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The Russian offensive in Ukraine is posing detrimental consequences to many of its stakeholders. While media coverage has initially largely focused on the daily unfolding of the events directly related to the war, attention has increasingly been drawn to another subject for concern: individuals from around the globe with far-right ideals are leveraging the war to join militia groups that are in alignment with their political views, increasing their social and political influence. With the increase of far-right thinking and the support these political ideologies have received over the last decade across Europe and beyond, it is particularly important to be aware of the movements that are currently happening, what their consequences could be, and if, as well as how, the institutions are proceeding against them.

What is happening?

What we are currently seeing is an inflow of far-right groups into Ukraine and increased support for those that are there for positioning themselves as major protagonists on the stage of the war. Here, the Ukrainian military unit Azov, which holds a central role in an extensive global network of extremist groups, appears to be the most influential. The group was formed in 2014 out of volunteers from the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang and the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly. Both of these had xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideologies which were evidenced in reports of physical assaults on migrants and people who were opposed to their views. Azov’s volunteers act as fighters in their “National Militia“ vigilante force which has its own military training bases and access to a wide array of weaponry. They are now receiving extensive transnational support which is transforming Ukraine into a hub for the global far-right-oriented minds. Azov has been attracting young men from anywhere in their global network who want to join their training units to gain in-combat fighting experience and engage in their ideology. While the FBI estimates a total of 17,000 foreign individuals to have come to Ukraine in the last six years with these motivations, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister claims another 20,000 fighters to have arrived in Ukraine since the outbreak of the war with a large proportion of them joining for related purposes.

Veterans of the Azov Batallion at a demonstration in 2020 demanding President Zelenskyjs’ resignation.

Ever since the group was born out of an interest to defend Ukraine against Russia, it has been accused internationally of fostering neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. In 2019, voices from US congress members have called for the US State Department to classify the group as a foreign terrorist organisation for “recruiting, radicalising, and training American citizens”. Despite lawmakers noting that “the link between Azov and acts of terror in America is clear“, this has never happened. Facebook’s ban of users in support of or representing the group in 2016 was lifted the day Russia launched its invasion to allow praise for Azov concerning its contribution to defending Ukraine. This reflects the shift in perception of Azov as it is taking on a definitive role in the war against Russia.

The implications and dangers

With this overview of the situation at hand, it becomes clear that there are certain risks implicated as these far-right groups gain traction. Mainly, foreign fighters may become radicalised by groups like Azov and return home with weapons, and military and tactical combat experience. Some of the Western neo-Nazis and white nationalists that are going to fight in the war want to turn the country into an ultra-nationalist ethno-state and use it as a role model to expand their ideas across the world. Their objective is not focused on defending Ukraine but rather on spreading their own ideology. Just like in the Syrian conflict, the fragile situation Ukraine could be exploited as an opportunity for extremists to become trained for launching terrorist attacks in the West upon returning. Lessons from the past show that the West has provided military assistance that unintentionally landed in the wrong hands: In the 1980s, the US supported the Islamist guerrilla fighting the Soviets in the Soviet-Afghan War during which Afghanistan became the plotting and training ground for future radical Islamic terrorist attacks on the West. While NATO is equipping Ukraine with weapons and ammunition, there is a risk of a similar chain of events unfolding uncontrollably. It is unlikely that all of the foreign volunteers arriving in Ukraine have such political motivations, but there is clear evidence for extremists being attracted due to viewing the war as an ideal training ground to wage race or guerrilla wars back in their home countries.

International responses

Some efforts to address this problem have been launched in the countries from where fighters are coming. Germany has seen a sharp rise in neo-Nazism over the last years and the ongoing war has become a highly discussed topic on far-right channels. However, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution takes the stance that while many young men are active on related social media channels, very few have left for Ukraine. Yet, passports of extremists who have been identified with intentions to fight in the war are being seized to prevent them from leaving the country. The UK has implemented measures to position Counter-terrorism police at major airports for identity checks and to question travellers about their reasons for travel. Similarly, American Counter-terrorism officials are paying more attention to travellers after reports of at least half a dozen known neo-Nazis having gone to Ukraine in early February and even more since the invasion began. Overall, there are some government responses to the threat but effective solutions by the EU, NATO, or ONU are yet to be implemented. In an age where democratic values are being challenged by the rise of right-wing parties and extremist thinking, these international organisations must show a strong hand to stop radicalisation and extremist behaviour in its’ tracks.

Sources: Time, Aljazeera, MSNBC, Washington Post, World Politics Review, DW

André Rodrigues

Maria Mendes Silva

João Sande e Castro

Natalie Enzelmüller 

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