Soldiers of 12th Special Forces Brigade Azov of the National Guard pose for a photo at the 155mm self-propelled gun M109 Paladin at the front line, near Kreminna, Luhansk region, Ukraine, Jan. 28. The U.S. has removed restrictions on the transfer of American weapons and training to a high-profile Ukrainian military unit with a checkered past, the State Department said on June 11. AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

KYIV, Ukraine—The U.S. 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.

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.”


U.S. 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.

Up until the State Department’s decision, announced June 11, 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. (AP)