Antifascist Europe presents a report on the activities of foreign far-right volunteer fighters who have flocked to Ukraine since the invasion of Russian troops. It includes the results of monitoring public sources during the first 50 days of the war as well as an analysis of existing publications on the nature of the phenomenon of right-wing volunteerism in Ukraine. The report is an attempt to construct a chronological sequence of far-right militant involvement in combat operations, a brief overview of the 2014 conflict, and the identification of new trends, as well as a look at the structure of the International Legion of Ukraine.
Table of Contents
- Overview of the International Legion of Ukraine
- A Crucial Turning Point: The Yavoriv Base Bombing
- National Foreign Volunteer Battalions List
- The Russian Foreign Volunteer Unit
- Conclusion: War as the Main Trophy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the creation of the International Legion of Ukraine three days after the war began. According to a 2016 presidential decree, foreigners can serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) and Territorial Defence Forces. “Anyone who wants to join the defence of security in Europe and the world can come and stand side by side with Ukrainians against the invaders of the 21st century”, the Ukrainian president said. The International Legion of Territorial Defence has been formed for foreign volunteers.
The official website of the Legion presents flags of eight states—Denmark, Poland, Israel, Latvia, Croatia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Canada but there are more than that. In early March it became known that more than 20,000 people from 52 countries had expressed their desire to join the legion, according to Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, commander of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence. Corporal Damien Magrou, 33, a Norwegian corporate attorney in Kyiv, was appointed as a spokesperson of the Legion.
The Ukrainian military conceals details about the composition of the Legion. They declined to specify the size of the unit or the number of volunteers by country. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, Kyiv has recruited over 6,800 “foreign mercenaries” (The Russian Ministry of Defence calls foreign volunteers “mercenaries” and threatens that the Geneva Convention will not be applied to them. However, a mercenary is usually defined as fighting primarily for financial reasons (rather than ideological), and so this term will mostly be avoided in this essay.) from 63 countries since the start of the war. The majority of these volunteer fighters came from Poland—1,717 people. Additionally, about 1,500 fighters came from the United States, Canada, Romania, the UK, and Georgia—about 300 from each. Russia claims that 1,035 foreign fighters have been killed. There are currently 4,877 “foreign mercenaries” on Ukrainian territory, according to the Russian military.
The International Legion website published a questionnaire and detailed instructions on what to do to be able to join the war. Officials check candidates’ backgrounds through the embassy to judge whether they are truthful in their qualifications. Then it was announced that only those with combat experience and fluent Ukrainian or English would be accepted. It now takes four to seven days to process the application. Two Ukrainian military sources familiar with the admission process told the Washington Post that the Legion’s admission rate has dropped below 50 percent since the requirements were tightened.
Russia claims that foreigners coming to fight on Ukrainian side must sign an open-ended contract and some of them already had contracts with a US-based Private Military Companies (PMC). However, according to Ukrainian anti-fascists, foreigners are often simply given contracts to sign and are then sent to a military base to stay idle. It has also become known that the legionnaires will receive a salary. International law requires foreign legionnaires to be paid no more than regular soldiers. However, everyone understands that legionnaires do not go to Ukraine for money. If someone starts asking for money or bonuses for confirmed kills, they are refused.
Foreign volunteers go to war for other reasons, which recruiters try to find out during the obligatory interview. Although many of the volunteers will come to Ukraine for humanitarian reasons, “it does not forbid the entry of individuals with more extremist views and their own agenda” (Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo, “The Ukraine War and the Risk of a New Foreign Fighters Wave”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 3 March 2022, available at https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/ukraine-war-and-risk-new-foreign-fighters-wave-33919. Last accessed on 9 May 2022.). Rita Katz, Director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremists, told the New York Times that “numerous far-right white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups throughout Europe and North America had expressed an outpouring of support for Ukraine, including by seeking to join paramilitary units in battling Russia … with the primary motivation to gain combat training and also being ideologically-driven”.
However, Ukraine officially denied famous Portuguese neo-Nazi Mário Machado admission to the Legion. One of the criteria is “no criminal record”, explained Sergei Malik, military attaché of the Ukrainian Embassy in France. In the past, Machado was sentenced to more than ten years in prison for a number of crimes, including grievous bodily harm, racial discrimination, and possession of prohibited weapons. Machado returned to Portugal after spending nearly a week in Ukraine distributing food and sanitary materials.
While the war is ongoing, volunteer fighters from all over the world are flocking to Ukraine, many of them affiliated with far-right organizations.
This attack was a serious blow to the volunteer enlistment movement in Ukraine, which received heavy coverage in the Western media.
On 13 March, the Russian army launched a cruise missile at the Yavoriv military base in the Lviv region of Ukraine, which is several dozen kilometres from the Ukrainian-Polish border. The Yavoriv base is also known as NATO’s International Peacekeeping and Security Centre, where foreign volunteer fighters have flocked. As a result, up to 180 foreign volunteer fighters were killed, according to the Russian Defence Ministry, and a shipment of foreign weapons was also destroyed.
Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesperson Markiyan Lubkivsky told CNN that those numbers were false, further stating that there were still no foreigners confirmed among the dead. The Lviv regional military administration reported 35 dead and 134 wounded. A German legionnaire told Austrian newspaper Heute that there were “800 to 1,000 foreign soldiers” at the shooting range and he doubted that 35 had died, because the “number could refer to fallen civilian Ukrainian soldiers and servicemen, but the foreign fighters were many more”, as there was a direct hit in the nearby building and he was sure “that there were at least 100 soldiers, and none of them got out”.
Anyway, the strike on Yavoriv base caused panic among foreign volunteer fighters. According to the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure, more than half of the 18 Belgian volunteers who went to fight in Ukraine returned home. For some, the reason was an underestimation of the local situation, combined with such a deadly attack, while others returned because of health problems. For example Jacques Martin, a 51-year-old from Flémalle, fought in the Legion and was at Yavoriv, where he managed to stay alive after the airstrike, but became deaf and returned to Belgium for two weeks of treatment before returning back to Ukraine. He noted that the Legion had problems in discipline and hierarchy because of the language barrier, and lacked weapons, equipment, and protective gear, adding that “many decided to leave so they would not die for nothing” because “they initially underestimated the situation, but then did not want to become cannon fodder”.
Although Jacques Martin called himself an anarchist, the media quickly found out that he is a well-known far-right activist in Belgium and, thanks to a TV report from his apartment, his true political views were easily identified.
One of the most famous examples of a foreign volunteer fighter fleeing Ukraine was the story of 28-year-old Henry Hoeft from Central Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch local newspaper published a front-page interview with him before he was sent to Ukraine, portraying him as a hero. Hoeft revealed that he was a “former infantryman in the U.S. Army and half-Ukrainian on his father’s side”. He said he was going to “contain Putin and stop a world war”. Publication of the article allowed him to raise more than $5,000 through crowdfunding. Hoeft went to Ukraine with his comrade Mike Dunn.
Аfter the attack on Yavoriv, a video appeared on social media, in which a frightened Hoeft reported that the Ukrainians the foreigners, did not give them ammunition or equipment, that there were a number of dead fellow soldiers at the base, and that he had to cross a border with a British and a US citizen in an emergency van. He also added that foreign soldiers’ passports were taken away with threats to tear them up, and that soldiers would then be sent back to the battlefield, so he had to disguise himself and use fake documents to cross the border. Visibly distressed, he implored: “people need to stop coming here. It’s a trap and they aren’t letting you leave”.
Journalists quickly revealed that Henry Hoeft’s real last name was Locke, and that he, along with Mike Dunn, is an activist with the far-right militant group Boogaloo Bois. After that, Hoeft/Locke deleted all his social media accounts and disappeared. His whereabouts are unknown. His comrade Dunn stayed in Ukraine. He recorded a video and stated that they both joined the Georgian National Legion and then left. After that he fell ill and joined another military unit. However, he denied that Ukrainians were taking away the passports of foreign volunteer fighters and he had no problems with crossing a border back and forth. SITE Intelligence Group Director and co-founder Rita Katz claimed that these videos could be disinformation and added that Hoeft’s video had been widely promoted on pro-Russian social media groups, “mocking western foreign fighters arriving in Ukraine”.
The aforementioned Georgian National Legion is one of the most famous units, counting US citizens among its ranks, but there are also other units. At least half of them were incorporated into the Ukrainian International Legion.
- The Georgian National Legion, consisting of Georgians and US citizens;
- The Kastus Kalinovsky Battalion, consisting of Belarusians;
- The Polish detachment of the Revanche Battalion, consisting of Poles;
- The Canadian-Ukrainian Brigade, consisting of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada;
- The Norman Brigade, consisting of Canadian military veterans;
- The Freedom of Russia Legion, which includes Russian defectors;
- The Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, consisting of Chechens;
- The Sheikh Mansur Battalion, also consisting of Chechens;
- The Crimea Battalion, consisting of Crimean Tatars;
- Far-right volunteer units, which cannot be identified.
The Georgian National Legion was founded in 2014 by mostly ethnic-Georgian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine (Georgians see participating in war as revenge for the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.). The Georgian National Legion was officially integrated into the Kyiv Rus 25th mechanized infantry battalion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2016. The unit now has up to 700 fighters, 20 percent of whom are foreigners not from Georgia. The Georgian National Legion has “a special affinity for U.S. recruits”. In addition at least one British citizen—ex-Army medic Jason Haigh, 34 who was later beaten by Ukrainian soldiers—had enlisted in this unit.
Henry Hoeft/Locke and Mike Dunn, both members of the Boogaloo Bois, enlisted to this unit. On 24 March, commander of the Georgian National Legion Mamuka Mamulashvili made assurances that he was trying to screen candidates so as not to allow in far-right extremists: “I don’t want bloodthirsty guys who want to come and just shoot somebody … We are avoiding extremists—we don’t want them here”.
Russia also opened a criminal case against Mamulashvili, accusing him of killing Russian POWs and violating the rules of warfare after a related video started circulating on social networks. In the video, members of the Georgian National Legion allegedly kill captive Russian soldiers lying on the road with their hands tied. This is alleged to have taken place on 30 March near Kyiv. These Russian soldiers were ambushed during the withdrawal of their troops from the area surrounding the Ukrainian capital. Mamulashvili denied the accusations. Certain publications in Russian (Konstantin Tasic, The Right-Wing Radical Movement in Georgia The Example of the Georgian Power Organization, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Region and the World, 2018, No. 1, available at http://geopolitika.am/dir/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2018_1_43_47.pdf Last accessed 9 May 2022) asserted that Mamulashvili and his unit were receiving support from the small Georgian neo-Nazi group Qartuli Dzala (Georgian Power).
Konstanty (Kastus) Kalinovsky was one of the leaders of the Polish, Lithuanian, and Belarusian national revival in the second half of the 19th century. Kalinovsky is especially revered in Belarus where he is seen as an icon of Belarusian nationalism who fought against the Russian Empire.
The Kastus Kalinovsky Battalion was formed in March 2022 from members of the so-called “Belarus” tactical group, members of the Belarusian neo-Nazi organization White Legion, representatives of the Young Front movement, as well as Belarusian citizens who emigrated to Ukraine after the protests in the summer and autumn of 2020. As of mid-March, the Battalion included about 200 people.
The Battalion’s official video clearly shows the neo-Nazi tattoos of its members—the Black Sun tattoo on the elbow. The man on the right is the Belarussian neo-Nazi Denis “Kit”. The man with the beard on the left is the well-known neo-Nazi Rodion Batulin, a Latvian with Belarusian citizenship who came to Ukraine to implement his ideas. In the summer of 2019, he was noted for his participation in the attack on former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Batulin is a close friend of another famous neo-Nazi who was originally from Russia, but who lived in Belarus for a long time: Sergei “Boatsman” Korotkikh.
So far, three people from the Battalion are known to have been killed. All three were connected to far-right groups and all three were killed in action near Kyiv.
On 3 March, 27-year-old Ilya Khrenov (whose military call sign was Litvin) was killed in the battle for Bucha. He came to Ukraine in 2014, fought in the Donbas in the ranks of the far-right Azov Battalion for more than a year, then settled in Kyiv and worked in IT. Litvin was a member of White Legion and was also an outspoken neo-Nazi with far-right tattoos on his body, including a Valknut tattoo on his left arm.
On 13 March, 31-year-old Oleksiy Skoblya (call sign: Tur) was killed near Kyiv. Tur had also been fighting for Ukraine since 2015. He joined the far-right paramilitary group Right Sector. For the last year he had been serving in Ukraine’s special operations forces on a contract basis. His relatives say he became interested in Viking culture at the True Varing Reenactors Club. He also wore Thor’s Hammer pendants, which are popular with neo-Nazis.
On 24 March, 32-year-old Dmitry Apanosovich (call sign: Terror) was killed by a mine near Irpen. It is not entirely known whether Terror was a neo-Nazi, as the Russian media claim, but his relatives say that he “went to Valhalla since he was a pagan”.
The number of troops in the Battalion is unknown. More than 100 people were seen at Ilya Khrenov’s funeral.
The Revanche (reconnaissance) Battalion, commanded by Serhiy Brigadir, was formed at the beginning of the Russian invasion, made up of Ukrainian nationalist volunteers from Kyiv and Kharkiv, many of whom, including the commander, are members of the Conservative Party of Ukraine. This is actually a faction of the former far-right organization Tradition and Order, which was formed by followers of Italian fascism from the Revanche group.
The number of troops in the Battalion is unknown, as is the troop count in the Polish detachment.
Canada has the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside Russia. That is why the Canadian-Ukrainian Brigade was formed in early March 2022, and it already has 550 members. The unit will be stationed in Kyiv. According to the article in Canada’s National Post, the Brigade “has its own arm patch, featuring a maple leaf with a trident”, the latter of which being Ukraine’s national symbol.
Canada is preventing its military from participating in the war, so volunteer fighters travel independently, raising money for flight tickets to Poland through crowdfunding. The first Canadians to reach Ukraine have complained of poor organization.
There is no data on the participation of the far-right in this unit.
This is the most secretive unit, made up of Canadian ex-servicemen. The number of troops within the Brigade is also unknown. The Norman Brigade received attention in connection with the news surrounding the sniper known as Wali. He served in Afghanistan as part of the Royal Canadian Infantry’s 22nd Regiment in Kandahar. His real name is unknown. In early March he gave an interview, after which reports of his death in besieged Mariupol began to appear on Russian social media. After that he got in touch with journalists. Such public attention did not please his fellow brigade members, who were trying to be “quiet professionals”.
There is no data on the participation of the far-right in this unit.
On 5 April, the formation of the Freedom of Russia Legion, formed from Russian POWs who defected to the Ukrainian side, was announced. On that day, three servicemen in the Legion briefed foreign correspondents. They were wearing masks, so their identities could not be established. “We, the Legion fighters, are not fighting against Russian soldiers, we are fighting for a free Russia. Our goal is to destroy Putin and his regime”, the defectors said on video.
The unit uses a white, blue, and white flag as its chevron, which is used by anti-war activists from Russia as a symbol of protest. It is claimed that there are at least 300 men in the Legion.
There is no data on the participation of the far-right in this unit.
These volunteer armed formations have been participating in the armed conflict in Ukraine since 2014 on the side of government forces and are composed mainly of Chechens who emigrated from Russia after the second Chechen war. Most of them are Ukrainian citizens, so they are not formally considered foreign volunteer units. It should be noted that the Chechen diaspora in Europe has expressed a desire to fight against Russia, so these units should be mentioned. However, it is not known how many Chechens from Europe have arrived in Ukraine and whether they arrived at all after the start of the conflict.
It should also be noted that Ukrainian far-right fighters fought against the federal troops during the First Chechen War, one of the most famous among them being Sashko Bilyy. He was killed in 2014.
There is no data on the participation of the far-right in this unit but radical Islamists may potentially be present.
This Islamic unit was formed in 2014, originally consisting of eight Crimean Tatars. It was headed by Isa Akayev, who left for mainland Ukraine immediately after the events of 2014. According to some reports, Ivan Selentsov (also known as Valid Abu Yusuf), who is both a native of Kherson Oblast and a member of the Salafist movement True Religion, which is banned in Germany, also participated in the creation of the Battalion. In his statements Akayev used rhetoric typical of radical Islamists. The fact that he spoke positively about the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and Chechen terrorists Shamil Basayev and Movsar Barayev is evidence of Akayev’s radical views.
Later the Crimea Battalion was assigned to the Dnepr-1 volunteer battalion created by then-head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov. In 2014–15, the Crimea Battalion took part in combat operations in the Donbas and, as Isa Akayev admitted, dreamed of “switching to Crimea”. In 2015, the Crimea Battalion officially surrendered its weapons and left the battle zone after an order from the General Staff of the UAF.
On 28 February, a statement from the Crimea Battalion commander Isa Akayev with an appeal “to all Muslims of Russia” appeared on the internet. The video was filmed against the backdrop of five armed fighters. In his statements, Akayev called for Muslims in Russia to defect from the Russian army and threatened to kill murtads (Muslims who are fighting on the side of Russia) by “all means permitted by Sharia”.
The number of troops in the battalion and its participation in combat operations is unknown. It was claimed that the battalion entered the village of Motyzhyn in the Kyiv Region after Russian troops were withdrawn.
There is no data on the participation of the far-right in this unit but radical Islamists may potentially be present.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo, writing for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), writes that:
What appears to be different this time, is that the UAF seem to be attempting to take a more direct command-control of the foreign legion than previously, which ultimately could hinder the direct recruiting by far-right battalions. Given that Ukraine is in an active state of conflict, and that the border crossings with other countries have been described as chaotic, it seems unlikely that the government will have the capacity to keep track of all those entering.
One such out-of-state unit could be neo-Nazi groups that grew up around local leaders. One of the most important links in the neo-Nazi chain is Russian-born Denis “White Rex” Kapustin (also known as Denis Nikitin), who has been stuck in Ukraine since he was banned from entering the EU and faces prosecution in his home country. He has established contact with far-right activists around the world, posting messages on his Telegram channel and calling for help in five languages. On 5 March, Kapustin published a scheme to come to Ukraine to fight the “commies” and “neo-Bolsheviks”.
“Putin opposes nationalism. If you consider yourself a white nationalist, the war in Ukraine is your only chance. There are no other countries in the world where you can take up arms and fight for your values and ideas shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow soldiers. That’s why I, Denis Nikitin, choose resistance”, he said in a video from 1 April.
Mikhel, from Poland, became the first foreign legionnaire invited by Kapustin. During a video interview Mikhel showed his patch with the Polish phalanx insignia. He said he had army experience, that his journey to Kyiv took five days, and that he had brought a flag of the far-right National Radical Camp. “Why did you come to Ukraine?”, Kapustin asked. “Because I’m a nationalist. I want to help my brothers in this war”, answered Mikhel.
Another important point of attraction for the neo-Nazi community in Ukraine is Sergei “Boatsman” Korotkikh, a former Russian citizen wanted in his home country for a series of murders, and who formed the Boatsman Boys unit. Little is known about the unit, but certainly it includes the most odious Nazis. According to Korotkikh, the detachment took part in battles in the south of the Chernihiv region and also entered the village of Bucha near Kyiv after the withdrawal of Russian troops, after which the mass murder of civilians by Russian troops was reported.
In addition, the Ukraine chapter of the neo-Nazi group Blood and Honour claimed it has its own combat unit in the UAF but it is impossible to verify this. Blood and Honour Ukraine is a very small group and has to compete with larger neo-Nazi organizations.
At the end of March, Avtonom NS, a group of autonomous national-socialists, announced their return for the armed struggle against the “neo-Bolshevik scum that had invaded the expanses of our state”.
“Our main goal is to recreate the traditional foundation of the original European ethnic group in the spirit of National Socialism. The fundamental element of this upbringing is enlightenment, propaganda for development and self-improvement, the cult of the struggle to preserve the purity of the white race, its future and the future of its children”, noted the group’s Telegram channel.
The famous neo-Nazi group Misanthropic Division (MD) was revived. Its mostly inactive channel on Telegram started to post pictures with typical far-right content after the Russian invasion in February 2022. It is not known whether they have a separate unit, and if so how many would be in the unit, but judging by the photos, the MD is now no more than ten people in the ranks of different units under the Azov Battalion, such as the far-right group Avangard Kulturna Spilka. In early March, it was reported that the MD’s Nikita “Dobrynia” Yeliseev had been killed in Mariupol.
On 11 March Vladimir Putin suggested that foreign volunteers who wanted to help the residents of the Donbas should be enlisted. He recalled that Western countries actively encourage sending fighters to Ukraine. In turn, the head of the Ministry of Defence Sergei Shoigu noted that the department had received more than 16,000 applications from volunteer fighters from the Middle East alone.
The willingness to fight the “Nazis in Ukraine” is expressed by veterans of the Syrian army, fighters from the Syrian Christian militia, and former opposition fighters. They come to collection points and sign up as volunteers.
One of the volunteers was quoted as saying:
I heard Russian President Vladimir Putin say. He said that if Russia doesn’t stop the U.S. and NATO in Ukraine, they will come to Russian soil and destroy [their] great country. That cannot be allowed to happen. You saved Syria from the US and its allies. Now we are ready to fight against their dogs for you.
Serbian nationalists also expressed their desire to fight on the side of Russia. It is alleged that some of them are already in the Donbas. In early April, reports surfaced about the death of Stefan Dimitrijevic, a Serbian nationalist who was in the Donbas in 2014, in combat for the pro-Russian Luhansk People’s Republic. He fought in the ranks of the extreme-right detachment Unité Continentale which was part of the Prizrak Brigade. There is also the notable “Serbian divergent” Telegram channel, close to Russian members of the mercenary community, which posted far-right memes—but it is unknown if this is really Serbian or rather a postmodern parody.
There is no word yet on the size of the volunteer corps, its name, or its participation in the fighting. There is no data on the participation of the far-right in this unit. It seems that Russia deliberately limited the participation of the far-right units in combat operations in order to justify the goal of “denazification”.
On 31 March it was reported that Edy “Bozambo” Ongaro, a 46-year-old Italian, had died. He had been fighting on the side of the Donetsk People’s Republic in the ranks of the Prizrak Brigade since 2015, but it should be noted that he was a leftist activist. As his comrades wrote, he was an “internationalist anti-fascist partisan who put the fight to end exploitation above all else”.
To better understand why the far-right has been going to fight in Ukraine, we should turn to the history of the conflict, which began in 2014.
In Ukraine in February 2014, the Revolution of Dignity—also known as the Euromaidan—took place. President Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union, instead choosing closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. А wave of peaceful economic protests turned into a full-fledged armed riot in which Ukrainian far-right groups Svoboda Party and the Right Sector militia were the most organized and ready for violence, which is why they were the most visible. Protesters led torchlight marches, and raided police stations for weapons. These groups were the most radical part of the movement, which thus managed to attract more people to them. Pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country and parliament installed an interim government.
In response Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and sought to create a separatist sentiment in the eastern parts of Ukraine—which were mostly populated by Russian-speaking people. Separatists proclaimed the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Ukraine then launched a military counter-offensive operation. On 6 April a war started in the Donbas, and we are witnessing its continuation right now. Foreign fighters have been involved on both sides of this conflict.
The war in the Donbas saw the largest influx of foreigners out of any conflict in the post-Soviet sphere. Since 2014, it has been estimated that a combined total of over 17,000 fighters from 55 countries have fought there for both sides. If we exclude 15,000 Russians from the list of volunteers, the experts from the Soufan Group name a figure of 879 foreigners on the side of Ukraine and 1,372 foreigners on the side of the pro-Russian Donbas. Most of the volunteers came from Belarus (800 people), Germany (165), Georgia (150), Serbia (106), Moldova (85), France (65), Croatia (65), Italy (55), and Austria (50).
The main destinations for far-right militants included several Ukrainian volunteer battalions openly espousing far-right ideologies, such as the Azov Battalion, Right Sector, and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. A right-wing network was formed inside the Ukrainian military. As the conflict de-escalated, volunteer battalions were integrated into the UAF, sometimes under pressure. Thus, the far-right gained control or ensured their heavy presence within the security forces in the country: the Ukrainian Army, the country’s police departments, including the municipal police, and the National Guard of which the Azov Battalion is a part.
The Azov movement was formed around the National Corps party, founded by Azov veterans. The Azov Battalion became less politicized. Its role for many on the right became more of a symbolic one, although of course they maintained ties. But its level of radicalism has dropped significantly since 2014.
The Azov movement remains a central presence in the Ukrainian far-right community and is beloved by the extreme right all over the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin used the presence of such units within the Ukrainian military as a casus belli, one of the reasons for launching his so-called “special military operation … to de-militarize and de-Nazify Ukraine”.
The Azov movement developed extensive recruiting tactics within and outside of Ukraine, establishing “youth camps, recreation centers, lecture halls and indoctrination programs”. Since 2015, the Azov movement has been systematically recruiting far-right extremists to promote its own international agenda. International secretary of the National Corps, Olena Semenyaka articulated this goal as a “global conservative revolution” or “Reconquista” aimed at “protecting the white race”. Semenyaka told Bellingcat that the movement is looking for “all potential sympathizers” and potential “lobbyists” and hopes to “establish contacts with the American military”.
As of 1 March 2022 the Azov Battalion had an estimated 900 fighters, including both Ukrainians and foreign fighters from Europe and the US. US citizens, including members of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, had joined various units under the Azov umbrella as they saw a possibility to accelerate the collapse of society to create a pure white ethnostate.
In October 2019, US House Democrats requested that the Azov Battalion be classified as a terrorist organization after the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand earlier that year. A possible link between mass shooter Brenton Tarrant and Azov was found.
It is necessary to highlight the fact that far-right militants also fought on the DNR/LNR side but their composition and motivations are much less well studied. As one of the respondents to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) report brilliantly put it:
This is a tribal war, not nation against nation. You’ve got nationalists on both sides because their ideology is less important than the side and symbols they identify with … It is a post-modern war and the divide between the sides is shallow as people are nowadays raised on superficial attachments.
The war in Ukraine began after Igor Strelkov, a Russian military officer and former FSB agent, crossed the state border of Ukraine near Donetsk Oblast with 52 fighters on the night of 11–12 April 2014 and began seizing administrative buildings in the city of Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast, announcing that the city was under the authority of the DNR. On 13 April, Ukrainian authorities announced the beginning of an “antiterrorist operation” in Sloviansk. On 26 April, Strelkov became head of the Donbas People’s Militia.
Strelkov’s closest assistants were people who shared his nationalist-monarchist, conservative views, as well as the ideology of the White Movement. Strelkov attempted to create an army based on the traditions of the Russian Imperial Army and ‘Christian values’. On 14 August 2014, Strelkov resigned as DNR defence minister. Strelkov later told journalists that he had resigned because his “stay was deemed inexpedient” and his consent to resign was obtained “by means of certain blackmail and direct pressure—by cutting off aid supplies from Russian territory”.
Strelkov stated that without his participation, the pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas would not have taken active steps and the protest movements would have been suppressed: “I pulled the trigger of the war after all. Had our unit not crossed the border, it would have ended up like in Kharkiv, like in Odessa. There would have been a few dozen killed, burned, arrested. And that would have been the end of it”.
Since 2014, he has been the head of the Novorossiya movement, which sends humanitarian aid and supplies of ammunition and uniforms to the DNR military, as well as assistance to the victims of the actions of the authorities of the republic. Until 2016, he was a supporter of Vladimir Putin.
Strelkov is not taking part in the war of 2022. He criticizes Putin for the failure of the campaign on his Telegram channel.
Most of the Russian far-right joined the pro-Russian and outspoken neo-Nazi reconnaissance group Rusich under the command of Alexey “Serb” Milchakov, himself an outspoken neo-Nazi. His deputy Jan “Great Slav” Petrowski, another Russian neo-Nazi, arrived from Norway. Milchakov became known after his involvement in the torturing of POWs, and also for beheading and eating a puppy. Petrowski was expelled from Norway because he “presents a threat to national security”.
Another well-known member of Rusich is an outspoken neo-Nazi, the Donetsk-native Yevgeny “Topaz” Rasskazov. After 2014 he became a mercenary and joined PMC Wagner. He then started a channel on Telegram where he posted far-right propaganda and promoted mercenary culture. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Topaz joined Rusich and gave an interview to Yevgeny Dolganov, vocalist of the neo-Nazi band Russkiy Styag, where he said of himself: “I am a good husband, hopefully a great father in the future, and I came to kill Ukrainians”.
Rusich included two assault platoons. The unit chose the Slavic Kolovrat swastika as its emblem.
In 2014, Rusich participated in operations at the Donetsk and Luhansk airports, cleared settlements near Luhansk, and fought positional battles near the settlements of Belokamenka and Novolaspa in Donetsk Oblast. One of the most notable actions of Rusich was the destruction of a column of the Ukrainian far-right Aidar Battalion near the village of Metalist in Luhansk Oblast on 5 September 2014. Rusich members were accused of war crimes.
Rusich has taken part in the current war from the beginning. A friendly Telegram channel published a post with pictures of the squad’s fighters. The post said that the squad leader, most likely Milchakov himself, had been wounded and required expensive treatment. The photo shows the neo-Nazi symbol Valknut.
Another notorious pro-Russian far-right group is the Imperial Legion, which is the military wing of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). The Imperial Legion trained volunteers and sent them to the Donbas. After the initial conflict it established contacts with the Nordic Resistance Movement and provided training to foreign fighters who have since carried out bomb plots in Scandinavian countries. In 2020 the US State Department designated RIM as a global terrorist organization.
Despite the fact that the RIM is formally in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s regime, its military wing takes part in the war on the side of Russia.
Some far-right combatants joined Russia’s PMC Wagner. Also known as the Wagner Group, it is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin’s closest allies, and has since conducted covert operations across Africa and the Middle East. This unit is participating in the ongoing war but details are concealed.
The Serbian Chetnik Jovan Šević Battalion was named after the commander of the Serbian Hussar regiment Jovan (Ivan) Šević, who in 1751 accepted Russian citizenship and became the founder of the autonomous region of Slavo-Serbia, located on part of the territory of the Donbas. In March 2014, a group of five Serb Chetniks, led by Bratislav Živković, arrived in Crimea and then participated in providing security during the referendum on the status of Crimea. The group called itself the Prince Lazar Detachment. On 17 July 2014, the Jovan Šević Battalion grew to 35 volunteers.
It is not known whether the unit is taking part in the ongoing war.
The Terek Wolf Sotnia sabotage and reconnaissance group was formed in March–July 2014, particularly in the territory of Crimea and the Donbas. It was headed by ultranationalist Alexander “Babay” Mozhaev. According to Mozhaev, he went to fight in Ukraine because he was wanted by the police in Russia for attempted murder with a knife. However, there was no money to bribe a judge, so he left to become a mercenary. Mozhaev denies that he had served in the Russian GRU. According to Mozhaev, he did serve in the Russian armed forces, but he retired in the mid-1990s. Since then he has been a member of the Terek Wolf Sotnia.
It is not known whether the unit is taking part in the ongoing war.
Cossacks are representatives of the Russian minority ethnic group and the military class that guards Russia’s borders. They took part in the combat operations of 2014 in the Donbas in the ranks of the All Great Army of the Don, and the Cossack National Guard. The territory of today’s DNR and LNR has historically formed part of the region of the Don Army, so the Don Cossacks consider themselves involved in the events in this region. Cossacks usually hold ultra-nationalist beliefs.
Cossacks are taking part in the ongoing war but their general presence is limited to policing the breakaway republics.
Foreign fighters on each side of this conflict bear a striking resemblance—young, male, politically charged, and with previous experience in the armed services. Meanwhile, their motivations for joining the fight differ greatly, as reported by Sara Meger of the University of Melbourne in her research around the 2014 War in Donbas.
Another study conducted in 2020 by senior researcher Egle E. Murauskaite for the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis analysed four basic types of foreign fighters coming from Western countries to fight in Ukraine:
- “Experienced veterans” coming to “resettle old scores with either Ukraine or Russia” appeared to be the most common category.
- “Disillusioned ideologues”, men who are “generally disappointed with the state of the Western world”.
- “Armed opposition” is mostly represented by Belarusians and Russian citizens, who “turn their political opposition to Putin … into an armed struggle”.
- “Battle chasers” are men who are looking for “battle itself”.
A report conducted by Kacper Rekawek of the CEP in 2020 was based on interviews with 18 foreign fighters of seven nationalities: Brazilian, British, French, Georgian, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish, who took part in the war in Ukraine on either side of the conflict. The report allocates three types of foreign fighters in Ukraine:
- The “resetters” i.e. “those seeking a new career in a new country”, either fighting for Ukraine or the so-called separatist republics.
- The “ghosts”: those travelling back and forth between their home country and the frontline in Ukraine, using the time at home to recuperate and fundraise.
- The “adventurers”: those who are restless, often considered ‘war junkies’, and are open about their intention to fight in future wars.
The last two types pose the highest risk as they remain ready and able to join other conflicts, Rekawek notes.
His respondents saw the war in Ukraine as an expression of a global conflict between the West and the East, the United States vs. Russia, Europe vs. Asia, and during the course of which a fighter cannot be uninvolved. Rekawek gives examples of typical responses from pro-Russian volunteers which reflect the ideological diversity of reasons for participating in the war:
- “Assuming I want regime change in the West”, and because “Russia is actually the designated enemy of these regimes, being on the side of Russia is quite the obvious choice”.
- “I am defending the Russian people and their right to live as they wish to. I am a nationalist”.
- “It is fascist Ukrainian aggression, supported by the likes of the U.S. and NATO, and directed at the inhabitants of Donetsk/Luhansk/Novorossiya/etc. I am doing this because of solidarity”.
And these are typical responses from pro-Ukrainian volunteers:
- “We are concerned about protecting our European heritage and we are proud to be here as representatives of our own countries who are fighting Russia”.
- “I am a nationalist and this is a nationalist uprising against corrupt oligarchs”.
- “It is Russian aggression directed at Ukraine, and my country is next. I am doing this because of solidarity”.
It is noteworthy that the author puts humanitarian (helping a ‘weaker side’), geopolitical, and ideological motivations for participating in the war in last place in terms of order of importance. There is something bigger than the global struggle for these people.
Rekawek concludes the CEP report by saying:
As was demonstrated, these fighters did not emerge inexplicably with the war’s opening shots. They had been active and involved in radical scenes before the onset of the conflict. For them, Ukraine was a stage on which they could act or project their socio-political or geopolitical beliefs, but these had been formed long before their trip to Kyiv or Donetsk and Luhansk. In short, the problem is not (just) Ukrainian. It is a problem within Western, primarily European and American societies with scores of young individuals in internal exile deeply upset about the current socio-political arrangements in their home countries.
Although at the time of writing, a month and a half have passed since the start of the war in Ukraine, it is still too early to say how many volunteer fighters have come to the war and how many of them are from the far-right. But there are already concerning patterns emerging. According to SITE, many far-right groups from the USA and Europe express support for Ukraine, donating to Azov and looking for ways to join the fight against the Russians, whom they call “orcs”, “commie scum”, or “neo-Bolsheviks”.
There is a wide range of outspoken neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division, Boogaloo Bois, Neue Stärke Partei, the Thule Society, Jungeuropa Verlag, Det fria Sverige, Europa Terra Nostra, and Blood and Honour, among others, which have expressed strong political excitement about the conflict and intend to use it to their advantage (It should be noted that not all far-right groups have taken a determined position. For example the Base in the USA and the Nordic Resistance Movement in Europe urged their activists not to take sides.). Most alarming are right-wing accelerationist groups, for whom increasing entropy in the world means the destruction of the old globalist order and the creation of white ethnostates.
The multiplicity of psychotypes as well as the differing ideological reasons for engaging in war hides something terrible underneath: the need for violence and its export beyond the conflict zone. This is why Rekawek of the CEP report asserts that the first reason to participate is “a view of forming what neo-Nazi theoretician Jean Thiriart called the ‘European Brigades,’ i.e., forces of ‘European patriots’ who would return from a conflict in a nearby country to fight a nationalistic war in Europe”.
The Soufan Group expands on this in its study:
Just as Afghanistan served as a sanctuary for jihadist organizations … in the 1980s, so too are parts of Ukraine becoming a safe haven for an array of white supremacy extremist groups to congregate, train, and radicalize. And just like the path of jihadist groups, the goal of many of these members is to return to their countries of origin (or third-party countries) to wreak havoc and use acts of violence as a means of recruiting new members to their cause. Unlike jihadis who are attempting to strike Western targets, though, radicalized white supremacists have the added advantage of being able to blend in seamlessly in the West, just as Brenton Tarrant was able to do.
In other words, far-right volunteers who return from Ukraine pose a threat to their own society and state. In 2021, the US was shocked by the story of army veteran and neo-Nazi Craig Lang fighting in Ukraine in the ranks of the notorious Azov Battalion. He was accused of multiple war crimes, torture carried out upon Donbas citizens, as well as the murder of a Florida couple. His unit—consisting of foreign neo-Nazis—was disbanded and expelled, while he remained in Ukraine since a local court denied him permission to leave.
The security services are well aware of this and have been monitoring the activity of volunteer soldiers crossing borders. US State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales stated that US authorities are keeping a close eye on the threat from far-right extremists fighting in eastern Ukraine. According to the German Interior Ministry, only 27 far-right militants have crossed the border or expressed a desire to travel to Ukraine. “My biggest concern is that these extremists get combat training with weapons and explosives and, because of the war experience, have a very low threshold for using weapons and lethal force”, said Stephan J. Kramer, the head of the domestic intelligence agency in the German state of Thuringia.
Egle E. Murauskaite echoes this concern in her research: “The most common concern is that the battle hardened fighters will come back radicalized by the combat and ideas they fought for, and put their skills to use locally—establishing domestic chapters of international extremist organizations or founding new extremist groups”.
Similarly, Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo in her research for the ISPI, notes that:
The danger is that through the creation of the Legion, Ukraine could once again be opening the door for extremists or radicalized individuals to travel to the country, get trained, become battle-hardened, and extend their networks. Subsequently, this becomes a two-fold problem. On the one hand, for Ukraine, as it will likely become difficult to control these individuals following the eventual end of the fighting, leading to a potential increase in extremist activity within the country. On the other hand, the fighters who do return home, will have greater influence not only in recruiting and radicalizing others, but also with greater capabilities to deploy violence itself.
One cannot deny the existence of the Nazi problem in Ukraine by arguing that it is Putin’s propaganda, who justified his imperialism under the pretext of “denazification”. One example of this trend is former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul repeatedly using the line that there are no Nazis in Ukraine, citing in support of this assertion that Ukrainian President Zelensky has a Jewish background. However, one of the most violent protests around the mistreatment of—and police violence towards—the Black community in the USA happened in Ferguson in 2014, when Barack Obama was president. The problem of systemic racism and police brutality did not disappear with the election of a Black leader; indeed, since then, it might look to some observers as if the issue has become even more entrenched.
While Russian propaganda exaggerates the neo-Nazi problem in Ukraine, the West tries to pretend that these Nazis do not exist. When the war is over, nationalism will be further normalized in Ukraine, and far-right units will acquire veteran status and try to convert it into political capital as much as possible. Extreme right-wing fighters have already gained great popularity on social networks, and after the war they will also be able to become opinion leaders and gain a firm foothold in the civilian sector.
After 2014, only Azov managed to grow significantly. Entering the political arena forced its leaders to soften their rhetoric. Most likely, even after this war, the rhetoric of the right will be nationalist and militarist, but it will hardly be neo-Nazi. Besides, this time all factions of the political spectrum, including the leftists, liberals, LGBT community, and feminists will have their own fighters; all political parties will drag them into their lists, so the extreme right will have no monopoly.
It is too early to tell what will happen, because the end result depends on what will be written in the peace agreement. If it is a victory for Ukraine (peremoga in Ukrainian), the main hero will be Zelensky and there will be very little chance for the others, because the political field has already been cleared. But if there is a ‘betrayal of Ukraine’ (zrada) and serious compromises with Russia, then criticism from so-called ‘true patriots’ will pour in from all sides. This will give ex-president Petro Poroshenko a chance to return to politics, as well as giving all the far-right groups the opportunity to gain a foothold there.