Violence-Oriented Right-Wing Extremist Actors in Russia: Foreign Fighters – Part 1

March 28, 2024
Matus Trubac  —  Research Intern

During the past decade and a half, extremist non-state actors in Russia have become a central element of the violent transnational right-wing extremist milieu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and particularly its re-invasion of the country in 2022 have afforded these actors far greater opportunities to operate and increase their influence than before. This blog is the twelfth in a series in which CEP highlights some of the key actors, and analyzes their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.

Foreign fighters who join non-state violence-oriented extremist actors based in Russia do not currently seem to pose a strategic or tactical threat to Ukraine or Europe. They do, however, serve primarily as a propaganda tool for these Russian movements. Indeed, some ostensibly foreign fighter groups, like the Hungarian Legion of St. Stephen, are in actuality controlled by Russian citizens. It appears that most foreign fighters join separatist militias in Ukraine rather than Russian extremist movements. While some may join because they are wanted by authorities in their home countries for unrelated crimes, many of these fighters express extremist views in interviews and on social media. The influx of foreign fighters into Russia and Eastern Ukraine after 2014 should be seen as a worrying development. If left unchecked, these fighters—with newly acquired combat experience and ties to Russia—could potentially present a significant risk to European security upon returning to their home countries.

The first part of this two-part blog entry focuses on those foreign fighters who joined the groups previously analyzed by CEP in this series. The second will detail other categories of fighters and will analyze how the Russian government encourages the recruitment of foreign volunteers, forming an integral part of Russia’s hybrid warfare against the West.

The Other Russia, a National Bolshevik extremist group often critical of the Russian government, has an armed wing called the Interbrigades, which consists of fighters from several countries, including Spain and the Czech Republic. Foreign fighters are a point of pride for Other Russia. In one case, the group alleges that the inclusion of a former Latvian citizen of African origin, Beness Khristoferovich Aijo into its ranks, negates all accusations of Nazism against the group. Aijo fought in Eastern Ukraine as a member of the Interbrigades, and is wanted in Latvia for plotting to overthrow the state. The Russian Federation has granted him political asylum and citizenship; evidence of the Kremlin's endorsement of extremist non-state actors, particularly those opposed to Ukraine, even if they express ideologies occasionally critical of the Kremlin.

Another prominent foreign fighter in the Interbrigades is Pavel Botka, using the nom de guerre Pavel Kavkaz, whom the Interbrigades call a “famous Czech volunteer.” Botka lost one leg in 2019 after stepping on a landmine, is wanted by the Czech authorities, and was sentenced in absentia  to 20 years in prison by the Municipal Court in Prague after being found guilty of participating in terrorist attacks and membership in a terrorist group. Alongside Botka fought another Czech, Jiří Urbánek alias Begemot, who was also sentenced to 20 years by the Czech court. According to social media posts, Urbánek fought in the cities of Marinka, Spartak, and Krasnohorivka. The Czech government also issued an international arrest warrant for Martin Kantor, who joined pro-Russian militias in 2014. With all three fighters, the primary evidence cited by Czech authorities in issuing the arrest warrants consisted of photographs and social media content. These materials depict the fighters posing with equipment and openly acknowledging their involvement in combat on behalf of pro-Russian militias. Fighters like Botka and Urbánek facilitate the dissemination of extremist content not just on social media networks popular in Russia, such as VKontakte or Telegram, but also on Facebook.

The Interbrigades also have foreign fighter members with previous combat experience. According to a Telegram post, one member of the group is a Spanish fighter who gained combat experience while fighting alongside Kurdish militias against ISIS. For a group that named itself after the International Brigades of the Communist International, it is not surprising that foreign fighters are an important part of the Interbrigades’ online propaganda.

Foreign fighters are also a key component of Russia’s propaganda war against Ukraine. The Legion of St. Stephen, an ostensibly Hungarian paramilitary group, was originally founded by Russian citizen Alexander Kiselyov. In older social media posts, Kiselyov appears in photos alongside prominent Russian extremist figures, including Igor Girkin and Pavel Gubarev, both former Federal Security Service officers, as well as Donetsk People’s Republic commanders. A Russian member of the Legion and associate of Kiselyov, Tanai Chokhhanov, has allegedly met with Csaba Zsédely and Lajos Deme, both wanted by the Hungarian authorities for illegal paramilitary recruitment. In recruitment posts, the Legion of St. Stephen promises combat training, high wages, Russian citizenship, and veterans’ benefits. However, Kacper Rekawek, in his book Foreign Fighters in Ukraine, writes that there exists very little evidence indicating that the Legion’s activities extend beyond the online sphere. More concrete evidence of European extremists joining their Russian counterparts may be found in the Polish neo-Nazi group Zadruga. At least one member of Zadruga has joined the Russian neo-Nazi group Rusich, which has a number of foreign fighters, , indicating the growing international influence of Rusich’s pro-Russian Nazism.

Many fighters on the pro-Russian side also come from Poland’s southern neighbor, Slovakia. Several Slovaks have been to Ukraine since 2014, including Miroslav Roháč, Martin Keprta, Mário Reitman, Richard Branický, Štefan Potocký, and a dozen others. While they are not always members of Europe-based extremist groups, they often profess extremist ideologies in interviews. Both Reitman and Potocký have threatened a Slovak Denník N journalist, sending him death threats filled with antisemitic hatred. Others like Branický have expressed support for the establishment of Novorissya, a common trope of Russian right-wing extremist ideology which aims to reclaim the historic territory of the Russian Empire known as "New Russia" by annexing parts of Eastern Ukraine. It is also possible that some foreign fighters see volunteering in Eastern Ukraine as a way to escape the criminal justice systems of their countries of origin. Even before enlisting with the International 15th Brigade, Keprta was wanted in Slovakia for car theft and physical assault. Keprta was also a member of the now-defunct right-wing extremist paramilitary group Slovenskí Branci, indicating that there is at least a one-way exchange of fighters between European and Russian extremist paramilitary groups.

Like their Czech counterparts, Slovak authorities have also used foreign fighters’ social media activity as evidence against them in criminal proceedings, and similar procedures are found across other European jurisdictions. Emulating the 1930s Spanish International Brigades and similar to Other Russia’s Interbrigades, the Spanish Carlos Palomino International Brigade, comprised of less than ten Spaniards, went to Donbas in 2015 to volunteer with pro-Russian forces. Eight other Spanish fighters, belonging to a variety of communist organizations, were arrested upon returning to Spain in 2015. Spanish police sources reported that identifying the fighters was facilitated by the plethora of social media content they posted from the frontline, posing with military equipment. This demonstrates that while social media is a propaganda tool for foreign fighters and the extremist groups they join, it may also be used by law enforcement agencies and think thanks like CEP to monitor activities that can lead to their arrests.

A group similar to the Palomino Brigades was the Continental Unity from France, founded by a former Yellow Vest demonstrator. Continental Unity has sent French fighters, as well as fighters from Brazil and Serbia, to support the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The Continental Unit operated under the Prizrak Brigade previously led by Aleksey Mozgovoy. Mozgovoy was assassinated in Donbas in 2015, and his death was a point of contention between Igor Girkin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, with Girkin accusing Prigozhin of the assassination. It appears that Continental Unity was defunct by 2018.

While some foreign fighters who have fought on the side of Russia and the separatists in Ukraine since 2014 have previous combat experience, others may have received formal or informal training from the groups they joined. The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) offers formalized combat training to any foreigner who joins its training camp called Partizan (meaning ‘a partisan’) based in St. Petersburg. It was reportedly established sometime between 2001 and 2002 by a Russian ultra-nationalist, Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev. Vorobyev asserts that RIM seeks to recruit individuals globally, including from Australia and New Zealand, to establish an international network of ideologically-aligned combatants. The training of fighters in the Partizan camp is headed by Denis Valiullovich Gariyev, who also leads RIM’s paramilitary wing, the Russian Imperial Legion. According to Gariyev, RIM trained approximately 300 volunteers to fight in Ukraine between 2014 and 2017. In June 2014, RIM founded the Imperial Legion Military-Patriotic Club in St. Petersburg with the explicit aim of training foreign combatants. Following Russia's renewed invasion of Ukraine in 2022, RIM has pursued closer ties with the Serbian right-wing extremist organization, Serbian Action. Gariyev has specifically appealed to Serbs to enlist in RIM's campaign against Ukraine.

While the Russian government itself has not established formal training intended for foreign fighters, it has publicly encouraged volunteers from abroad to join pro-Russian militias. Part 2 of this blog post will examine additional foreign fighter detachments, as well as the Kremlin’s attempts to lure foreigners into Eastern Ukraine.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

In Their Own Words:

We reiterate once again that the brigades will directly target US bases across the region in case the US enemy commits a folly and decides to strike our resistance fighters and their camps [in Iraq].

Abu Ali al-Askari, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) Security Official Mar. 2023
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