As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February, so did foreigners from around the world seeking to respond to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for military volunteers. This influx of foreigners worried analysts that violent extremists, especially neo-Nazis, could use the conflict as a new training ground. Compounding these fears, Russian President Vladimir Putin painted Ukraine as a Nazi stronghold, arguing that his invasion aimed to “disarm and discredit” the Ukrainian government.
Putin’s allegations complicate the analysis of extremists’ travel to Ukraine in two respects. On the other hand, Russian propaganda channels can contribute to raising baseless fears of extremists on the pro-Ukrainian side of this conflict. On the contrary, commentators can overreact in trying to counter these sarcastic and opportunistic Russian messages, ignoring a real problem in an attempt to avoid feeding the Russian war narrative. In this article, building on extensive open source research, we seek to strike a balance between these two poles. We found that while some individuals with links to violent extremism have already traveled to Ukraine, the mass influx of ideologically motivated fighters has yet to materialize. The problem warrants monitoring lest violent extremists find sanctuary on the battlefield, but the problem must still be proportionate to being so secondary for the time being.
Demographics of Western fighters in Ukraine
As of March 2022, approximately 20,000 individuals have expressed an interest in traveling to Ukraine to fight. This number may point to similarities with previous flows of foreign fighters to Syria during the civil war and to Ukraine in 2014. But the reality on the ground is different, as the actual numbers do not match initial expressions of interest.
When evaluating the current numbers, take Syria as an example. In the first six months of 2014, 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 countries joined the country’s civil war. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, 17,000 fighters from fifty countries poured into Ukraine. But despite the large numbers expressing intent to fight in Ukraine during the current conflict, the actual turnout of foreign volunteers was much lower than expected. Researchers estimate that only several hundred people will travel to Ukraine to support its government, and there will be fewer Actually they fight.
In addition to differences in numbers, differences in motivation should also be acknowledged. Many of the foreign fighters who joined the Syrian civil war and the 2014 Ukraine conflict were motivated by jihad or violent white supremacy, respectively. But all available evidence indicates that the vast majority of foreigners now traveling to fight in Ukraine are not motivated by ideology and are largely trying to get involved with official Ukrainian military units rather than state militia groups.
Many of those who joined the fight are military veterans who see in supporting the Ukrainian government against the unprovoked Russian invasion as a patriotic duty. A smaller subgroup includes thrill-seeking individuals. The number of ideological extremists is less important. So far, Western governments are aware of very few individuals with links to violent extremism who have traveled to Ukraine. German authorities say, for example, that the number of German citizens who fall into this category is in the single digits. Although US authorities have not commented publicly, open source evidence suggests the number is likely similar.
Violent extremists are moving away from Ukraine
We collected publicly available information on more than 200 foreign volunteers who traveled to fight in Ukraine between February and May 2022. Our research did not indicate an ideologically motivated extremist group. To help us assess the potential threat posed by a small number of individuals with links to extremism, we analyzed the responses of domestic violent extremist networks to the Russian invasion, as well as military units and militias in Ukraine with a history of violent extremist agendas that historically recruited foreigners.
Online violent extremist communities have demonstrated a strong ability to mobilize members for violence. It is reasonable to believe that this effect can also work in the other direction, possibly dissuading members from taking certain actions. True, some white supremacist networks have expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian and Russian sides. Moreover, early in the war, some of these networks encouraged support for Ukraine and discussed organizing travel to join the fight. However, violent extremist networks and US-based social media channels have largely encouraged members not to fight in Ukraine.
Rinaldo Nazzaro, founder of the neo-Nazi accelerator group The Base, has severely discouraged his citizens from traveling to Ukraine due to the risks of being identified and tracked down by Western intelligence agencies or being killed in a “NATO proxy war”. Shortly after the Russian invasion, a prominent American neo-Nazi accelerator site stopped inviting its audience to join the Azov Regiment (formerly the Azov Battalion before its merger into the Ukrainian National Guard). In some cases, transnational white supremacist networks have followed suit. Other white supremacist networks promoted their own slogans discouraging involvement in the conflict, including “No more brotherhood wars,” suggesting that whites should not fight other whites.
Likewise, the demand side of the equation is not conducive to a thriving ultra-western ecosystem in Ukraine. One individual who joined the Azov Battalion in 2014 felt that the unit viewed foreign volunteers as “backpacks” – burdens in need of constant attention in order to function. This position will likely remain in less than a decade. Moreover, Western extremists in Ukraine are significantly outnumbered by international and Ukrainian volunteers, which reduces their influence and reduces their attractiveness to military units in Ukraine.
Even Ukrainian combat units such as the Azov Regiment, whose leadership and personnel prominently demonstrated an affinity with neo-Nazi ideology in the past, tried to clean up their image. We are not arguing that this represents an actual shift in ideological orientation – such a determination is beyond the scope of this article – but public messaging does have an impact on extremist recruitment. Azov sought to steer his public narrative away from extremes, which might increase its appeal to Ukrainian recruits, many of whom say they joined the regiment because of its reputation as an elite force.
Don’t exaggerate, don’t ignore
An overestimation of the threat of extremist foreign fighters in Ukraine has drawn criticism that studying the phenomenon could bolster Russian propaganda narratives. Furthermore, Americans who travel to Ukraine to combat the Russian invasion have their legal rights to do so. How do we balance countering Russian propaganda, respecting the legal rights of foreign volunteers, and spotting a few ideologically motivated extremists seeking to exploit the war in Ukraine? Although this latter category represents a relatively small part of a relatively minor group, one of the lessons from the history of the participation of extremist foreign fighters in conflict areas is that the importance and prevalence of such fighters can change in short periods and that these individuals usually deserve careful attention.
The key to assessing the impact of extremist travel to Ukraine on the United States is not to consider every foreigner who travels to Ukraine to be a neo-Nazi in training or trend in the opposite direction and to assume that all reports of ideological extremists flowing into the conflict are the construction of Russian propaganda. a job also Russian propaganda in the past has skilfully exploited issues that the Western media seem unduly underestimated.
As we have shown, the conflict in Ukraine has so far not been a boon to violent extremists as many expected, and as Russian propaganda has sought to advance. But this does not mean that the presence of violent extremists in Ukraine should be ignored. The United States should adopt a targeted approach to monitoring and evaluating how the connections and skills that such a small number of individuals may acquire through participation in conflict may affect the landscape of violent extremism in the home.
Ironically, if there is a major problem with neo-Nazi aliens on the battlefield, it is likely to be found on the Russian side. Russian units such as the Wagner Group’s Rusich Task Force and the Imperial Russian Movement have firm and self-proclaimed links to neo-Nazi ideology. They too should be a part of this discussion.
David Gartenstein Ross is CEO of the private company Valence Global He leads a project on domestic extremism for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Emelie Chace-Donahue, Madison Urban, and Matt Chauvin are analysts at Valens Global and support the company’s public sector clients and the FDD project on domestic extremism.