The strategically located city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine has been a key point of hostilities since the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine on February 24, with the entry of Russian forces into the centre on March 24 marking a major victory for Moscow – albeit one that had been expected to occur significantly earlier. Russian ground based air defences on March 28 reportedly shot down a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter en route to the city, where a small number of units from the Azov Battalion militia continue to operate, in order to evacuate leaders from the battalion. The aircraft was destroyed five kilometres from the shore.
The Russian Defence Ministry reported regarding the shootdown that the helicopter: “was heading towards Mariupol for emergency evacuation of the Azov battalion’s leaders,” adding that two Ukrainian Su-24 strike fighters and one Su-25 attack jet had been shot down that day by Russian forces alongside an unknown drone. From the war’s opening hours Russian official sources reported that the Azov Battalion, an organisation with deep Neo-Nazi roots and a strongly Western supremacist and anti-Russian ideology, have been among radical groups outside Ukrainian regular forces which have put up the strongest resistance to Russian military operations. The militias were incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard and received greater access to funding and support following the overthrow of the government in Kiev in 2014 and the coming to power of a pro-Western administration.