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Azov Contra Fake: exposing the loudest lies of Russian propaganda

You may have heard about the Azov Brigade. It was created almost 10 years ago, and during this time, the organization has been uniting patriots who defend Ukraine from Russian military aggression on the toughest frontlines. From liberating Mariupol in 2014 to defending the city once again in 2022 and participating in numerous other battles, the brigade vastly contributed to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the country’s defense.

However, that may not be what you have heard about the Azov Brigade. For years, Russia has been using its propaganda to spread fakes about the activities of Azov worldwide, discrediting the organization. Below is a list of the most well-known fakes about the brigade that Russia keeps pushing despite them being repeatedly debunked years ago.

This publication was prepared by the Association of
Azovstal defenders’ families, together with the Azov press service. For more information, visit the Azov Contra Fake website.

Myth 1: Azov is a paramilitary entity beyond the control of the government of Ukraine

In 2014, Azov was created as a voluntary association of patriots who are ready to defend Ukraine. From the moment of its creation, it was a full-fledged battalion that was part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Years later, Azov became a brigade and is now officially a military unit within the National Guard of Ukraine, which obeys the orders of the General Staff of Ukraine. In the entire history of Azov’s existence, there is not a single proven situation of disobedience or sabotage of orders of the Ukrainian General Staff by the Azov troops.

In 2023, Ihor Klymenko, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, personally awarded Azov fighters with state and departmental awards. Six representatives of Azov were honored with the highest state award — the title of the Hero of Ukraine. 

Myth 2: Azov is recognized as a terrorist organization in the USA

Azov is not listed as a terrorist organization in the United States, and that is just a fact. Azov is a unit of the National Guard of Ukraine and a legitimate part of the Ukrainian army.

Delegations comprising Azov representatives have made two business visits to the US in 2022 and 2023. Azov members Georgi Kuparashvili, Vladyslav Zhaivoronok, and Arsenii Fedosiuk met with the Congress and the Senate representatives, major international human rights organizations, think tanks, US military veterans, and journalists.

Myth 3: Azov Brigade fighters share xenophobic, racist views and use nazi symbols

Throughout the unit’s history, people of different ethnicities and religions have served in it: Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Russians, Belarusians, Crimean Tatars, and Greeks.

For instance, Georgian Giorgi Kuparashvili played a key role in the creation of Azov and served in the unit for nine years. Kuparashvili took part in the defense of Mariupol in 2022, was seriously wounded, and evacuated from there by a helicopter.

Giorgi Kuparashvili.
Photo from the Association of “Azovstal” defenders’ families.

During the defense of Azovstal, Azov fighter Michael, an ethnic Greek, appealed to the Parliament of Greece to help Ukraine and the defenders of Mariupol. “My grandfather fought in World War II against the Nazis. He was injured three times. I was born in Mariupol, and I take part in the defense of the city from the Russian Nazis. (…) This is my debt to my city, my debt as a man, and I have to talk about the catastrophic conditions in which Greek Mariupol finds itself,” Michael stated. He is currently still in Russian captivity.

The symbol of Azov, often intentionally misrepresented by Russian propaganda, has always had a single meaning – National Idea. These two words abbreviate the combination of letters “N” and “I”, depicted on the emblem of the unit. The National Idea for the Azov fighters implies a militant devotion to the Ukrainian people and willingness to sacrifice their own health and even their lives for the well-being and safety of Ukrainians. 

Azov emblem.
Photo from the Association of “Azovstal” defenders’ families.

At the same time, tattoos with runes, seen among Azov fighters, refer back to Viking warrior traditions and aesthetics associated with the revered qualities of valor, courage, bravery, fearlessness, and willingness to die in battle. In addition to tattoos of runes, military personnel often take their call signs, referring to Scandinavian mythology: names of gods, heroes, great warriors, mythological creatures, or names of Scandinavian weapons. 

Myth 4: Azov Brigade fighters have anti-semitic views

From the start of Azov unit existence, ethnic Jews have served in its ranks. One of the most well-known Azov fighters of Jewish origin is Ruslan Serbov, with the call sign “David”, a direct reference to the figure of the biblical King of Judea and Israel. “David” visited Israel in November 2022 for rehabilitation after the amputation of his leg as a result of injuries sustained in the battles for Mariupol.

David also has a brother, Arthur “Ara” Serbov, who took part in combat operations in the East of Ukraine from 2014 to 2018. In February 2022, he returned to fight for Ukraine once again and joined Azov. In November 2023, Arthur was seriously wounded.

Arthur “Ara” Serbov during his service in Azov. Arthur “Ara” Serbov (left)
after an injury with his brother Ruslan “David” Serbov.
Photo from the Association of “Azovstal” defenders’ families.

Another example is Israeli businessman and philanthropist Leonid Nevzlin, who publicly supports Azov and financially contributes to the unit.

Back in 2016, Viacheslav Likhachev, a well-known political scientist of Jewish origin and researcher of the ideology and activities of modern far-right movements in Russia and Ukraine, said:“It should be clearly understood: there is no “neo-Nazi Ukrainian militia” now. “Azov” is a regular military unit subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. It is neither an irregular unit nor a political group. Its commanders and fighters individually may have personal political views, but as an armed unit, Azov is part of the Ukrainian Defence Forces system.”

The myth about the anti-semitic view is linked to a wider Russian false narrative about neo-Nazis in Ukraine: “denazification” was even used by Russia in the attempts to justify its full-scale invasion in early 2022. The claim had seen no substantial evidence nor support from the countries worldwide.

Myth 5: Since 2014, fighters of the Azov brigade have been persecuting Russian-speaking civilians in the temporarily occupied territories

Timothy Snyder, the American historian and Yale University professor who specializes in the history of Eastern Europe, in particular Ukraine and Russia, noted: “The Ukrainian language endured several centuries of real oppression when the Russian Empire banned not only the publication of books in it, but also the use of Ukrainian both in school and in public life. In addition, Russian remained a privileged language in both the Russian Empire and the USSR. That is why many Ukrainians have become Russified over several generations.” 

Despite such historical background, Russia has been using the myth of “protecting the rights of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population” both during the military invasion in 2014 and the launch of the full-scale war in 2022. It is often paired with the Russian propaganda narrative that the western part of Ukraine has a feud with the eastern part. Russian and pro-Russian media did not miss a chance to speculate on the topic. 

However, this divide is largely artificial and exaggerated. Despite any linguistic or regional differences, Ukrainians from all parts of the country share patriotism and willingness to protect the country – and the Azov Brigade may be an example of just that.

Azov’s personnel come from all parts of Ukraine. Brigade commander Denys Prokopenko was born in Kyiv, chief of staff Bohdan Krotevych is a Crimean, and deputy brigade commander Sviatoslav Palamar is from Lviv. Many Azov residents were born in the eastern regions of Ukraine: Mariupol, Donetsk, and Kharkiv. However, such diversity does not prevent the Azov fighters from fighting for every meter of Ukrainian land.

For years, Russian propaganda has actively disseminated fake stories not only about the Azov Brigade but also about the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Ukrainians in general. 

Many narratives, like the need for “denazification” or “protection of the Russian-speaking population”, were built up for years. They did not help Russia to “justify” its full-scale invasion or conceal its war crimes in Ukraine — but many of them are still out there. Along with conventional weapons, Russia is actively using propaganda to achieve its goals. And that is enough reason to assess every statement and fact on the topic with caution and check official sources.