James W. Carden
James Carden is a contributing editor to The American Conservative magazine and is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and Russia Direct. Formerly an Advisor to the US Department of State, he resides in Washington, DC.
In mid-December 2015, Congress passed a 2,000-plus-page omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2016. Both parties were quick to declare victory after the passage of the $1.8 trillion package. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters "we feel good about the outcome, primarily because we got a compromise budget agreement that fought off a wide variety of ideological riders.” The office of House Speaker Paul J. Ryan touted the bill’s "64 billion for overseas contingency operations” for, among other things, assisting ”European countries facing Russian aggression.”
It would be safe to assume that one of the European countries which would stand to benefit from the omnibus measure—designed, in part, to combat "Russian aggression”—would be Ukraine, which has already, according to the White House, received $2 billion in loan guarantees and nearly $760 million in "security, programmatic, and technical assistance” since February 2014.
Yet some have expressed concern that some of this aid has made its way into the hands of neo-Nazi groups, such as the Azov Battalion. Last summer the Daily Beast publishedan interview by the journalists Will Cathcart and Joseph Epstein in which a member of the Azov battalion spoke about "his battalion’s experience with U.S. trainers and U.S. volunteers quite fondly, even mentioning U.S. volunteers engineers and medics that are still currently assisting them.”
And so, in July of last year, Congressmen John Conyers of Michigan and Ted Yoho of Florida drew up an amendment to the House Defense Appropriations bill (HR 2685) that "limits arms, training, and other assistance to the neo-Nazi Ukrainian militia, the Azov Battalion.” It passed by a unanimous vote in the House.
And yet by the time November came around and the conference debate over the year-end appropriations bill was underway, the Conyers-Yoho measure appeared to be in jeopardy. And indeed it was. An official familiar with the debate told The Nation that the House Defense Appropriations Committee came under pressure from the Pentagon to remove the Conyers-Yoho amendment from the text of the bill.
The Pentagon’s objection to the Conyers-Yoho amendment rests on the claim that it is redundant because similar legislation—known as the Leahy law—already exists that would prevent the funding of Azov. This, as it turns out, is untrue. The Leahy law covers only those groups for which the "Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” Yet the State Department has never claimed to have such information about Azov, so funding to the group cannot be blocked by the Leahy law. The congressional source I spoke to pointed out that "even if Azov is already covered by Leahy, then no there was no need to strip it out of final bill.” Indeed, the Leahy law cannot block funding to groups, no matter how noxious their ideology, in the absence of "credible information” that they have committed human-rights violations. The Conyers-Yoho amendment was designed to remedy that shortcoming.
Considering the fact that the U.S. Army has been training Ukrainian armed forces and national guard troops, the Conyers-Yoho amendment made a great deal of sense; blocking the avowedly neo-Nazi Azov battalion from receiving U.S. assistance would further what President Obama often refers to as "our interests and values.”
That neo-Nazis (or neo-fascists, if you prefer) are a distinctly minority taste in Western Ukraine, is clear and is not in dispute. Of late, however, there have been troubling signs that they may become a force to be reckoned with. According to The Jerusalem Post, in Ukrainian municipal elections held last October, the neo-Nazi Svoboda party won ten per cent of the vote in Kiev and placed second in Lviv. The Svoboda party’s candidate actually won the mayoral election in the city of Konotop.
Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in November that Azov operates a boot camp that exposes children to "the regiment’s far right-wing ideology.”
Whether White House spokesman Josh Earnest was referring, in part, to the Conyers-Yoho amendment as one of those "ideological riders” the administration fought to defeat is unclear. What is clear is that by stripping out the anti-neo-Nazi provision, Congress and the administration have paved the way for U.S. funding to end up in the hands of the most noxious elements circulating within Ukraine today.
James W. Carden is a contributing writer at The Nation and the executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord’s EastWestAccord.com.
Obama, Pentagon clear way to send U.S. aid to Ukraine neo-Nazis
Despite the unanimous support of U.S. lawmakers last June for amendments banning aid to the openly neo-Nazi paramilitaries operating in Ukraine, the provisions were removed from the final versions of the Pentagon funding bill and the 2016 omnibus budget.
After the $1.8 trillion budget deal was struck between President Barack Obama and the Republican majority in Congress, the White House praised the removal of numerous "ideological riders,” while Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) trumpeted the $64 million aid for European countries "facing Russian aggression.”
It now appears that one of those riders was the amendment passed unanimously by the House of Representatives last June that would have banned US aid to the notorious neo-Nazi ‘Azov’ battalion. The controversial unit is just one of many employed by the Kiev government against the residents of two eastern regions that have refused to accept the legitimacy of the government installed in the U.S.-backed, February 2014 coup.
One of the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which Obama signed on the eve of Thanksgiving, includes $300 million in military aid for the regime in Kiev.
The law authorized the Pentagon to provide Kiev with "anti-armor weapon systems, mortars, crew-served weapons and ammunition, grenade launchers and ammunition, and small arms and ammunition.” Counter-artillery radars, drones, and cyber capabilities were also included in the program. Training for the Kiev regime forces is managed by the American 173rd Airborne Brigade at a camp in Yavoriv near Lvov in western Ukraine.
Last summer, as the NDAA was making its way through the Congress, Representatives John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Ted Yoho (R-Florida) put forth an amendment that would have ruled out training or arming the notorious Azov battalion, an "openly neo-Nazi” and "fascist” unit that uses symbols of the Nazi SS.
"I am grateful that the House of Representatives unanimously passed my amendments last night to ensure that our military does not train members of the repulsive neo-Nazi Azov Battalion,” Conyers said in a statement on June 11.
By the time Congress and Obama finished resolving their differences six months later, the only part of the Conyers-Yoho amendment that had survived was the prohibition on the sale of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to Ukraine, Iraq, or the Syrian rebels.
Section 1250 of the final version of the NDAA allocates aid to the "military and other security forces of the Government of Ukraine,” phrasing that can be interpreted to include the National Guard and the volunteer battalions.
Obama signed the omnibus spending bill, also known as House Resolution 2029, on December 18. In the 2000-plus page law, aid to the government in Kiev is listed under the Pentagon funding (Division C) in the section on "Overseas Contingency Operations/Global War on Terrorism” (Title IX).
Section 9014 of the law allocates $250 million "to provide assistance, including training; equipment; lethal weapons of a defensive nature; logistics support, supplies and services; sustainment; and intelligence support to the military and national security forces of Ukraine,” without any exclusions.
Section 9016 retains the Carden-Yoho prohibition on MANPADS – but the ban on training or equipping the neo-Nazi ‘Azov’ or similar units is notably absent.