U.S. lifts ban on Azov Brigade in Ukraine using American weapons

June 11, 2024
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The United States has lifted its ban on the use of American weapons by a high-profile and controversial Ukrainian military unit, the latest reversal by Washington that could help its ally counter Russia’s battlefield advance.

The State Department said Tuesday that it had lifted a decade-long restriction on the transfer of weaponry, training and other assistance from Washington to the Azov Brigade. The battalion, whose neo-Nazi origins have long been the subject of Kremlin propaganda, is one of Kyiv’s most battle-hardened and popular units.

The brigade said in a statement on the Telegram messaging app early Tuesday that “employees of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine” had confirmed that the unit has “passed the inspection required by U.S. law and has the right to receive assistance from the United States of America in the field of security.”

“This was the result of long and painstaking work,” the statement said.

Russia quickly decried the move as “flirting” with neo-Nazism.

The State Department confirmed the lifting of the ban in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

The agency applied the Leahy vetting process to the brigade, the AP reported, and found “no evidence of Gross Violations of Human Rights (GVHR) committed by the 12th Brigade Azov,” according to the statement.

The Leahy Law prohibits the U.S. Government from using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights, according to the State Department.

It was not immediately clear when exactly the ban was lifted.

It’s the latest move by the U.S. that will be welcomed in Ukraine, after the Biden administration’s decision earlier this month to allow Kyiv to carry out limited strikes inside Russian territory using American weapons.

The move comes as Russia is pushing forward in the east, having claimed a village in the Donetsk region on Monday. Its offensive further north appears to have stalled after Kyiv reinforced its troops there, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that the eastern Donetsk region is “consistently the hardest part of the front” at the moment.

“Receiving Western weapons and training from the U.S. will not only increase the combat capability of Azov, but most importantly, will contribute to the preservation of the lives and health of the personnel of the brigade,” the unit’s statement said, adding that it was a “new page” in the brigade’s history.

The unit has become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance after the Russian invasion in Feb. 2022, with many of its fighters holding out to defend the Azovstal steel plant in the occupied city of Mariupol for months. Many of those fighters remain prisoners of war in Russia, but the steadfast defense of Mariupol propelled the brigade to a new level of fame and respect within Ukrainian society.

Azov was founded in 2014 as a volunteer battalion fighting Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east, an eight-year old conflict that culminated in the full-scale invasion of 2022. Its ranks were filled with members who held ultranationalist and far-right views, although its leaders have insisted Azov has since moved on from those associations.

Last year, the unit was absorbed into Ukraine’s National Guard as a special forces brigade and is part of the so-called Assault Guard, one of the most combat-ready units of the Ukrainian army.

NBC News has reached out to Ukraine’s National Guard for further comment.

In April, Azov commander Denys Prokopenko called for the lift of the current ban on the transfer of Western weapons to Azov.

“I emphasize that the very existence of such amendments and prohibitions not only prevents Azov from performing its combat missions more effectively, but is a blow to the defense capability of our country, tarnishes Ukraine’s image on the international level, and is humiliating for the entire Ukrainian army,” Prokopenko wrote in an op-ed at the time.

Russian propaganda often villainizes Azov fighters as the prime example of what it claims are the Ukrainian government’s Nazi leanings. Azov was declared a terrorist organization and its activity was banned in Russia in 2022.

“The lies about Azov, which the Kremlin regime has been spreading in the West for years, received a devastating blow today,” the brigade said in its statement Tuesday.

The reaction in Russia was swift.

“We are talking about ultranationalists, ultranationalist armed units,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday. “Such a sudden change in Washington’s position suggests that they will resort to anything in their attempts to suppress Russia, using the Ukrainian people as an instrument in their hands. They are even ready to flirt with neo-Nazis.”

Several prominent pro-Kremlin Russian officials also said the decision amounts to “sponsorship” and “encouragement” of Nazism.

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