Opportunities in Ukraine Too Limited to Provide White Supremacists With Military Training
This op-ed is part of a new debate from Russia Matters. It is a rebuttal to "Rebuttal: Ukraine Is Emerging as Critical Node for White-Supremacy Extremists" by Mollie Saltskog and Colin P. Clarke. The opening argument can be read here: "Is Ukraine a Hub for International White Supremacist Fighters?" by Huseyn Aliyev.
This piece is a response to “Rebuttal: Ukraine Is Emerging as Critical Node for White-Supremacy Extremists” by Mollie Saltskog and Colin P. Clarke. I will use this opportunity to restate my earlier argument, which I will support with further evidence. I would also like to emphasize a few factual errors and inaccuracies in the report by Saltskog and Clarke, the clarification of which is likely to weaken and undermine their arguments.
Notwithstanding the rise of far-right activism in Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution, I do not believe that Ukraine currently serves as a hub providing international white supremacists with “military training” and “battlefield experience,” as argued by Saltskog and Clarke. My argument rests on two assumptions. First, the “legalization” of foreign fighters in Ukraine has made it increasingly hard for foreigners with no language skills or previous history of residence in Ukraine to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces. Saltskog and Clarke cite an interview with Azov’s spokesperson Olena Semenyaka, where Semenyaka lists challenges for foreigners willing to join Azov and admits that opportunities for foreign nationals to serve in the Azov regiment are extremely limited. There are no volunteer battalions currently operating independently from the Ukrainian armed forces, without a formal status with either the Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Defense. Indeed, individual cases of alleged foreign white supremacists currently or recently serving in the Ukrainian armed forces have been reported. However, these cases—some of which were listed in the piece by Saltskog and Clarke—detail no more than five instances of foreign far-right activists serving in Ukraine, which hardly justifies the use of the term “hub.” Even the situation in Ukraine at the height of armed conflict in 2014-15 cannot be compared with the inflow of foreign radicals to ISIS and al-Qaeda, as only about two dozen alleged far-right and white supremacist volunteers were present in Ukraine at any time during the conflict.
Second, no combat activities involving infantry operations have been taking place on the line of contact between the Ukrainian forces and DNR/LNR separatists since 2016. Occasional artillery exchanges, sniper fire and small-level skirmishes between reconnaissance groups from both sides are recorded as the only armed confrontations. It is therefore unclear what other opportunities of gaining “battlefield experience” exist for foreign activists in Ukraine.
Saltskog and Clarke write that a U.S. national and a member of the Base movement traveled to Ukraine in the fall of 2019 “to fight on the frontlines.” However, it remains unclear how someone could participate in fighting if no combat activities involving infantry operations have taken place in Donbass since early 2017.
Since much of the “fighting” occurring in eastern Ukraine involves occasional long-range artillery exchanges, it would be impossible to gain any sort of “battlefield experience” beyond the skills of operating Ukrainian- and Soviet-made heavy artillery pieces. This type of military experience will unlikely be of use for potential foreign volunteers either in their home countries or in many other conflict zones.
I do not exclude the possibility of foreigners enlisting into the Ukrainian armed forces. Yet I do not see what benefit it can offer them in the absence of opportunities to participate in combat involving small arms. The Ukrainian army remains notorious for its poor discipline, lack of training, hazing, lack of funding, poor food and unhygienic living conditions. It is highly unlikely that foreign fighters are able to receive even minimally adequate military training while serving in the Ukrainian military units. Those foreign fighters serving in the Ukrainian armed forces (mostly from the former Soviet Union) whom I encountered during my fieldwork serve as instructors training Ukrainian personnel and sharing their experience. Their incentives for joining the Ukrainian army were almost exclusively professional.
Most importantly, Saltskog and Clarke seem to conflate the presence of domestic far-right activist groups with military training offered to foreign white supremacists in Ukraine. While there is an abundance of far-right organizations in Ukraine, none of them has access to military training facilities, firearms or opportunities to participate in armed conflict. Although many such groups claim that they will seek to organize training camps, none of these claims have materialized since 2014. As a matter of fact, the united far-right bloc (including the Azov movement) represented by the radical Svoboda party at last year’s presidential election only managed to secure less than 2 percent of votes. This is a good indication that far-right parties and organizations lack popular support and are extremely marginal.1
There is plentiful evidence, including from my own five years of fieldwork in Ukraine, that domestic far-right political parties (such as National Corps) and ultranationalist and far-right civil society groups, including C-14 and the National Militia, actively collaborate with like-minded foreign far-right organizations and individuals, as detailed in my original contribution to Russia Matters. Saltskog and Clarke have gathered further evidence in support of my original claims: There is active networking and collaboration between domestic radical organizations and their international partners. Similar forms of collaboration are maintained by the U.S. and British far-right communities, as well as radical organizations from many other parts of the world.
However, none of that evidence demonstrates that foreign far-right activists receive military training or battlefield experience in Ukraine. The only evidence in support of this claim provided by Saltskog and Clarke is a reference to a U.S. member of the Rise Above Movement who “seems to have trained with Azov’s National Corps gym in Odessa.” The word “trained” seemed to have been gravely misinterpreted by the authors, as the provided link to a Twitter account shows photos of individuals working out in a gym, as opposed to receiving military training. It is also unclear how “battlefield experience” could have been obtained in Odessa, a city that is not even close to Donbass and has not experienced armed military confrontation during this conflict. The authors also seem to have been unaware that a series of gyms owned by the National Corps across Ukraine are open to the general public, and a monthly membership card can be purchased at any of these gyms. Their training programs include various sports, including martial arts, but no military training.
The authors continuously refer to Right Sector as white supremacist, which is an erroneous claim. Right Sector is a political movement on the basis of which the Volunteer Corps of Ukraine (DUK) and Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UDA) militant organizations were assembled. Both DUK and UDA included Muslim Crimean Tatar units, as well as Muslim Chechen units. They also had a number of Ukrainian Jews serving among their ranks. As Saltskog and Clarke are keen to support their claims with references to al-Qaeda, I would be fascinated to learn whether al-Qaeda also had practicing Jews or Christians among their members.
Right Sector, as well as UDA and DUK military units, are Ukrainian ultranationalist organizations, and their ideology is based not on white supremacism but on Ukrainian nationalism. A voluminous body of literature has been published on Ukrainian nationalism and its distinctions from nationalist movements elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe (examples here and here), with which I am sure Saltskog and Clarke are familiar. As Ukrainian nationalism rests upon the principle of national (rather than ethnic or religious) identity, it does not exclude members of non-Slavic or non-Christian ethnic groups identifying themselves as Ukrainian nationalists. Therefore, during my fieldwork in Ukraine, I frequently encountered Crimean Tatar (Muslim), Georgian, ethnic Jewish, ethnic Greek and ethnic Armenian Ukrainian ultranationalists.2
Another example of factual inaccuracies is that Saltskog and Clarke claim that “Right Sector units … allegedly operate outside the formal control of the Ukrainian government” with a reference to an official webpage of the Right Sector movement (in Ukrainian) that does not contain a single reference in support of the above claim.
It is noteworthy that Saltskog and Clarke seem to brand all volunteer battalions as ultranationalist and white supremacist. However, only Azov, UNA-UNSO and DUK/UDA (Right Sector) espouse ultranationalist views. In fact, Azov’s ideology is a mixture of old Slavic (pre-Christian/Nestorian) paganism and modern Ukrainian nationalism. The authors have also omitted the evidence that one of the founders and senior leaders of the Azov battalion, Natan Khazin, is a practicing Jew, which was presented in my original contribution to Russia Matters. Of course, all of the above evidence does not preclude that there are individuals in either Azov or in other ex-battalions with anti-Semitic views. However, individuals with anti-Semitic views were also present in the ranks of the U.S. Army, which cannot serve as evidence that it is a “hub for white supremacists.”
There is also plentiful evidence that the vast majority of Azov’s members are Russian-speakers from Eastern, Southern and Central (Kyiv) regions of Ukraine3, which makes it hard to describe the group as a typical ultranationalist organization. In my own experience of conducting fieldwork among the members of the Azov regiment, the group is a “melting pot” of ethnicities, religions, views and ideologies. While I have encountered individuals with neo-Nazi and far-right views, the majority of Azov’s former and active members with whom I communicated had no clearly defined ideological background, apart from broader Ukrainian patriotic views. Members of Ukraine’s ethnic minorities, including Muslims and ethnic Jews, were well represented among Azov rank-and-file members.
The authors claim that reports that Azov “accepted money from a Ukrainian oligarch active in the Jewish community” are unconfirmed. However, there is plentiful evidence gathered by a BBC report that Ihor Kolomoisky—a dual Ukrainian-Israeli national and the president of the European Council of Jewish Communities—funded several volunteer battalions, including Azov. In fact, the above-mentioned report is citing Kolomoisky’s own words. Moreover, Kolomoisky is an official founder and sponsor of the “Dnipro-1” battalion from his home city of Dnepropetrovsk.
Evidence collected by Saltskog and Clarke on the presence of foreign far-right activists among pro-Russian separatists in Donbass either refers to the early conflict period in 2014-15 (that is before the DNR/LNR People’s Militias were reformed in 2018), or fails to provide any credible or concrete details. I have not personally been to DNR/LNR and I therefore have no first-hand data to support my claims. However, I regularly monitor Russian-language open sources and social networks on the DNR/LNR People’s Militia, and my personal impression is that DNR/LNR are far more demanding as to the quality of volunteers after the change of leadership in both enclaves in 2018-19, and particularly with the closer reliance of these armed groups on the professional Russian military. I would also expect any far-right activist to be ideologically at odds with the official state ideologies of DNR/LNR, which draw heavily on Marxist-Stalinist and communist principles.
In conclusion, I do not exclude the possibility of foreign nationals with white supremacist views serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. However, both the evidence collected by Saltskog and Clarke and my own five-year-long experience of conducting fieldwork among former and active members of Ukrainian volunteer battalions demonstrate that these cases are few and far between. Independent and “uncontrolled” volunteer battalions have long been legalized and integrated into various formal security forces structures. The legal environment makes it extremely challenging for non-Russian/Ukrainian-speaking foreigners to enlist in the Ukrainian armed forces. Low training and operational standards of the Ukrainian army limit military training opportunities for possible foreign volunteers. Above all, cessation of combat activities on the line of contact between the Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists eliminate any opportunities for acquiring combat experience as part of the Ukrainian armed forces.
As with other conflict zones, Ukraine is likely to serve as a hypothetical “dreamland” for foreign white supremacists. However, the actual opportunities on the ground are limited and the likelihood of international far-right visitors acquiring actual military training or battlefield experience is minimal.
- Only 0.8 percent of the Ukrainian public expressed their trust and support of the leader of the Azov movement, Andriy Biletsky, as captured by an opinion poll conducted Aug. 13, 2020: https://razumkov.org.ua/napriamky/sotsiologichni-doslidzhennia/sotsialnopolitychna-sytuatsiia-v-ukraini-lypen-2020r
- See Aliyev, H. (2020) “‘Unlikely recruits’: Why politically-irrelevant ethnic minorities participate in civil wars?.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Online first DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2020.1793457.
- See Aliyev, H. (2019) “The Logic of Ethnic Responsibility and Pro-Government Mobilization in East Ukraine Conflict.” Comparative Political Studies, 52(8), pp. 1200-1231, p.1204.
Huseyn Aliyev is a lecturer in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow.
Photo by Carl Ridderstråle shared under a Creative Commons license.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.