US lifts ban on sending weapons to Ukraine’s Azov Brigade

For 10 years, Washington had prohibited its war materiel from being sent to this unit, as it considered it an extreme right movement

Azov Brigade recruitment advertising poster on March 26 in Kyiv.
Azov Brigade recruitment advertising poster on March 26 in Kyiv.Cristian Segura
Cristian Segura

Azov is the best-known name of the Ukrainian extreme right that emerged in 2014, following the Maidan Revolution. It is a political and military movement founded by extremist and ultranationalist elements that contributed to the overthrow of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. They quickly formed a paramilitary battalion to combat the pro-Russian separatist uprising in Donbas. Since the war in Donbas, the United States had prohibited the weapons it sent to Ukraine from ending up in the hands of Azov. This has been the case until Tuesday, when the White House State Department announced that the Azov Brigade will finally be able to receive U.S. war equipment.

Today, the Azov brigade is an assault force that forms part of the National Guard of Ukraine and the Interior Ministry. It is one of the best prepared regiments that Ukraine has for its defense against the Russian invasion. For years, it has been accused by international organizations of violating fundamental rights. The U.S. State Department, as reported by The Washington Post, believes that Azov now complies with the Leahy Law. This rule, which came into force in 1961, stipulates that the government cannot provide foreign aid to organizations that commit crimes against humanity.

The U.S. decision follows two months of pressure from Ukraine to lift the ban. The agreement between Democrats and Republicans last April in Congress to unlock more than $50 billion in military assistance for Ukraine included an amendment against Azov. The commander of the brigade, Denys Prokopenko, released a statement condemning the move, arguing that the decision “was primarily based on the characterization of Azov by Western media, which apparently formed their attitude towards the unit under the influence of Moscow propaganda.” The Kremlin frequently points to Azov to claim that Ukraine is being governed by neo-Nazis. No far-right force has representation in Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada.

“There is no evidence or confirmation of the accusations that Russian propaganda has been spreading about Azov for 10 years,” Prokopenko wrote, “if there were, delegations of Azov fighters would not have been received in the United States, in European countries, and in Israel.”

According to leading analysts such as Ivan Gomza, head of the Department of Political Studies at the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), Ukraine wants the international community to accept that Azov has become a “patriotic” organization, far from its ultranationalist origins. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has paid tribute to the brigade’s fighters on several occasions despite the fact that the Azov movement was — until the Russian invasion — one of his fiercest opponents as they considered the president to be too friendly with Russia.

In an essay published in April 2022 — three months after the start of the invasion — Gomza stressed that Nazi symbology and other distinctive neo-fascist elements in Azov have lost their original meaning and essentially serve to maintain community spirit. “Another important issue that academia must sincerely discuss is the weaponization of academic research by states with malicious intentions for informational war purposes,” Gomza argued. “The scholarly community should be aware that disproportionate attention to phenomena of their narrow professional interest might be greatly abused and purposefully misrepresented in the age of social media warfare.”

The KSE professor stated that only 15% of Azov members consider themselves to be neo-Nazis. In the more than two years of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the EL PAÍS war correspondent has spoken with combatants from this brigade, and they all argued that they are not neo-Nazis, but rather nationalists. When asked about their political position, their ideas about social and identity rights, the fighters expressed radical nationalism and conservatism.

Numerous studies from outside Ukraine define Azov as an extreme right group, including the 2022 book From the Fires of War by Michael Colborne, a renowned Canadian researcher of far-right movements in the former Soviet Union. “The Azov Regiment is probably the only official military unit in the world that was born from a core of far-right extremists and continues to be connected to a broader far-right social movement,” he said in the book. “A military unit like the Azov Regiment has no place in a democratic country’s armed forces and should be disbanded.”

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