The US lifts the ban on sending weapons to a controversial Ukrainian military unit

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Soldiers of the National Guard’s 12th Special Forces Brigade Azov pose for a photo near the 155mm self-propelled gun M109 Paladin on the front line, near Kreminna, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on January 28, 2024. | Photo credit: AP

The US has lifted a ban on supplying American weapons and training to a controversial Ukrainian military unit that was crucial to the defense of the major port city of Mariupol, the State Department said on Tuesday.

The Azov Brigade is among Ukraine’s most effective and popular fighting units, but is haunted by its origins as a volunteer battalion that drew fighters from far-right circles and drew criticism for some of its tactics. The US had banned the regiment from using American weapons, citing the neo-Nazi ideology of some of its founders.

Current members of the Azov Brigade, which is incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard as the 12th Special Forces Brigade, reject accusations of extremism and any connection with far-right movements. But the Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s origins in its efforts to portray the invasion of Russia as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took an “extremely negative” position on Washington’s decision. He described Azov as an “ultranationalist armed formation” and accused US authorities of being “willing to flirt with neo-Nazis.”

U.S. law prohibits providing equipment and training to foreign military units or individuals suspected of committing gross human rights violations. The State Department said in a statement that it had found “no evidence” of such violations.

“This is a new page in the history of our unit,” the Azov Brigade wrote in a statement on Instagram. “Azov becomes even more powerful, even more professional and even more dangerous for the occupiers.”

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“Obtaining Western weapons and training from the United States will not only enhance Azov’s combat capability, but most importantly contribute to preserving the lives and health of personnel,” the statement said.

Until the State Department’s decision, Azov was prohibited from sending fighters to Western military exercises or accessing weapons purchased with U.S. money. Lifting the ban is likely to strengthen the brigade’s combat capabilities at a difficult time during the war against the Russian invasion. Ukraine is struggling with persistent ammunition and personnel shortages.

Years before Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about Azov, writing that credible allegations of egregious abuses had been made against his fighters.

Moscow has repeatedly portrayed the Azov as a Nazi group and accused it of atrocities, but has publicly provided little evidence. In 2022, Russia’s Supreme Court officially designated Azov as a terrorist group.

The brigade emerged from a group called the Azov Battalion, founded in 2014 as one of several volunteer regiments created to fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Since 2022, the brigade has attempted to recast its public image from the controversy surrounding its ultranationalist origins to that of an effective and capable fighting force.

Azov soldiers played a key role in the defense of Mariupol. They held out under siege and ran low on ammunition for weeks in the southern port city’s steel mill, despite devastating attacks from Russian forces.

In Ukraine they are hailed as heroes, remembered for defending the sprawling factory that became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity in the war against Russia, and people take to the streets for weekly rallies calling for the release of hundreds of Azov prisoners of war who are still in Russia. captivity.

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