A Trickle, Not a Flood: The Limited 2022 Far-Right Foreign Fighter Mobilization to Ukraine.

AuthorRekawek, Kacper

One of the most enduring legacies from the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian war is that of Ukraine as a "field of dreams... [for] various brands of far-right nationalism" (1) and as "a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy extremism, attracting foreign recruits from all over the world." (2) As reported by the Soufan Center, between 2014 and 2019 approximately 17,000 foreign fighters from over 50 countries traveled to the battlefield, "nearly 90% of whom came from Russia to fight with the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, attracting foreigners supporting violent far-right ideologies." (3 a) Excluding Russian foreign fighters, up to around 900 foreign fighters joined the Ukrainian side, including a significant but difficult to quantify number of right-wing extremists. (4) Ukrainian units with far-right leanings such as the Azov Battalion/Regiment became causes celebres in transnational extreme or far-right and white supremacy circles. (5) Right-wing extremists spoke at conferences organized by Ukraine's nationalists, attended their MMA (mixed martial arts) clubs, and rubbed shoulders with local far-right leaders. (6) Analysts worried about the long-term security implications of Western right-wing extremists networking, training, and fighting inside Ukraine. In 2020, Max Rose and Ali Soufan assessed that "just as jihadists exploited conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Syria, so too are white supremacists using the conflict in Ukraine as a laboratory and training ground." (7)

Fast forward to Russia's February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, and it seemed possible that intensified conflict in Ukraine would make the country even more fertile ground for right-wing extremists, especially because of Azov's associations to "white racism" and Nazism, which are strenuously contested by the unit's representatives. (8) Russia's pivot from so-called "hybrid warfare" (9) toward naked aggression seemed poised to generate a huge surge in foreign fighters sympathetic to the underdog. In early March 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asserted that the first 16,000 foreign volunteers were already on their way. (10) Days later, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense stated that more than 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries had expressed a desire to join a newly created entity called the International Legion. (11) Given the large foreign volunteer numbers being claimed by officials in Kyiv and given the far-right history of groups like Azov, there were legitimate concerns that a significant number of pro-Ukraine foreign fighters would seek or end up with far-right groups inside the country.

This article examines the extent and nature of the nexus between right-wing extremism and pro-Kyiv foreign fighter mobilization in the 2022 conflict in Ukraine. The first part of the article examines the size of the issue, and the second part of the article digs deeper into the problem set by examining the role of key actors and entities in the foreign fighter (b) space.

The Extent of the Nexus

Concerns about a potential flood of far-right foreign fighters to Ukraine in the wake of the 2022 Russian invasion have not to date materialized. According to a May 2022 Counter Extremism Project (CEP) study led by this author and on which this article draws and builds, "only a fraction of those who indicated an interest in traveling to Ukraine after February 2022 actually did so," with the number of foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine ranging from several hundred to a few thousand. (12 c) These numbers are comparable to the foreign fighter mobilization that followed Russia's 2014 invasion, which saw up to around 2,200 non-Russians join the conflict on both sides. (13) Back then, foreign fighters arriving to help Ukraine joined sub-state units--Ukrainian "volunteer battalions" (14) or the "separatist" pro-Russian "popular militias." (15) By contrast, the class of 2022 foreign fighters have mostly joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces (TDF), an element of the country's armed forces.

It is important to underline the very significant longstanding and continuing far-right nexus when it comes to foreign fighters on the pro-Russian separatist side in Ukraine. In May 2022, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that according to German intelligence, the extreme-right Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) (d) and the Wagner Group's Rusich (e) cadre were engaged in combat operations against Ukrainian forces. (16) Likewise, the analyst Alexander Ritzmann noted in the CEP May 2022 report that:

The Russian private security contractor Wagner PMC, which has a history of displaying Nazi-insignia as well as being antisemitic and against LGTBQ rights, is also accepting applications [to fight in Ukraine] via Telegram. The founders of Rusich task force, which is part of Wagner PMC, were trained by the Russian Imperial Legion, the militia arm of RIM. Since 2016, foreigners have received weapons training by the Russian Imperial Legion, amongst them Germans, Americans, Swedes, and others. Pro-Russian separatist groups, such as "The Defenders of Donbass," share extreme right-wing slogans and antisemitic, anti-feminist, and anti-LGTBQ memes and stereotypes on their Telegram channels and call for volunteers to arrive at an address in the Russian city of Rostow, which is close to the eastern border of Ukraine. (17) For those foreign fighters who have traveled to join the Ukrainian side so far in 2022, the integration of the Azov Regiment and other far-right extremist units into the Ukrainian armed forces has made these units much more difficult to join. And as noted by the Soufan Center, the Azov Regiment has "become more distanced from right-wing narratives" with the Ukrainian armed forces working to rein in such extremism. (18) In this author's assessment, the large majority of Ukrainians joining Azov-linked brigades within the Ukrainian military are doing so not because of right-wing extremism, but because they want to join an effective fighting force to defend their country.

Furthermore, the 2022 Russian invasion does not appear to have provoked a surge in desire among right-wing extremists around the world to travel to Ukraine. The conflict has always divided the movement, with some groups and individuals siding with Russia and some with Ukraine. (19) In Germany, "the first days following the Russian invasion were initially marked by confusion and controversial discussions about how to deal with this 'White Brotherhood War.'" (20) In France, the majority of far-right extremist groups have historically sided with Russia. (21) In Italy, opinions are more divided. The neo-fascist group Forza Nuova has sided more intensely with Vladimir Putin and the separatist forces since the February 2022 invasion, while the far-right group CasaPound Italia has softened its support for the Ukrainian side. And overall, there has been very little appetite among Italian far-right extremists since February 2022 to travel to Ukraine. (22) This is also the case farther north in Europe. As the Expo Foundation has noted, the leader of the largest Scandinavian extreme right organization, the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), stated that "neither side is worth fighting for and dying for." (23)

According to the May 2022 CEP report that analyzed the far-right and right-wing extremist scenes in seven countries--the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Poland--"the current conflict has not led to a significant flow of extremists to the war zone. There is a lot of discussion and debate among extremists, but very few have traveled to Ukraine." (24) In the United States, there was "no evidence that anyone currently affiliated with the neo-Nazi accelerationist milieu traveled to Ukraine after the February [2022] invasion." (25) In Canada, not a single far-right extremist was known as of May 2022 to have traveled to join the 2022 conflict in Ukraine. (26) French security authorities estimate that only 20-30 right-wing extremists are currently in Ukraine. (27 f) In Poland, while the "young generation of Polish neo-fascists generally sympathize with Ukrainian nationalists, including, in particular, the Azov Movement," very few have traveled. (28) In mid-March 2022, German authorities stated that 27 right-wing extremists had left or had credibly announced that they were planning to leave for Ukraine, but only a few were supposedly involved in conflict and 13 were said to have already returned to Germany. (29) As the German case makes clear, it is currently unknown how many right-wing extremists who traveled have joined the fighting. Overall, "foreigners in Ukraine have not yet coalesced into recognizable highly ideological fighting units and, as individuals, have been largely unsuccessful in acting as recruiting multipliers for sympathizers in their home countries." (30)

Overall, the far-right movement's allure has dimmed in Ukraine, at least for the time being. For all but the most hardened extremists, ideology has taken a backseat in a war for national survival. It is Western democracies with liberal values that are largely arming the Ukrainians. President Zelensky has rallied tens of millions of Ukrainians around a Western-democratic vision for his country, including membership in the European Union, whose liberal and democratic values the far-right abhors. Foreign volunteers that have been flowing in are almost exclusively apolitical and often have little in common with each other beyond being "concerned citizens of the world," as described by one veteran foreign fighter. (31)

Key Actors and Entities in the Foreign Fighter Space

Having outlined the limited nature of the nexus between right-wing extremism and foreign fighter flows to Ukraine during the 2022 conflict, it is useful to examine the role of four different types of entities whose actions are relevant to foreign fighter flows to the conflict zone:

  1. Ukraine-based entities...

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