Kador Group




EXCLUSIVE in-depth Azov War in Ukraine Revolution of Dignity

The Changing Face of Ukraine’s Azov Division Over a Decade of War

Kyiv Post met with Azov fighters who participated in the unit’s formation, its first battles and its transformation into one of Ukraine’s fiercest fighting units.

May. 15

This is the inaugural episode of a series by Kyiv Post about the history of various Ukrainian divisions. We start with the Azov Brigade, perhaps the most renowned Ukrainian military division.

Beginning with the liberation of Mariupol in 2014 at the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, to its heroic defense of Mariupol again, against overwhelming Russian numbers in 2022, Azov – named after the Sea of Azov where Mariupol is situated – has earned recognition among Ukrainians and in international military circles.

Russian propaganda has expended substantial resources attempting to portray Azov, like other defenders of Ukraine, as Nazis.

So, what is Azov? Kyiv Post met with members of the brigade to talk about the past decade.

The history of Azov begins with the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square.

What had been peaceful protests for closer ties to Europe turned violent in the early hours of Nov. 30, 2013 when the Berkut, special riot police under then-President Viktor Yanukovych, widely seen as a Russian puppet, encircled the protesters, beating them with batons and kicking those that fell. 

But these actions to end the protests had the opposite effect. The next day, more and more Ukrainians would join the protests demanding respect for human rights.

And some of the most formidable among these EuroMaidan protesters were football fans. Particularly of Dynamo Kyiv and Karpaty Lviv.

Arsen Dmytryk, who would later be known by his call sign, “Lemko,” was among them.

“When the fighting on the Maidan ended, and volunteer detachments began to appear, we joined up. It’s no secret that Azov was formed from football fans all over Ukraine. In addition to the fans, we also had many non-fans who gradually joined our group!” Lemko said.

Over the next months, over 100 protesters would be killed. But, after thousands of protesters with helmets and shields marched toward parliament even while being shot at by police snipers, Yanukovych finally saw the writing on the wall.

On Feb. 21, he fled to Russia and the Revolution of Dignity was successful.

However, the Kremlin was not prepared to accept losing control over a state that it saw as its vassal and so began the Russo-Ukrainian War and – the birth of Azov.

In 2014, the Ukrainian army was ill-prepared to defend against Russia’s surprise invasion of Crimea and its instigation of separatist rebellions in the Donbas region.

 Mariinka counteroffensive Operation on Aug 4th, 2014 was their first joint operation.

Azov was one of the many volunteer battalions that hastily assembled to counter Russia’s hybrid war.

But in May and June of 2014, Azov would lead the liberation of Mariupol from Russian-backed forces.

At the beginning of 2015, in what’s known as the “Shyrokyne standoff,” the Azov Regiment launched a surprise offensive against the Russian-backed forces, pushing them outside of the firing range of Mariupol.

Azov had transformed from a group of protesters in Kyiv, to some of the most effective soldiers in the Ukrainian army.

“Subsequently, we began coordinating units at the training ground. The initial courses were based on NATO standards, and this was groundbreaking. Now, everyone employs the NATO structure, but we were the pioneers,” Lemko said.

The emphasis was on training sergeants, providing quality instruction, and prioritizing the safety of each soldier. By early 2022, this transformation further enabled Azov to become one of Ukraine’s most potent units.

“We hired translators to interpret American military protocols, and we implemented these guidelines. However, adopting a foreign protocol is one thing; implementing it here is another. It required significant effort, but it paid off. The paramount concern was the value of human life. We can mobilize significant resources, but if a soldier’s life is saved, then it is worth it,” Lemko said.

The effectiveness of the unit did not go unnoticed by the Russians, who commenced spreading propaganda alleging Azov’s ties to Nazism.

However, Andrii Ihnatyuk, known as “Spider,” who fought in Mariupol in 2022, was subsequently captured, traded in a prisoner swap, and now fights in the East, dismisses them.

“Nazism ended with the fall of the Third Reich in 1945. Nationalism and patriotism are just guidelines for us to live and fight for our country the proper way. We fight for our country out of love and out of patriotism. It was also surprising for the Russians, when I was a POW, when they told me we were Nazis and I asked them how could that be if we’ve got Jews, Armenians, and Azerbaijani fighters serving in our ranks? They said that’s not true,” Spider said.

What ultimately motivates Azov is not a disproven ideology about racial superiority, but a love for Ukraine and its traditions.

“The preservation of our traditions and our country is paramount. Without our past, there can be no future. Traditions are what we must pass on to future generations. The concept of a nation encompasses language, traditions, and much more” Lemko said.

“Ukraine – first, above all else. We have one country, and we must defend it, plain and simple. That is the definition of our nationalism. We became a huge obstacle for them. We stood firm in Mariupol and held our ground as long as we could. They couldn't break through our defenses and it frustrated them. Through their own propaganda, they created a demonic image of us, which even their soldiers fear,” Spider added.

Azov encountered a full-scale invasion against this demonized backdrop. The encirclement of Mariupol, defended by Azov, occurred swiftly. Despite Russian superiority in manpower, equipment, and air support, they couldn’t take the city for three months.

“During the defense of Mariupol, Azov numbered at most 1,000-1,200 fighters. Urban combat is exceptionally challenging. The enemy suffered significant losses in personnel and equipment during ground operations. Any equipment that came close to the city was destroyed, together with the infantry. When they realized ground operations were futile, they resorted to leveling the city. Aircraft flew over Mariupol and decimated it with carpet bombing,” Lemko said.

According to Mariupol City Hall estimates, over 900 out of 2,000 apartment buildings and almost 6,000 private residences were destroyed by Russian carpet bombing. Schools, maternity hospitals, and medical facilities were obliterated. An estimated 22,000 of the city's nearly 500,000 residents perished, with over 200,000 becoming refugees.

“The enemy stopped being concerned about civilians. Driving along the roads, you'd try to avoid the corpses littering the streets. There were thousands of them, civilians. Even supermarkets where people sought food were targeted. As soon as the enemy spotted a gathering, they unleashed rockets and airstrikes, with artillery pounding the city around the clock,” Lemko said.

Azov defended Mariupol for nearly three months. It killed thousands of Russian soldiers and destroyed hundreds of pieces of equipment. But Azov was cornered at one of the last places safe from bombing – the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, the city's largest plant. There, hundreds of Azov personnel ended the defense by order of the high military command of Ukraine

“We could have continued fighting there for a few more months, but we faced a problem – our wounded were increasing, and we lacked medicine and even bandages,” Lemko said.

The Ukrainian government accuses Russia, on July 29, 2022, of the Olenivka prison massacre, where between 53 and 62 Ukrainian prisoners of war from the Azov regiment, are alleged to have been killed by Russian forces when they detonated a bomb inside the prison, meant to cover up evidence of Russian torture and murder.

Moscow blamed the explosion on a Ukrainian-aimed HIMARS missile, but independent investigations have found the Russian claim to very likely be a fabrication.

“Most of those at the colony, including soldiers and guards, were essentially lifelong slaves. Now they relished the opportunity to torment others. They show no interest in improving their own circumstances but instead seek to bully those they can,” Spider said.

However, Lemko, who experienced captivity firsthand, said that the Russians respected Azov for their resilience and were even a bit apprehensive around them.

“They convinced themselves that we could sting a company of soldiers with a single needle – I'm obviously exaggerating. Imagine, each of us was escorted to interrogations by six Special Forces personnel. I had two security escorts,” Lemko said.

Some Azov personnel, including the command, were exchanged six months later.

Lemko, now a major, leads a unit in Azov, which has evolved into a brigade within the National Guard. The unit operates its own recruitment centers, where individuals can voluntarily enlist, specify their desired role, and undergo an interview.

Azov pioneered this system eight years ago as an alternative to forced mobilization. Yaroslava Kashka, head of the recruitment center, reports receiving up to 15 applications daily.

Prospective recruits appreciate joining an experienced unit led by commanders with Western education prioritizing soldiers’ lives.

“Many individuals come to us, expressing readiness to serve but awaiting a formal summons. When no summons arrives, they opt for the best division. It's gratifying to see people choosing our direction. We have a stable number, though trends are constantly shifting. In general, we have more than enough individuals eager to join, and there are many inquiries” Kashka said.

Currently, Azov comprises several thousand personnel and actively seeks new members across various specialties – from IT experts and drone operators to machine gunners and tank crew.

“I've made my decision. I'm ready, ripe, like a cherry on the tree,” said Yurii, a new Azov recruit.