Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are a growing preoccupation for security services and intelligence agencies in the United States and Europe. Fragmented and loosely organized, they are difficult to track. But their members frequently interact across borders and continents, thanks to encrypted messaging tools and online forums. Hundreds also travel between North America and Europe, with Ukraine emerging as a favored destination for a significant number of American far-right extremists. (a)
In recent years, some Americans and Europeans drawn to various brands of far-right nationalism have looked to Ukraine as their field of dreams: a country with a well-established, trained, and equipped far-right militia--the Azov Regiment--that has been actively engaged in the conflict against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. Most of these 'foreign fighters' appear to travel as individuals and at their own expense, according to the author's review of many cases, but there is a broader relationship between the Ukrainian far-right, and especially its political fagship the National Corps, (1) and a variety of far-right groups and individuals in the United States and Europe.
Far-right groups remain strong in Ukraine, with the ability to marshal thousands of supporters for protests and rallies, some of whom carry Nazi and white supremacist insignia. The author witnessed one such rally in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in October 2019. These groups have bitterly opposed any suggestion of compromise with Russia over Donbas through the Normandy negotiating process and were prominent at another rally witnessed by the author in Kyiv in the fall of 2019 to oppose concessions floated by President Volodymyr Zelensky. However, the mobilization of far-right groups in Ukraine does not extend to political success; in the 2019 parliamentary elections, they received little over two percent of the vote. (2)
Analysis of social media communications, court documents, travel histories, and other connections shows that a number of prominent individuals among far-right extremist groups in the United States and Europe have actively sought out relationships with representatives of the far-right in Ukraine, specifically the National Corps and its associated militia, the Azov Regiment. In some instances, as this article will show, U.S.-based individuals have spoken or written about how the training available in Ukraine might assist them and others in their paramilitary-style activities at home.
Before examining the nexus between far-right extremists in the United States and Ukraine, it is useful to define terms and outline recent trends. There are many differences among the groups and individuals who come under the generic umbrella of 'far-right' extremism. Some specifically regard themselves as neo-Nazis. Such groups "collectively develop a shared culture of radical opposition to mainstream society, idealizing a revolution in the name of the Aryan race," according to Paul Jackson, a scholar who tracks contemporary neo-Nazism. (3) Even within these groups, Jackson points out, not all by any means are committed to violence.
Other far-right extremist perspectives avoid any association with National Socialism (or Nazism) but are nevertheless driven by hatred of Jews and/or Muslims, migrants, and progressive culture. Many embrace historic conspiracy theories. The Global Terrorism Index for 2019 identified the "far-right" as "a political ideology that is centred on one or more of the following elements: strident nationalism (usually racial or exclusivist in some fashion), fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, chauvinism, nativism, and xenophobia." (4)
Similarly, a Combating Terrorism Center study from 2012 described white nationalist groups as "interested in preserving or restoring what they perceive as the appropriate and natural racial and cultural hierarchy, by enforcing social and political control over non-Aryans/non-whites such as African Americans, Jews, and various immigrant communities. Therefore, their ideological foundations are based mainly on ideas of racism, segregation, xenophobia, and nativism (rejection of foreign norms and practices)." (5)
Elements of the far-right extremism movement are, to quote one scholar, "atomized, amorphous, predominantly online, and mostly anonymous," at once making it more difficult to analyze and possibly more dangerous. (6) They include "online troll cultures, misogynists in the manosphere, neofascists, ultranationalists, identitarians, and white supremacists." (7)
In both the United States and Europe, members and followers of these groups have been responsible for a rising number of violent attacks in recent years, according to the available statistics and government surveys. The Institute for Economics and Peace reported in its latest Global Terrorism Index that globally the number of far-right "terrorist incidents" rose 320 percent in the five years to 2018. "There were 56 attacks recorded in 2017, the highest number of far-right terrorist incidents in the past fifty years," the Institute reported. (8)
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, far-right attacks in Europe jumped 43 percent between 2016 and 2017. (9)
In the United States, right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 murders in 2018, a 35-percent increase over 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. (10) The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, concluded that the number of white nationalist groups in the United States rose by nearly 50 percent in 2018, growing from 100 chapters in 2017 to 148. (11)
FBI data shows that hate crimes overall were down slightly in 2018 following three years of increases. However, analysis of the 7,036 single-bias incidents reported in 2018 revealed that 57.5 percent were motivated by a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias. (12) Of the 6,266 known hate crime offenders, 53.6 percent were white. (13)
Part One of this article looks at the far-right extremist environment in the United States and the growing attention it is receiving from federal agencies. It assesses the role of social media and the international connections of American far-right extremists. Drawing on nearly a dozen reporting trips the author made to Ukraine between 2014 and 2019, Part Two looks at the far-right environment in Ukraine and its evolving international links. It traces the evolution of the far-right movement in Ukraine, both politically and on the battlefeld, since the Ukrainian revolution in 2014. It then considers the attraction of Ukraine for far-right activists around the world, including those from the United States, and the ways in which far-right extremists in Ukraine and around the world interact, both ideologically and in terms of foreign volunteers seeking to fight in Ukraine. It also explores one venue--the mixed martial arts scene--that far-right extremists have leveraged to facilitate interaction.
Part One: The Far-Right Extremist Environment in the United States
The Rise of U.S. Far Right and White Supremacist Groups
In early 2020, the FBI elevated its assessment of the danger posed by racially motivated extremists in the United States to a "national threat priority." FBI director Christopher Wray said in congressional testimony in February 2020 that the Bureau was putting the risk of violence from such groups "on the same footing" as threats posed by foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). (14)
That decision followed the creation in the spring of 2019 of the Bureau's Domestic Terrorism-Hate Crimes Fusion Cell to improve sharing of intelligence between FBI criminal investigation and terrorism divisions.
Wray testified that "the underlying drivers for domestic violent extremism--such as perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach, socio-political conditions, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and reactions to legislative actions--remain constant." (15)
He added: "The top threat we face from domestic violent extremists stems from those we now identify as racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs). RMVEs were the primary source of ideologically-motivated lethal incidents and violence in (2018) and 2019." (16)
Research by The Soufan Center suggests that the threat long predates the last two years. In a recent report, it said analysis of the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database (GTD) between September 2001 and the end of 2017 showed that in the United States, "white supremacy extremism groups carried out 123 attacks, compared to 46 Islamist-motivated extremists and 83 by left-wing radicals." (17)
The 'militia' movement, of course, predates 2001. In a detailed study of violent action attributed to far-right extremists between 1990 and 2011, Arie Perliger found that "fourteen of the 21 years covered in this analysis witnessed more attacks than the previous year." (18)
Wray said supporters of both RMVE (racially motivated violent extremism) and jihadi groups posed a grave threat because the perpetrators were often "lone actors" who look to attack "soft targets" such as public gatherings, restaurants, or places of worship. (19) This is an important point. The far-right extremist groups discussed here rarely make explicit and specific calls for violence, but sometimes their sympathizers devise serious plots and carry out attacks, inspired by online forums, the 'manifestos' of others, and previous attacks.
As the scholar Paul Jackson writes, "Typically, the most extreme aggression comes from those on the fringes of the group, not their leaders." (20) He adds: "Such groups are not developing centrally directed terrorist attacks. Rather their role in violent radicalization is to help intensify and deepen wider vulnerabilities among some of their members."
The 'cycle' of inspiration can be traced in recent attacks in the United States.
* Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old from a suburb of Dallas who had been radicalized as a white...