A new political push within the U.S. Congress to arm Ukraine may impact European security in ways that were never intended. In a worst-case scenario, it might even lead to the proliferation of weapons to terrorists.
Fighters of the Azov Battalion observe enemy lines from the roof of their base in the town of Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine, March 22, 2015. Photo: AP
The recent Sept. 21 agreement between Ukrainian officials and Russia-backed separatist representatives to pull back troops and heavy weapons from several areas in Eastern Ukraine is a hopeful sign that the Ukraine crisis may eventually find a peaceful resolution.
The problem, however, is that hawkish members of the U.S. Congress continue to press for legislative measures to arm Ukraine with lethal force. On the very same day as the two sides appeared to be pulling back from the brink, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Stability and Democracy for Ukraine Act,” better known as the “STAND for Ukraine Act.”
This despite opinions from highly respected international affairs figures like defensive realist Professor Stephan Walt from Harvard University and offensive neorealist Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago, that the House resolution - if signed into law - might actually escalate the conflict in Ukraine. The Obama administration, too, has recently voiced its opposition to such measures.
The bill, sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D – New York) and introduced by him together with Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R – Illinois), calls for supplying Ukraine with lethal weaponry in its fight against Russia and separatists in the eastern Donbas region [Before U.S. President Barack Obama can sign the bill into law, an identical version of the document must pass the U.S. Senate – Editor’s note].
“It is the policy of the United States to further assist the government of Ukraine in restoring its sovereignty and territorial integrity to contain, reverse, and deter Russian aggression in Ukraine and that that policy shall be carried into effect, among other things, through a comprehensive effort, in coordination with allies and partners of the United States, that includes sanctions, diplomacy and assistance, including lethal defensive weapons systems,” confirmed the Embassy of Ukraine on its Facebook page.
The hawkish move from Washington must have pleased “the Party of War in Ukraine” and most importantly, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has lately been accusing the UN Security Council of being “inefficient” in reacting more forcefully to what he calls “Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea.”
In this regard, it is worth mentioning Yuras Karmanu’s AP article, “War turns Ukraine into ‘supermarket’ for illegal weapons.” According to it, “the war in Eastern Ukraine against Russia-backed separatists has led to the uncontrolled spread of firearms throughout the country, with experts describing Ukraine as a ‘supermarket’ where millions of illegal weapons are for sale.” Heorhiy Uchaikin, the head of the Ukrainian association of gun owners, confirms this.
“Ukraine has turned into a supermarket for illegal weapons,” said Uchaikin, further adding that, “In Ukraine, a gun is like shoe polish in a shoe polish factory.”
Bearing in mind that currently there are around 5 million firearms in Ukraine possessed illegally, it should not come as a surprise that “since the armed conflict broke out in 2014, the number of crimes involving firearms has more than doubled in Ukraine, a country where gun ownership was previously very rare.”
What is really disturbing, however, is the fact that “some of the weapons are also being smuggled out of the country, destined for conflict zones in the Middle East or for Europe, adding to fears of more attacks.”
One of the most significant recent examples is the case of a Frenchman who was arrested in May after trying to enter Poland with a huge amount of illegal weaponry and, as the Ukrainian Security Service reported, was planning a terrorist attacks in his home country. Or here is another example: a German citizen who was detained in June for firearm and ammunition possession on his way to Romania.
The article argues that “most of the weapons on the black market come from the Ukrainian military and the around 40 volunteer battalions,” including Azov, which was described by Foreign Policy magazine as a Ukrainian neo-Nazi paramilitary militia.
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What is astonishing is the role such military groups like Azov have been playing in Kiev’s government policy towards Moscow since the Ukrainian crisis started. It is reported to have played an important part in inciting violence during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution against Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych.
So, that might be the reason why Andriy Biletsky, a military commander of the Azov Battalion, could get access to power: “The new authorities — which included the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda — wanted to show their gratitude,” as journalist Leonid Bershidsky wrote in his article for Bloomberg.
However, the fact that Kiev has been relying on volunteer paramilitaries since 2014 is not a big secret. Journalist Tom Parfitt of The Telegraph wrote that “Kiev’s use of volunteer paramilitaries to stamp out the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics’, proclaimed in Eastern Ukraine in March, should send a shiver down Europe’s spine.”
“Recently formed battalions such as Donbas, Dnipro and Azov, with several thousand men under their command, are officially under the control of the interior ministry but their financing is murky, their training inadequate and their ideology often alarming,” Parfitt warned. “The Azov men use the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel (Wolf’s Hook) symbol on their banner and members of the battalion are openly white supremacists.”
However, some members of the American media present the Azov members in a different light. For example, The Washington Post argues that Azov’s use of the Swastika was only a “romantic” expression.
“One platoon leader, who called himself Kirt, conceded that the group’s far right views had attracted about two dozen foreign fighters from around Europe,” reads The Washington Post’s article. “In one room, a recruit had emblazoned a swastika above his bed. But Kirt, a former hospitality worker, dismissed questions of ideology, saying that the volunteers — many of them still teenagers — embrace symbols and espouse extremist notions as part of some kind of ‘romantic’ idea.”
However not everyone shared the very opinion that the Nazi symbols are a matter of romantic expression. For example, Germans were shocked to see a video of Azov members decorating themselves with the Swastika and the “SS rune."
“Germans were confronted with images of their country’s dark past when German public broadcaster ZDF showed video of Ukrainian soldiers with Nazi symbols on their helmets in its evening newscast,” NBC News reported.
However, the Azov members and (those who support them) don’t seem to view themselves as neo-Nazis. They describe themselves as patriots and “just Ukrainian nationalists.”
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Given all this, the idea of supplying the Ukrainian weaponry supermarket with more weapons, which in many cases are smuggled through Eastern Europe to the West and Middle East, might backfire and bring about serious implications for the region.
Taking into account the fact that Europe is currently experiencing an enormous increase in terrorist attack attempts, this means another easy supply route for those who are interested in buying illegal “Kalashnikovs, explosives and even rocket launchers brought from the combat zone in eastern Ukraine sold by military personnel or members of volunteer battalions that have been fighting on the government side.” It also means there might be another huge headache for Europeans in terms of their future security.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.