Russia’s high court declared the Ukrainian Azov Regiment a terrorist group, Reuters reports, allowing captured soldiers to be tried under strict antiterrorism laws and imprisoned for up to 20 years.
The judgement was handed down on August 2nd.
The regiment was stationed in the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea and famously defended the city through three-months of siege until the city fell to the Russians in May; it was ordered to surrender by Ukraine’s high command. Many of the personnel from the unit were taken prisoner by Russia and their fate has been in question ever since.
The Azov Regiment is one of the most storied in the Ukrainian military. It started as a paramilitary group in 2014, one of many fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region. It recaptured Mariupol from separatists in 2014 and was incorporated into the national guard as a special operations detail.
Critics consider it an ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi group, but the Ukrainian government has said that the unit has reformed away from its ideological origins and no longer maintains any political ties. Though the unit has been declared national heroes by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelesky—who is Jewish—many are still sceptical. The United States’ Congress came close to declaring the Azov Regiment a terrorist group in 2019. Russian has often cited the group as an example neo-Nazi influence in Ukraine to justify its invasion of the country.
In a statement on August 2nd, the Azov Regiment accused Russia of using the judicial declaration to justify war crimes, and called on Washington to designate Russia a terrorist state.
“After the public execution of prisoners of war from the Azov regiment in Olenivka, Russia is looking for new excuses and explanations for its war crimes,” the unit said , referring to an explosion last week at a site holding Ukrainian prisoners of war and that killed over 50 people.
An estimated 1,000 Azov soldiers are being held by Russian and separatists forces in eastern Ukraine, DW reports, and are facing criminal trials since Russia accuses them of killing civilians.