My reasons have been to take part in combat action and gain experience. Of course, I also hate Russians. I am here because the Azov is the only battalion to welcome foreigners.” Officially, the soldiers earn only $70 per month here.

“Greeks support Communism, therefore they back Russia’s actions, while I have always been pro-Western,” says the legionnaire. “We have fought a 5-year war against Greeks with Bulgarian roots. They were also supported by the Communist party and, of course, Russia. I don’t see many differences between the separatist actions that took place in Greece and the current events in Ukraine.”

Like the other foreigners, the Greek has arrived here under cover and would like to conceal his identity. Unlike France, most of the European countries don’t have laws banning their citizens from joining foreign armies, but most of the arrivals would like to avoid unnecessary attention and possible retributions in the homelands.

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The Black Men: European Fighters in U...
By laura.lesevre
24 Jul 2014

European volunteer fighters and far-right activists have travelled to Ukraine to fight along side pro-Ukrainian forces against pro-Russian separatists. They come from France, Sweden, and other parts of Europe. They have different motivations for participating in the conflict, but they all say that they are not paid to fight.

Journalists Fausto Biloslavo and Laura Lesevre travelled to Ukraine and interviewed, among others, Mikael Skillt, a Swedish sniper, with seven years' experience in the Swedish Army and the Swedish National Guard. Mikael is currently fighting with the Azov Battalion, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer armed group in eastern Ukraine. He says there is a bounty of nearly 5,000 euros on his head.

This 11:26 minutes video story includes footage of the Azov Battalion training and fighting against pro-Russia separatists. It also include interviews with an Italian and a Russian volunteer fighter. It also includes an interview with Mikael Skillt, a Swedish sniper.

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The Black Men 14
By laura.lesevre
20 Jun 2014

A volunteer fighter wearing the t-shirt with the emblem of the Azov Battalion. The battalion is under the control of Kiev’s Interior ministry.

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The Black Men 9
By laura.lesevre
20 Jun 2014

46 year old Gaston Besson from France says he wants to defend Ukraine’s independence. Besson, who has also fought in Croatia, Bosnia, Burma and Laos, is in charge of recruiting foreign European volunteers to fight against pro-Russian rebels. "Every day I get dozens of e-mail with requests of enlistment, but I reject 75% of them. People who want to join us are to buy the plane ticket with their own money. Then they go over an initial period of training in Kiev before being sent to the front line. We do not want fanatics, trigger-happy people, drunkards or druggies. We need unpaid idealists, not hired mercenaries”, he says.

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The Black Men 12
By laura.lesevre
18 Jun 2014

Volunteer fighters from the Azov battalion during urban warfare training.

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The Black Men 11
By laura.lesevre
18 Jun 2014

Francesco F, an Italian volunteer fighter in the Azav battalion's base in Berdyansk.

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The Black Men 15
By laura.lesevre
18 Jun 2014

An armed member of the Azov Battalion at a check point near Berdyansk in Eastern Ukraine.

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The Black Men 8
By laura.lesevre
18 Jun 2014

Mikael Skillt, a Swedish sniper, with seven years' experience in the Swedish Army and the Swedish National Guard. Mikael is currently fighting with the Azov Battalion, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer armed group in eastern Ukraine. He says there is a bounty of nearly 5,000 euros on his head.

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The Black Men 13
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

Members of the Azov battalion in their base in Eastern Ukraine.

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The Black Men 10
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

Francesco F. an Italian volunteer fighter with the Azav battalion during training. Francesco gave up his life as a manager in order to fight alongside Ukrainians against pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine.

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The Black Men 16
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

A member of the Azav battalion. All fighters wear masks to cover their faces for fear of reprisals.

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The Black Men 1
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

Fighters from the Azav battalion resting on the grass.

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The Black Men 7
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

Volunteer fighters from the Azov battalion during training.

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The Black Men 6
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

Volunteer fighters from the Azov battalion.

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The Black Men 3
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

A fighter from the Azov battalion during a shooting training.

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The Black Men 4
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

The Azov battalion fighting in east-Ukraine counts 250 men. Most of them are far-right activists. The battalion also counts a dozen of foreign volunteers fighters from countries like Sweden, France, Finland, Italy and Russia, as well as football ultras. They claim they are not paid to fight.

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The Black Men 2
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

Fighters from the Azov battalion during shooting training.

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The Black Men 5
By laura.lesevre
17 Jun 2014

A fighter from the Azov battalion during training.