Sergiy Grek, 22, lost a leg and died from massive blood loss after a radio-controlled anti-tank mine exploded near to him. As Ukraine’s armed forces tighten the noose around pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, the western-backed government in Kiev is throwing militia groups – some openly neo-Nazi - into the front of the battle. The Azov battalion has the most chilling reputation of all. Last week, it came to the fore as it mounted a bold attack on the rebel redoubt of Donetsk, striking deep into the suburbs of a city under siege.
In Marinka, on the western outskirts, the battalion was sent forward ahead of tanks and armoured vehicles of the Ukrainian army’s 51st Mechanised Brigade. A ferocious close-quarters fight ensued as they got caught in an ambush laid by well-trained separatists, who shot from 30 yards away. The Azov irregulars replied with a squall of fire, fending off the attack and seizing a rebel checkpoint.
Mr Grek, also known as “Balagan”, died in the battle and 14 others were wounded. Speaking after the ceremony Andriy Biletsky, the battalion’s commander, told the Telegraph the operation had been a “100% success”. “The battalion is a family and every death is painful to us but these were minimal losses,” he said. “Most important of all, we established a bridgehead for the attack on Donetsk. And when that comes we will be leading the way.”
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian and Ukrainian security affairs at New York University, fears battalions like Azov are becoming “magnets to attract violent fringe elements from across Ukraine and beyond”. “The danger is that this is part of the building up of a toxic legacy for when the war ends,” he said.
Extremist paramilitary groups who have built up “their own little Freikorps” and who are fundamentally opposed to finding consensus may demand a part in public life as victors in the conflict, Mr Galeotti added. “And what do you do when the war is over and you get veterans from Azov swaggering down your high street, and in your own lives?”