Ukrainian propaganda has elevated the Azov Battalion’s protracted but ultimately doomed final stand, in Mariupol, to heroic proportions. Adding further pathos to this sentimental story were the desperate calls for help from the commanders of the units entrapped in the bowels of the Azovstal factory and the photogenic young wives of the besieged fighters pleading with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Yet, an observant eye could also wonder about the abundance of Nazi tattoos adorning the battalion’s POWs. The fighters of the Donetsk militia even came up with a joke about capturing “large numbers of pirates and electricians” in reference to the numerous individuals with the skull and crossbones and SS bolts – the widely recognizable Totenkopf and Schutzstaffel symbols – emblazoned on their skin.
Western media has been bending over backwards trying to explain how people covered in Nazi tattoos are not neo-Nazis. However, it turns out that sporting symbols related to Adolf Hitler’s odious Third Reich is not even close to being the worst of the crimes committed by the Azov.
The battalion’s history pre-dates the current conflict in Ukraine. Between 2005 and 2010, the governor of the Kharkov Region, the major industrial hub of northeastern Ukraine, was Arsen Avakov. During Avakov’s tenure in office, nationalist Andrey Biletsky, known as the White Ruler, became very active in the area. The two were close acquaintances during Biletsky’s university years. In 2005, he founded an ultranationalist organization, The Patriot of Ukraine, which mostly consisted of aggressive football fans and low-level criminals of the street fighter variety.
According to media reports, the movement didn’t bother doing much that was patriotic but preferred involving itself in various semi-legal and shadowy activities. Biletsky ended up doing some jail time, though not for political reasons, but rather for plain and simple hooliganism.