Violence-Oriented Right-Wing Extremist Actors in Russia: Foreign Fighters – Part 2

April 11, 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 thirteenth in a series in which CEP highlights some of the key actors, and analyzes their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.

Russia is openly encouraging foreign fighters to join its own and separatist forces in Ukraine. Indeed, it is in its interest to do so, especially as a way to boost its manpower without another unpopular large scale mobilization. The Russian government has passed a series of legal amendments, such as removing the Russian language requirement, lifting the upper age limit, and facilitating the granting of Russian citizenship to attract more foreign citizens into its army. Most of these fighters are economic migrants, and have come from countries such as Afghanistan, Cuba, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Nepal, Serbia, Somalia, Syria, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. For example, in February 2024, it became public that Russia might have recruited as many as 15,000 Nepalese fighters. Notably, a smaller segment of foreign fighters is ideologically motivated. The second part of this blog entry on foreign fighters examines those that express extremist views and join the ranks of Russian, separatist, and paramilitary actors in Ukraine, outside of the groups analyzed in part one. These fighters seem to mainly originate from Serbia, Bulgaria, and Italy.

Serbia's ultra-nationalist groups have shown strong support for Russia, evident in their organization of several pro-Moscow rallies since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine. According to the BBC Russian Service, the recruitment of volunteer fighters from Serbia is orchestrated by Davor Savičić, a Serb who has been fighting in Ukraine since 2014. In 2016, the Russian online portal Fontanka revealed that Savičić, under the call sign “Vuk” (“wolf”), fought in Syria in 2014 as the commander of a Serb platoon within the Wagner paramilitary group. Before that, according to Bosnian media, Savičić was a member of the paramilitary organization known as the Serbian Volunteer Guard, under the leadership of Željko Ražnatović, commonly known as Arkan. Ražnatović-led groups are alleged to have perpetrated war crimes in Bijeljina, Sanski Most, and Bosanski Samac in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Arkan faced accusations of war crimes before the International Court in The Hague in 1999; however, he was not brought to trial as he was assassinated a year later at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade.

On August 21, 2023, Savičić claimed in a Russian TV interview that his Serb detachment in Ukraine signed an official contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense, a claim that was verified by a Serb fighter in the detachment. Serb sniper Dejan Berić, who fought in Ukraine in 2014 and returned to the frontlines in 2022 also appeared alongside Savičić. In the interview, Berić claimed that most foreign fighters for Russia come from Serbia and that, as part of the official contract, the Serbs enlisted with Russia’s 106th airborne division.

In October 2023, Radio Free Europe reported that a Serb named Aleksandar Velimirović (formerly Ljubiša Božić) traveled to Ukraine to fight on the Russian side, and tried to recruit Serbs on VKontakte and other Russian social media. Velimirović claimed to have created the Sova (“owl”) detachment for this purpose, and also thanked Savičić for leading the Wolf platoon. Other Serb fighters who joined the pro-Russian side include Andrej Vukašinović, Gavrilo Stević, Radomir Počuča, and Bratislav Živković. Both Stević and Živković were members of the Jovan Šević detachment, composed entirely of Serbs from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many of these Serbs are ideologically motivated, viewing the war as a way to aid Serbia’s historic, Christian Orthodox ally, Russia. These fighters are often linked to right-wing extremist movements in the Balkans that receive support from Russia. Just like their Russian allies, Balkan extremist groups are active on the internet, promoting ethnic cleansing, homophobia, neo-Nazism, and violence.

Another group involved in the recruitment of Serb fighters into the Russian military is the Kosovo Front Organization. In 2017, its founder and leader, Aleksandar Kravčenko, claimed that while the group did not provide material support to Serb fighters in Ukraine, it did provide advice on how to join. Indeed, it seems that many European extremist groups involved in sending fighters to Ukraine like to claim that they provide only logistical rather than material support to such fighters.

Bulgaria’s far-right Orthodox Dawn is another example of this. In 2014, the leading recruiter of Bulgarians into Ukraine was Pavel Chernev, who died in 2016 after a pulmonary embolism. He was a former Bulgarian MP and a member of the Orthodox Dawn. Chernev used Facebook to express his radical ideology, arguing that the war in Ukraine is a centuries-old battle between the “Orthodox East and Mammonist West.” According to Chernev’s posts, the Orthodox Dawn helped transport both Orthodox and Bulgarian fighters into Moscow and Crimea for training and enlistment in pro-Russian forces.

Outside of the Balkans, Italy seems to be home to a large network of pro-Novorossiya organized groups that facilitate the transport of extremist fighters to Ukraine. These include the MILLENIVM-PCE association, inspired by Alexander Dugin’s Eurasianist ideology. A prominent figure in the association is Orazio Maria Gnerre, who has links to both Pavel Gubarev, one of the founders of the Club of Angry Patriots, and also Andrea Palmeri, alias “il Generalissimo,” a notorious neo-Nazi and criminal in Italy. Palmeri went to Ukraine in 2014 and has since acted as the main point of contact for incoming Italian fighters. An Italian fighter linked to Palmeri and who has been in Ukraine since 2014 is Massimiliano Cavalleri, a.k.a. “Spartak.” Cavalleri serves in the Vostok battalion, just like another Italian, Gabriele Carugati, call sign “Arkanghel.” Carugati is a member of the anti-Western, ultra-nationalist pro-USSR group called Essence of Time, which has also recruited neo-Nazi fighters from Spain.

The Tribunal of Genoa has identified a recruitment chain between the Solidarity Coordination for Donbass, run by Gnerre, and martial arts courses offered in Milan by an Albanian veteran of the war in Chechnya and martial arts instructor, Olsi Krutani. According to the Tribunal, these courses were part of a political propaganda campaign aimed at fostering solidarity with the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass. Krutani was arrested in 2018 by the Italian authorities and sentenced to two years in prison. Since his release, he has been publishing pro-Russian articles online. Together with Antonio Cataldo, an Italian mercenary, Krutani and Palmeri were part of the informal Krutani, Cataldo, and Palmeri Network (KCPN), which recruited Italian fighters for Russia. Members of the network maintained contact with Irina Osipova, a Russian-born Italian citizen, head of the organization Russian-Italian Youth (RIM), and currently a parliamentary coadjutor for the Italian government. Osipova supports the annexation of Crimea, maintains links to Russia’s right-wing extremist milieu, and is the daughter of Oleg Osipov, chief of the Italian representation of the Russian federal agency Rossotrudnichestvo, founded by Dmitry Medvedev. The organization receives funding from Russia and works to influence the foreign policy of European countries. Several pro-Russian Italian militants are also affiliated with Forza Nuova, an Italian far-right political party.

In addition to Serb, Bulgarian, and Italian fighters who overtly endorse far-right extremist ideology, Russia also receives European fighters from countries such as Germany or the UK whose rhetoric is not as radical or who do not express them as openly on social media. The Kremlin’s approach to foreign recruitment appears to be pragmatic, and mercenary companies connected to the Russian government have previously appealed to “those with criminal records, debts, banned from mercenary groups or without an external passport” to apply. In strategic terms, it may be assumed that fighters who are less visible on the ideological propaganda front, such as those from Nepal, Afghanistan, or African nations, will also continue to pose a significant threat to Ukraine.

Nevertheless, it seems that as of March 2024, foreign fighters on the Russian side are still “All Talk, But Not a Lot of Walk.” They do not pose a strategic or tactical threat to Ukraine or its Western allies, and their primary utility seems to be ideological and for propaganda purposes. Foreign fighters, the groups they come from, and the militias they join are often active online and disseminate propaganda that is an integral element of Russia’s hybrid warfare against Ukraine and the West. Russia is deploying information warfare and actively establishing links with potential allies in Europe to sway Europeans to its cause and to boost the influx of foreign fighters to its side. However, as cases in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Italy illustrate, Europe is home to many organizations with pro-Russian sentiments that can and do help send fighters into Eastern Ukraine on their own initiative. If their activities are left unchecked, Europe may see the emergence of transnational extremist networks consisting of violence-oriented paramilitaries with combat experience and public figures with ties to Russia.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.


On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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