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July 21, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 399

Gauging A Possible Future Threat Of Neo-Nazi Foreign Fighters Returning To The West After Performing Combat In The Ukraine-Russia War

July 21, 2022 | By Steven Stalinsky*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 399

Within two weeks of the start of the Ukraine-Russia war, it was reported that 6,000 Americans had contacted the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington to inquire about joining the fight against Russia.[1] Ukraine's military attaché in the U.S., Maj. Gen. Borys Kremenetskyi, said in early March that the would-be foreign fighters "really feel that this war is unfair... This is not mercenaries who are coming to earn money. This is people of goodwill who are coming to assist Ukraine to fight for freedom."[2]

Days after the February 24 Russia invasion, Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted a call for volunteers. He wrote: "Foreigners willing to defend Ukraine and world order as part of the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, I invite you to contact foreign diplomatic missions of Ukraine in your respective countries."[3]

100 U.S. Citizens, Including Patriotic Veterans Of The Iraq And Afghanistan Wars, Were Cleared To Fight In Ukraine By March 10

According to Kremenetskyi, half the would-be volunteers were quickly rejected and did not even make it as far as the initial Zoom interview screening. They either lacked the required military experience, had a criminal background, or were unsuitable for other reasons. He added that of the others, only 100 U.S. citizens had made the cut, as of March 10. They included combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[4]

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky's office announced days earlier on March 5, 2022 that it had launched a recruitment website for foreign volunteers for the International Legion, stating that "foreigners who want to help Ukraine can find a detailed, step-by-step instruction on the website on how to join the just fight with the aggressor." Visa-free entran­ce to Ukraine for foreign volunteers came into effect on March 1.[5]


(Fightforua.org­­­­)


(Fightforua.org­­­­)

By March 6, 20,000 Foreign Fighters Were En Route To Ukraine

Some 20,000 foreign fighters were on route to Ukraine by March 6, many of them ideologically inspired. Their return to their homes across the U.S. and Europe will be difficult to track. Some counterterrorism officials have expressed concern that extremists among them could use their experience in this conflict to train, recruit, and plan violence back home.[6]

Foreign volunteers have played a part in the Ukraine conflict since it began in 2014, even signing contracts as volunteers in the Ukrainian armed forces.[7] When Russian proxies attacked in eastern Ukraine that year, Ukrainian authorities accepted help from all, including extremists. Since then, Ukrainian authorities have stepped up efforts to screen these volunteers, following embarrassments such as the case of U.S. military veteran and volunteer Craig Lang. Lang, who is charged with killing a Florida couple in 2018 and is reportedly being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for war crimes in Donbas.[8]


Members of far-right groups who return to the West after fighting in Ukraine may pose a threat (Abcnews.go.com/International/us-army-vet-charged-florida-double-murder-remains/story?id=83066233).

U.S. Government Bulletin - Some Ukrainian Groups Are Actively Recruiting "Racially Or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremist-White Supremacists... To Join Various Neo-Nazi Volunteer Battalions In The War Against Russia"

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) bulletin issued March 7, 2022 reflected the agency's concerns about "United States Citizens Joining the Fight for Ukraine." It assessed that "some with previous service in the United States will continue to attempt to depart" the country "with the intention of fighting alongside the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, adding: "[W]e have high confidence in this assessment based on recent CBP encounters at John F Kennedy International Airport and [on] the large body of reporting indicating individual intentions and recruitment efforts for travel to the Ukraine." Some Ukrainian groups, it added, are actively recruiting "racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist-white supremacists... to join various neo-Nazi volunteer battalions in the war against Russia."[9] 

According to the bulletin, one American stopped and questioned and/or searched at JFK acknowledged previous involvement in the anti-government Boogaloo movement; military equipment was found in the luggage of another, a Marine veteran en route to join up with the Azov Regiment. A third, who left the U.S. before the Russian invasion, was reported by media on February 22 to be training Ukrainians, and a fourth said he had previously participated in military training in the French Foreign Legion.[10]

Highlighted in the bulletin was U.S. officials' concern that American extremists who fight in Ukraine could return to the U.S. with more military training. It added that more information was needed, especially concerning training they are receiving in Ukraine that could be shared in "US-based militia and white nationalist groups," the number of volunteers going and ways they might evade detection by law enforcement, what groups they are trying to join, and platforms being used for recruitment and for sharing information.[11]


"7 March 2022 DHS CBP Intelligence Note re United States Citizens Joining the Fight for Ukraine," first released by Politico.

Governmental concerns across the West were underlined by the former longtime leader of a leading U.S.-based nationwide neo-Nazi organization. Jeff Schoep, who now heads an organization supporting those who leave extremist groups, said in mid-February that the war would attract extremists supporting both sides with the aim of going to "get that training and..­­­. that experience." 

Separately, the "Azov Ukraine Supporters" Telegram channel posted, on June 8, 2022, a link to a livestream in which "James," an American who claimed to have fought in Ukraine, spoke about his experiences there. The channel noted that according to him, the DHS is "interrogating every American volunteer that returns" in an attempt to "sift out those who fought with the AZOV Regiment."[12] ­­

UK, Australian, German, Other Western Governments Voice Concerns About Extremists Fighting In Russia-Ukraine War & Returning Home with New Skills

It is not only the U.S. government that is expressing its concern about how Ukraine is now a focus for neo-Nazis and white supremacists and is attracting foreign recruits from all over the world; many other Western nations are also worried about this threat. 

In the UK in early February, British authorities said that the looming threat of the invasion, as over 130,000 Russian troops massed along Ukraine's borders, would attract UK extremists seeking weapons training and military experience to Ukraine. By mid-February, after at least half a dozen known neo-Nazis had travelled to Ukraine from the U.S. and "a European country," UK officials were questioning travelers en route to Ukraine about their reasons for going there.[13] A UK independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, said: "There is always the possibility of less desirable cases at the edges – individuals who travel to Ukraine under false pretense either to support Russia or fight with an ideological group such as Azov Battalion."[14] 


Independent UK terrorism legislation reviewer discusses foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine.

Immediately following the Russian invasion, Australian political leaders and terror experts warned that extremist Australians could be drawn to the conflict, posing a potential security risk when they returned home. Australia's Department of Home Affairs and spy agency ASIO both said they were monitoring those travelling to join the conflict in the region and that a small number of Australians had already gone. The law on this states: "The Australian government is alert to the potential for Australians to travel to Ukraine to engage in hostilities and will continue to monitor and assess movements of individuals from Australia and apply policy and operational mitigations where necessary."[15] There have also been notable cases, since 2018, of Australian neo-Nazis who have gone there and returned; one of them, Ethan Tilling, claims to have renounced that ideology.[16]


Ethan Tilling fought in Ukraine before returning to Australia in 2018(Abc.net.au/news/2018-05-01/foreign-fighters-return-to-australia-with-military-training/9696784).

German government officials have also discussed the possibility of extremists traveling to Ukraine. Extremism in all branches of the German military is well documented, as is the rising antisemitism in the country; many extremists have been arrested.[17] It should therefore be expected that, as in other countries, extremist military veterans will go fight in Ukraine. However, the German government is downplaying such threats. A German Interior Ministry spokesman claimed "significantly fewer" than 10 such cases, adding that security officials were currently working on seizing the passports of extremists to prevent them leaving the country.[18]

German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) director Thomas Haldenwang said in mid-March that despite the active online discussions about German neo-Nazis flocking to Ukraine to fight, "one should not overestimate this" and that participants in these discussions are simply engaging in "loud-mouthed boastfulness." He too stated that only a handful of German far-right activists have been confirmed as actually leaving for Ukraine,[19] with another 27 either going or having made plans to do so as of late March.[20]

Foreign Fighters – Including Some Extremists – Captured And Killed In Ukraine

Several American military veterans who went to Ukraine have been reported captured or killed. Stephen Zabielski, 52, of Florida, was killed in May;[21] two veterans from Alabama, Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were reported on June 16 to have been  captured by Russian forces in Ukraine.[22] According to the Kremlin, they are not covered by the Geneva conventions and could face the death penalty.[23] A video of Drueke was posted June 17 by RT correspondent Roman Kosarev on his Telegram channel; Kosarev called him an "American mercenary" and some commenters called for torturing, electrocuting, and executing him.[24]

Additionally, in early June, the Ukraine government announced that four fighters, Dutch national Ronald Vogelaar, Australian national Michael O’Neill, German national Björn Benjamin Clavis, and French national Wilfried Blériot, had died.[25] Bleriot, who reportedly died in Ukraine, had been photographed wearing emblems of the extremist Ukrainian Misanthropic Division.[26] The Russian government claims that of 601 Canadians who went to Ukraine to fight, 162 had died; however, these unverified numbers may be Russian propaganda.[27]


French national Wilfried Bleriot (Twitter.com)

American Extremists And Foreign Fighters Are Returning With New Combat Skills

According to reports dating back to October 2021, several known Americans who went to Ukraine, including Craig Lang, are under U.S. Department of Justice and FBI investigation for war crimes allegedly committed while fighting with extremists there. One of them, Dalton Kennedy of North Carolina, was reported to have been killed in a battle near the city of Kharkiv in May 2022.[28]


(Triad-city-beat.com and U.S. Army veteran Craig Lang, at large in Ukraine, is charged with a 2018 double murder in Florida. (Nbcnews.com/news/crime-courts/ex-u-s-soldier-now-double-murder-suspect-hero-ukraine-n1105946)

A violent Florida neo-Nazi skinhead whose social media was being closely monitored by the MEMRI DTTM returned recently from Ukraine, where he had been fighting with the Azov Batallion. Last year, DTTM research showed that he was posting memes of attacks on synagogues and other extremist content. After posting periodic updates from the field in Ukraine and with frequent communications with known Neo Nazis and White Supremist throughout the US, with photos and videos, on neo-Nazi Telegram channels, he wrote on his Telegram channel in May that he was headed back to the U.S. that day; he is bringing with him new skills that could be used for actions from bombmaking to sniper attacks.

Other Americans who have returned from the fighting include the Boogaloo-linked Henry Hoeft, from Ohio, who in early March went to join the Legion of Territorial Defense[29] but left almost upon arrival. In a video he tweeted about his decision to leave, he stated: "We had to get the fuck out of there. People need to stop fucking coming here. It's a trap and they’re not letting you leave." The video was circulated as propaganda for the Russian side.[30] According to MEMRI DTTM research. Hoeft left after he was rejected by the Georgian National Legion, and the Austin, TX-based Boogaloo-affiliated Hibiscus Society posted videos it claimed were from Hoeft in a trench in Ukraine.

 
Henry Hoeft of Ohio (Telegram)

Other American extremists who have returned to the U.S. after traveling to Ukraine initially left from states including Virginia and Tennessee, have been associated with the Boogaloo movement, and have included former military contractors and former police officers. They have uploaded videos from Ukraine and gained considerable online popularity among American extremists.

The MEMRI DTTM Has Identified At Least 35 Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, And Antigovernment Extremist Groups Whose Members Are Fighting In The Russia-Ukraine War

Of the Americans, many are veterans and volunteers. However, MEMRI DTTM monitoring of neo-Nazis and white supremacists online shows that the idea of going to fight was quickly taken up by many of these groups and individuals, who expressed support for, and promoted, going to join the fighting. Paramilitary groups posted their own appeals for volunteers, and respondents included neo-Nazis and white supremacists from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia.[31]

The MEMRI DTTM recently detailed the significant attention being devoted to the conflict by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-government extremists in the U.S. and Canada as well as across Europe and in Ukraine itself. DTTM researchers have identified at least 35 neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and antigovernment extremist groups that have members fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war. These groups are based not only in the U.S. (Texas, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee), but also in Canada, Poland, France, Russia, Croatia, Spain, Hungary, Belarus, Italy, Georgia, and elsewhere. While the majority of such groups are pro-Ukraine, there are also a handful of pro-Russia neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and ultranationalist groups in Ukraine.[32]

Calls for foreign volunteers to fight alongside Ukrainian government forces proliferated on Telegram, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms.[33] On Telegram, the white supremacist "Bellum Acta – Intel, Urgent News and Archives" channel posted a list of active groups fighting Russia in Ukraine, that included "non-ideological/patriotic groups," "National-Socialists and Fascists," "Religious Traditionalists," and "Anarchist Militias," in addition to American Special Operations Forces veterans, and many more.


A Telegram channel posted a list of group fighting Russian forces in Ukraine.

A post on a German-language Telegram channel that commemorates fallen fighters in Ukraine marked, on June 21, the June death of a Czech volunteer in the neo-Nazi Ukrainian "Karpatska Sich" paramilitary organization, who was killed in battle near Izyum.[34] The post noted that when his parents were informed of his death, "they had said that his sacrifice had not been in vain, because the [red] horde had to be destroyed."[35] The same Telegram channel reported in April that two Georgian nationals, David Menabdishvili and Nikoloz Schanova, had also died fighting in Karpatska Sich.

Possible Threat: Some Neo-Nazis Active Online War Have Gone Dark Since Start Of Russia-Ukraine War

Some of the most extreme neo-Nazi veterans, Americans and other Westerners, monitored by the MEMRI DTTM have gone dark since the Ukraine war began. Some have not surfaced, and it is quite possible that some have gone to fight, based on when they were last posting online.

While it is too early to know, it is possible that Ukraine could become these extremists' version of what Afghanistan was for the jihadi movement in the 1980s. Being on the ground in a real-world fighting situation will allow them to gain valuable experience, as they further hone their skills in weapons, planning attacks, using technology in war including communications and encryption, and using cryptocurrency for clandestine funding of their activity. On the ground in real-world battle situations, the extremists are gaining experience in combat, guerilla warfare, explosives, and sniper activity. These skills and this experience could ultimately be turned against Western governments.[36]

It should be noted that MEMRI DTTM research shows neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Ukraine posting photos of their dead comrades. Videos that foreign fighters have posted online show them alongside corpses. Such images are eerily reminiscent of the jihadi practice of posting photos of "martyrs" during the height of the ISIS era.[37] 

Conclusion

While there are neo-Nazi foreign fighter elements supporting Ukraine, this does not mean that there are not just as many neo-Nazi and white supremacists supporting Russia. The fact that neo-Nazi foreign fighters have been integrated into the Ukraine military, does not mean that, overall, the global neo-Nazi and white supremacist movement supports Ukraine – it does not.  Just as many groups support Russia over Ukraine for many reasons. For example, in Europe, the neo-Nazi "Nordic Resistance Movement," which received money from the "Russian Imperial Movement," the French "Unite Continentale," and many others have explicitly supported the invasion. This is a complicated debate happening within the subculture of hate groups around the world.

*Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) and co-author of "The Eye of the Storm – [Domestic] Terrorists Using Cryptocurrency Part II: Following In Jihadis' Footsteps, Neo-Nazis Turn To Cryptocurrency." Over the past three years he has written extensively about terrorist usage of cryptocurrency and his research on this has been published and discussed in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Hill and for many other publications. He also authored a major 2019 study on jihadi use of cryptocurrency.

 

[1] People.com/politics/american-volunteers-ukraine-embassy-washington-fight-russia, March 10, 2022.

[2] Apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-europe-d0243a1708a3115e5ad0ac40aed99b9f, March 10, 2022.

[3] Twitter.com/DmytroKuleba/status/1497840669066502145, February 27, 2022.

[4] Apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-europe-d0243a1708a3115e5ad0ac40aed99b9f, March 10, 2022.

[5] Rferl.org/a/ukraine-recruiting-foreign-fighters/31737766.html, March 5, 2022; Fightforua.org, accessed July 14, 2022.

[6] Foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/27/ukraine-arms-weapons-syria-libya-terrorism, April 27, 2022.

[7] Vice.com/en/article/akvyq4/russian-ukraine-invasion-foreign-fighters-battalion, February 28, 2022.

[8] Vice.com/en/article/akvyq4/russian-ukraine-invasion-foreign-fighters-battalion, February 28, 2022;
Buzzfeednews.com/article/christopherm51/craig-lang-ukraine-war-crimes-alleged, October 8, 2021.

[9] Propertyofthepeople.org/document-detail/?doc-id=22022879, March 7, 2022;
Politico.com/news/2022/05/24/american-fighters-ukraine-white-supremacists-00034860, May 24, 2022.

[10] Propertyofthepeople.org/document-detail/?doc-id=22022879, March 7, 2022.

[11] Propertyofthepeople.org/document-detail/?doc-id=22022879, March 7, 2022.  

[12] Telegram.

[13] Theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/16/checks-at-uk-airport-over-fears-far-right-extremists-may-travel-to-ukraine.
February 16, 2022.

[14] Thenationalnews.com/world/uk-news/2022/03/01/fears-british-extremists-will-head-to-ukraine-to-fight-for-far-right-azov-battalion/ March 1, 2022

[15] Abc.net.au/news/2022-02-28/fears-ukraine-war-could-draw-australian-foreign-fighters/100866232,
February 28, 2022.

[16] Abc.net.au/news/2018-05-01/foreign-fighters-return-to-australia-with-military-training/9696784, March 30, 2018.

[17] Dw.com/en/bundeswehr-extremism-antisemitism-auschwitz/a-52165548, January 27, 2020;
Abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/german-soldier-relative-arrested-extremism-76180390; Npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/06/18/532817811/after-arrests-germany-confronts-issue-of-far-right-extremism-in-its-military, June 18, 2017;
Kpbs.org/news/2021/jun/28/frontline-germanys-neo-nazis-far-right, June 28, 2021.
Timesofisrael.com/german-government-reports-29-increase-in-antisemitic-crimes-in-2021, June 10, 2022.

[18] Reuters.com/world/europe/german-extremists-going-ukraine-are-isolated-cases-ministry-2022-03-04,
March 4, 2022.

[19] Dw.com/en/ukraine-war-gives-germanys-fight-against-right-wing-extremism-new-momentum/a-61149328, March 16, 2022.

[20] Washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/25/germany-far-right-ukraine-russia, March 27, 2022.

[21] Nnbcnews.com/news/world/second-us-citizen-stephen-zabielski-killed-ukraine-combat-state-depart-rcna34512,
June 21, 2022.

[22] Cnn.com/2022/06/15/world/americans-missing-ukraine-captured-intl/index.html, June 15, 2022;
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/06/15/exclusive-first-two-us-fighters-captured-russian-forces-battle/,
June 16, 2022.

[23] Theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/21/us-volunteer-fighters-captured-in-ukraine-could-face-death-penalty-says-russia, June 21, 2022.

[24] Telegram, June 17, 2022.

[25] Politico.eu/article/ukraine-war-deaths-eu-australian-foreign-fighters, June 4, 2022.

[26] Nytimes.com/2022/07/07/world/europe/foreign-fighters-ukraine.html, July 7, 2022.

[27] Theglobeandmail.com/world/article-russia-claim-canadian-fighters-killed-ukraine-false, June 20, 2022.

[28] Buzzfeednews.com/article/christopherm51/craig-lang-ukraine-war-crimes-alleged, October 8, 2021;
Newsweek.com/american-killed-russians-ukraine-report-1709052, May 23, 2022.
See also Triad-city-beat.com/the-lost-boys-of-ukraine, January 19, 2020.

[29] Web.archive.org/web/20220306113519/https:/www.dispatch.com/story/news/2022/03/06/ohio-
veteran-henry-hoeft-heading-ukraine-fight-russia-legion/9376048002/, March 6, 2022.

[30] Rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/boogaloo-boi-ukraine-russia-propaganda-altright-1324274/,
March 20, 2022.

[34] Telegram, June 21, 2022.

[35] Telegram, June 21, 2022.

[36] Washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/25/germany-far-right-ukraine-russia/, March 25, 2022.

[37] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 939, Faces Of Death: On Twitter, Jihadis Distribute Photos Of 'Martyrs', February 22, 2013.

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