A British man who joined a controversial Ukrainian military unit says he is willing to spend the next year defending against Russia’s invasion – and he has not been deterred by the capture of other Britons.
Mark Ayres has spent the past two months in Ukraine after joining the Azov Regiment, which has far-right origins – insisting he has challenged some members over their beliefs, and those he has met are not “monsters and psychos”.
The 47-year-old British Army veteran, who has a teenage son in the UK, first spoke to Sky News when he arrived in Ukraine in early March, despite having no links to the country.
Since then, Mr Ayres says he has helped the Azov Regiment defend the city of Bucha, where Russia is accused of committing war crimes with mass killings and the torture, rape and murder of civilians.
He has now been told he must wait in Kyiv to sign a contract with the Ukrainian army before taking part in any further military action, after several Britons were captured by Vladimir Putin’s troops.
Mr Ayres – who previously travelled to Syria to join the battle against Islamic State – says he has “no problem” with spending the next 18 months in Ukraine “until the fighting stops”.
He told Sky News: “I hope I return home – not in a body bag – all intact.
“I’ve got no problem with a year or year-and-a-half (in Ukraine).
“If (Putin’s) operation had gone to plan, Moldova would have been next and then he would have been eyeing up some other countries and then maybe pushing at NATO, who knows.”
‘They’re not monsters and psychos’
Mr Ayres says he had reservations about joining the Azov Regiment, which originated as a far-right paramilitary unit and is now part of Ukraine’s National Guard.
The regiment’s background has been used by the Kremlin to justify its claim that Ukraine needed “de-Nazifying”.
However Ed Arnold, research fellow on European security at the defence think tank RUSI, told Sky News that the Azov military group had “made steps to move away from its far-right links”.
Who are the Azov Regiment?
The Azov Regiment (or Brigade) were formed as a volunteer fighter group in May 2014, soon after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
They fought Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine and helped recapture the southern port city of Mariupol after it was temporarily taken over by the Russians that year.
Taking their name from the Sea of Azov off the coast of Mariupol, they were originally made up of members of the ultra-nationalist group Patriot of Ukraine and the neo-Nazi Social National Assembly Group (SNA).
Both have links to neo-Nazism and white supremacism, but in 2015, a spokesperson for the group said that only between 10 and 20% of recruits were Nazis.
They denied adhering to Nazi ideology as a whole but still use symbolism such as the swastika and SS regalia.
After recapping Mariupol, in November 2014 the unit were praised by Ukraine’s then-president Petro Poroshenko and allowed to integrate into the Ukraine National Guard.
The group received government backing after officials realised the military was too small to fight off the separatists on their own.
Although they are largely based out of Mariupol and serve in the south and the east, they have been deployed elsewhere.
In January 2018 they rolled out their self-styled ‘street patrol’ unit to ‘restore order’ in Kyiv, which resulted in attacks on members of the LGBTQ and Roma communities.
A 2016 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the Azov Regiment of violating humanitarian law.
They were banned by Facebook under its ‘dangerous group’ policies until the Russian invasion in February this year.
Analysts have said that after years of working with the military, they have made efforts to disassociate from far-right ideologies.
Vladimir Putin, however, has used their Nazi links to justify the Russian invasion, branding it a ‘special operation to de-Nazify Ukraine’.
And in March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyywho is Jewish, awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine to an Azov commander.
Mr Ayres told Sky News: “By accident I joined the Azov unit. That would have been my last choice of a unit to go to but I’m pretty glad I did.
“They’re not the monsters and psychos that I would envisage neo-Nazis to be – I mean they’re not all like that.
“A lot of them are decent guys, just with stupid views.
“I say to my mate: ‘I don’t understand how you can say you’re a neo-Nazi when you’re af*****g decent bloke, with decent morals.’ And he’s like: ‘Well, I’m not really…’
“It’s just like they’re playing at it. They’re caught up in wanting to belong to something that catches them in. It’s so stupid.”
Mr Ayres said one member of his company was a “Jewish Ukrainian”.
“They’re probably some psychos in the battalion but I haven’t come across any yet,” he added.
‘I don’t think I’d be tortured pretty bad or killed’
Mr Ayres said he is aware there is “a possibility” he may be captured by Russian troops, but he believes being British means he is more likely to be kept alive because he would be “quite valuable”.
He added: “I’d probably get roughed up and questioned and stuff like that but I don’t think I’d be tortured pretty bad… or killed.”
Mr Ayres said he personally knows Aiden Aslin – one of two British fighters captured by Russian forces in Ukraine – as they both were in Syria at the same time.
Two UK aid workers have also been capturedwhile army veteran Scott Sibley was the first known British national to die in the Ukraine war.
Mr Ayres, who previously served with the Royal Green Jackets before being discharged after a robbery conviction, said joining the military action in Ukraine was “like being a soldier again”.
“I’ve been on two operations (in Ukraine),” he said.
“With Bucha, we were on the right flank across the river holding positions while our left flank attacked and pushed them out of Bucha.
“It’s very artillery heavy. Major battles.
“I haven’t really seen any fighting, it’s just been artillery. Just getting smashed by artillery.”
He added: “When you’re getting really shelled, you could die any second – it only takes for a shell to land on you.
“I wouldn’t say I was in fear. You’re aware of what can happen.”
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‘One geezer fired an anti-tank missile in his room’
Mr Ayres, who is from London but lives in Bedford, said he believed his unit no longer wanted to take Western volunteers with a lack of military experience.
“They don’t want people to come and then just do training and get equipped and then just f*** off,” he added.
“I think there was one geezer who fired an anti-tank missile in his room and f****d himself up.
“Just problems. They always cause problems.”
The Foreign Office has warned that Britons travelling to Ukraine to fight could be prosecuted on their return to the UK.
However Mr Ayres said those seeking prosecutions “wouldn’t have a leg to stand on” after the remarks of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss who backed Britons wanting to go to Ukraine to fight.
He said he had previously been arrested after returning from Syria on three occasions but faced no further action.
“I’m still just focused on what’s going on here but I don’t think they’ll be any repercussions,” Mr Ayres added.
Mr Ayres said he is now staying in an apartment block in Kyiv while his unit has moved to the east of Ukraine to face Russian troops.
“At the moment, it’s just like pre-war. Everybody’s coming back to Kyiv now. Everything’s running.
“Before it was like a ghost town.”
He added that he manages to speak to his 16-year-old son once every two or three weeks.
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Asked how his son feels about his father joining the military fight in Ukraine, he replied: “He doesn’t really say.
“I only get one word answers out of him… he’s at that age.”