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 published an 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 US 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 US 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 10 percent 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 US funding to end up in the hands of the most noxious elements circulating within Ukraine today.