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What fate awaits captured Azov fighters in Russia?

Sergey Satanovskiy
August 4, 2022

Russia has branded Ukraine's Azov Regiment a terrorist organization. Which consequences will this have for captured fighters?

Azov fighters at a funeral for one of their fallen
Russia will now treat any captured Azov fighter as a terrorist Image: Andrew Kravchenko/AP Photo/picture alliance

Russia's top court has designated Ukraine's Azov Regiment a terrorist organization. It has now been added to a long list of terrorist groups compiled by Russian domestic intelligence agency FSB, alongside al-Qaida, the Taliban and others.

The Azov Regiment originally grew out of a controversial right-wing extremist volunteer battalion. These days, Azov has been absorbed into Ukraine's national guard, which answers to the interior ministry. Russia has sought to legitimize its invasion of Ukraine claiming it needs to fight Azov.

Asovstal iron and steel works seen in early May
Scores of Asov fighters had held out in the beseiged Asovstal iron and steel worksImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

Ukraine's Azov Regiment used to be headquartered in Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. The city was captured and remains under Russian control since May. Ukraine says over 2,500 Azov fighters, who remained in the city defending its steel plant, are now in Russian captivity. Russia says 2,439 Azov members had surrendered to its forces. Recently, 50 Azov fighters held in a prison in Olenivka, Russian-held Donbas, were killed after an attack. The exact circumstances of their deaths remains disputed, with Russia and Ukraine blaming each other. 

Dubious testimonies

Russian decision-makers and media outlets have long since labelled Azov a Nazi group. They claim Azov fighters boobytrapped homes, committed atrocities and use civilians as human shields. Vyacheslav Volodin, currently serving as chairman of the State Duma, alleges Azov committed war crimes.

It took Russia's top court a mere three hours to deliberate over and approve the request by Russia's public prosecutor to designate Azov a terrorist organization. The meeting was held behind closed doors.

Asov officers pay tribute to a fallen comrade
Asov officers pay tribute to a fallen comradeImage: Andrew Kravchenko/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Despite this secrecy, pro-Kremlin media claim to know who gave testimony in this case. Georgiy Volkov, who heads the public monitoring commission, which looks into human rights issues and prisons, supposedly quoted a captured Azov fighter who said the regiment had practiced cannibalism. In addition, journalist Marina Akhmedova supposedly told the court she had conducted research in Mariupol and Volnovakha, Donetsk Oblast, and learned from witnesses that Azov fighters had tortured and executed civilians. Media reports quote her as having said this torture was born out of deep-rooted hatred.

Tough sentences on the horizon

Russia's criminal code stipulates life-long jail terms and fines of up to €16,000 ($16,300) for founders and leaders of terrorist organizations. Ordinary members of terrorist organization may face between ten and twenty years behind bars, and fines of up to €8,000. Azov sympathizers, meanwhile, may be prosecuted for remarks "justifying terrorism." For this, the Russian penal code stipulates jail terms of between two to five years, and fines of up to 8,000€.

The Moscow-based Center for Information and Analysis, which researches nationalism and racism in post-Soviet Russia, is urging people to carefully check their online behavior and ensure they do not follow any groups somehow linked to "terrorist" or "extremist" organizations.

Olenivka prison after it was attacked — Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the deadly strike
Olenivka prison after it was attacked — Russia and Ukraine blame each other for the deadly strikeImage: Vadim Belozertsev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Symbols associated with the Azov Regiment were classified as terrorist insignia as far back as 2015. Displaying them can lead to 15-day jail terms.

Reactions from Ukraine

"It sounds somewhat strange: a country that is close to being classified as a state sponsor of terrorism, which violates all rules and conventions of war, is now designating this [Ukrainian] organization as terrorist," says Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. This decision, he adds, has no bearing on the real world and will not impact negotiations over prisoner swaps. "This move is nothing but internal propaganda."

Yegor Chernev, a member of Ukraine's governing Servant of the People party, tells DW he thinks Russia's move aims to remove Geneva Convention protection for Azov fighters. Volodymyr Aryev, an MP with the opposition European Solidarity party, agrees. He says Kyiv urged the world to designate Russia an aggressor as early as 2015.

In response to Russia's move, the Ukrainian military declared: "After the public execution of Azov Regiment POWs in Olenivka, Russia is seeking out new ways to justify its war crimes."

The Azov Regiment itself has called on the US and other countries to declare Russia a "terrorist state." In a statement, the group said "Russia's army and intelligence services commit war crimes ever day; tolerating or remaining silent on this equals complicity."

The head of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, Oleksandra Matviichuk, who was involved in talks to arrange previous prisoner swaps, tells DW the "Azov Regiment belongs to the national guard — branding it a terrorist organization would be like designating all of Ukraine's armed forces a terrorist organization, when in fact, they are protecting our country against invading terrorists."

This article was translated from German.