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The United States has lifted the ban on supplying weapons to the Azov 12th Special Purpose Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine. The decision by the American government means that the Azov brigade will now receive the same weapons as other Ukrainian units. According to The Washington Post, the restrictions were lifted following a review by a State Department commission. The publication reminds us that these restrictions were originally imposed due to a Russian disinformation campaign: back in 2015, propagandists claimed that the then-volunteer battalion allegedly exhibited “neo-Nazi and racist views” and “violated” humanitarian law. However, there is no real evidence that Azov recruits people with ultra-right views.

The US State Department’s statement mentions that after a “thorough review,” the special purpose brigade successfully passed the Leahy Law test, which prohibits US military aid to foreign units that seriously violate human rights. WP journalists add that the decision might be related to the summer fighting season, increased attacks on energy infrastructure, and attempts by Russian troops to advance in the east of the country.

After the news was announced, the brigade commented that the Kremlin’s lies about Azov had suffered a crushing blow and that this step would significantly enhance the unit’s combat capability. Meanwhile, pro-Russian Telegram channels insisted that Azov fighters had been using American weapons even before this decision.

What image of Azov fighters does Russian propaganda build, and what exactly did they write about the American government’s decision? Let’s explain further.

What Messages Is Russia Spreading About the Lifting of the Ban on Supply of Weapons to Azov?

Azov fighters were using American weapons even without this law.

The U.S. endorses Nazi ideology.

Now, those who were “dividing the nation” in 2014 are pretending to be defending it.

“(Neo)Nazis, Punishers, Thieves, Murderers, and Damned Nationalists”

Since the full-scale invasion, in the Disinformation Chronicles by Detector Media (which we have been publishing daily since February 2022), we have recorded 25 messages and fakes about Azov. Most of them expressed a negative attitude towards the fighters of today’s special purpose brigade, describing them as “Nazis” and “supporters of the Third Reich,” echoing old narratives from 2014. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, propagandists have tried to argue that the West secretly supports Azov, thereby supporting “far-right radicalism.”

To recap, a number of volunteer battalions were formed in 2014, including Azov. Initially, it was led by Andriy Biletskyi, whose statements and views were regarded as containing far-right rhetoric. For example, political analyst and researcher of right-wing movements Vyacheslav Likhachev explained that among the founders and fighters of Azov, there were indeed people with far-right views from the very beginning. However, not all founders had such a background. Among the first fighters of Azov, for instance, was a group of activists from AutoMaidan.

But Russia began to instrumentalize real facts, adding a heap of manipulations, fakes, conspiracies, etc. To justify its armed aggression, they claimed that the far-right sought to carry out a coup in the country.

Russian propagandists push the idea that the members of Azov support ideas that the modern world strongly rejects: anti-Semitism, Nazism, or other types of xenophobia. The Azov fighters are portrayed as those who devalue people based on their background. In Moscow’s understanding, Azov is ready to kill for “Ukrainian blood.” This is not the first time that the Kremlin has presented Ukrainians in this way as aggressive, ultranationalist, and valuing only “Ukrainian blood.” For example, Russian propaganda has already spread fakes about wives of Ukrainian soldiers complaining that their husbands are being transfused with “Muscovite blood” or that Ukrainians allegedly ban foreign citizens from becoming blood donors.

Although there is a share of people in Ukraine (as in any other country) who support far-right ideas, the Kremlin is the one deliberately exaggerating their significance in Ukrainian society. In addition, it claims that they share a common ideology with Nazi Germany and treat Russia’s sympathizers as a lower caste. At the same time, in the latest parliamentary elections in 2019, for example, nationalists did not enter the Verkhovna Rada, to say nothing of far-right movements.

The term “nationalism” or “nationalist” itself is not a bad thing but merely describes political or ideological views that imply the nation’s value for state-building or state survival and identity preservation. However, for the terrorist country, manifestations of identity are considered “terrible,” and the word itself has a negative connotation; Russia calls all manifestations of Ukrainianness nationalism, and speaking Ukrainian is, in their opinion, a manifestation of Nazism.

With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the fighters from the Azov regiment, along with other units, defended the besieged Mariupol for 86 days. In order to downplay the importance of Ukrainian soldiers and their capacity for resistance, Russian propaganda began claiming that “external forces” were actually helping them. Allegedly, the OSCE was providing the Azov regiment with communications and intelligence in Mariupol. In other words, the propagandists once again promoted the narrative that the Ukrainian army was “incapable of fighting” and that the West was directly involved in the Russian-Ukrainian war.

On May 4, 2022, the Russian invaders broke through to the territory of the Azovstal plant, which was still controlled by the Ukrainian military. Propagandists then spread another fake, alleging that it was already at Azovstal that the Ukrainian military mercilessly killed NATO officers and soldiers who were supposedly holding the line. Of course, they attributed the most terrible and made-up sins to the members of Azov, who allegedly killed everyone “who happened to be in their way.” And the Russian soldiers were “just polite people.”

However, this turned out to be fiction, which cannot be said about the wounded Ukrainian military or civilians. According to Azov deputy commander Sviatoslav Palamar, there were about 600 wounded among the fighters. The medics had no surgical instruments or other means to provide quality medical care. The health of the defenders of Mariupol was adversely affected by malnutrition, smoke, and missile fumes (the Russians were bombarding the factory with banned substances, poisoning people).

On May 16, the Russian Ministry of Defense released information about the opening of a “humanitarian corridor” for Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal. At the same time, Denys Prokopenko said that the defenders of Mariupol had followed the order to save lives.

After that, a disinformation campaign against Azov soldiers began, during which propagandists resorted to various (but also trivial) fakes. For the most part, they continued their demonization of the Azov fighters; a number of fakes claimed that all Azov fighters had been killed and that the Ukrainian government was pretending to be rescuing them.

In Fact, Nothing Has Changed”

After the news broke that the ban on the transfer of American weapons to Azov was lifted, Russian propagandists on Telegram decided to accuse the United States of collaborating with the “Nazis” once again:

“The sudden change of course on this issue shows that Washington will not hesitate in its desire to suppress Russia,” the RIA Novosti news agency (3 million followers on Telegram) quoted Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov as saying.

A Russian Telegram channel with about 60,000 subscribers said that, in fact, there was no ban as such, and this time Joe Biden once again expressed his desire to cooperate with the “Nazis.”

“Weapons from the United States have always gone directly to Azov, and in practice, there were no restrictions. Now the Americans have simply documented that the Nazis are practically brothers to them. This is a declaration that the US leadership is in the same boat as the Nazis.”

Moreover, they tried to support this fiction with the fantasy that the Azov members used NATO-supplied weapons to defend Mariupol. However, even the Washington Post article states that some of the Western weapons were delivered to Azovstal and directly transferred to other units defending the plant. This was also confirmed by the deputy commander of the brigade, Sviatoslav Palamar, who said that Azov did not receive weapons in a centralized manner.

The propaganda Telegram channel Russia Today even asked the State Department for a comment to explain what had changed with Azov:

“RT asked the State Department about the lifting of the ban on arms supplies to Azov, which was to be recognized as a terrorist organization in 2019. The State Department’s response: ‘Azov is no longer the same’.”

The propagandists even resort to manipulation in the questions they ask (if they ask them) to the US government, emphasizing that the White House “planned” to impose even stricter restrictions on the brigade, but suddenly something happened, and Joe Biden’s administration “backed down.”

There was an attempt to do so when Democratic senators proposed adding Azov to a special register of terrorist organizations, but this never materialized. The proposal to add the brigade to the special register was not even the position of the entire country but only of a handful of senators.

Instead, the pro-Russian segment of Telegram offered the following explanation of the Azov’s origin, “The Azov battalion is a well-known ultranationalist militia organization in Ukraine that openly invites neo-Nazis to join its ranks.” Although the battalion as such has not existed since 2014. Until 2023, it was a separate special forces unit, and only since the beginning of last year has the unit been part of the 12th Special Forces Brigade.

The authors of the Russian occupation Telegram channel with 55 thousand subscribers wrote the following about “American cynicism”:

“The neo-Nazi basis of Azov has not disappeared, but Washington has decided to ignore it. The world is falling into the abyss, and only Russia realizes it.”

Another Telegram channel with 57,000 subscribers retold its version of the brigade’s founding story to emphasize the cunning of the American president:

“The movement received state support and recognition in 2014 during the confrontation with Kharkiv residents who did not support the coup in Kyiv. They were beaten, kidnapped, and eventually, the resistance in Kharkiv was crushed. The capital appreciated the aggressive young people who mixed fragments of a pagan Scandinavian cult, fascism, nationalism, Stepan Bandera, and Hitler in their heads.”

And they continue, “Ironically, it was Mariupol that became a mass grave for Azov in 2022. By that time, the unit had grown to the status of a battalion, which did not prevent the Russian military from laying siege to Azovstal.”

In an attempt to downplay the resistance of the Ukrainian Defense Forces in Mariupol, the anonymous authors do not mention that more than 1,900 soldiers who defended Mariupol and Azovstal are still in Russian captivity. They went through the defense of the city and then torture in Olenivka, a camp for Ukrainian POWs, where on July 29, Russians blew up the room with the previously transferred members of Azov. According to the experts of the Media Initiative for Human Rights, physical and psychological violence is used against Ukrainian soldiers in such detention centers.

The lifting of the ban on US arms transfers to Azov has allowed Russian propagandists to repeat their stories about fighting the world that supposedly stands for Nazi values. On the whole, Russian propaganda is not systematically using these talking points: pro-Russian Telegram channels try to either ignore the topic altogether or try to convince the majority of people that the US government is acting in a “sinful” way. Propagandists are also trying to devalue the US government’s decision by writing that it is a formality that does not make a difference. But, for example, military observer Pavel Aksionov argues that the potential for increased Russian pressure on Ukraine is significantly lower when Ukraine is allowed to attack targets within Russia’s internationally recognized borders and has expanded opportunities to obtain weapons for the Defense Forces.

Main page illustration and infographic by Nataliya Lobach

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