In the late Summer of 2014, as I sat in the canteen of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw, a report on RT (Russia Today) caught my eye. It zoomed in on four Frenchmen who traveled to Donetsk to fight in the Ukraine war on the side of the pro-Russian separatists. To say that my jaw fell would be an understatement, but one thing immediately became clear—what I was watching were foreign fighters. Throughout the next five years, I dedicated ample time to research and write about the issue (see, e.g.: here and here) and got the likes of The Economist and the Financial Times to cover my work. The world was interested but, despite my best efforts to convince everyone that the otherwise was true, treated the issue more as an interesting oddity and not a serious security concern. The fact that the conflict, in the meantime, got “frozen” and many of the foreign fighters disappeared from the frontline only further diminished any possible interest.
This was more than unfortunate. According to the most recent yet to be published estimates put together by a friend who now works at PISM, Arkadiusz Legiec, more than 17,000 foreign fighters joined the conflict in Ukraine. Yes, 15,000 of them had been Russians which observers would see as a “consolation.” Nonetheless, more than 2,200 had been non-Russians and this includes around 1,000 Westerners, including around 35 Americans, mostly of extreme right-wing persuasion on both sides of the conflict. Now, let’s remind ourselves of the mobilisation of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) into the ranks of ISIS and ask if the numbers presented above should not be a cause for concern? For a few years, it seems, they clearly have not been as these foreign fighters have not gone terrorist and thus have not turned into FTFs. Imagine being asked about this issue on numerous occasions at seminars, conferences, meetings, and briefings, and then being met with a shrug when luckily unable to point out to a single terrorist attack in which these attackers had been involved. No terrorism seemed to have equalled an absence of a problem and all were ready to move on. I could have issued my warnings that “after their returns [to their home countries] such [foreign] fighters could, perhaps influenced by Anders Breivik [the 2011 Norwegian solo actor who killed 77 people in two consecutive terrorist attacks in Oslo], commence terrorist activities aimed at the European Union’s socio-political order or inspire such attacks by other members of the far-right milieu,” but this clearly was not enough.
As the world was clearly moving on, the alumni of the war in Ukraine were not idle:
- Some rebranded as anti-ISIS fighters in the ranks of the Kurdish Peshmergas in Northern Iraq;
- Some allegedly participated in an ill-fated coup attempt in Montenegro;
- Others switched into private military contract work or worked on developing strong links with paramilitary organizations in Central-Eastern Europe; and last but not least, and the most recent,
- Some former French foreign fighters on the pro-Russia separatist side took part in the yellow-vest protests in Paris as members of the marchers’ “security detail.”
At the same time, the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, which hosted some of the extreme right-wing foreign fighters in the conflict, attempted to enlist foreigners into their unit in, e.g., the U.K. or Germany. Interestingly, the other side, followed suit and organized “speaking tours” for its extreme right-wing foreign fighters.
Change of attitude towards this issue, however, was coming and it took one terrorist attack for the paradigm to shift. On March 15, 2019, two consecutive mass shootings took place in Christchurch, New Zealand. As a result 51 people died and one man, Brenton Tarrant, was charged with murdering them. It later emerged that Tarrant, who had traveled widely in Europe and donated money to far-right groups in Austria, held extreme right, racialist views, and also probably ventured into Ukraine, which at the time was consumed by, depending on one’s point of view, either a civil war or an “anti-terrorist operation” against the pro-Russia separatists of eastern Ukraine. Tarrant’s alleged “manifesto” justifying his murderous actions in Christchurch revealed that he could have borrowed a lot from individuals he may have encountered in the far-right European milieu, including combatants or, to be more precise, foreign fighters in Ukraine. Tarrant’s later alleged acts shocked the world and revealed the possibility that “a white supremacist foreign fighter” might have committed the first act of international terrorism.
Tarrant might have met with (wannabe) members of what Jean-François Thiriart, a neo-Nazi post-World War II ideologue and theoretician, called “European brigades,” i.e., a collection of European “national revolutionaries,” organized into military units, fighting in foreign wars to gain the necessary experience to return to Europe and wage future “European revolution” against the liberal and transatlantic order. Around a thousand such foreign fighters were present in Ukraine at the height of the conflict in 2014/2015. Most of these came from the larger neo-Nazi or far-right milieu and rushed to Ukraine to fight on either side of the conflict. The fact that they disagreed over which side to support—Ukraine, fighting to preserve the territorial integrity of its country (an understandable nationalist goal to some) or the nascent pro-Russia separatists (a seemingly equally understandable nationalist goal to others)—rendered Thiriart’s concept null as the European “patriots” prioritised squabbling over forming a united front to prepare for a future “European revolution.” At the same time, however, the lack of “brigades” does not necessarily equal the death of Thiriart’s other concept, the “outside lung” or sanctuary where the “revolutionaries” can organize and consequently use it for a return to Europe. As hundreds of European nationalists and neo-Nazis trekked east to partake in war there, and later returned home, facing very few legal sanctions, it seemed that Ukraine could still play the role of such a “lung.”
It seems likely that in Tarrant’s case, Ukraine indeed had been the “lung.” What is more, further evidence linking him to the European far-right milieu in general and the foreign fighters in Ukraine in particular soon emerged. The spinning Black Sun, or “kolovrat,” essentially a reworked swastika, adorned the cover of Tarant’s document. Both the Azov Battalion (later regiment), which featured the most prominent of the pro-Ukraine foreign fighters, and the so-called Rusicz Group, the spearhead of neo-Nazi sentiment in the ranks of the “separatists,” featuring a string of foreign fighters, utilised this symbol in their logos and propaganda materials. Moreover, Tarrant’s call to defend “white” civilisation against external enemies mirrored “reconquista,” the jargon used by the aforementioned units, which in a racialist, exclusionist fashion targeted the “Asian hordes” attacking Europe (Azov) or “fake Slavs” who slavishly followed their Western, either Anglo-Saxon or Jewish “masters” (Rusicz).
Consequently, the reverberations of this war in general, and the involvement of foreign fighters in it, are now felt globally. Moreover, the topic begins to attract wider interest and is now being covered by the likes of VICE News and by Ali Soufan in the New York Times. Additionally, Tarrant’s actions and his manifesto are now recycled and reproduced by other active shooters, most recently by Patrick Crusius, the alleged El Paso Shooter from August 2019. The paradigm has clearly shifted, years after I saw the four Frenchmen in the aforementioned RT report on the foreign fighters in the war in Ukraine.
I am more than glad to see the Counter Extremism Project pick up the issue and devote more of its energies to the “other” foreign fighters. In my view, it is more than warranted. Ukraine war might not have been the extreme right wing’s Peshawar (the Pakistani city which “hosted” the foreign fighters bound for Afghanistan; its former “alumni” went on to play prominent role in jihadist networks globally)—a university or a springboard to “greater” things in the future but another threat is in the air. Paradoxically, only now might the frozen achieve some of the Peshawar-esque qualities as, according to Pavol Klymenko, “Eastern Europe’s far right” (in this case Ukrainian) is no longer copying their Western brethren. Nowadays, it “is exporting its models to the West” as it attempts to make contact with the far right organizations in the West, and recruit them into their sphere of influence or ranks of its military units for perhaps another round of fighting in Ukraine. The exporters have the street cred—they fought in a war and came out, in their view, on top. This is and will be a powerful magnet for adrenaline hungry and violent Western right-wing extremists. Thus, the story of the foreign fighters in the Ukraine war is not over. Let’s not, this time, overlook its subsequent development.
Kacper Rekawek, PhD, @KacperRekawek, is head of national security program at GLOBSEC in Bratislava, Slovakia. He has 15 years of experience in research and policy related to CT and CVE. He has published extensively on Irish republican terrorist groups, European jihadism, and foreign fighters in the Ukraine conflict.