KYIV — The first weapon pulled from the brown sacks delivered in the back of a van was a shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade launcher. A machine gun followed. Then came other high-powered guns and explosives.
The weapons were displayed by burly men wearing military uniforms adorned with an array of Nazi symbols: the SS-favored Totenkopf, perhaps better known as death’s head; the sonnenrad, or black sun; the Wolfsangel; and many more. One patch with a masked skull read, “Born to kill for Ukraine.”
As more sacks streamed in, it became apparent that the men had brought a small arsenal. Where the arms came from is somewhat of a mystery. One man said he had taken several from the front line in eastern Ukraine after fighting there in 2014 and 2015; another said it was a “state secret.”
The weapons didn’t belong to any official military force but to members of Ukraine’s far-right Azov movement.
As the world waits to see whether President Vladimir Putin uses the more than 100,000 troops massed at Ukraine’s border to escalate his 8-year-long war against the country, Ukrainians are preparing to fight back. Among them are far-right paramilitary forces that also see this moment as a way to raise their profile, secure popular favor, and possibly gain political influence.
And as they prepare, far-right extremists across the West are watching closely to see whether they will be successful — in both battling Russian forces and cementing their movement in the mainstream.
The US State Department has called Azov a “nationalist hate group,” human rights organizations have accused it of abusing and torturing civilians, and Facebook banned it for violating its hate speech rules. Experts who monitor transnational extremism have warned that Azov has served as inspiration for far-right groups in the US and the EU, and BuzzFeed News has reported on American extremists who went to Ukraine to train with the movement and learn from it in hopes of replicating it back home.
But many Ukrainians view the group’s members favorably, for their role in fighting Russia’s army and separatist proxy forces in 2014 and playing a key role in keeping the strategic eastern port city of Mariupol from falling into Moscow’s hands.
The far right are not just attracted to Ukraine. Russian far-right paramilitary forces with neo-Nazi members have also fought in the war. And there are some clues that perhaps they are looking to also return to the battlefield.
The Azov movement, born from the war as a volunteer battalion eight years ago, is composed of a paramilitary wing, a political branch, and youth and cultural groups. The battalion is now an official regiment in Ukraine’s National Guard. Taken together, Azov has thousands of members, including hundreds of heavily armed and battle-hardened fighters who enjoy a cozy relationship with Ukraine’s security structures.
On Sunday, BuzzFeed News got an up-close look at just how cozy, when dozens of them brought weapons to a military training session for Ukrainians who want to be ready to fight Russian troops if they enter the capital. Azov’s various factions promoted the event on Telegram with the catchphrase, “Don’t panic! Prepare yourself!” Some 350 participants turned out for it at the movement’s sprawling training base on the grounds of a defunct state tractor factory outside central Kyiv.
“Will there be a full-scale Russian invasion? Nobody knows. But what I know for sure is that we need to prepare for any development,” Maksym Zhorin, a 32-year-old former Azov Battalion commander who now serves as a leader of its political wing, the National Corps, told a group of trainees standing in formation. “Panic comes when people do not know how to react, how to use a weapon, how to defend themselves, what to do in case of shooting.”
But in this precarious moment, Azov also sees an opportunity to polish its image in Ukraine and abroad, grow its ranks, and earn some political and social capital.
“I believe our role is highly important because it’s an example of a grassroots Ukrainian movement that’s proven itself to be a sufficient defense force,” Olena Semenyaka, a public relations official for Azov, told BuzzFeed News at the training event. “I think [Azov] can also play a bigger role [in Ukraine] in the future.”
That prospect concerns experts who have tracked Azov and other militarized far-right groups in Ukraine that use their status as war “heroes” to attack minority groups with impunity and their street muscle to try to influence Ukrainian domestic policy.
“I worry that a new war with Russia could not only help the Azov movement, but basically be the wind in its sails that it needs to grow its ranks and influence,” Michael Colborne, author of From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right and a journalist who covers extremism for Bellingcat, told BuzzFeed News. “A new war or some new intervention by Russia could very well provide them the opportunity to further solidify their presence in Ukrainian politics and society, a further opportunity to brand and frame themselves as the truest defenders of the nation and thus further swat away accusations that come from people like me about their far-right nature.”
Azov is at home at war.
In 2014, Ukraine’s under-equipped and unprepared military faltered as a much larger and more sophisticated Russian army seized Crimea and fomented a faux separatist war in the eastern Donbas region. Many Ukrainians believe Russian forces would have taken more territory if it weren’t for dozens of volunteer battalions like Azov and Right Sector, another far-right volunteer unit, who leaped into the fray and filled the void left by Ukraine’s military.
The groups quickly became some of Russia’s favorite targets, and the country used them to justify attacks against Ukraine as fighting against “fascists” who had seized control in Kyiv after the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in February 2014.
The truth is that Azov and Right Sector fighters never came to power in Kyiv, although several members did serve stints in parliament and the Interior Ministry, and some currently serve as military advisers. And Ukraine’s government was then and is still today a democratic one, if flawed.
But Azov’s neo-Nazi links are clear. In 2010, the battalion’s founder, Andriy Biletsky, said that Ukraine should “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].” (He couldn’t be reached for comment.) And members of Azov boast tattoos of swastikas and other Nazi symbols, and they have been seen making the Hitler salute.
That reputation is what attracts many Ukrainians, like Danylo Hrabovskiy, a 21-year-old who’s studying to be a military intelligence officer at the Ivan Chernyakhovsky National Defense University of Ukraine in Kyiv. BuzzFeed News shadowed him as he trudged through shin-deep snow on Sunday. Hrabovskiy’s father, Yaroslav, a retired Ukrainian military intelligence officer, was there too. He said he wanted his son to get practical training in battlefield medicine and handling a weapon.
Hrabovskiy, who wore fatigues adorned with the patch of his university, said he felt like he was among “family” with the Azov group. “It’s like when you come to church and you feel something in your heart,” he explained.
He said he aligned with Azov ideologically and hopes the group will rise to power from the ashes of a war with Russia to form a “nationalist-socialist” government. And if he could help in his role as a military intelligence officer when he graduates in four months, he said, all the better.
Someone saying they are in favor of “national socialism,” Colborne said, “whether in English or in Russian or Ukrainian, is an unambiguous reference to Nazism and Nazi-inspired ideologies.”
Asked explicitly if what he meant was Nazism, Hrabovskiy said with a serious stare that he wanted to convey “something that in your country you can’t say.”
“If the far-right forces can unite, then we will go to parliament and make laws that reflect our ideas and goals,” he added.
Not everyone at the Azov training was ideologically aligned with the group. Sofia and Solomiya, twin 30-year-old military paramedics from the western city of Lviv, said they chose to come to the Azov event as opposed to other similar ones in Kyiv because of the group’s reputation for being “strong” and “skilled,” Sofia said.
Solomiya said the pair had never fired a weapon, but with the threat of renewed large-scale war with Russia looming, they felt it was time to learn how to do so.
Inside an abandoned building spray-painted with nationalist slogans, the pair were given wooden cutouts of Kalashnikov rifles and instructed how to hold them. The twins’ instructor was a bearded Azov Battalion veteran with a collection of far-right nationalist patches on his uniform. A black death’s head was visible on his bulletproof vest beside a “Valhalla ticket” that included the numbers 88 and 14 — numerical codes for “Heil Hitler” and the 14 words, a popular white supremacist slogan.
The instructor showed the twins how to hold their wooden weapon with their left hand firmly grasping the lower guard and their right comfortably wrapped around the grip with their trigger finger straightened at the side.
As the women stood in a firing position, he pushed on the barrels of their rifles, testing to see whether they were in a strong stance and couldn’t be knocked over.
“Move your left leg back a bit,” the instructor said. “And bring up the rifle more.”
Nearby, dozens of others trained to clear rooms of “terrorists.” An instructor taught a young man with a shaved head and a Nazi symbol on his sleeve how to effectively swing his rifle around to check his six o’clock.
Azov is training the Ukrainian population because, Zhorin said, President Volodymyr Zelensky, who also serves as the country’s supreme commander in chief, hasn’t done enough to militarize society and prepare it for war and has downplayed the threat.
Zhorin didn’t explicitly say that he hoped Azov’s presence would translate to future political success. “The first things we have to do is prepare for this [war], prepare the local population, prepare the army, prepare the economy,” he said. “Politics are in the background.”
But in doing so, Zhorin said, Azov would help to ensure Ukraine’s survival “so there will be elections.”
Azov closed Sunday’s event by saying more training events would follow. And then they lit red torches.
“Glory to the nation!” they chanted. “Death to enemies!”