[News] Who are the foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine? What we know and what we don’t

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 18 19:41:05 EDT 2022

Who are the foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine? What we know and what we
March 18, 2022
Marques <https://peoplesdispatch.org/author/natalia-marques/>

Caption: Azov Battalion volunteers. Azov has been successful at recruiting
fighters from the Western far-right movement

“Remember, the Russians invaded Afghanistan back in 1980,” said
former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shortly after the February
Russian offensive in Ukraine. “It didn’t end well for the Russians.” she
explained. “There were other *unintended consequences* as we know, but the
fact is, that a very motivated, and then funded, and armed insurgency
basically drove the Russians out of Afghanistan.” [emphasis added]

The “unintended consequences” Clinton referred to were the arming and
funding of the mujahideen fighters, who eventually became the ultra-violent
groups Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who have terrorized and continue to
terrorize both the people of Afghanistan and the US.

What Clinton hinted at, that the infamous Western tactic of using
well-funded insurgents could win the war against Russia in Ukraine’s favor,
has many worried about the potential fallout. Could Ukraine become the
far-right’s Afghanistan
in which Neo-Nazi forces are able to use the war against Russia as a combat
training ground?

These concerns are not misplaced. In Ukraine, far-right insurgent groups
have gained considerable power since the 2014 Maidan coup, in which
fascists took power and toppled a democratically-elected president. Ukraine
already has a precedent of attracting ultra-right groups and individuals
from other countries, who have sought to use existing political instability
to gain combat experience.

Ukrainian government officials, as high-ranking as President Zelenskyy
have in the last month specifically asked for foreign fighters to join
Ukraine in the war against Russia. According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister
Dmytro Kuleba, 20,000 people from 52 countries have already volunteered to
fight in Ukraine. Who are these volunteers? And what will be the
consequence of this influx of foreign combatants, with differing or unclear

Foreigners willing to defend Ukraine and world order as part of the
International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, I invite you to
contact foreign diplomatic missions of Ukraine in your respective
countries. Together we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat Putin, too.

— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) February 27, 2022

*A disturbing precedent*

Foreign fighters have come in and out of Ukraine since the 2014 Euromaidan
coup, led by ultra-right wing forces and backed by the US, which overthrew
democratically-elected President Viktor Yanukovych. Many of these fighters
were indeed right-wing extremists. Post-2014, the US Department of
Justice opened
up an investigation
into several people from the US who went abroad to fight in Ukraine with
ultra-right volunteer forces, and allegedly committed war crimes. The
investigation centers around veteran US soldier Craig Lang
who traveled to Ukraine in May 2015 and fought alongside Ukrainian
far-right battalions such as Right Sector. Lang had a history of violence:
even before flying to Ukraine he was jailed after traveling across the US
with the intention of murdering his pregnant wife. When he returned to the
US from Ukraine, Lang, along with an accomplice, killed and robbed two
people in a Florida robbery in order to fund more international right-wing
exploits. These included a plan
to travel to Venezuela to fight the democratically-elected socialist

Since 2014 and before the war started, over 17,000 foreign fighters
<https://time.com/5926750/azov-far-right-movement-facebook/> have come to
Ukraine from over 50 countries. Ultra-right groups such as the Azov
Battalion, since incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard
post-Euromaidan, have been extremely effective at recruiting foreign
Citizens of Germany, the UK, Brazil, Sweden, the United States, and
Australia have traveled to Ukraine in order to join Azov. The Battalion
maintains a “western outreach office”
which travels around Europe to promote its white supremacist views, and
targets specifically right wing groups and individuals around the world. As
the Soufan Center reports, “in July 2018, German-language fliers were
distributed among the visitors at a right-wing rock festival in Thuringia,
inviting them to be part of the Azov battalion: ‘join the ranks of the
best’ to ‘save Europe from extinction.’”
Mikael Skillt (left) and “Mikola” (right), Swedish volunteers in the Azov
Battalion. (Photo: Carl Ridderstråle)

The influence of neo-Nazis and the ultra-right has waned since Euromaidan.
In 2019, the far-right suffered a humiliating defeat by winning only 2% of
the vote in parliamentary elections. Yet, fascists maintain a significant
hold on the military and police forces in Ukraine. As long as heavily armed
Neo-Nazi groups like the Right Sector and the Azov Battalion continue to
recruit amongst the worldwide right-wing and pull in disgruntled and
violent individuals, the fascist movement will promulgate in Ukraine and in
the rest of the world.
*Are extremists traveling to fight in Ukraine?*

Since the Russian invasion, foreign volunteers have poured into Ukraine in
startling numbers. If the 20,000 claim by Ukrainian officials is to be
believed, are a significant portion of these fighters right-wing
extremists, or could they turn to the ultra-right while fighting alongside
the likes of Azov?

Kacper Rekawek, a fellow at the Center for Research on Extremism at the
University of Oslo who has studied foreign fighters in Ukraine since 2014,
believes the answer so far is no. He told *Slate*
“All the people who go say one thing: ‘I’m here for humanitarian
reasons’…Unlike in 2014, they don’t appear to be motivated, as a group, by
a certain set of ideological tropes.”

It is too early to tell definitively how many foreign fighters traveling to
Ukraine have ultra-right connections or sympathies. But contrary to what
Rekawek claims, there are already concerning patterns emerging: According
to the SITE Intelligence Group, which is tracking extremist activity
<https://ent.siteintelgroup.com/Ukraine-Russia-War/> surrounding the
Russia–Ukraine war, Neo-Nazis in Germany and the US are urging others to
fight and donate to Azov. Far-right groups are expressing an outpouring of
support for Ukraine
and seeking to physically join the fight against Russia, who they view as
communists despite the 30 plus years that have elapsed since the
dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Most recently, Henry Hoeft, from Ohio, was profiled
sympathetically in the *Columbus Dispatch*, which later had to revise the
article to add that Hoeft had been a member of the far-right and heavily
armed US group the Boogaloo Bois. Hoeft later made more news when he
published a video detailing his experiences in the war, claiming that
Ukrainian officials were understating the amount of foreign fighters who
had died, sending foreigners to the front with no weapons, and cutting up
foreign passports.
*The Azov threat*

The Azov Battalion remains a central presence in the current war. This
raises concerns that the tens of thousands of foreign fighters could be
radicalized by groups like Azov. Azov is beloved throughout the world’s
extreme right, with its symbols seen at a US Neo-Nazi rally
and the motorcycle
<https://twitter.com/rita_katz/status/1194704229757313024?lang=en> of a
father and son duo who attempted to blow up a mosque in Italy. And in terms
of their influence among potential foreign fighters, the director of the
SITE Intelligence group writes, “Not since ISIS have we seen such a flurry
of recruitment activity.”

Recently, Azov released of video of its members coating their bullets in
pork fat, to be used to shoot Muslim Chechen soldiers. Azov is now the
primary force defending Mariupol, a city that has made headlines all over
Western media for its centrality in the war at the moment. The US, which
has committed numerous
has accused Russia of war crimes
<https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/17/russia-ukraine-live-updates.html> for its
alleged bombing of the Mariupol Theater. However, conflicting reports, such
as an AP article that claims there are no reported casualties
indicate a possibility that Azov bombed the theater themselves
in order to gain more Western support.


With the likes Azov, European Neo-Nazis, and the Boogaloo Bois in the mix,
there is reason to be concerns about foreign fighters returning home
radicalized to the far right and/or with dangerous combat experience.
However, with the war only a few weeks old, the issue of foreign fighters
raises numerous other questions that cannot be answered as of yet. The
sheer number of foreign fighters—20,000—is remarkable in itself. Can all
these fighters be merely a ragtag mix of volunteers? Or does this indicate
a coordinated effort by right-wing recruiters as SITE indicates? Or perhaps
this hints at a hidden, larger effort by mercenary companies like
Blackwater, who before the war had plans to create a $10 billion private
army in Ukraine

The situation on the ground for foreign fighters is pure chaos. A returned
British soldier, fighting on the side of Ukraine, claims he was tortured by
Ukrainian guards
A recent Russian strike killed an estimated 200 foreign combatants
Russia has announced that it intends to treat foreign fighters as
mercenaries rather than lawful combatant
<https://www.state.gov/?post_type=state_briefing&;p=92333Assignment>s, and
the US has urged its citizens not to go fight
In fact, a 2019 study found that when foreign fighters deploy, violence
against civilians goes up

For foreign fighters, whether they are radicalized by the ultra-right or
killed in the crossfire, the outlook is grim, highlighting the need for a
peaceful resolution to the conflict.
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