30. Sep 2021.

How a War on the Edge of Europe Became a Training Ground for the Far-Right

Veteran Swedish right-wing extremist Mikael Skillt arrived in Kyiv in February 2014, just days after President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power during Ukraine’s revolution.

A member of the Azov volunteer battalion, pictured in Kyiv in 2015. Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Skillt, at the time a notorious neo-Nazi with a 20-year history in the extreme-right scene, had been drawn to the revolution out of the desire to be part of something bigger than his life at home. Like many far-right radicals across the world, he’d been inspired by the prominent role that Ukrainian ultranationalists and far-right hooligans had played at the sharp end of the Euromaidan protests, and wanted to support their cause.

“I saw history in the making,” he told VICE World News. “Who doesn’t want to be a part of history?”

That decision would eventually result in Skillt becoming part of a wave of far-right foreign fighters – numbering in the thousands, according to estimates – that would join the subsequent war in Ukraine, and who fought on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides of the conflict.

They came for various reasons, seeking adventure, status, or military training – and would leave with combat experience and international ties that make them a concerning extremist threat, according to experts. This flow of far-right fighters, they say, has made Ukraine a hub of transnational white supremacist networks, with a strident fascist underground that continues to attract and inspire radicals from around the world.

“White supremacists, they're kind of itching for a fight,” said Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the ADL Centre on Extremism.

“When you look at the ideology of these groups, many of them talk about preparing for a race war, and they want real training.”

For these foreign fighters, the war in Ukraine represented the opportunity to live out a warrior fantasy, said Jason Blazakis, senior research fellow at The Soufan Centre.

People like Skillt, he said, were “kind of the embodiment of a lot of what white supremacists would like to be – going out to the battlefield… to Ukraine to live directly his dream.”

Skillt, who had previous military experience in Sweden’s National Home Guard, signed up to fight for one of the volunteer militias that formed to defend Ukraine after Russian-backed separatists rose up in the east of the country in 2014.

That group was the Azov Battalion, a powerful far-right militia drawn from the same ultranationalist forces that had provided muscle on the frontlines of the revolution.

While Azov has publicly sought to downplay its extremist elements, its radical politics are undeniable. Many of its members openly espouse white supremacist ideology; some sport neo-Nazi tattoos. The battalion’s first commander, Andriy Biletsky, had led the neo-Nazi paramilitary organisation “Patriot of Ukraine,” and had previously stated that it was the Ukrainian nation’s mission to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans].”

“There is no arguing about [the extremist ideology], because you can see the pictures of guys with swastikas,” said Skillt, who has since renounced his own extremist politics.

Azov rapidly gained attention not only for its extreme-right politics, but for its prowess on the battlefield, making a name for itself in the fierce fighting for the city of Mariupol, where Skillt was in the thick of things.

The group’s actions helped Azov, despite its radical affiliations, gain legitimacy and standing domestically as a defender of the nation – and helped boost its reputation with right-wing extremists worldwide, who Azov has actively recruited through social media and concerted network-building.

“They proved their bona fides as a force to be reckoned with,” said Blazakis, adding that Azov developed something of a cult following among elements of the transnational far-right.

But not all the international right-wing extremist scene sided with Azov – far from it. The war in Ukraine divided the loyalties of the global far-right, with some supporting the Ukrainian side, backing them as fellow nationalists repelling Russian aggression, while others sided with Russia, motivated in part by a notion of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a staunch defender of a white traditionalist Europe.

“The right-wingers of Europe… are divided into two camps, pro-Russian, and pro-Ukrainian,” said Skillt. “The pro-Russian side would be the dominant side.”

Ironically, given the Kremlin’s attempts to use Azov’s extremist ideology to smear the Ukrainian forces as a whole, white supremacist foreign fighters also received training and fought for the pro-Russian separatists through groups like the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), an ultranationalist organisation which claims to be fighting for the “predominance of the white race.”

Experts say that RIM served as a conveyor belt delivering right-wing extremists to fight for the pro-Russian side as part of its military wing, the Imperial Legion. Last year, the US government added RIM to its list of specially designated global terrorist groups, saying it had “provided paramilitary-style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe,” while German media, citing intelligence sources, reported that German extremists had been receiving training in the use of weapons and explosives in a RIM camp near Saint Petersburg.

Meanwhile, just last month, Czech authorities raided a paramilitary group suspected of sending Czech citizens to Ukraine to fight for pro-Russian separatists.

As for Azov, its radical politics has proven no obstacle to the group entrenching itself as a growing and diversifying force in Ukraine, as it has widened its focus from the battlefield to spreading its extremist ideology through Ukrainian society.

In late 2014, the Azov Battalion was officially incorporated into Ukraine's National Guard — putting its fighters on the government payroll. Two years later, Azov formed its own political party, National Corps, before establishing a paramilitary group, known as National Militia, which “patrols” the streets enforcing its own brutal brand of vigilante justice.

Members of the groups have carried out a series of violent attacks on minorities, including Roma and LGBTQ people, in recent years, prompting the US State Department to brand National Corps a “nationalist hate group.”

While these political endeavors have failed to attract any meaningful support from the public, the Azov ecosystem has helped to sustain a flourishing far-right underground in Ukraine. Azov-affiliated extremists run neo-Nazi music festivals, clothing lines, and MMA tournaments — while the group has continued to actively network and court support from far-right radicals worldwide.

This has inspired and attracted fanboys from around the world, including from the US. 

Among Azov’s most ardent admirers is Robert Rundo, of the violent US white supremacist group Rise Above Movement. He made the pilgrimage to Ukraine in 2018 to network and fight in Azov MMA events, and has even launched a podcast with a prominent Azov-affiliated extremist.

Rundo has openly acknowledged the role Azov has played in inspiring his own political extremism in the US, describing the Ukrainian far-right scene to a podcast in 2017 as “my whole inspiration for everything.”

The influence of Ukraine’s ultranationalist fringe has prompted international concern, amid concerns about it strengthening and emboldening white nationalist groups beyond Ukraine’s borders.

The US government has banned any of its military aid to Ukraine from reaching the Azov Battalion, while the FBI has said in a criminal complaint it believes Azov is training and radicalising US white supremacists. In 2019, concerns over the dangers posed by Ukraine’s ultranationalists prompted ambassadors of G7 countries to urge the government to act against the extremists.

But while there are some indications that Ukraine is heeding the pressure to stop foreign fighters arriving – in October, they deported two American members of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, who were seeking combat experience with Azov, according to a BuzzFeed News report – there’s no sign that Azov, said to enjoy powerful political support, is going anywhere.

“It's pretty clear to me that they do have a future, because they've been able to entwine themselves into the Ukrainian state,” said Blazakis. “That's very dangerous.”

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