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US Lifts Arms Ban Against Ukraine’s Neo-Nazi-Linked Azov Unit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden hold a joint press conference at the White House, Dec. 21, 2022. (White House/Released)
June 11, 2024

The U.S. government has lifted a ban on supplying weapons to a Ukrainian unit called the 12th Special Brigade of National Guard “Azov” or “Azov Brigade,” which has been linked to neo-Nazi elements and allegations of human rights violations.

Congress passed legislation in 2015 and again in 2018 barring members of the Azov Brigade (which has also been referred to as a battalion and as a regiment) from receiving U.S. military aid. That policy blocking direct U.S. support for the Azov Brigade held for several years, but appeared to end on Tuesday.

The Azov Brigade shared social media posts on Tuesday, June 11, indicating they had worked with the U.S. and Ukrainian diplomats to ease the restrictions and ensure they can begin to receive new rounds of U.S.-donated weapons and other military equipment.

“U.S. Embassy officials have confirmed that ‘the 12th Operational Purpose Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine’ (the official name the 12th Special Forces Brigade Azov of the National Guard of Ukraine) has passed the vetting required by U.S. law and is eligible to receive security assistance from the United States,” the Azov Brigade said in an X post.

The Azov Brigade thanked Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, the Command of the National Guard of Ukraine, the Embassy of Ukraine in the United States of America, and others who helped clear the unit to receive U.S. military aid.

“Eligibility for US assistance will not only increase Azov’s combat effectiveness, but, most importantly, will help save the lives and health of the brigade’s personnel,” the Ukrainian unit said. “This is a new page in the history of our unit. Azov is becoming more professional and more effective in defending Ukraine against the invaders.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has documented allegations of Azov Brigade members looting civilian homes, and unlawfully detaining and torturing civilians in 2014 and 2015, as Ukrainian forces fought to stop eastern Ukrainian communities from succeeding from the country.

The Azov unit’s connections to neo-Nazism have also stirred controversy in recent years. Observers have noted the Azov Brigade has used variations of the “Wolfsangel” and “Black Sun”—two symbols associated with Nazi iconography—in various unit patches and emblems.

A January 2021 article by Time Magazine titled “How a White-Supremacist Militia Uses Facebook to Radicalize and Train New Members” describes the Azov Battalion’s alleged efforts to recruit fighters with neo-Nazi backgrounds. The article describes a Norwegian national named Joachim Furholm, who had been convicted of bank robbery in Norway in 2010 before working as a recruiter for Ukraine’s Azov movement. The article states Furholm “made no secret of his neo-Nazi politics” and had a “Swastika” tattoo on his left hand.

While Azov forces have fought with separatists in eastern Ukraine for years, the dynamics of the conflict shifted when Russian forces launched a full-scale military campaign in 2022 backing the separatists and asserting control over land within Ukraine’s borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly cast the 2022 invasion and ongoing Russian military campaign as one to “denazify” Ukraine.

In turn, some western supporters of the current Ukrainian government have downplayed the prevalence of neo-Nazi ideologies within the Ukrainian ranks and insisted that the Azov Brigade has moved beyond its past neo-nazi ties.

Russian Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the U.S. government as reports began to emerge on Tuesday that it had eased arms controls against the Azov Brigade. Russia’s TASS news agency reported Peskov told reporters the move shows the U.S. government is “ready even to flirt with neo-Nazis.”

“This, in turn, once again confirms the relevance of our concerns in connection with the tendency of the creeping spread of neo-Nazi ideas in the world,” Peskov added.

In an emailed statement, a U.S. State Department spokesperson confirmed the U.S. government had recently evaluated whether the Azov Brigade had engaged in any human rights violations, and concluded they had not. The spokesperson said the Azov Battalion of the past had disbanded in 2015 and a substantially different unit had formed in its place.

“It’s worth noting that Russian disinformation has actively worked to discredit Special Forces Azov Brigade. They have long tried to conflate Ukraine’s National Guard Unit of 12th Special Forces Brigade Azov with a militia formed to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion in 2014, called the ‘Azov Battalion,’” the State Department spokesperson said. “That militia disbanded in 2015 and the composition of Special Forces Brigade Azov is significantly different.”

While insisting the Azov Brigade is substantially different from its predecessor, the State Department spokesperson did not directly address questions about the presence of neo-Nazis within the current Azov unit. The current Azov Brigade still employs a variation of the Wolfsangel symbol on its emblem. The 2021 Time article also alleged members of the Azov unit continued to interact with neo-Nazi elements in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

FreeBase News contacted the U.S. State Department for comment but did not receive a response before this article’s publication. This article has since been updated with a statement from a State Department spokesperson confirming the Azov Brigade is eligible to receive U.S. arms shipments and providing additional comments about the Azov Brigade’s relation to past Ukrainian paramilitary units. 

This article was originally published by FreeBase News and is reprinted with permission.