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Ukraine crisis ـ The Limited Far-Right Foreign Fighter Mobilization

Jun 25, 2022 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

A Trickle, Not a Flood: The Limited 2022 Far-Right Foreign Fighter Mobilization to Ukraine

Ctc – Abstract: Given the significant presence of far-right fighting units and far-right foreign fighters on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine since 2014, there was concern that the February 2022 Russian invasion might result in large flows of foreign fighters (including right-wing extremists) to far-right-linked units on both sides of the conflict. The worry was that this would in turn lead to long-term security headaches for Western countries because of the opportunities for right-wing extremists to build networks and military skills.

But four months into the conflict and despite the continued linkages between the far-right in Ukraine and Western countries, these concerns have not materialized. The flow of foreign fighters into Ukraine has been much smaller than anticipated. Despite the efforts of some extreme-right ‘influencers,’ the 2022 conflict has, for the most part, not energized Western right-wing extremists, nor persuaded them to travel. In what is for Ukrainians a war for national survival and a fight to secure a Western democratic future for the country, the allure of the far-right in Ukraine has dimmed. Ukrainian units with far-right histories are now deeply integrated into Ukraine’s armed forces and eschew foreign recruitment, and one of those units, the Azov Regiment, was decimated during the siege of Mariupol. Very few foreign right-wing extremists have been recruited into Ukraine’s International Legion. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests most of the foreign fighters who have traveled this year to fight on the Ukrainian side are fighting to safeguard Ukraine’s future as a Western democracy. All this means that while Western governments should keep a watchful eye on foreign fighter flows to Ukraine, they must also counter Russian disinformation efforts that massively inflate the presence of right-wing extremists on the Ukrainian side.

One of the most enduring legacies from the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war is that of Ukraine as a “field of dreams … [for] various brands of far-right nationalism”1 and as “a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy extremism, attracting foreign recruits from all over the world.”2 As reported by the Soufan Center, between 2014 and 2019 approximately 17,000 foreign fighters from over 50 countries traveled to the battlefield, “nearly 90% of whom came from Russia to fight with the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, attracting foreigners supporting violent far-right ideologies.”3 a Excluding Russian foreign fighters, up to around 900 foreign fighters joined the Ukrainian side, including a significant but difficult to quantify number of right-wing extremists.4 Ukrainian units with far-right leanings such as the Azov Battalion/Regiment became causes célèbres in transnational extreme or far-right and white supremacy circles.5 Right-wing extremists spoke at conferences organized by Ukraine’s nationalists, attended their MMA (mixed martial arts) clubs, and rubbed shoulders with local far-right leaders.6 Analysts worried about the long-term security implications of Western right-wing extremists networking, training, and fighting inside Ukraine. In 2020, Max Rose and Ali Soufan assessed that “just as jihadists exploited conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Syria, so too are white supremacists using the conflict in Ukraine as a laboratory and training ground.”7

Fast forward to Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, and it seemed possible that intensified conflict in Ukraine would make the country even more fertile ground for right-wing extremists, especially because of Azov’s associations to “white racism” and Nazism, which are strenuously contested by the unit’s representatives.8 Russia’s pivot from so-called “hybrid warfare”9 toward naked aggression seemed poised to generate a huge surge in foreign fighters sympathetic to the underdog. In early March 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asserted that the first 16,000 foreign volunteers were already on their way.10 Days later, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense stated that more than 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries had expressed a desire to join a newly created entity called the International Legion.11 Given the large foreign volunteer numbers being claimed by officials in Kyiv and given the far-right history of groups like Azov, there were legitimate concerns that a significant number of pro-Ukraine foreign fighters would seek or end up with far-right groups inside the country.

This article examines the extent and nature of the nexus between right-wing extremism and pro-Kyiv foreign fighter mobilization in the 2022 conflict in Ukraine. The first part of the article examines the size of the issue, and the second part of the article digs deeper into the problem set by examining the role of key actors and entities in the foreign fighterb space. The Extent of the Nexus
Concerns about a potential flood of far-right foreign fighters to Ukraine in the wake of the 2022 Russian invasion have not to date materialized. According to a May 2022 Counter Extremism Project (CEP) study led by this author and on which this article draws and builds, “only a fraction of those who indicated an interest in traveling to Ukraine after February 2022 actually did so,” with the number of foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine ranging from several hundred to a few thousand.12 c These numbers are comparable to the foreign fighter mobilization that followed Russia’s 2014 invasion, which saw up to around 2,200 non-Russians join the conflict on both sides.13 Back then, foreign fighters arriving to help Ukraine joined sub-state units—Ukrainian “volunteer battalions”14 or the “separatist” pro-Russian “popular militias.”15 By contrast, the class of 2022 foreign fighters have mostly joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces (TDF), an element of the country’s armed forces.

It is important to underline the very significant longstanding and continuing far-right nexus when it comes to foreign fighters on the pro-Russian separatist side in Ukraine. In May 2022, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that according to German intelligence, the extreme-right Russian Imperial Movement (RIM)d and the Wagner Group’s Rusiche cadre were engaged in combat operations against Ukrainian forces.16 Likewise, the analyst Alexander Ritzmann noted in the CEP May 2022 report that:

The Russian private security contractor Wagner PMC, which has a history of displaying Nazi-insignia as well as being antisemitic and against LGTBQ rights, is also accepting applications [to fight in Ukraine] via Telegram. The founders of Rusich task force, which is part of Wagner PMC, were trained by the Russian Imperial Legion, the militia arm of RIM. Since 2016, foreigners have received weapons training by the Russian Imperial Legion, amongst them Germans, Americans, Swedes, and others. Pro-Russian separatist groups, such as “The Defenders of Donbass,” share extreme right-wing slogans and antisemitic, anti-feminist, and anti-LGTBQ memes and stereotypes on their Telegram channels and call for volunteers to arrive at an address in the Russian city of Rostow, which is close to the eastern border of Ukraine.17

For those foreign fighters who have traveled to join the Ukrainian side so far in 2022, the integration of the Azov Regiment and other far-right extremist units into the Ukrainian armed forces has made these units much more difficult to join. And as noted by the Soufan Center, the Azov Regiment has “become more distanced from right-wing narratives” with the Ukrainian armed forces working to rein in such extremism.18 In this author’s assessment, the large majority of Ukrainians joining Azov-linked brigades within the Ukrainian military are doing so not because of right-wing extremism, but because they want to join an effective fighting force to defend their country.

Furthermore, the 2022 Russian invasion does not appear to have provoked a surge in desire among right-wing extremists around the world to travel to Ukraine. The conflict has always divided the movement, with some groups and individuals siding with Russia and some with Ukraine.19 In Germany, “the first days following the Russian invasion were initially marked by confusion and controversial discussions about how to deal with this ‘White Brotherhood War.’”20 In France, the majority of far-right extremist groups have historically sided with Russia.21 In Italy, opinions are more divided. The neo-fascist group Forza Nuova has sided more intensely with Vladimir Putin and the separatist forces since the February 2022 invasion, while the far-right group CasaPound Italia has softened its support for the Ukrainian side. And overall, there has been very little appetite among Italian far-right extremists since February 2022 to travel to Ukraine.22 This is also the case farther north in Europe. As the Expo Foundation has noted, the leader of the largest Scandinavian extreme right organization, the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), stated that “neither side is worth fighting for and dying for.”23

According to the May 2022 CEP report that analyzed the far-right and right-wing extremist scenes in seven countries—the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Poland—“the current conflict has not led to a significant flow of extremists to the war zone. There is a lot of discussion and debate among extremists, but very few have traveled to Ukraine.”24 In the United States, there was “no evidence that anyone currently affiliated with the neo-Nazi accelerationist milieu traveled to Ukraine after the February [2022] invasion.”25 In Canada, not a single far-right extremist was known as of May 2022 to have traveled to join the 2022 conflict in Ukraine.26 French security authorities estimate that only 20-30 right-wing extremists are currently in Ukraine.27 f In Poland, while the “young generation of Polish neo-fascists generally sympathize with Ukrainian nationalists, including, in particular, the Azov Movement,” very few have traveled.28 In mid-March 2022, German authorities stated that 27 right-wing extremists had left or had credibly announced that they were planning to leave for Ukraine, but only a few were supposedly involved in conflict and 13 were said to have already returned to Germany.29 As the German case makes clear, it is currently unknown how many right-wing extremists who traveled have joined the fighting. Overall, “foreigners in Ukraine have not yet coalesced into recognizable highly ideological fighting units and, as individuals, have been largely unsuccessful in acting as recruiting multipliers for sympathizers in their home countries.”30

Overall, the far-right movement’s allure has dimmed in Ukraine, at least for the time being. For all but the most hardened extremists, ideology has taken a backseat in a war for national survival. It is Western democracies with liberal values that are largely arming the Ukrainians. President Zelensky has rallied tens of millions of Ukrainians around a Western-democratic vision for his country, including membership in the European Union, whose liberal and democratic values the far-right abhors. Foreign volunteers that have been flowing in are almost exclusively apolitical and often have little in common with each other beyond being “concerned citizens of the world,” as described by one veteran foreign fighter.31

Abstract: Given the significant presence of far-right fighting units and far-right foreign fighters on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine since 2014, there was concern that the February 2022 Russian invasion might result in large flows of foreign fighters (including right-wing extremists) to far-right-linked units on both sides of the conflict. The worry was that this would in turn lead to long-term security headaches for Western countries because of the opportunities for right-wing extremists to build networks and military skills. But four months into the conflict and despite the continued linkages between the far-right in Ukraine and Western countries, these concerns have not materialized. The flow of foreign fighters into Ukraine has been much smaller than anticipated. Despite the efforts of some extreme-right ‘influencers,’ the 2022 conflict has, for the most part, not energized Western right-wing extremists, nor persuaded them to travel. In what is for Ukrainians a war for national survival and a fight to secure a Western democratic future for the country, the allure of the far-right in Ukraine has dimmed. Ukrainian units with far-right histories are now deeply integrated into Ukraine’s armed forces and eschew foreign recruitment, and one of those units, the Azov Regiment, was decimated during the siege of Mariupol. Very few foreign right-wing extremists have been recruited into Ukraine’s International Legion. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests most of the foreign fighters who have traveled this year to fight on the Ukrainian side are fighting to safeguard Ukraine’s future as a Western democracy. All this means that while Western governments should keep a watchful eye on foreign fighter flows to Ukraine, they must also counter Russian disinformation efforts that massively inflate the presence of right-wing extremists on the Ukrainian side.

One of the most enduring legacies from the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war is that of Ukraine as a “field of dreams … [for] various brands of far-right nationalism”1 and as “a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy extremism, attracting foreign recruits from all over the world.”2 As reported by the Soufan Center, between 2014 and 2019 approximately 17,000 foreign fighters from over 50 countries traveled to the battlefield, “nearly 90% of whom came from Russia to fight with the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, attracting foreigners supporting violent far-right ideologies.”3 a Excluding Russian foreign fighters, up to around 900 foreign fighters joined the Ukrainian side, including a significant but difficult to quantify number of right-wing extremists.4 Ukrainian units with far-right leanings such as the Azov Battalion/Regiment became causes célèbres in transnational extreme or far-right and white supremacy circles.5 Right-wing extremists spoke at conferences organized by Ukraine’s nationalists, attended their MMA (mixed martial arts) clubs, and rubbed shoulders with local far-right leaders.6 Analysts worried about the long-term security implications of Western right-wing extremists networking, training, and fighting inside Ukraine. In 2020, Max Rose and Ali Soufan assessed that “just as jihadists exploited conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Syria, so too are white supremacists using the conflict in Ukraine as a laboratory and training ground.”7

Fast forward to Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, and it seemed possible that intensified conflict in Ukraine would make the country even more fertile ground for right-wing extremists, especially because of Azov’s associations to “white racism” and Nazism, which are strenuously contested by the unit’s representatives.8 Russia’s pivot from so-called “hybrid warfare”9 toward naked aggression seemed poised to generate a huge surge in foreign fighters sympathetic to the underdog. In early March 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asserted that the first 16,000 foreign volunteers were already on their way.10 Days later, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense stated that more than 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries had expressed a desire to join a newly created entity called the International Legion.11 Given the large foreign volunteer numbers being claimed by officials in Kyiv and given the far-right history of groups like Azov, there were legitimate concerns that a significant number of pro-Ukraine foreign fighters would seek or end up with far-right groups inside the country.

This article examines the extent and nature of the nexus between right-wing extremism and pro-Kyiv foreign fighter mobilization in the 2022 conflict in Ukraine. The first part of the article examines the size of the issue, and the second part of the article digs deeper into the problem set by examining the role of key actors and entities in the foreign fighterb space.

The Extent of the Nexus

Concerns about a potential flood of far-right foreign fighters to Ukraine in the wake of the 2022 Russian invasion have not to date materialized. According to a May 2022 Counter Extremism Project (CEP) study led by this author and on which this article draws and builds, “only a fraction of those who indicated an interest in traveling to Ukraine after February 2022 actually did so,” with the number of foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine ranging from several hundred to a few thousand.12 c These numbers are comparable to the foreign fighter mobilization that followed Russia’s 2014 invasion, which saw up to around 2,200 non-Russians join the conflict on both sides.13 Back then, foreign fighters arriving to help Ukraine joined sub-state units—Ukrainian “volunteer battalions”14 or the “separatist” pro-Russian “popular militias.”15 By contrast, the class of 2022 foreign fighters have mostly joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces (TDF), an element of the country’s armed forces.

It is important to underline the very significant longstanding and continuing far-right nexus when it comes to foreign fighters on the pro-Russian separatist side in Ukraine. In May 2022, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that according to German intelligence, the extreme-right Russian Imperial Movement (RIM)d and the Wagner Group’s Rusiche cadre were engaged in combat operations against Ukrainian forces.16 Likewise, the analyst Alexander Ritzmann noted in the CEP May 2022 report that:

The Russian private security contractor Wagner PMC, which has a history of displaying Nazi-insignia as well as being antisemitic and against LGTBQ rights, is also accepting applications [to fight in Ukraine] via Telegram. The founders of Rusich task force, which is part of Wagner PMC, were trained by the Russian Imperial Legion, the militia arm of RIM. Since 2016, foreigners have received weapons training by the Russian Imperial Legion, amongst them Germans, Americans, Swedes, and others. Pro-Russian separatist groups, such as “The Defenders of Donbass,” share extreme right-wing slogans and antisemitic, anti-feminist, and anti-LGTBQ memes and stereotypes on their Telegram channels and call for volunteers to arrive at an address in the Russian city of Rostow, which is close to the eastern border of Ukraine.17

For those foreign fighters who have traveled to join the Ukrainian side so far in 2022, the integration of the Azov Regiment and other far-right extremist units into the Ukrainian armed forces has made these units much more difficult to join. And as noted by the Soufan Center, the Azov Regiment has “become more distanced from right-wing narratives” with the Ukrainian armed forces working to rein in such extremism.18 In this author’s assessment, the large majority of Ukrainians joining Azov-linked brigades within the Ukrainian military are doing so not because of right-wing extremism, but because they want to join an effective fighting force to defend their country.

Furthermore, the 2022 Russian invasion does not appear to have provoked a surge in desire among right-wing extremists around the world to travel to Ukraine. The conflict has always divided the movement, with some groups and individuals siding with Russia and some with Ukraine.19 In Germany, “the first days following the Russian invasion were initially marked by confusion and controversial discussions about how to deal with this ‘White Brotherhood War.’”20 In France, the majority of far-right extremist groups have historically sided with Russia.21 In Italy, opinions are more divided. The neo-fascist group Forza Nuova has sided more intensely with Vladimir Putin and the separatist forces since the February 2022 invasion, while the far-right group CasaPound Italia has softened its support for the Ukrainian side. And overall, there has been very little appetite among Italian far-right extremists since February 2022 to travel to Ukraine.22 This is also the case farther north in Europe. As the Expo Foundation has noted, the leader of the largest Scandinavian extreme right organization, the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), stated that “neither side is worth fighting for and dying for.”23

According to the May 2022 CEP report that analyzed the far-right and right-wing extremist scenes in seven countries—the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Poland—“the current conflict has not led to a significant flow of extremists to the war zone. There is a lot of discussion and debate among extremists, but very few have traveled to Ukraine.”24 In the United States, there was “no evidence that anyone currently affiliated with the neo-Nazi accelerationist milieu traveled to Ukraine after the February [2022] invasion.”25 In Canada, not a single far-right extremist was known as of May 2022 to have traveled to join the 2022 conflict in Ukraine.26 French security authorities estimate that only 20-30 right-wing extremists are currently in Ukraine.27 f In Poland, while the “young generation of Polish neo-fascists generally sympathize with Ukrainian nationalists, including, in particular, the Azov Movement,” very few have traveled.28 In mid-March 2022, German authorities stated that 27 right-wing extremists had left or had credibly announced that they were planning to leave for Ukraine, but only a few were supposedly involved in conflict and 13 were said to have already returned to Germany.29 As the German case makes clear, it is currently unknown how many right-wing extremists who traveled have joined the fighting. Overall, “foreigners in Ukraine have not yet coalesced into recognizable highly ideological fighting units and, as individuals, have been largely unsuccessful in acting as recruiting multipliers for sympathizers in their home countries.”30

Overall, the far-right movement’s allure has dimmed in Ukraine, at least for the time being. For all but the most hardened extremists, ideology has taken a backseat in a war for national survival. It is Western democracies with liberal values that are largely arming the Ukrainians. President Zelensky has rallied tens of millions of Ukrainians around a Western-democratic vision for his country, including membership in the European Union, whose liberal and democratic values the far-right abhors. Foreign volunteers that have been flowing in are almost exclusively apolitical and often have little in common with each other beyond being “concerned citizens of the world,” as described by one veteran foreign fighter.31

Key Actors and Entities in the Foreign Fighter Space

Having outlined the limited nature of the nexus between right-wing extremism and foreign fighter flows to Ukraine during the 2022 conflict, it is useful to examine the role of four different types of entities whose actions are relevant to foreign fighter flows to the conflict zone:

  1. Ukraine-based entities (extremist and non-extremist) with a history of foreign fighter recruitment;
  2. Extreme-right online influencers who can frame the conflict and thus mobilize potential volunteers for Ukraine;
  3. Veteran extreme or far-right foreign fighters who have the access and credibility to open doors for arriving recruits;
  4. Western far-right helpers who, although not present on the frontlines, can donate and send aid to their Western extremist contacts fighting in Ukraine.

Ukraine-based Entities with a History of Foreign Fighter Recruitment

The Azov Regiment and the Azov Movement

The Azov Movement is derived from (but should not be conflated with) the original Azov Battalion, a far-right “volunteer battalion” (one of 40-50 such formations) that several months into the 2014 conflict (in November 2014) was integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine.32 In 2016, Azov Battalion veterans formed the National Corps, a far-right political party that is now a bedrock of the Azov Movement. Notwithstanding the fact that the Azov Battalion, subsequently known as the Azov Regiment, maintains connections to the National Corps33 and has been viewed by the National Corps as its “own” military force,34 it is not commanded by National Corps figures. It is also important to note that given the Azov Regiment is integrated into the Ukrainian military command structure, it should not be seen as a militia.

In the war that started in 2014, the Azov Battalion/Regiment featured “a few dozen foreigners” in its ranks35 but never considered foreign recruitment key to its survival or growth. Indeed one of the foreign fighters who joined the Azov Battalion subsequently told the author that the foreign fighters were “backpacks,” i.e., a burden that needed help from an English-speaking Ukrainian soldier in order to function.36 After the Azov Regiment was integrated into the Ukrainian military command, foreign recruits mostly left the unit as the National Guard does not allow for recruitment of foreigners.37 A few 2014 veteran foreigners, some with far-right backgrounds, were, however, retained in its ranks.38

When Russian forces invaded on February 24, 2022, the approximately 1,000 men-strong Azov Regiment39 found itself in Mariupol, in the south of Ukraine, where its members were holding combat trainings for civilians and preparing for the defense of the city.40 The regiment fought in nearby Berdiansk, attempting to repel the Russian breakout from Crimea toward the borders of the “separatist” Russian puppet “People’s Republics” (of Donetsk and Luhansk) in the east of Ukraine.41 In early March, the regiment, along with other Ukrainian forces, found itself encircled in Mariupol. It then played a significant role in the fighting, including famously holding out for over two months against Russian forces at a steel plant (Azovstal) in Mariupol.42 Its fighters called on the government, Ukraine armed forces, and the international community to do more to “save Mariupol.”g By May 20, the Azov Regiment’s remaining members found themselves among 2,000-plus fighters who surrendered in Mariupol and were later transferred to the territory of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” apparently so that they could later be exchanged for Russian POWs in Ukrainian hands.43 Three weeks later, a former commander of the Azov Regiment confirmed that remains of 220 Azovstal defenders, a third of which belonged to the Regiment, had arrived in Kyiv.44 These losses mean that the Azov Regiment has been decimated as a fighting force. There will likely eventually be an attempt to build it back up, but it is not clear whether that will happen during the current conflict and what form it might take.h

Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Azov veterans organized their ‘own’ all-volunteer TDF units in and around the capital. Azov’s fighting prowess acted as a perfect recruiting tool as many Ukrainians, impressed by the connection to the besieged Azov Regiment, rushed to join these TDF units. Consequently, the Azov veteran-dominated TDF forces from around Kyiv grew to three infantry battalions.i

More broadly, many National Corps/Azov Movement members from all around the country joined Ukraine’s nascent TDF forces and in some localities copied the Kyiv experience, effectively taking over some of the freshly minted TDF battalions.45 These Azov Movement-dominated units (which should not be confused with the Azov Regiment) recruited Ukrainians rather than foreigners. After the battle of Kyiv, these units were keen on joining the fight around Kharkiv and Mariupol, and their members were formally incorporated into the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces (SSO, or Syly spetsial nykh operatsiy Zbroynykh Syl Ukrayiny) so that they would be guaranteed a chance to fight in the east and the south of Ukraine.46 This bureaucratic move further complicated the path for foreigners to join Azov Movement-dominated TDF battalions as only Ukrainians were allowed to be recruited into the SSO. In any case, Azov Movement-dominated TDF battalions were said to be reluctant, for operational reasons, to deploy non-Ukrainian/non-Russian speakers.47

Meanwhile, adherents of the Azov Movement attempted to facilitate the recruitment of foreigners into the International Legion, the new entity set up within the TDF to accommodate arriving foreign volunteers.48 The Legion was slow to take off due to initial issues with the legal status of the fighters, their contracts while in Ukraine, and some waning of enthusiasm from the initial volunteers. Only in late May 2022 did it announce deployment of its “first battalion” to the frontlines, shortly followed by the first casualties sustained in eastern Ukraine.49 Prior to that, many of its prospective members chose to find a TDF unit themselves or even a regular army unit that would take them, instead of waiting to be deployed within the ranks of the nascent International Legion.50

The Azov Movement’s activities on this front amounted to bringing 20-30 foreign recruits to the International Legion.51 But hardly any of these were far-right extremists.j Instead, most of these 20-30 foreign recruits had been drawn into the orbit of the Azov Movement before joining the International Legion because they were impressed by the professed and alleged professionalism of Azov Movement-dominated units or the original Azov Battalion/Regiment.52 Interestingly, some of the very few ideological brethren of the Azov Movement who arrived in Ukraine after February 24, 2022, missed their rendezvous with the recruiters, and in the chaos of the war ended up joining a non-Azov-led TDF unit.53 Consequently, the Azov Movement’s foreign recruitment efforts largely stalled. Their adherents quickly grew frustrated with the bureaucratic hurdles in recruiting International Legion volunteers and openly complained about what they perceived to be Ukraine’s shortcomings in recruiting and integrating the arriving foreign volunteers into the TDF.54

Other Entities with Far-Right Linkages

Some Ukrainians with linkages to the far-right who have joined the TDF have marketed themselves as belonging to separate “battalions” within the ranks. And these battalions have attempted to capitalize on the global interest in volunteering for Ukraine. This was the case for the so-called Battalion Revenge of the Tradition and Order groupuscule, loosely affiliated with the Azov Movement.55 It features a handful of far-right Czech and Polish56 individuals and is apparently ready to accept any arriving foreigner who can get himself to Kyiv.57 Another such far-right entity is the so-called Brotherhood (Bratstvo) “battalion,” which includes Belarusian, Danish, Irish, and Canadian members.58 In this case, however, it is possible that some of these individuals ended up with Bratstvo by accident. As certain TDF units reportedly deploy their recruiters on Ukraine’s western border, Bratstvo might have intercepted impressionable foreign volunteers right after their crossing into Ukraine.59

Interestingly, these small units seemed to have out-recruited, as far as foreign volunteers are concerned, the Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor), another far-right grouping that emerged from the 2014 “volunteer battalions,” and that had a track record of fielding foreigners in its ranks.60 Right Sector was eventually integrated into the Ukrainian Army in late April 2022 and, just as was the case with Azov Movement-dominated TDF forces, it now falls under the auspices of the SSO (Special Operations Forces), which bars foreigners from joining. Right Sector’s recruiters have confirmed to the author that the group does not accept foreigners in its ranks.61 It is possible, however, just as in the case of the Azov Regiment, that a handful of pre-February 24, 2022, foreign volunteers were retained in its ranks. It should also be noted that far-right Telegram channels recently showcased a purported American member of Right Sector on the frontlines.62

Belarussian and Russian Formations

Other foreigner-centered units on the Ukrainian side, such as Belarussian and Russian formations, are purely mono-national entities that stress their dedication to a regime change in Belarus or Russia as a result of this war. The Belarusian contingent features volunteers who fought in Ukraine since 2014, and some of them went through the Azov Battalion/Regiment and Right Sector as these were the only formations open to accepting them at the time.k Moreover, some of the most well-known Belarusian volunteers of 2022 are well-known football hooligans, a milieu known to attract radicals.63 It is key to stress that the majority of the Belarusian volunteers have nothing to do with the far right, with many of them political refugees forced to flee Belarus after the rigged 2020 presidential election there.64

The Georgian Foreign Legion

Finally, it is worth discussing the Georgian Foreign Legion (previously the Georgian National Legion), a Georgian-led entity that is one of the main channels by which foreigners can get to the frontlines. It is important to stress that the Georgian Legion is itself not at all extremist, but in the 2014 phase of the conflict attracted some far-right fighters from, for example, Australia and the United States.65 The Georgian Legion does not fight as a single force but rather distributes its members among different TDF formations.66 Of all entities based in Ukraine, the Georgian Legion has been the most successful in recruiting Western fighters into its ranks. That was the case after 201467 and has also been the case in 2022.68 By the end of March 2022, the Georgian Legion appears to have enlisted a few hundred foreigners into its ranks.69 Its recruitment has been enabled by its significant social media presence,70 its targeting its recruitment efforts at military veterans from Georgia and countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, its accessibility, and its leaders’ language skills.71 During the 2022 conflict, the Georgian Legion grew into a battalion-sized force full of experienced soldiers from different countries.72 The Georgian Legion’s commander, Mamuka Mamulashvili, told the author in April 2022 that the Georgian Legion has deployed squads to different locations around Ukraine to which it distributes its volunteers.73

Extreme-Right Online Influencers

On February 26, 2022, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Denis “Nikitin”l Kapustin, the neo-Nazi founder of the White Rex clothing brand, who despite being Russian is sympathetic to and highly networked within the Ukrainian far-right milieu, stated on his Telegram channel:

I know there are a lot of Putin’s sympathizers in the Western Hemisphere. You hate your governments because they force feed you with LGBT, diversity, migration, gender politics and all that s^&* … You hate your governments and expect Putin’s tanks to come and free you. Bad news for you guys: he will NOT bring white Christian freedom to you, but GULAG and death! … Pick your side.74

Consequently, “Nikitin” announced his intention to recruit individuals for the TDF and assist in their travel to Ukraine. So far, it has brought paltry results, with only a handful of individuals showcased by “Nikitin” as recruits.75

Furthermore, “Nikitin” and other extreme right online influencers (or “entrepreneurs”76) attempted to sway the significant numbers in their audience sympathetic to Russia.77 They portrayed Russia not only as a dictatorial kleptocracy but also as a pro-Muslim country fielding Chechen units to fight Ukraine.78 Moreover, according to these extreme-right influencers, the 2022 invasion had “exposed” Russia as being more Asian than European as it used Asian-looking troops from the Eastern Military District to attack Kyiv.79 Given pictures that emerged of some Russian troops in Ukraine flying the Soviet flag,80 they also branded Russia as communist.81 Its army was compared to a “horde” (in reference to the Mongolian, i.e., Asian, Golden Horde) and its troops dubbed “orcs” (humanoid monsters).82 The extreme right-wing entrepreneurs argued that these factors outweighed the fact that the Western democracies they abhorred were supporting Ukraine.83 And they similarly chose to overlook President Zelensky’s Jewish heritage.84

Veteran Far-Right Foreign Fighters

The 2014 Ukraine conflict featured foreign fighters from far-right organizations such as the Svenskarnas parti (Party of the Swedes, or SvP)85 and the Croat football hooligans86 for the Ukrainian side and Italian Forza Nuova,87 the French Jeunesses Identitaires, Jeunesses Nationalistes, Lys Noir,88 the Serbian nationalist “chetnik” movement,89 and Czechoslovak Soldiers in Reserve90 for the “separatists.” Some of these foreign fighters from 2014 are now back in Ukraine, with some fighting on its side91 and some for Russia.92 Some other foreign fighter veterans stayed in Ukraine93 or the “separatist” territories after 2014.94

Due to their experience, multitude of contacts on the ground, and ability to offer quick and pointed advice to the new foreign volunteers, these far-right veterans sometimes evolved into gatekeepers for likeminded individuals from abroad. Some became propagandists of a given side in the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war.95

The most prominent cases on the Ukrainian side in 2022 are veterans of the original Azov Battalion/Regiment from the 2014 conflict, including Mikael Skillt, a well-known Swedish foreign fighter and a former member of the aforementioned far-right SvP.96 In 2022, Skillt was meant to lead a larger Azov Movement-recruited contingent for the so-called Ukraine International Legion.97 As described above, this recruitment effort, quickly came to nothing (it garnered only 20-30 foreigners). Thanks to the fact he has resided in Ukraine since 2014 and his broad contacts in the country’s military, Skillt was able to link up with the Ukrainian SSO in the east of the country despite the ban on foreign recruitment. At the same time, his small number of foreign followers joined the International Legion.98

There are other foreign veterans in a position to play gatekeeper roles. Denis Šeler, a far-right Croat and another alumni of 2014, reportedly organized and then led a group of Croat fighters adjacent to a TDF unit in the battle of Kyiv.99 A British foreign fighter with no clear-cut ideology who fought with Azov in 2014 has also been mentioned as a key individual for interested foreign volunteers to reach out to by members of a social media group recruiting such individuals for Ukraine in the 2022 conflict.100 Additionally, a handful of other foreign veterans of Azov were also said to have been fighting as part of the TDF around Kyiv.101

It is worth noting that “separatist” forces fighting on the Russian side also feature foreign alumni of 2014. Three of them, including an Italian extreme leftist,102 a Serbian nationalist,103 and an Irish fighter,104 were killed in the renewed conflict. Other notable alumni of 2014 fighting for Russia include a self-declared leader of a nationalist “chetnik” movement in Serbia and his compatriot (who fought in the war since 2014 and then stayed in the “People’s Republics” and is now referred to as a “captain” in the latter’s forces,105) a far-right French army veteran,106 and a Slovak right-wing extremist.107

Far-Right Helpers

In the years since the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, Western far-right organizations have built up contacts with their Ukrainian counterparts. Since the Russian invasion in February 2022, some of these far-right organizations have sought to provide assistance to these contacts in Ukraine. These efforts are relevant to the foreign fighter issue because they may result in funds and/or equipment being directly supplied to Western far-right foreign fighters inside Ukraine. More broadly, such assistance efforts may facilitate far-right foreign fighter mobilization because they deepen the connectivity and communication between far-right groups in the West and Ukraine.

The assistance efforts from Western far-right groups have included tactical equipment provision to ‘friendly’ Azov Movement-connected TDF units. For example, activists of the French Identitarian L’Alvarium, which was proscribed by the French government in November 2021 for incitement of racial hatred and alleged participation in violent actions,108 managed in recent months to link up with the Azov Movement in Kyiv109 and donated tactical equipment for its TDF “Kraken” unit, which is now fighting around Kharkiv.110 The Azov Movement has showcased material assistance its TDF forces received from Finland and Norway (via anonymous donors)111 as well as “Polish allies.”112 The extreme-right German Der III. Weg (Third Way) party, which has longstanding relations with the Azov Movement, also donated equipment to Azov Movement-linked forces fighting in the east of Ukraine113 and offered to accommodate the refugee wives and children of their Ukrainian brethren who remained behind to fight in Ukraine.114

Several Western far-right groups have also provided humanitarian assistance. For example, Spanish Autonomous Nationalists have in recent months been involved in food and medicine collection campaigns for Ukraine.115 Furthermore, French far-right groups such as Lyon Populaire, Auxilium Europae, Helix Dijon, Luminis Paris, Les Braves, and Bordeaux Nationaliste have also organized humanitarian convoys and sent medical aid to Ukraine.116 Polish nationalists from the Szturm magazine milieu traveled to Kyiv with humanitarian assistance where they met with representatives of the Azov Movement.117 And finally, the youth wing of the CasaPound Italia sent some of its activists on a “humanitarian mission” to Ukraine.118

Some Western far-right groups have sought to fundraise for Ukrainian far-right groups involved in the conflict. For example, some American supporters of James Mason and the group National Socialist Order “encouraged purchasing merchandise from Ukrainian online far-right stores and donating cryptocurrency to the Azov Movement.”119

Conclusion

Ukrainian efforts against Russia have been called a “crowdsourced war” in which a “people’s army” is mobilized in a bottom-up fashion to repel a foreign invasion via an “open call” put forward by the Ukrainian government.120 This was the initial idea behind the creation of the “volunteer battalions” in 2014. These efforts tapped the energy of Ukrainian civil society, which prides itself on its ability to bypass bureaucratic obstacles and the inertia of state institutions.121 Eight years later, the call by President Zelensky for foreign volunteers to join the nascent International Legion continued this crowdsourcing strategy.122 Not only did this approach allow foreign volunteers to join or attempt to join Ukrainian TDF units, but it also encouraged other forms of foreign support to arrive in Ukraine. Alongside official channels, other sub-state actors, including the transnational far-right, also mobilized assistance to Ukraine. While the latter’s efforts constitute a proverbial drop in the ocean as far as the totality of pro-Ukraine assistance efforts are concerned, their presence testifies to the existence of relatively robust connections between different Western and Ukrainian far-right actors.

Although Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine for the most part did not energize the transnational far-right, extreme-right online influencers attempted to encourage their followers to support Ukraine and some Western right-wing extremist organizations provided assistance to their Ukrainian counterparts engaged in the fight. Radical veterans from 2014 also resurfaced, and some of them have acted or attempted to act as gatekeepers for the arriving foreigners. Simultaneously, however, the units that in 2014 fielded far-right foreign fighters are generally not keen on recruiting new ones. While new entities interested in doing so emerged, their haphazard recruitment efforts have so far netted few extreme right-wing foreign volunteers for Ukraine. While the 2014 foreign fighter mobilization on the Ukrainian side had a significant nexus to far-right extremism, this has not so far been the case for the 2022 foreign fighter contingent.

All this means it is important for Western governments to keep track of foreign nationals fighting on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine, especially those with right-wing extremist views as some may pose security threats in the future because of the military skills they are acquiring and the networks they are developing. But it is also vital for Western governments to counter Russian disinformation efforts that massively inflate the presence of right-wing extremists on the Ukrainian side. In 2022, Zelensky’s Ukraine is a laboratory not for right-wing extremism but for democratic freedom.     CTC

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