Ukrainian supporters rally behind embattled far-right Azov regiment
In Ukraine, the Azov Regiment has largely enjoyed a solid reputation and been showered with praise for its years-long commitment to fight Russian incursions Sergei SUPINSKY AFP

Valentyna Ocheretna has waited in vain for weeks for a call from her son Sasha. In March, he was wounded in battle against Russian troops in the strategic city of Mariupol. Since then, there's been silence.

For eight years, Sasha has fought with Ukraine's Azov regiment -- a far-right volunteer battalion turned Ukrainian national guard unit renowned for the mettle of its fighters and links to extremists.

"He chose to defend his country. And no one can fault him for doing so," Ocheretna told AFP in the Ukrainian capital.

The regiment has long been fodder for Russian President Vladimir Putin during his lengthy rants against Kyiv and repeated vows to rid Ukraine of Nazis.

But in Ukraine, the Azov regiment has largely enjoyed a solid reputation and been showered with praise for its years-long commitment to fight Russian incursions into the country.

This week, demonstrators gathered in Kyiv to rally public support for Azov and their fellow defenders of Mariupol, as the Russians launched another withering assault on a sprawling steel plant where Ukrainian forces in the southern city are taking a final stand.

Many of the participants had family and friends in the Azov Regiment, with some brandishing its yellow and blue flag featuring the infamous "Wolfsangel" logo that draws a striking similarity to insignia used by German Nazi SS units in World War II.

But despite criticism mostly from abroad of the regiment, Azov's backers in Ukraine insist that their forces are fighting fascists, not supporting them.

"If they had radical beliefs, they would have been pushed out of the army. I don't see any far-right radicalism or extremism in them," said Taras Tokovyi, a 32-year-old entrepreneur in Kyiv.

"They are simply Ukrainian heroes," he added.

Mariupol resident Svitlana Mitroshchenko agreed, citing the vital support -- including food and supplies -- Azov fighters provided to civilians in the war-torn port city following the Russian invasion.

'Get out alive'

"If not for these Azov guys, this would probably have been another Bucha," said Mitroshchenko, 47, fighting back tears as she referred to the Kyiv suburb where Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow's forces of killing civilians.

"It's the Russians who should really be called Nazis," she added.

Azov rose to prominence when it took up arms to beat back pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas in 2014, when Ukraine was in disarray following Moscow's lightning capture and later annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Its founding members embraced a host of neo-Nazi symbols while maintaining links to a network of far-right movements before watering down its hard-line ideology and falling under the command of the Ukrainian military.

"The Azov Regiment is part of the national guard of Ukraine, it is not an independent paramilitary unit anymore. The connection with right-wing, radical politicians remains in history," said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Azov's defence of Mariupol -- where their fighters and Ukrainian military units remain outgunned and outnumbered by Russian forces -- has only crystalised their popularity, giving them a status reserved for the bravest of the brave.

"They have big hearts for standing up in such a difficult situation," said Khrystyna Shemchuk, 21.

"Only a person with a big heart can stay there and fight in such conditions -- probably staying there to die."

But for 51-year-old Svitlana Prypyshna whose son is an Azov soldier based in Mariupol, the survival of the regiment's remaining forces is what matters most.

"My heart is breaking apart. My soul is crying out. But I cannot do anything about it," said Prypyshna.

"Of course, I feel proud, but I hope they get out alive."