Russia’s top court has designated the Azov Regiment, a former volunteer battalion with far-right roots that was officially integrated into Ukraine’s army, a “terrorist” organisation.
The ruling by the Supreme Court on Tuesday allows for lengthy prison terms for the members of Azov, who are accused of harbouring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology.
According to Russia’s criminal code, members of “terrorist” groups can face up to 10 years in jail, while their leaders and organisers can be jailed for up to 20 years.
Azov has been one of the most prominent Ukrainian military formations fighting alongside the army against Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.
Previously based in the eastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, many of the regiment’s personnel were captured by Russian forces when the city fell in May after an almost three-month-long siege.
Officials in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, the Russian-backed entity which claims Mariupol as part of its territory, said in May that captured Azov Regiment fighters could face the death penalty under the self-proclaimed republic’s laws.
Azov was formally incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in 2014 as it helped fight Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin referenced the presence of such units within the Ukrainian military as one of the reasons for launching his so-called “special military operation … to de-militarise and denazify Ukraine” on February 24.
Ukraine and its allies say Putin’s claim is a blatant pretext for a war of aggression.
Azov has denied it adheres to Nazi ideology as a whole, but Nazi symbols such as the swastika and SS regalia are rife on the uniforms and bodies of its members.