Is Ukraine a Hub for International White Supremacist Fighters?
The start of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014 led to the emergence of over 40 pro-government volunteer battalions fighting on Kyiv’s side. The inability of the Ukrainian armed forces—plagued by corruption, low conscription rates and lack of funding—to halt advances by pro-Russian separatists in some of the initial phases of the conflict were among the key factors behind the rise of these paramilitary battalions. While some of them lacked a distinct political ideology, others were offshoots of far-right and ultranationalist groups, which functioned as skinhead gangs or football hooligan clubs in pre-Maidan Ukraine. My research indicates that almost from the start of armed conflict in the Donbass in spring 2014, 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. However, this soon became considerably more difficult: Starting as early as in late 2014, Ukraine’s process of disbanding paramilitary groups and integrating them into official forces resulted in an outflow of foreign fighters even as claims that the volunteer battalions remained a magnet for white supremacists persisted into 2019 (see examples here and here). That said, there is evidence that a small number of Western white supremacists are still trying to go to Ukraine to fight—perhaps unaware of the changes on the ground—and that ties between Ukrainian and Western far-right groups persist in the form of direct communication and visits to each other’s countries.
Magnet for Foreign White Supremacist Fighters
Since the start of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014, some Ukrainian pro-government paramilitary battalions, as well as pro-Russian separatist units, attracted foreign white supremacists and other far-right-wingers to their ranks. The main destinations for these fighters included several Ukrainian pro-government volunteer battalions openly espousing far-right ideologies, such as Azov, Right Sector1 and OUN battalions (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists). Foreign fighters also joined international battalions such as the Georgian National Legion, which called itself neither far right nor white supremacist but gave foreigners entrée onto the battlefield and a chance for combat experience—which is, in my view, what foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine wanted. (The commander of the Georgian National Legion, which was formed as a volunteer battalion in 2014 and later absorbed into the Ukrainian military, claimed in 2018 that 70 percent of his fighters are Georgian and the rest are from elsewhere—"Germany, U.S.A., U.K., Australia, Greece, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Armenia and Israel,” he told the BBC.)
Since volunteer battalions typically did not require their members to sign a contract in the initial phases of the conflict and few (if any) records of members’ citizenship were kept until the battalions’ incorporation into the state security services between late 2014 and 2016, a reliable count of the number of foreign fighters is unavailable—and it is even more difficult to calculate how many of those fighters had neo-Nazi or other far right views. Nonetheless, a 2019 report by the Soufan Center estimated that between 2014 and June 1, 2019, about 880 foreign fighters, not counting some 3,000 Russians,2 traveled to Ukraine to fight on Kyiv’s side. While the report notes, as have others, that the fighters came for a variety of reasons, its authors argue that “many fighters, particularly from Western countries, have taken advantage of the conflict in Ukraine to expand the global white supremacy extremist movement.”
Reports of foreign white supremacists and far-right activists fighting among the Ukrainian pro-government paramilitary battalions date back to the summer of 2014, and the volunteer battalions—some of them accused of robbery, torture and other questionable practices—soon emerged on the radar of U.S. policymakers. Members of Congress tried and failed for three years to ban U.S. funding from going to the Azov battalion before finally passing the necessary legislation in 2018, according to reporting by The Hill. More recently, on Oct. 16,2019, a group of 40 Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Max Rose signed a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding to know why the Ukrainian National Guard regiment Azov had not yet been designated a terrorist organization. Echoing a 2017 warning from the FBI, the letter claimed that Azov has a history of collaborating with and training white supremacists from the U.S. and other Western states, including the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter, Brenton Tarrant. (The Christchurch killer did not write about training with Azov in his manifesto; he mentions Ukraine once in the document, claiming to have visited. The flak jacket he wore during his shooting spree, however, included a symbol “commonly used” by the Azov battalion, according to the New York Times.) The congressional letter equated Azov with white supremacist groups in Europe, such as the U.K.’s National Action and the Nordic Resistance Movement, which the signatories also felt should be added to the Foreign Terrorist Organization list.
While Tarrant’s connections with Azov have been widely publicized, other Western white supremacists and ultranationalists who fought with Ukraine’s far right are less well known. Swedish sniper Mikael Skillt, a self-described “ethnic nationalist” who told the BBC in 2014 that he believes races should not mix, served with the Azov battalion early in the war, as did a handful of other far-right Swedes, including Robin Holmgren. A middle-aged Italian with “a past in the far right,” according to press reports, also fought with the battalion in 2014. Vice magazine reported on two Austrian ex-soldiers, Ben Fischer and Alex Kirschbaum, who fought with the Right Sector and had found “an outlet for [their] nationalism” in Ukraine. Former U.S. army soldier Craig Lang—now wanted in the U.S. for the 2018 murder of a Florida couple—fought in Ukraine in 2015-2016, first with Right Sector, then with the Georgian National Legion; although Lang has described himself as a “strict constitutionalist” and anti-communist, and a recent article claimed that “soldiers who served with Lang in Ukraine said they never heard him express any racist or extremist views,” the FBI accused him last year of providing advice on joining the Azov battalion to Jarrett William Smith, an American white supremacist and U.S. Army soldier who was arrested in September 2019 in connection with plans to bomb a U.S. news network and to assassinate liberal politicians and “antifa” activists.
Not Your Typical White Supremacist Groups
Notwithstanding multiple alleged and proven connections to white supremacists and far-right groups around the world, the Ukrainian volunteer battalions varied widely, as did the motives of the foreign fighters who joined them, and sometimes even the battalions with strong ultranationalist inclinations differed starkly from Western white supremacist organizations—if only because they attracted fighters whom hard-core racial supremacists would not have allowed in their ranks. Members of Ukraine’s Jewish community, such as Natan Khazin, have reportedly served with Azov, as have ethnic Greeks, while the motley Right Sector incorporated Muslim Chechen and Crimean Tatar fighters into its battalions. That such ultranationalist battalions as Azov and Right Sector reportedly received financing from oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who is a dual Israeli-Ukrainian citizen and a prominent member of Ukraine’s Jewish community, also undermines the notion that these units adhered to the anti-Semitic tenets of traditional white supremacist ideology.
While the conflict in eastern Ukraine initially served as a magnet for international fighters of various stripes, the situation began to change around the end of 2014. The initial chaos of the war in Donbass, which had allowed volunteer battalions to operate across the country with limited accountability, was relatively short-lived, as Kyiv’s signing of the Minsk I and Minsk II peace accords was accompanied by efforts to rein in the volunteer battalions and ultimately end their independence. Although my research indicates that some rogue volunteer units persisted until as recently as last summer, most of them had been either disbanded or incorporated into Ukraine’s ministries of Interior or Defense by the end of 2015. The new formalities and discipline introduced during this process, coupled with fewer opportunities for active combat and for those who do not speak Russian or Ukrainian, seem to have motivated many foreign fighters to leave the country.
With the onset of reforms, all ex-battalion members were required to sign service contracts and adhere to the military code of conduct. The Ukrainian military tried to enforce rigid discipline across the ex-battalions and most were no longer allowed even to be based in the Donbass region, let alone to participate in armed confrontations with pro-Russian separatists. From November 2014, Azov and many smaller battalions became officially registered regiments within Ukraine’s National Guard. By mid-2015, all ex-battalions were reportedly staffed only by contracted professional military servicemen.
This process of institutionalizing the volunteers eventually applied to foreigners as well, and included measures to weed out undesirables. A June 2016 presidential decree laid out the rules under which foreigners could serve in the Ukrainian military and mandated identity checks. While the law explicitly banned foreigners with a criminal record from serving, military recruiters have also been extremely careful about individuals with other reputational risks, according to a Defense Ministry official interviewed in November. In practice, adhering to these standards has sometimes been a challenge, as demonstrated by the tortuous extradition hearings of Lang, the ex-U.S. soldier wanted in the Florida murder case, who is still in Ukraine and regarded by some as a hero.
Two other factors that have made the war in Ukraine less appealing to foreign fighters have been the decrease in combat activity and language constraints. With the end of large-scale combat in Donbass beginning in March 2015, foreign fighters could no longer be sure they would be deployed on the frontlines where they could gain sought-after combat experience. Over the past three to four years, the fighting has mostly been reduced to artillery exchanges and occasional small-level skirmishes, while most of the soldiers’ time is spent in garrisons. The above-mentioned Defense Ministry source also said that the Ukrainian military does not provide translators, so all foreigners are expected to understand commands and generally communicate in Ukrainian or Russian.
As a result, my research indicates the number of foreigners fighting in Ukraine has fallen and many of those who remain are likely from the former Soviet Union. A journalist reporting from Ukraine in 2016, told DFRLab that, “with the ongoing implementation of the second Minsk agreement, the number of foreign fighters has significantly decreased. There’s definitely been a big change; most of them have left. You used to see foreign fighters around all the time, but the majority moved on in 2015.” In June 2019, Ukraine’s Channel 5 reported that about 500 foreigners were serving on contract with the Ukrainian military (although it attributed the estimate to “volunteers” rather than official sources). For those foreigners who want to stay in the country, whether fighting or not, Ukraine is simplifying procedures for getting residency and citizenship.
Fighters Leave, But Contacts—and a Desire to Fight—Remain
While the end of the battalions’ free reign may have marked the end of the “Ukraine pilgrimage” for white supremacist fighters from other countries, contacts between Ukrainian volunteer battalions and Western far-right groups persist, with Azov and other ultranationalist Ukrainian ex-battalions continuing to serve as inspiration for Western far-right-wingers, including would-be militants. I believe that as with foreign fighters from jihadist groups, international ultranationalist volunteers pose obvious security risks for their home countries. Some of the Western far-right volunteers in Ukraine were seasoned and experienced soldiers, and Ukraine was hardly more than another stop on their personal crusades.
A report on “white supremacist terror” released in April 2020 by the Anti-Defamation League and George Washington University describes the desire to travel to Ukraine, sometimes in order to fight, as “a trend that is becoming more and more common for individuals in both The Base and Atomwaffen [Division],” two white supremacist groups keen to further their international connections. In addition to Smith, the American soldier who sought advice on joining Azov from Lang, the report names William Garfield Bilbrough, a 19-year-old Base member arrested by the FBI early this year who had been “preparing to travel abroad to fight in Ukraine” since late 2019, according to court documents, although it was not clear on which side he’d fight. Others have managed to make the journey: Ethan Tilling—a former Australian soldier who describes himself as an ex-Nazi, “very much right wing,” “anti-immigration” and “definitely anti-Muslim”—fought in Ukraine for a couple of months in 2017, arriving there a year after a fellow Australian ex-soldier with far-right sympathies, Jared Bennett, who had fought with Right Sector.
In addition to attracting international fighters, some of Ukraine’s far-right-leaning ex-battalions—most notably, Azov, the largest and most influential of the lot—have also been fostering civilian links with U.S. and European white supremacist groups. "We think globally," Olena Semenyaka, the international secretary for the National Corps party, which includes many Azov veterans, told RFE/RL in November 2018, soon after organizing events in Kyiv with Greg Johnson, a prominent figure in U.S. white supremacist circles. About half a year earlier, Semenyaka had hosted a leader of the California-based white supremacist Rise Above Movement (R.A.M.) and his entourage. While these connections are more defined by ideological solidarity than by military activity, there have also been reports of attempted recruitment for fighting. Bellingcat recently alleged, for instance, that in the fall of 2018 the National Corps “supported an effort by Joachim Furholm, a Norwegian citizen and self-described ‘national socialist revolutionary,’ to bring American right-wingers to Ukraine to fight against Russian aggression. The effort specifically framed participation in Ukraine’s war … as an opportunity for American right-wingers to acquire combat and other practical experience to be deployed later within the United States after returning home.” Furthermore, according to a February 2020 report by British anti-extremism watchdog Hope Not Hate, the Misanthropic Division— “the international recruiting arm of … the Azov battalion,” the report alleges—has been recruiting among British far-right groups, albeit with minimal success thus far.
On Both Sides of the Front Line
Like Western ultranationalists among pro-Ukrainian forces, Russian ultranationalists flocked to support pro-Russian rebels in the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (the DNR and LNR, respectively) as well. For instance, Russian ultranationalist Alexei Milchakov reportedly founded Rusich, a unit that fought for the LNR. Sergey Vorotsev, a prominent member of Russian ultranationalist group Movement Against Illegal Immigration, was killed in Donetsk in 2014. Former members of another such group, Slavic Union, also reportedly took part in fighting on the separatist side. The Russian Imperial Movement, an ultranationalist organization that, according to the State Department, became the first “white supremacist” group to be designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, reportedly helped recruit Russian fighters to aid separatists in eastern Ukraine as well.
Eventually, however, a degree of control was established over DNR and LNR armed units in a similar fashion to what occurred in Ukraine. Since late 2015, many nationalist field commanders have been either assassinated or relieved of their duties. As Moscow sought to ensure that DNR/LNR warlords obey orders, volunteers from the Russian far-right groups were no longer welcome in the rebel republics, in my view. Following a change of power in the de facto republics between 2017 and 2018 and the appointment of leaders hand-picked by the Kremlin, the rebel armies were effectively cleansed of most ultranationalists.
The onset of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine created favorable conditions for international white supremacists to expand their combat experience on both sides of the front line. However, as both Ukraine and Russia sought to establish control over poorly disciplined and unaccountable armed groups, the opportunities for white supremacists to participate in the Ukrainian conflict started to decrease. Although foreign white supremacist groups remain on friendly terms with Ukrainian ultranationalists, their current relationship seems to be defined more by displays of “solidarity” than by direct military training or exchanges of military expertise, as was the case in 2014.
- Right Sector split into at least two different volunteer battalions: the Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UDA) and the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps (DUK).
- In early 2015 one researcher specializing in extremism and intolerance estimated that about half the Russian nationals fighting on the Ukrainian side were from the neo-Nazi organization Wotanjugend.
RM associates Thomas Schaffner and Daniel Shapiro contributed research for this commentary.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.
Huseyn Aliyev is a lecturer in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow.
Photo by Carl Ridderstråle shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.