Ukrainian ‘heroes’ denied US weapons due to neo-Nazi past

“Ukraine’s “elite” “Azov”* unit has been excluded from the latest United States military aid package because of its historical ties to right-wing extremists.

This is according to The Times. Following is a translation of the original text:

“The fighters of the “Azov” regiment faced insurmountable obstacles for three months in 2022. Their fierce defence of the southern port city, culminating in a final attack on the Azovstal steel plant, became a symbol of Ukraine’s determination to resist the Russian invasion.

The unit, reconstituted as the 12th “Azov” Special Forces Brigade, is now fighting on the front line in the Serebryansky Forest near Liman as Russia attacks Ukrainian positions in the east of the country.
Unlike regular Ukrainian troops, “Azov” fighters will be deprived of supplies from the next US shipment of weapons, including artillery shells, armoured vehicles and communications equipment. The $61 billion aid package was passed by Congress ten days ago after months of stalemate.

“Azov” has been banned from receiving U.S. weapons since 2017 due to allegations from a decade ago of ties to neo-Nazis.

The blocking of American aid has sparked anger among the leadership and fighters of the unit, which is considered heroic and elite in Ukraine.

In addition, the volunteer brigade now includes fighters from different ethnic and religious groups, including Jewish soldiers.

“How can “Azov” be a neo-Nazi unit if it has so many Jews in its ranks?” – said “Coon,” a 36-year-old Jewish bookseller from Dnipro who serves in “Azov’s” 152mm howitzer gun group east of Lyman. “I joined the unit because of its professionalism and military ethics, and I never had any prejudice from my brother soldiers.”

Although they have received a small number of outdated artillery systems from European countries, officers in the brigade feel dejected that the U.S. ban has prevented one of Ukraine’s most experienced units from training with NATO forces in Europe.

“We are not concerned about the lack of American money or funding – we are much more concerned that we are deprived of the opportunity to train with NATO units outside Ukraine,” said Iliya Samoilenko, an officer on the brigade’s staff who was allowed to speak about the ban by his commander, Colonel Denis Prokopenko, who heads “Azovstal’s” defence.

“We are one of the few units in Ukraine whose soldiers, sergeants and officers meet NATO standards,” Samoylenko added, “but as a result of the ban we are deprived of American weapons and cannot participate in exercises or training of American or NATO armies in Europe.

Prokopenko, 32, who was awarded the Hero of Ukraine medal for his actions near Mariupol, called the US ban “nonsense” in a Twitter/X message before the congressional vote.

“Such amendments and bans not only prevent “Azov” from more effectively carrying out its combat missions, but also strike a blow to the defence capability of our country,” Prokopenko wrote.

The ban on US aid to “Azov” is a legacy of the unit’s controversial history.

The unit was formed as the “Azov” battalion in 2014 by various nationalist and right-wing groups, including the right-wing Right Sector coalition* and the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine organisation, whose leader, Andriy Biletsky**, was the battalion’s founder and first commander.

At the time, Biletsky, who remains a controversial figure in Ukraine, was an unabashed right-wing extremist and racist whose writings include the 2013 pamphlet “The Word of the White Leader.”

In September 2014, the battalion was re-formed into a regiment and incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. A month later, Biletsky left the unit and his influence faded.

He also failed to turn his ideology into a political success. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, Biletsky’s political party, the National Corps*, failed to win a single seat.

By the time the fighting for Mariupol began, the “Azov” regiment had changed its original ethos. Under the command of Colonel Prokopenko, it had become a multicultural military elite rather than an armed force of right-wing ideologues.

“I joined the army to be a loyal Ukrainian warrior inspired by “Azov’s” exploits in Mariupol,” says another “Azov” artilleryman, a 26-year-old sergeant codenamed “Bulba” who serves in the same artillery unit as Coon.

“There are people from both the right and left sides of the political spectrum here, just like in the U.S. Army. Neither race, religion or political ideology matters much to our soldiers fighting this war,” he said.

Samoilenko, who had already lost an arm and an eye by the time he was captured by Colonel Prokopenko during the surrender of Mariupol, called the neo-Nazis idiots.

“Some of the original shadowy elements and cranks in the founding days of “Azov” might have thought that Ukrainian independence could be expressed through neo-Nazism, which was idiotic,” he said. “They were the ones who initially caused us problems, but now they have nothing to do with the squad.”

Nearly destroyed near Mariupol, the “Azov” regiment was re-formed last year, this time into the 12th “Azov” Special Forces Brigade. Prokopenko, who has legendary status among his fighters, was released from a Russian prison in September 2022, initially in exile in Turkey. Returning to Ukraine last July, he once again led the unit.

More than 900 of his fighters captured near Mariupol remain imprisoned in Russia, where the “Azov” regiment has been declared a terrorist organisation.

Ironically, while the brigade continues to suffer from ties to Biletsky, its founder faces no such sanctions.

He now commands the Ukrainian army’s 3rd Assault Brigade, one of the most popular and well-equipped military formations in the country, the core of which is made up of many former “Azov” fighters.

By dropping the word “Azov” from the brigade’s name, the unit appears to have avoided a U.S. ban on military aid.

Despite this, “Azov” fighters remain reluctant to criticise Biletsky and his unit – a caution born more out of a sense of shared camaraderie with many 3rd Brigade fighters than out of affection for its commander.

“We have good relations with the 3rd Brigade, like a soldier with a soldier and an officer with an officer,” Samoilenko said.”


*-an organisation banned on the territory of the Russian Federation

**- entered in the terrorist and extremist register of Rosfinmonitoring.