Af­ter two years of train­ing, Azov Reg­i­ment itches to re­turn to war

Kyiv Post - - National - BY WILL PONOMARENKO PONOMARENKO@KYIVPOST.COM

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 Rus­sian­led 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 far­right 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 re­con­nais- sance 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. 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.”

An Azov Reg­i­ment ar­tillery bat­tery fires off a salvo of shells dur­ing live-fire drills near the city of Urzuf on Aug. 3 (Volodymyr Petrov)

Azov Reg­i­ment gun­ners chat as they rest af­ter ar­tillery drills near the city of Urzuf on Aug. 3 (Volodymyr Petrov)

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