URZUF, Ukraine — Ukraine’s best — and most controversial — fighters haven’t seen full-blown combat for more than two years.

But the men of the Azov Regiment, part of the National Guard, say they’ve stayed sharp and active in special operations against Russian-led forces.

They train, drill and bide their time in Urzuf, a small Donetsk Oblast city between the two large Azov Sea port hub cities of Berdyansk and Mariupol.

An enemy attack could come from sea or by land, so they train for many scenarios.

“We’re up from 4 a. m. — that’s how busy we are,” said a gunner with the nickname of “Gym teacher.” Like others in the unit, he refuses to give his name, fearing reprisals against relatives if publicly identified. “At 5, we were already setting up those guns here. The other guys set up our targets along the coast, about 8,500 meters away from here.”

But the Azov Regiment gets attention for reasons other than their fighting prowess. It has evolved from a unit of ultra-nationalist irregulars to a well-equipped elite special forces formation, trained by foreign instructors.

It has a reputation as harboring racist Nazis, but the reality is more subtle and complex.

None of the soldiers at the training displayed any racist symbols. Some prefer to shake hands by grasping the wrist, common among nationalist movements. Their shoulder patches have a yellow-and-blue insignia that resembles a reversed horizontal Wolfsangel — the mirror-image of a symbol used by the Nazis.

The Azov members say that the crossed I and N letters of the ancient symbol, which predates Nazi Germany by centuries, stands for “Idea of Nation.”

While the Wolfsangel is widely used by far-right groups around the world, it is not a prohibited symbol under Ukrainian law.

Some Azov fighters also practice Slavic pagan rites. In early July, a wooden idol of Perun, the god of thunder in the pre-Christian medieval Kyivan Rus, was erected at the regiment’s base near Mariupol. The fighters say they are paying homage to Ukraine’s history.

However, almost all of the Azov members at the training base speak Russian as their mother tongue.

Whatever their views on race, religion and nationalism, their military ambitions in defense of Ukraine against Russia’s war are high. They’ve been involved in some of the key battles in the Donbas since the Kremlin launched its war in 2014 with the takeover of the Crimean peninsula.

They drill intensively, hoping to achieve the standards of NATO, the 29-member alliance that Ukraine hopes to join one day.

The Kyiv Post attended a training session early on Aug. 3, with an Azov artillery battery of four 122-millimeter D‑30 howitzers and soldiers practicing gunnery in a large, recently harvested wheat field on the coast.

This was the eighth set of gunnery exercises for the Azov Regiment’s artillery since early spring. This time, the gunners were training to repel an amphibious assault near the coastal resort city of Berdyansk, which Ukraine’s military fears is a real possibility.

“The scenario says the enemy landing forces are supported by an armored unit and a howitzer battery,” says a platoon commander, Sergeant Hennadiy Kharchenko. “Our reconnaissance must discover the route of the hostile tank column, so we can subject it to heavy shelling, and then suppress their artillery. Once the coordinates are fixed, our observation post will signal us to engage and will adjust fire for us.”

As the regiment’s press officer Artem Dubina said, Azov combat units are now mostly manned by fighters from eastern Ukraine, mainly from Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Zaporizhia. Moreover, about one in five of Azov’s soldiers come from Donetsk or Luhansk oblasts, including areas currently occupied by Russian-led forces, Kharchenko told the Kyiv Post.

‘Man the guns’

The battery’s senior officer, “Sarmatian,” a burly middle-aged man from Donetsk with Cossack mustaches and an earring, finally receives the target data.

“Attention! Man the guns!” he shouts in Russian into his walkie-talkie. He gives the firing coordinates: “Target minus 10, 0–30 to the right. All units, load one round.”

When all the guns are aimed, the gunners quickly load shells and then cylinders of plastic firing charges. In combat, up to six soldiers operate each D‑30 howitzer, and their effectiveness greatly depends on their ability to work smoothly as a team.

Within just a couple of seconds, the artillery pieces are loaded and ready to fire, and each squad shouts “Ready!”

“Salvo fire,” Sarmatian says as he raises his arm up and the soldiers stop their ears. “Three hundred… thirty… and three!”

With a fierce blast, the whole battery fires at once, raising clouds of dust. The empty, smoking charge cases jump out of the howitzer barrels.

“Firing complete, one shell spent,” all four crews report. Within less than a minute, a sound of explosions are heard from afar, and a plume of smoke raises up on the horizon.

The drills continue for two hours, with both salvos and single round firing, and targeting adjustments in real-time. The hypothetical enemy command post is destroyed with one shell, and the battery is deemed to have successfully suppressed fire from hostile tanks and artillery.

By noon, Sarmatian orders the guns to be covered with camouflaged scrim netting until night. There will also be a nighttime exercise, which will be much more challenging.

Elite force

Drills like these are held almost every day for all Azov soldiers.

The regiment now includes two motorized infantry battalions supported by 120- and 82-millimeter mortar batteries, a D‑30 howitzer force, a T‑64 tank company, a reconnaissance squad, a drone reconnaissance service, a sniper platoon, a canine team, and a highly developed logistics service.

Azov is now Ukraine’s only special operations unit that is bolstered by armor and artillery power — and it relies heavily on strict discipline and personal motivation, says Azov’s deputy artillery force commander, First Lieutenant Igor Prozapas.

“If a fighter’s eyes are burning and he is spoiling for training and fighting, he’ll be given every chance to grow as a professional,” the commander says as he stands leaning on a tank’s armored hull. “And by the way, we accept no weaknesses: if a fighter is seen drinking alcohol, he is out, immediately, with no exceptions.”

However, some simply get tired of service. In this case, Azov sends them back to civilian life without any ill will, Prozapas says.

Foreigners help

Azov has recruited foreign citizens for contract service. However, its soldiers say the regiment has very few foreigners in its ranks now, and all of them serve as advisers. Azov’s sergeant training program is run by Georgian instructors, and other foreigners train snipers and scouts.

Although the regiment is not deployed to the front, it is constantly being given special missions to conduct against Russian-led forces in the Mariupol area, the soldiers say.

“It’s a myth that Azov stopped fighting after the battle for Shyrokyne,” Prozapas says. “Over the past year, we have completed introducing a tactical operation system to NATO standards. During the latest general drills, our command posts were observing the tactical situation on the battlefield in real time, which is extremely advantageous. In fact, improving our troop command is the only way we will win — we have the same Soviet-era weapons as the separatists do, like the D‑30 howitzers and T‑64 tanks.”

“After two years of intense drills, we believe we’re now up to the same military power as the most elite Ukrainian army brigades,” the commander continues. “We’re now ready to get back to the front, and have total confidence in all of our combat units.”

See more photos from the Azov Regiment in a special gallery by Volodymyr Petrov.

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