US lifts weapons ban on Ukraine’s Azov Brigade

The Biden administration will allow a Ukrainian military unit with a verified history to use U.S. weapons, the State Department said Monday, after lifting a ban imposed years ago amid concerns in Washington about the group’s origins. .

The Azov Brigade, known for its tenacious but ultimately unsuccessful defense of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol at the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, is considered a particularly effective fighting force. But about a decade ago it was banned from using American weapons because U.S. officials determined that some of its founders espoused racist, xenophobic and ultranationalist views, and that human rights officials UN officials have accused the group of humanitarian violations.

Now the brigade, a former volunteer militia absorbed into the Ukrainian National Guard in 2015, will have access to the same U.S. military assistance as any other unit. The policy shift was revealed as kyiv enters the summer fighting season and faces a Russian army that has stepped up pressure on targets in eastern Ukraine and the country’s energy infrastructure.

“After a thorough examination, the 12th Azov Brigade of the Ukrainian Special Forces passed the Leahy examination conducted by the US Department of State,” the agency said in a statement, referring to the “Leahy law” which prevents credibly American military assistance to foreign units. convicted of significant human rights violations. It is named for former Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who authored the bill.

The State Department found “no evidence” of such violations, its statement said.

A State Department spokesperson declined to say when the ban was lifted and whether U.S. weapons had already reached Azov personnel. Neither the Azov leadership nor the Ukrainian government responded to requests for comment.

Overturning the ban was a top priority for Ukrainian officials, who say the brigade could have been more effective during its defense of Azovstal in 2022 if it had access to U.S. equipment. Members of the brigade were also not allowed to attend training organized by the US military.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long cited racist and ultranationalist elements in the Azov Battalion as part of his accusation that Ukrainian fighters and their leaders in kyiv are neo-Nazis. The change in US policy will likely reignite Russian criticism.

The brigade’s leadership claims that it has long since abandoned these associations and that its commanders have completely changed since that time.

In Ukraine, the brigade’s name has become synonymous with the country’s last stand in the besieged city of Mariupol. Ukraine eventually ordered the remaining troops at the steel plant to surrender to Russian forces in order to survive. At the beginning of May, more than 900 places remained available.

The plight of the remaining Azov prisoners captured the hearts and minds of Ukrainians and “Free Azov” became a common rallying cry during protests in kyiv.

Azov took advantage of its new brigade status last year and launched an intensive recruitment campaign across the country that brought in more than 5,000 new soldiers in about two months. The Azovstal survivors were among those who interviewed and trained the recruits, who were questioned about their motivations, backgrounds, and physical fitness before their selection.

Regardless of the State Department’s vetting process, U.S. appropriations laws have long prohibited the Azov Battalion from receiving U.S. funds. help. U.S. officials say that because the 2014 Azov Battalion is structurally distinct from the brigade that is now part of the National Guard, these restrictions do not apply.

O’Grady reported from Kyiv.

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