US lifts weapons ban on Ukraine’s Azov Brigade

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The current members of the Azov Brigade, which has been absorbed into Ukraine’s National Guard as the 12th Special Forces Brigade, reject accusations of extremism and any ties with far-right movements….reports Asian Lite News

The US has lifted a ban on providing American weapons and training to a controversial Ukrainian military unit that was key 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 it has been dogged by its origins as a volunteer battalion that drew fighters from far-right circles and criticism for some of its tactics. The U.S. had banned the regiment from using American weapons, citing the neo-Nazi ideology of some of its founders.

The current members of the Azov Brigade, which has been absorbed into Ukraine’s National Guard as the 12th Special Forces Brigade, reject accusations of extremism and any ties with far-right movements. But the Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s origins in its efforts to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.

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

US 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 found “no evidence” of such violations.

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

“Obtaining Western weapons and training from the United States will not only increase the combat ability of Azov, but most importantly, contribute to the preservation of the lives and the health of personnel,” the statement said.

Up until the State Department’s decision, Azov was prohibited from sending fighters to Western military exercises or accessing weapons bought with American funds. Lifting the ban will likely bolster the brigade’s fighting capacity at a difficult time during the war against Russia’s invasion. Ukraine suffers from persistent ammunition and personnel shortages.

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

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

The brigade grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of many volunteer regiments created to fight Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. It quickly became a separate official unit under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and later a unit of the National Guard.

Since its first commander left in October 2014, the brigade says on its website, it has been “cleansing itself” of undesirable elements. It wasn’t possible to ascertain whether the brigade has accomplished that. It has, however, tried to recast its public image away from the controversy surrounding its ultranationalist origins to that of an effective and skillful fighting force, and has shunned connections with controversial figures.

Azov soldiers played a key part in the defense of Mariupol, holding out in a siege and low on ammunition for weeks at the southern port city’s steel mill, despite devastating attacks from Russian forces in 2022.

They are hailed as heroes in Ukraine, remembered for defense of the sprawling plant 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 POWs who remain in Russian captivity.

Biden gives nod to send Ukraine another Patriot missile system

President Joe Biden has approved the deployment of another Patriot missile system to Ukraine amid raging conflict with Russia, the New York Times reported citing senior administration and military officials.

Biden’s decision came last week, the officials said, after a series of high-level meetings and an internal debate over how to meet Ukraine’s pressing needs for bolstered air defences without jeopardizing US combat readiness. This comes as Kyiv is struggling to fend off Russian attacks on its cities, infrastructure and electrical grid.

The new Patriot system — the second that the United States has sent to Ukraine — will come from Poland, where it has been protecting a rotational force of American troops who will be returning to the US, officials said.

According to the officials, the system could be deployed to Ukraine’s front lines in the next several days, depending on any maintenance or modifications it needs.

Considered one of the United States’ best air defence weapons, the Patriot includes a powerful radar system and mobile launchers that fire missiles at incoming projectiles, as reported by the NYT.

It is also one of the scarcest weapons systems in the US arsenal. Pentagon officials refuse to disclose how many it has, but one senior military official said that the Army has deployed only 14 of them, in the US and around the world.

Notably, Patriots are also held by American allies and two of those nations have sent a couple to Ukraine, but US officials say they hope European powers will send more.

Pentagon officials did not want to move any batteries from the US. There is a Patriot battery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for training American and Ukrainian troops, but moving it would take away training, the New York Times reported citing officials. Other batteries protecting bases and troops in the US, including in Hawaii, were either deemed too far away or necessary for homeland defence.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior Pentagon leaders have appealed to European allies to transfer their systems to Ukraine.

Two other nations have responded to Ukraine’s plea for more Patriots. Germany has so far deployed one Patriot system, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said a second would be deployed by the end of June. The Netherlands has also deployed a Dutch-American battery in Ukraine, and negotiations are underway to send a second.

The Biden administration officials hope the deployment of another US Patriot system will nudge allies to do the same.

During US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Kyiv last month, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine urgently needed “seven batteries, of which two batteries are necessary, and they were necessary so that we could protect the city of Kharkiv and the entire region of Kharkiv.”

Beyond Kharkiv, Ukraine must take urgent steps to protect Odesa in the south, military analysts said, as well as the country’s electrical grid.

In recent months, a barrage of Russian missile and drone strikes on Ukraine’s power plants and substations has severely hobbled energy infrastructure, forcing Ukrainian authorities to order nationwide rolling blackouts. This has raised concerns about what will happen when the cold weather arrives and the use of heating devices increases the load on the energy system, the New York Times reported.

The US officials said there was little high-level debate over whether to supply Ukraine with another Patriot. But officials said that Austin and General Charles Q Brown Junior, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, debated which of the US Patriots to send.

The two men assessed that the Pentagon could move a Patriot battery in Poland, which had the benefit of being next door to Ukraine.

The issue is again expected to come up this week when Austin and General Brown travel to Belgium for NATO and allied defence meetings.

“I think you can expect to see air defence will, for all the obvious reasons, be a topic of discussion,” Major General Patrick S Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday.

The Patriot is by far the most expensive single weapon system that the United States has supplied to Ukraine, at a total cost of about USD 1.1 billion: USD 400 million for the system and USD 690 million for the missiles, as reported by the NYT. (ANI)

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