As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth week, with rising civilian casualties and continued discussions about the viability of a limited no-fly zone, additional sanctions, and the prospect for negotiations, the conflict is getting further complicated by an unforeseen factor: foreign fighters. Foreign fighter recruitment in Ukraine is being driven by the executive leadership of both Ukraine and Russia — and also by a range of far-right groups and their adherents.
For many individuals with extremist ideologies who are looking to join the conflict in Ukraine, it is less about aligning themselves to Presidents Vladimir Putin or Volodymyr Zelensky, and more about the first-hand battlefield experience that the conflict provides. This combat experience, however, may prove to be deadly and a force for instability as these “foreign fighters” try to make their way to fight in other wars.
CALL FOR FOREIGN FIGHTERS
Shortly after Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Zelensky announced the formation of a new voluntary military unit — the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine — and called on any foreign volunteers to Ukraine to help defend against Russian aggression. In an address on Feb. 26, Zelensky invited “every friend of Ukraine who wants to join Ukraine in defending the country please come over, we will give you weapons.” The following day, Zelensky’s foreign minister, echoed the call.
While estimates vary, Ukrainian officials have stated that nearly 20,000 foreign nationals from at least 52 countries have signed up to join the legion, though it remains unclear how many have actually made their way to Ukraine. The majority of fighters appear to be coming in from Europe and the US, many from the Ukrainian diaspora. The Biden administration has strongly discouraged American military veterans from joining the fight. Nonetheless, US military veterans are among those who have publicly acknowledged that they are traveling to Ukraine to join the International Legion. According to the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, DC, at least 4,000 US citizens have signed up to volunteer to fight for Ukraine.
Putin has also called on foreign fighters to join the conflict and support Russian troops. According to recent news, Putin gave his approval for foreign fighters to join the conflict and said: “If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord, not for money, to come to help the people living in Donbas, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone.”
The Kremlin is already relying on the assistance of Chechen fighter groups. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov posted a video on Mar. 13, 2022 indicating that he was already in Ukraine, where units of the Chechen National Guard are fighting alongside Russian forces. While Kadyrov’s specific location was not disclosed, in a post on Telegram on Mar. 17, he indicated that a thousand Chechen fighters were embarking on an operation to “denazify and demilitarize Ukraine.” This week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a Syrian non-governmental agency also noted that over 40,000 Syrian nationals, including individuals affiliated with the pro-Assad al-Qatarji militia, have registered to travel to Ukraine to fight on Moscow’s behalf.
FAR-RIGHT CAPITALIZATION OF THE CONFLICT
“Saving” Ukraine has also become a popular recruitment and mobilization narrative for the broader far-right movement, including neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Individuals affiliated with such groups have been vocal across social media and deep web platforms, voicing support for Ukraine and indicating a desire to join the fighting. Individuals affiliated with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups have previously joined extremist training and fighting opportunities in Ukraine since 2014. The current Russian invasion, however, has magnified both the interest in and calls for joining the conflict.
For many individuals with extremist ideologies who are looking to join the conflict in Ukraine, it is less about aligning themselves to Putin or Zelensky, and more about the first-hand battlefield experience that the conflict provides.
In many ways, this escalation is illustrative of the evolving threat from white supremacist and other far-right movements. Since 2019, US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have addressed the growing threat stemming from racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists, particularly from white supremacists and anti-government groups. In the last four years, violence linked to white supremacy has eclipsed jihadi violence as the predominant form of terrorism in the US. In recent years, far-right groups and their supporters have masterfully exploited social media to spread propaganda, recruit and plot online, and seamlessly integrate into various social media and encrypted platforms, including 4chan, 8khan, Telegram, Discord, and Gab.
Events like the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol and the Freedom Convoy trucker protests this month, have provided some outlets for individuals and groups affiliated with the far-right movement. Yet, white supremacists and others on the far-right have not had the chance to experience an in-real-life conflict where they can gain combat experience, develop a foreign network of like-minded far-right adherents, and further cement their ideologies and narratives. It is, therefore, no real surprise that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine provides the far-right movement with that opportunity — an opportunity they have certainly capitalized on already.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has acknowledged they are aware of considerable discussions in German neo-Nazi chatrooms and social media platforms focused on joining the fighting in Ukraine. German media outlets have previously reported that nearly a thousand German nationals are believed to have traveled to Ukraine, though German officials believe this number to be much lower. British authorities have reportedly begun closely monitoring travel to Ukraine. Relatedly, researchers in the US have also noted upticks in chatter across social media platforms focused on traveling to Ukraine to fight against Russian forces and there have been a number of accounts in the US press of individuals openly discussing their travel to Ukraine.
The Azov Battalion, a far-right volunteer militia whose members adhere to neo-Nazi ideology, has been prominent among the extremist groups vocally recruiting for fighters to join them. In 2014, following the group’s fighting against pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, the Azov Battalion was officially folded into Ukraine’s national guard. Today, the Azov Battalion is said to have an estimated 900 fighters, which is assessed to include both Ukrainians and foreign fighters, including from a range of European countries and the US. US citizens, including members of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division have joined or attempted to join the group. Since its formation in 2015, Atomwaffen has embraced accelerationist ideas — in essence the desire to accelerate the collapse of government and society so that a new, white ethnostate can be built and has produced videos promoting a desire for a race war in the US. Over the last three weeks, the Azov Battalion has called for foreign fighters to join the fighting.
It is worth noting that Putin’s rationalization for invading Ukraine includes a claim that he is fighting neo-Nazism, and he has specifically noted groups such as Azov as the driver for his operation to “de-militarise and de-Nazify Ukraine.” Last week, Meta Platforms reportedly reversed its policy regarding the group, temporarily allowing a “narrow exception for praise of the Azov Regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine National Guard.”
Far-right groups and their adherents are not only focused on fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, but have also lent their rhetorical support. White supremacists and neo-Nazis have voiced support for Putin and feature prominently in the increased chatter across social media. Prominent voices on the American far-right, including Steve Bannon, have been vocal about their support for Putin. Salafi-Jihadi extremists have also been vocal about the ongoing conflict, though they have been decidedly less firm about their narrative and who they support. In a recent issue of its weekly al-Naba newsletter, ISIS called the conflict “crusaders against crusaders” and also advised Muslims from taking a side in the conflict.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
In the very near term, the involvement of foreign fighters in Ukraine will provide both Ukrainian and Russian defense forces with much-needed manpower. However, training and previous battlefield experience, if any, will vary between fighters and any deficiencies in experience, training, or skill could have unintended and devastating consequences for both other fighters and civilians. Varying levels of skills and prior experience with firearms and weapons could lead to potential accidents and unintended casualties. The potential for miscommunication and misalignment on protocols and strategies could also result from volunteers speaking different languages and having different combat and training backgrounds.
The Russian Defense Ministry has also stated that it will treat foreigners who fight on Ukraine’s behalf as “mercenaries” and so would not be treated as “prisoners of war,” an important status dictated by the Geneva Conventions. The March 13 strike on the Yavoriv military facility, also known as the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, located approximately a dozen miles from the Polish border, further demonstrates Russia’s inclination to target foreign volunteers. The training facility is where NATO has previously trained Ukrainian forces and also served as a training hub for current volunteers. At the time of the attack, an estimated 1,000 foreign volunteers were reportedly at the facility, and 35 volunteers were confirmed to have died in the attack, with more than a hundred others wounded.
Between 2014 and 2020, approximately 40,000 foreign fighters emigrated or tried to emigrate to ISIS’s “Caliphate” in Syria. As demonstrated by returning ISIS fighters from Syria, as well as other previous global conflicts, foreign fighters return with battlefield experience and other skills, including a new network of likeminded individuals and the ability to leverage those skills and network to create instability, join other conflicts, or stage terrorist attacks. While many of those who have publicly spoken about their desire to join the fighting in Ukraine have pointed to specifically wanting to help Ukrainians defend themselves against the Russian military, other foreign fighters, particularly individuals aligned with far-right ideologies who are drawn to the conflict out of a desire to gain battlefield experience, pose a security risk, both to their countries of origin, as well as other countries in Europe that they may head to next. These individuals may return from Ukraine with the combat training and experience required to carry out an attack against government or civilian targets on behalf of a specific extremist group or broader far-right ideology.
Foreign volunteer fighters, therefore, seem feasible — and even desirable — in the heat of war. Yet, the long-term consequences provide the basis for more instability than peace. Both Russia and Ukraine should be wary of what lies ahead if they keep encouraging volunteers to take up arms.
Naureen Kabir leads the Risk Intelligence program at Teneo, a global advisory firm. Between 2010 and 2020, she served with the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism and intelligence bureaus, most recently in the role of Deputy Director of Counterterrorism Intelligence Analysis.