US lifts ban on sending weapons to Ukraine’s Azov brigade

The United States has lifted a ban on sending weapons and training to the Ukrainian Azov brigade, which played a vital role in the defense of the port city of Mariupol, but had a controversial past.

The ban, called the “Leahy Law,” prohibits any military assistance or training to be provided to foreign units held responsible for human rights violations, according to the US State Department.

The battalion, named the 12th Special Forces Azov Brigade, was integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard in 2023, after the initial formation dissolved. The unit has been praised for its role in the fight against Russian occupation in the Mariupol area.

The unit welcomed the lifting of the ban on receiving security assistance from the US, saying in a statement Tuesday, “This is a new page in the history of our unit.”

“Eligibility for US assistance will not only increase Azov’s combat effectiveness, but, most importantly, will help save the lives and health of the brigade’s personnel,” the unit said. “Azov is becoming more professional and more effective in defending Ukraine against the invaders.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned the US decision on Tuesday, saying the US is “ready even to flirt with neo-Nazis,” according to Russian state news agency TASS.

Major battles

Founded as a militia to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion in 2014, the unit was initially called the “Azov Battalion,” active around the Mariupol area. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense encouraged at the time volunteer battalions to help the army and resistance efforts.

Later that year, the Azov battalion was “reorganized and expanded into the Azov Special Police Regiment of the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” before becoming part of the National Guard, according to its website.

In 2015, Azov fighters liberated Mariupol and its surroundings from occupation, pushing Russian forces far away from the city. They took part in several major battles in Donetsk region.

The battalion has said it repeatedly denies “allegations of fascism, nazism and racism,” in response to claims it had associations with White supremacists and neo-Nazi ideology.

The US State Department said Tuesday that Russian disinformation “has actively worked to discredit” the unit. “They have long tried to conflate Ukraine’s National Guard Unit of 12th Special Forces Brigade Azov with a militia formed to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion in 2014, called the “Azov Battalion,” a State Department spokesperson said. “That militia disbanded in 2015 and the Special Forces Brigade Azov is unrelated to that militia.”

After applying the Leahy vetting process, the State Department “found no evidence of Gross Violations of Human Rights” committed by the 12th Azov Special Forces Brigade.

Russian Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said Tuesday the steps taken by Washington “can cause nothing but extreme indignation.” He called the brigade “an openly nationalist formation” and said Moscow is concerned over “US approaches in the fight against terrorism.”

After the bombing of a Mariupol theater in 2022 that was sheltering civilians and had the word “children” written in Russian on the ground on either side of the building, the Russian Defense Ministry accused “militants of the nationalist ‘Azov’ battalion” of carrying out the attack. At the time, local Ukrainian officials blamed Russia for the attack, which is believed to have killed hundreds who were sheltering in the theater amid heavy bombardment in the early days of Russia’s invasion.

The city of Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, after Ukrainian soldiers, including members of the Azov unit, and residents sheltered for weeks underground at the city’s massive Azovstal steelworks plant refusing to surrender to Russian forces.

CNN’s Mariya Knight and Claire Colbert contributed to this report.

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