The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is the hometown of the Azov Regiment, a special forces unit of the Ukrainian National Guard. The Azov soldiers are branded as “neo-Nazis” even though they have long since shed their far-right origins. Nevertheless, the Russian high command chose the city as an example for Vladimir Putin’s “denazification” campaign.

In recent months, the siege of Mariupol saw the most thorough destruction of a European city since the bombing of Dresden.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the fighting and most of the city’s nearly half a million residents have fled, while the remaining residents are trapped in basements and bunkers beneath ruins without access to medicines, water, electricity or basic medical services.

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Among them are the parents of several of my friends and acquaintances – coincidentally ethnic Jewish and Armenian citizens of Ukraine. One of them, Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius, was killed in Mariupol while filming the war.

The Ukrainian army put up notable resistance to the Russian invasion of the city, which, of course, was numerically and technologically superior. The defenders of Mariupol are said to have tied down at least twelve tactical groups of Russian battalions.

After the Russian siege of the city, many surviving Ukrainian militants retreated to the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, which provided shelter for between 1,000 and 2,000 besieged Ukrainian soldiers – a third of whom are said to have been wounded. These soldiers and soldiers belonged to the Ukrainian Navy, Border Guard, Army and Territorial Defense Battalions, Azov Regiment.

Tashkent-born Russian-American literary critic, editor, essayist, and journalist Vladislav Davidzon has covered post-Soviet Ukraine for over a decade. Davidzon is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, based in France. Davidzon has been working as European cultural correspondent for Tablet Magazine in Paris, France since 2012. While working for the magazine, he worked as an investigative journalist and researcher with assignments in Russia, Ukraine, England and Poland. In 2015, Davidzon founded the Odessa Review and was its editor-in-chief until July 2018.

While talks have been held in recent weeks about the liberation of those trapped in Azovstal, Russian artillery and cruise missiles continued to bombard the facility daily, apparently massacring many of the soldiers and civilians who were sheltering there.

The survivors vowed never to surrender and appealed to the Ukrainian government and the international community for help and rescue. (According to available reports, individual members of the Ukrainian armed forces who surrendered to the Russians were summarily executed). On May 11, the wives of Azov soldiers traveled to the Vatican to appeal to Pope Francis for humanitarian intervention.

A Jewish Ukrainian soldier in Azovstal, Vitaly Barabash, called on the Israeli government to intervene, and on May 12, Azov deputy commander Svyatoslav Palamar gave an interview to Haaretz newspaper in which he played up the Ukrainian-Israeli connection. (“As in Israel, there is also terror against us. We are not Nazis.”)

Palamar pleaded for more help from the Jewish state and the rest of the civilized world to rescue his beleaguered unit. “The Azovstal site is already being compared to Masada,” Haaretz shared with Palamar, “where Jewish fighters rebelling against the Roman Empire barricaded themselves and in the end were all killed.” Palamar seemed to agree with that analogy – what Of course, this is not normal behavior for a “neo-Nazi” group.

On Tuesday, after long negotiations involving foreign diplomats at the highest level, the civilians hidden in the metallurgical plant were evacuated and the wounded Ukrainian soldiers are being exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. Azovstal commander Denys Prokopenko stated that Ukrainian forces in Azovstal “fulfilled their orders and distracted the Russian army for 82 days”. This seems to be the end of the battle for Mariupol.

The Azov Battalion was originally one of many volunteer formations raised in 2014 to resist Russian proxies and the Russian regular army in eastern Ukraine. At that time, the hollowed-out Ukrainian state was unable to defend itself against Moscow. As countless critics with a limited understanding of Ukrainian politics never tire of pointing out, Azov founder Andriy Biletsky is indeed a figure who holds racist and anti-white views.

In the early days of Azov, there were all sorts of crazy characters, and Biletsky undoubtedly sought and nurtured relationships with neo-Nazi groups across Russia and Europe. As with many other private militias of the early post-Maidan period, the recently demobilized Azov men, who were often used as hit men to settle local conflicts, faced allegations of criminal activity.

During the summer and fall of 2014, Azov was notable for the ferocity with which it successfully fought the Russian-led separatists then attempting to occupy Mariupol. Paradoxically, at least for proponents of Kremlin propaganda claiming that Ukrainians are oppressing ethnic Russians, most Azov members are Russian-speaking and disproportionately hail from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions.

Even more ironic is the statement of my friend Anton Shekhovtsov, the eminent scholar on Russian and Ukrainian right-wing extremists: “On average, they speak better Russian than the Russian invaders. This fact alone invalidates the Kremlin’s blatant lies that Azov is allegedly fighting Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.”

When Azov helped liberate Mariupol from pro-Russian forces in June 2014, “Azov proved not only its fighting power but also its truly pro-Ukrainian position. Because of their proven combat skills, Azov began to attract more volunteers, and many of them had no political background at all.”

At the time there were certainly legitimate concerns about radicalism and warlordism, and the far-right elements within Azov were viewed with suspicion by the majority of the public as well as by senior figures in government.

When Azov was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard in the fall of 2014 and thus placed under the Ministry of Interior, then-President Petro Poroshenko rightly feared that disaffected or uncontrollable veterans from Azov and other volunteer groups could pose a threat to the state. Poroshenko arranged for members of the security services to be integrated into the battalion to keep tabs on the men identified as potentially independent-minded agitators.

Today, battalion members are recruited from the regular, nationwide military and National Guard recruit pool. Biletsky’s influence waned as soon as he left Azov in October 2014; his later attempts to create a parallel movement, the “National Corps,” were the result of his de jure exclusion from the military and his waning influence.

The coalition of right-wing political parties he brought together into a common platform in the 2019 election garnered no more than 2 percent of the vote, while Jewish presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky won with 73 percent. The original post-Maidan composition of the Azov battalion was quickly diluted, and the spirit of Biletsky was replaced by regular officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

As of 2017, the battalion as a whole continued to distinguish itself – albeit through its military prowess rather than any particular political ideology. Of course, at the time, the Ukrainian government was coming under increasing international pressure, including from the US Congress, for its “normalization” of Azov.

It is undeniable that Azov harbored all sorts of evil figures when it was founded, and like many combat troops (including the American one) it no doubt still contains some white supremacists, racists and chauvinists today. But it is no longer a practically or ideologically racist organization, any more than the post-1948 US Army can be described as segregated.

I myself have drunk with Scandinavian former volunteer members of Azov – they were pagans and Odinists and had rune tattoos to show it. A Swedish sniper who served in the battalion once told me that his experiences in the unit, which included serving alongside ethnic Greek, Turkish, Georgian and Azerbaijani soldiers, transformed him from a white supremacist into a conservative nationalist transformed – a step forward! A Donbas-born Jewish political adviser, with whom I regularly have drinks in Kyiv, remains a proud Azov reserve officer.

When I recently questioned another Azov officer about the battalion’s reputation for being racist, he denied that claim. “We are not racists,” he emphasized without irony. “We have right-wing patriots of every race serving with us! Any belief! Any skin color! Any religion!”

But even the unit’s “right” ideological legacy has diminished as circumstances have forced it to professionalize. While Azov began recruiting volunteers in 2014-15, drawn by their ideology or reputation as a combative force, they now rely on assignments from the Interior Ministry for recruitment, which closely monitors their promotions and officer commissions.

It is important to understand the actual development of Azov over the past eight years, because ignoring it plays into decades-old stereotypes that portray Ukrainians as inherently anti-Semitic and fascist collaborators. This does not excuse the canonization in some circles of Nazi collaborators or interwar Ukrainian ultra-nationalists like Roman Shukhevych or Stepan Bandera.

But it’s also unhelpful, fair or reasonable to blame these brave, patriotic fighters – who fought for months in Mariupol and have now been stuck in the Azovstal Metallurgical Works for weeks – for the legacy of some of their country’s 1940s ancestors.

Perhaps calling Mariupol the new Masada and therefore Azov the new Israelites is too much of an exaggeration and seems a little off the mark. But it’s certainly not too much to cheer the glory of every Ukrainian hero who continues to resist Russian imperialism and barbarism.

This article first appeared in Tablet Magazine under the title Defenders of Mariupol.