Rebuttal: Ukraine Is Emerging as Critical Node for White-Supremacy Extremists
This article is part of a Russia Matters debate.
In his recent article “Is Ukraine a Hub for International White Supremacist Fighters?” Huseyn Aliyev argues that the phenomenon of foreigners traveling to join the conflict in eastern Ukraine has died down since late 2014, largely due to Ukraine’s process of disbanding paramilitary groups and integrating them into the country’s official security forces. He strongly suggests that the threat posed by neo-Nazis and others with far-right views who have connections to Ukraine is overblown. The Soufan Center’s research, to which both authors of this rebuttal have contributed, suggests the opposite. We find that foreigners are still networking, training and fighting on both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, cultivating skills and connections that strengthen the transnational white-supremacy extremist networks of today—which, though far from monolithic, are more violent, more organized and more capable than even five years ago. By focusing on the waning number of foreign ultranationalist fighters present in Ukraine, Aliyev downplays both the immediate dangers posed by radicals with battlefield experience and the threat that comes from Ukraine's new significance as what we believe to be a hub for far-right groups to network and exchange expertise. Just as Salafi-jihadists have used conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria to gain combat experience, so too do white supremacists use Ukraine as a battlefield laboratory in the present day. And as the conflict in Afghanistan gave birth to a transnational Salafi-jihadist organization, al-Qaeda, with members of different nationalities, so too could the dynamics of the Ukraine conflict enable a right-wing equivalent, in our view.
Extremist Elements in Volunteer Battalions
Volunteer battalions have served an important purpose in the Ukrainian conflict and, as Aliyev notes, many of these battalions included a diverse cadre of fighters, including Muslims and ethnic Tartars and Chechens, as well as European, American and Georgian nationals. However, Aliyev’s argument that the battalions are not monolithic and thus cannot be labeled as traditional white supremacist organizations does not negate the formidable presence of extremist ultranationalist elements within some of the battalions’ ranks. Aliyev himself concedes that from the beginning of the conflict “some of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions served as magnets for neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other adherents of far-right ideologies who traveled from all over the world to join the fighting.” Just as the mujahideen in Afghanistan were not all adherents of Salafi-jihadist ideology, and as al-Qaeda recruited and attracted foreigners fighting for different reasons, so too did the units in Ukraine draw fighters adhering to diverse sets of beliefs—including far-right and white supremacist ideologies.
There is little doubt, in our view, that one of the best known volunteer-turned-official battalions in Ukraine, the Azov Regiment (also known as the Azov Battalion), is not only dominated by ultranationalists but an integral part of a three-pronged movement that has a long history of espousing neo-Nazi and white supremacy ideology and committing human rights abuses. Evidence of this has been presented by both human rights organizations and the United Nations. Unconfirmed reports, cited by Aliyev, that Azov accepted money from a Ukrainian oligarch active in the Jewish community do not mean some of the battalion’s members are not anti-Semitic. After all, al-Qaeda fighters in 1980s Afghanistan benefited from assistance provided to the Afghan mujahideen more broadly, including weapons and money from the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—three nations that al-Qaeda would go on to target in the years following the end of the Afghan-Soviet conflict. If politics makes for strange bedfellows, warfare makes for even stranger ones, and history is replete with examples of groups at odds ideologically with external sponsors providing support.
Likewise, on the pro-Russian side of the conflict, combatants include members of the Russian Imperial Movement, or RIM, which has trained foreigners adhering to neo-Nazi and white supremacy beliefs in paramilitary tactics as recently as this year. As Aliyev noted, RIM was designated a global terrorist organization by the U.S. in April—the first “white supremacist” group to earn this distinction, according to the State Department—and it had reportedly helped recruit Russian fighters for the separatist side in Ukraine.
Political Efforts Have Not Eliminated Far-Right Presence in Ukraine
Aliyev notes that several policy shifts by the Ukrainian government—first and foremost, the integration of volunteer battalions into official military and police agencies—as well as changing battlefield dynamics have lessened the appeal for foreigners, including those with far-right views, to travel to Ukraine to participate in the conflict. While the number of foreigners in eastern Ukraine is certainly less than it was during the height of the fighting in 2014-2015, it would be wishful thinking to credit the Ukrainian government with outright success on this front or to believe that the threat posed by ultranationalist ex-combatants has been completely eliminated. As we outline in greater detail below, at least three factors complicate the picture: It is unclear how fully the Ukrainian government controls all the former volunteer units; the government likely has little to no control over violent nationalist hate groups, which are sometimes associated with the battalions; and, as Aliyev acknowledges, a trickle of foreign ultranationalists seeking battlefield experience has continued into Ukraine in recent years.
First, as noted above, not all ultranationalist fighters have been successfully included under the Ukrainian government’s umbrella. On the pro-separatist side of the conflict—fully outside the Ukrainian government’s reach—there is an array of fighters and groups, including white supremacists like RIM. On the opposite side, examples include Right Sector units, which still allegedly operate outside the formal control of the Ukrainian government, although the extent to which these units are involved in active fighting is unclear.
Second, former volunteer battalions that the government has, in Aliyev’s words, “sought to establish control over,” like Azov, continue to associate and organize alongside neo-Nazi and white supremacist political elements and street movements. Evidence has shown, for example, that Azov’s military wing is not independent from the movement’s openly extremist political party, the National Corps, and violent street faction, the National Militia. It remains debatable how much actual control the Ukrainian government exerts over the activities of the Azov movement as a whole, including its association with extremist elements both inside and outside of Ukraine. Azov maintains its own “international department” to help recruit foreign fighters and connect with people from like-minded violent organizations from across the globe. Even after Azov had been officially integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard, Olena Semenyaka, the self-described spokesperson for the entire Azov movement, claimed in an interview with the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, or NRM, that one goal was to eventually establish a “foreign legion” within the Azov Regiment. She detailed plans of opening training camps for foreigners where they could “join for a one-week training course which will involve military tactics, shooting and more. It will be in the east at our base and you can contact me on Facebook if you’re interested.” While there has been no evidence of such camps materializing, Semenyaka’s comments strongly suggest that Azov’s ambitions of recruiting foreigners and forging ties with fellow travelers from other countries were not eliminated by its official integration in the National Guard.
Third, foreigners—including individuals with far-right views—have continued traveling, or trying to travel, to Ukraine to train and gain combat experience, even after the erstwhile volunteer battalions came under the wing of the government. In the past year alone, two U.S. nationals have been apprehended ahead of planned trips to Ukraine, one of them a member of white supremacist organization The Base and the other, who was specifically looking to join the Azov Battalion, accused by U.S. authorities of plotting violent attacks at home. Yet another U.S. national affiliated with The Base reportedly traveled to Ukraine in the fall of 2019 to fight on the frontlines (not specifying which group he was looking to join). It remains clear, as Aliyev himself suggests, that traveling to Ukraine to fight is still appealing to white supremacists. And our research indicates that the Azov movement, for example, is still actively recruiting and training foreigners espousing neo-Nazi, white supremacy and right-wing extremist ideology. A recent example includes a U.S. national and member of the white supremacy organization Rise Above Movement, or RAM, known as “Robert Smithson” who seems to have trained with Azov’s National Corps gym in Odessa sometime in late 2018 or early 2019.
Furthermore, some foreign fighters linked to far-right causes who came to Ukraine at the height of the conflict either continued fighting after the battalions’ integration or moved on to other global hot spots. Based on analysis of social media, a Twitter user calling himself “Mikola the Swede” (likely the same “Mikola” identified as hailing from Stockholm in a 2014 interview with the Irish Times) was still active on the frontlines as of July 2020, fighting for what appears to be the Azov Regiment. He self-identifies as a nationalist and denies any association with white supremacy ideology; however, his use and sharing of language and symbols used by the white supremacy movement, such as referencing “1488,” and his open anti-immigration, anti-Black Lives Matter sentiment suggest otherwise. Former U.S. soldier Craig Lang—whose personal beliefs are a matter of debate, but who provided advice on joining Azov to the American white supremacist arrested last year for plotting violent attacks in the U.S.—fought with Ukrainian battalions after they had been incorporated into the country’s military and police. On the pro-separatist side, apart from the Russian nationals still present on the frontlines, other foreigners are still active, including those on the far right: Reportedly this includes some French citizens who had fought with the ultra-nationalist Continental Unity group (Unité Continentale), a French-Serbian legion that fought alongside RIM; while the majority have left Ukraine, some have moved on to other conflicts, for example in Syria and Libya, where Russian fighters and proxies have been active, and in Iraq. (Lang and a fellow American ex-soldier who had also fought in Ukraine made failed attempts to travel to fight in Africa and Venezuela.)
Violence by Returnees
Aliyev himself concedes that, “as with foreign fighters from jihadist groups, international ultranationalist volunteers pose obvious security risks for their home countries.” The starkest example of violence committed by foreign right-wing individuals associated with ultranationalist battalions fighting in eastern Ukraine involves two Swedish nationals affiliated with the NRM who, according to Swedish court documents, participated in a RIM training camp in 2016 and, upon returning to Sweden, detonated home-made bombs at several locations, including a refugee center. Lang and his associate from the Ukrainian frontlines, a U.S. Army deserter, were charged in 2018 in the murder of a Florida couple. (Prior to fighting in Ukraine, Lang had reportedly served jail time for trying to kill his wife.) Though there are few examples for now of foreign returnees from Ukraine committing violence in other countries, the two cases above should serve as an austere warning that extremists with violent intentions are drawn to groups operating on both sides of the conflict and can spread the violence to other places. It is important to remember, too, that extremist returnees may not conduct acts of violence immediately upon arrival in their home countries or elsewhere. After all, it took Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda almost a decade to orchestrate the first attack targeting the U.S. for which they took credit, the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998.
The Power of Networking
There is no doubt that the on-the-ground dynamics of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, specifically its slower pace, have reduced the influx of foreign combatants as opportunities for battlefield action have shrunk. In addition, the recent pressure from U.S. lawmakers and traditional media has likely made some battalion members wary of the negative press resulting from allowing foreign white supremacists in their ranks. However, what the conflict represents to the white supremacist network worldwide should not be underestimated. The white supremacist scene in Ukraine has been dramatically transformed thanks to the prominence of ultranationalist volunteer battalions like Azov and the Right Sector. Prior to the war, the Ukrainian neo-Nazi and white supremacist scene looked to Europe for inspiration and validation. Today, Ukraine is seen as a beacon for adherents of these ideologies and a place for white supremacists from around the world to travel for opportunities to network, swap tactics on recruitment and funding and learn from the perceived success of the Ukrainian nationalist establishment. In the 1980s and 1990s Afghanistan served as a hub for the Salafi-jihadist movement, offering a chance to train, network and acquire hands-on knowledge related to bomb making, surveillance detection and operations security—key components in refining the tactical capabilities of terrorists and other violent extremists. The trends we have observed suggest Ukraine is emerging as such a hub for white supremacists.
There is no question that the Azov movement and other Ukrainian ultranationalists have forged relationships with like-minded groups from other countries. Notorious “alt-right” ideologue Greg Johnson, a U.S. national, lectured in Kyiv at Azov’s invitation in October 2018, on the heels of a visit by three RAM members. Johnson believes in creating a white ethno-state and regularly promotes the Azov movement’s nationalist achievements on his platforms, suggesting a replication of that perceived success in the United States. Similarly, Semenyaka travels across Europe by invitation to speak at the most prominent international far-right conferences and events, where she promotes Azov’s geopolitical ideology and ambitions—the so-called “Intermarium Defense Union,” which seeks to rearm Europe and restore European identity and sovereignty. Asgardsrei, an annual “national Socialist black metal” festival put on by individuals linked to the Azov movement, attracted nearly 1,000 foreigners in December 2018, according to the organizers, including members from the Atomwaffen Division, Italy’s CasaPound and Germany’s The Third Path party. Recently leaked posts from the now defunct Iron March forum (active 2011 to 2017) show the fascination white supremacists from across the globe had with Ukraine, including swapping advice on how to travel to join the Azov Battalion and Right Sector. When RAM’s Smithson visited Ukraine again this year, he spoke in support of RAM members convicted in the U.S. at a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv; the gathering was led by “Tradition and Order,” a group known for its anti-LGBTQ attacks and documented ties to the Azov movement, as well as white supremacist organizations outside of Ukraine. In December 2019, a slick video surfaced on encrypted chat forums announcing the establishment of a Ukrainian affiliate of Atomwaffen Division, AWD Galizien. The video, whose authenticity could not be verified, depicted a member pledging allegiance to AWD, using similar language to that of affiliates pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda, and ending the video with a Nazi salute. The video alluded to potential connections with the Azov movement and Right Sector, with individuals donning military clothing and wearing blurred-out patches akin to those of the two battalions. Indeed, if the video is authentic, which remains debatable, then a transnational white supremacist organization whose members and sympathizers have been convicted on charges of violence and terrorism in the U.S. and several European countries have now established an affiliate in Ukraine, signaling the country’s importance to white supremacists worldwide.
Azov’s international outreach over the past years has helped advance Ukraine’s role in the transnational white supremacy movement. The Azov movement has documented ties to the most violent white supremacy extremist organizations in the U.S. and Europe, including: the AWD (U.S.), National Action (U.K.), the Patriot Front (U.S.) and RAM (U.S.)—all of which have members convicted for violent attacks, some of them charged on crimes of terrorism. There are striking resemblances, in our view, between the Azov’s international department and al-Qaeda’s Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), which was responsible for promoting the cause and helping recruits reach the battlefield in Afghanistan. Both of them played a role in recruiting new members and assisting with the logistics that are essential in building a broader network of foreign fighters.
Where to Next?
Although Westerners espousing some form of right-wing extremist ideology, like white supremacy, seem to make up a small portion of the foreigners who have flocked to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, we must remember that on the eve of 9/11, al-Qaeda included only around 400 members, according to former FBI agent Ali Soufan—and its leadership met through the conflict in Afghanistan. In Ukraine’s case, an estimated 17,000 individuals from over 50 countries have traveled to actively take part in fighting on both sides in the conflict since 2014. The overwhelming majority of them—around 15,000—were Russian nationals, while over 1,000 came from Western countries. (For comparison, around 10,000 foreigners traveled to Afghanistan to fight the USSR in the 1980s.) As noted both by Aliyev and in our September 2019 report, foreigners joined for a variety of reasons, but many espoused white supremacist or other forms of right-wing extremist ideology, often self-identifying as “nationalists.” Recent field research by Kacper Rekawek estimates that this subgroup made up approximately 50-80 percent of the 1,000-plus Westerners who traveled to fight in the conflict.
Disturbingly, no estimates exist of the number of far-right foreigners leaving Ukraine and, although some legal actions have been taken by European countries, many ultranationalist ex-fighters may have gone undetected by law enforcement, arguably increasing the threat these individuals pose to their home countries. Germany in particular ranks high on the list for potential blowback, given the number of its nationals estimated to have fought in Ukraine—about 165 by our count—and the significant increase in right-wing extremists in the country, as observed by the domestic intelligence agency. The phenomenon has even affected Germany’s military, including its special forces. A 2020 report examining returnees and countries’ different approaches noted: “With fighters returning from Ukraine, there is a lack of uniformity not only in the legal approach to the punitive practice, but also in its implementation, and … most countries have only chosen to consider applying it to fighters on the pro-Russian side.” Indeed, it is critical to understand the role that these conflicts play in radicalizing young men and offering them battlefield experience before they return home or travel onward with a renewed sense of purpose and ideological zeal. For those who were already prone to violence or part of an extremist network that aided travel to the conflict, the battlefield experience will have offered them new opportunities to expand their networks and gain respect in the transnational movement.
Unfortunately, contrary to what Aliyev implies, Kyiv’s integration of the volunteer battalions into Ukraine’s official forces has in some ways complicated efforts to prevent the conflict in eastern Ukraine from being a hotbed for extremists, at least as seen from Washington. In the past, the U.S. government has refrained from designating certain violent actors as foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs, out of geopolitical or strategic considerations. For example, in the Syrian civil war, there was an unwillingness to designate the militant group Ahrar al-Sham as an FTO due to its perceived effectiveness in fighting against the Assad regime. In the realm of realpolitik, not all violent non-state actors are created equal, and one country’s ally is another country’s terrorist group (compare U.S. and Turkish views on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces/People’s Protection Units). Against today’s geopolitical backdrop, with Ukraine persisting as a bone of contention between the U.S. and Russia, there have been objections and reluctance in Washington—from pundits and officials alike—when it comes to the idea of designating certain ultranationalist battalions and groups in Ukraine, like elements within the Azov movement, as terrorist groups.
But how robustly have U.S. officials assessed such groups’ importance as a node in transnational white supremacy extremist networks and the potential threat they pose? Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reportedly described “the threat from white supremacists as the deadliest domestic terror threat facing the U.S.,” more dangerous than foreign terrorist groups. U.S. lawmakers have debated and introduced policies aimed at limiting the chances of U.S. weapons and aid going to ultranationalist battalions in Ukraine, while ensuring that Kyiv can stave off further Russian aggression. In April of this year, meanwhile, the U.S. State Department did designate RIM—based in Russia, which Washington officially considers an adversary—as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity for training foreigners motivated by white-supremacy beliefs who ultimately conducted violent attacks. This was an important step in acknowledging the threat such groups pose to U.S. national security. We should learn from the mistakes of the past, including our ventures in Afghanistan, and simply because violent organizations serve our geopolitical goals today does not mean that they will not turn around and attack the U.S. homeland tomorrow.
There are numerous policy options available to give law enforcement and the intelligence community the tools needed to effectively counter this growing threat, chief among them, in our view, are FTO and SDGT designations. U.S. allies, like Canada and the UK, have already designated and banned right-wing extremist groups in their countries—something the United States should consider. Critically, such designations could hinder would-be terrorists from entering the United States and criminalize U.S. individuals’ support to the designated individuals and groups. In addition, the designations would allow for the collection of information on U.S. nationals traveling overseas to network, train and fight with designated groups, as well as block the movement of assets to those designated and enhance Silicon Valley’s ability to curb terrorism content online. Other options include, inter alia: legislation that criminalizes all forms of domestic terrorism; increased, streamlined data collection on domestic terrorism and hate crimes and their perpetrators’ potential transnational linkages; increased earmarked funding for DHS and other government agencies to combat domestic terrorism; leading multilateral efforts at raising awareness and countering the threat from transnational far-right extremism.
- The interview was published in 2018; when it took place is unclear, but in it Semenyaka refers to the Azov battalion as part of the National Guard.
- Opinions on the issue are not divided strictly along party lines, but one example of resistance is that no Republican members of Congress signed Rep. Max Rose’s letter urging the U.S. Department of State to look into Azov and other organizations in an effort to identify FTOs. (NB: Fact-checkers have spotted at least one major Azov-related error in the letter.)
Mollie Saltskog is a senior intelligence analyst at The Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy based in New York City.
Colin P. Clarke
Colin P. Clarke is a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center and an assistant teaching professor at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.