Abstract: After more than 100 days, it remains unclear how the war in Ukraine will evolve, how it will end, and the broader impacts it may have. This article examines key concerns and questions about the conflict that are relevant to counterterrorism practitioners through the lens of three impact areas. These include how the war may influence, or shape, inter-state competition; the trajectory of key organizations and networks, such as the Azov Regiment and Russian paramilitary entities; and the journey of individuals, especially far-right extremists. At the inter-state level, the war has already shaped alliance and proxy dynamics, and it is likely to influence them even more, a dynamic that could create opportunities, challenges, and risks, to include terrorism, for key parties. Substantive concerns about extremism and terror spillover existed across organizational, network, and individual levels prior to Russia’s invasion in February. Many of those same concerns remain, but the scale and organizational forms of that nuanced threat stream have shifted. The counterterrorism community will need to continue to monitor developments to see if observed changes hold—and be on the look-out for new war impacts. To gain efficiencies in studying how the Ukraine conflict intersects with extremism and evolves in that regard, it should also consider developing or investing in two foundational research datasets.

It is hard to look at the ongoing war in Ukraine and not be focused on the here and now, as even though the conflict has evolved considerably since it began in February, the Ukrainian people are still locked in a bloody fight to protect their nation, lives, territory, and desired way of life.

The war in Ukraine though, like all wars, has been—and will continue to be—shaped by multiple parts: the history that preceded the war, including Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the long-simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine; the lead-up to and dynamics of the current war; and what the war and its aftermath will look like in the future.

At this time, the future trajectory of the conflict is unclear. But after more than 100 days of conflict, it certainly appears that the war has staying power, as both Russia and Ukraine have both demonstrated that they are not ready, despite suffering large losses, to end the war anytime soon. There are also other complicating factors, such as the interests and actions of external actors, that are likely to prolong and further complicate the war—to include how it will evolve and end.

This article examines the war through the lens of three key impact areas that are relevant to the counterterrorism community. It first examines the potential impact of the war on inter-state competition. It then examines the war’s impact on the organizational trajectories of key networks and organizations taking part in the conflict, especially those with extremist ties, before similarly assessing the impact on individuals. In each of these three impact areas, attention is placed on highlighting key questions, concerns, points of complexity, and debate. It concludes with a short discussion about data, and two foundational data resources that would make sense for the counterterrorism community to develop or invest in.

Impact on Inter-State Competitive Dynamics, and Potential Spillover Effects
At this point in the war, it is hard to predict how the war will end and what that ending will look like. Will, and the battle of wills between contestants, plays an important role in war—and in shaping a war’s outcome. After more than 100 days, one of the key lessons that has emerged from the conflict is that Russian planners strategically underestimated the capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces and the grit, will, and resolve of the Ukrainian people. Instead of dividing the Ukrainian people, Russia’s invasion has brought the Ukrainian people closer together. The determination of the Ukrainian military has been critical to the successes that it has had on the battlefield, and looking forward, it appears the Ukrainian armed forces’ will to fight has strong staying power and will endure.

But wars are costly. The Ukrainian government and armed forces have benefited from billions of dollars in support, equipment, and materiel—including tactical armed drones, such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2; portable anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons; artillery; helicopters; and radar systems—from the United States and other NATO partners.1 The military equipment, systems, and support that Ukraine has received has had an immediate and important impact on the war,2 as it has meaningfully shaped tactical battlefield outcomes and arguably the direction of the conflict itself. The West’s provision of military hardware has been bolstered by NATO alliance unity, a strong diplomatic front, and complementary steps and actions, such as economic sanctions, that Western governments have taken to punish Russia and to pressure, dissuade, or deter the Kremlin from continuing its actions in Ukraine or from engaging in similar activity elsewhere.

Wars evolve, however, and both parties—Ukraine and Russia—have already suffered and lost much. As the war grinds on in the months and potentially years ahead, both nations are incentivized to identify ways to shift the trajectory and balance of power of the war so they can strengthen their respective positions and accomplish their goals (or whatever components of those goals they can).

For the Russian government, one key target will be to try to continue to attrit Ukrainian manpower—to lessen Ukrainian capabilities and diminish the resolve and will of the Ukrainian people. This is because mass matters,a and the Russian government knows that it has more manpower and more resources to wear down the capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces over time. Given Russia’s embarrassing losses in Ukraine and the critical role Western military support has played in the conflict (and the open nature of that support), it seems likely that the Russian government—motivated by pride, redemption, or the vision it has for its own future—will also aim to complicate or erode Western will and make Western government support for the war and the Ukrainian government more costly.

This is how the war may end up having a more complicated and longer strategic tail, as if the Russian government decides to impose new or additional costs on Western governments it could lead to impacts and direct or asymmetric activity that extend beyond the borders of Ukraine.3 For example, Russia could provide more military support, including weapons like the anti-aircraft or anti-armor weapons that the West has provided to Ukraine, to regimes less friendly to Western interests or to armed proxies that could target Western governments and/or their interests. The threat of future costs should not deter the West, but policymakers in Western capitals should anticipate that the support they are providing to Ukraine may come with, or lead to, added costs inflicted by Russia and/or its agents at some point in the not-so-distant future.

The war has already impacted alliance dynamics, and it is likely that it will impact and shape them even further. On the Western side, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped to bolster NATO alliance solidarity,b led to a huge “revolutionary” strategic pivot in German defense policy and posture,4 and pushed Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership. For Russia and its strategic partnership with China, the war has proved to be more complicated, as it “has highlighted both the resilience of the Sino–Russian partnership and its limitations.”5 And as the war progresses, it is believed “that the balance of power within the bilateral relationship will tilt radically towards Beijing.”6 This, as noted by Bobo Lo, is because “Moscow’s escalating confrontation with the West means that Russia is now more reliant on China, geopolitically and economically, than at any time in the two countries’ history.”7

Given the strategic role that the Russian government, its armed forces, and elements like the Wagner Group have played in Syria,8 a key ally of Iran, there have been concerns that Russia may lean on Iran to provide more support to the war in Ukraine. Numerous commentators have pointed out how the war in Ukraine has put the Iranian government in a difficult position.9 For Iran, the war comes at a bad time, as it has occurred against the backdrop of negotiations to restore the Iranian nuclear deal,10 a reduction in political support for Hezbollah in Lebanon,11 and ongoing influence obstacles in Iraq,12 among other challenges. And domestically, “Russia’s war in Ukraine is a political flashpoint … [as] among ordinary Iranians, there is a great deal of sympathy for Ukraine.”13 These dynamics have boxed-in how Iran can respond: It needs to provide some support for the war, which it has, but due to its interests and internal pressures, it also can only publicly support the war or get involved so much. But that does not mean there is not space for Iran to do more, as if the Iranian government wanted to support the war in meaningful ways it could do so covertly, or through proxies. And as the conflict evolves, it will be important for Western governments to remain on the look-out for any masked signs, or tells, of potential Iranian support for the conflict.

When viewed at a broader level, the war in Ukraine and its demands has already led to Russian resourcing and manpower changes elsewhere, changes that could impact the Russian government’s ability to influence and compete in other areas over time.c For example, it has been widely reported that “the invasion of Ukraine is straining Moscow’s foreign deployments”14 and that some Wagner Group personnel have been shifted from Libya, the Central African Republic, and Syria to help bolster Russian activity in Ukraine.15 These Wagner redeployments may end up being temporary, but if the conflict persists, the war in Ukraine may end up constraining Moscow’s ability to compete further afield, which could create opportunities for Western governments and their local partners. It could also, as Christopher Faulkner argues in this issue, make the presence of remaining Wagner personnel deployed in countries around the globe even more vital to the Kremlin.16

The war also raises other concerns and questions that are relevant to terrorism. For example, will the war and its brutal nature motivate individuals or groups involved in it to conduct terror attacks in Russia, areas of Ukraine, or Crimea, or against NATO or Western government targets?17 While the conflict in Ukraine is unique, Russia’s experience in Chechnya—and the terrorism spillover effects from that conflict, such as the Beslan school siege18 and the Moscow theater hostage incident19—demonstrates how the longer-term aftereffects of the war could in part manifest as terrorism.

There is also the issue of what happens to all the weapons that have been flowing into Ukraine—“a longtime hub of arms trafficking,” and where and with whom some of those weapons might end up.20 The case of Libya is a cautionary tale in this regard, as the “transfer of weapons from Libya”—which was awash with weapons as a result of its 2011 civil war—was found to have “armed rebel movements in Mali in 2012,” to include the “acquisition of arms by terror groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and non-state groups operating in the Sahel region.”21 The war in Ukraine is unique and different from the conflict that erupted in Libya, but the flow of weapons into the country is still an important over-the-horizon watch-out.

Impact on Network and Organizational Trajectories, Especially Those with Known Extremist Ties
Wars shape and alter the organizations and individuals who take part in them, and the war in Ukraine is being fought by a diverse mix of actors (individuals, networks, and groups) supporting activity on both sides of the conflict. And even though the war is primarily a contest between Russia and Ukraine, with each state pursuing military and strategic objectives on the battlefield, the war is not without its share of undercurrents—dimensions of the war that exist under the surface that are being overshadowed by the immense and gruesome character of the war itself. One of those undercurrents is that there “is a far-right extremist problem on both sides in the conflict.”22 (Far-left extremists have been drawn to the conflict, too.d) The extremist undercurrent is not broadly pervasive, but it does appear in various organizational, individual, and informational forms. For example, the Russian government has leveraged the “need” to denazify Ukraine23 as a foil and blatant form of misinformation to help the Kremlin justify, and domestically sell, its invasion of the country; a country that has a democratically elected government and is led by a Jewish president.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has kicked off a new phase of the conflict, the extremist undercurrent in Ukraine is not new: It has a much longer history and has manifested in different ways since at least 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and conflict erupted.

Given the complex array of actors taking part in the Ukraine conflict and the presence of units on both sides that have known extremist ties, have been associated with extremist beliefs, and have hosted extremists, there is already cause to be concerned that the war could elevate the status, capabilities, or power of controversial armed groups—and by extension, the broader networks with which they are associated. Two cases from opposite sides of the war highlight the concern terrorism researchers and governments have about the war’s potential extremist spillover effects, and some of the complexities associated with tracking how the war may influence the trajectory of key organizations taking part in it.

Ukrainian Dimensions: The Azov Brigade and Movement
Most Ukrainians have joined traditional Ukrainian military units to defend their country. A smaller subset of Ukrainians, however, has also joined the Azov Regiment, a controversial armed group that has operated as a formal part of the Ukrainian National Guard since 2014.24 The regiment, which used to be referred to as the Azov Battalion, shares history and connections with the Azov Movement, “a multi-pronged, heterogeneous far-right social movement that grew out of its namesake military unit.”25 e While the movement is involved in a range of activities,26 it is “structured around the National Corps …, a political party”27 that the U.S. State Department identified as a nationalist hate group in 2018.28

While there is a line and distinction between the regiment and movement, the two entities are “often confused” as key members of the movement like to “speak of the Regiment as ‘its own.’”29 The association that Azov Regiment veterans and Azov Movement members have had with military activity since Russia’s invasion in February, including attempts to create organizational structures, has clouded the dynamics of the relationship between the two entities even further.30 As noted by Kacper Rekawek, “how the precise relationship between the party and the Regiment is structured is a complex issue. Some observers stress that the party and the Regiment are still connected whereas others maintain that the Regiment had undergone a ‘depoliticization.’”31 It is believed that the “party [National Corps] does not exercise operational control over the Regiment.”32

Given the ongoing war, all Ukrainian military units are currently guided by the moment, and have prioritized survival, the fight against Russia, and protection of the Ukrainian state. This includes the Azov Regiment and military activity associated with the Azov Movement. But despite Azov’s contributions to the current war and its prior manifestations, especially the regiment’s recent stand in Mariupol, which decimated it,33 the regiment and movement typify some of the concerns extremism researchers have about the war and its potential aftereffects. This is due to Azov’s history, its far-right nationalist orientation, the symbology it has used, its associations, and the role it has played as a “dangerous key player of the transnational extreme-right.”34

In 2014, and for a period after, the Azov Regiment served as a desired pro-Ukrainian military unit-of-choice that some local and foreign extremists, including those with white supremacist and neo-Nazi views, sought out and tried to join.35 As a result, the broader Azov Movement has been described as having “served as a network hub for several years … with strong ties to far-right extremists in many European Union countries and the United States.”36 Azov Movement figures, for example, have had personal ties with members of Atomwaffen Division,37 The Base, Rise Above Movement, and other extremist networks.38 Those connections are real.

The Azov Regiment and other Ukrainian units with extremist links are believed to still be a destination for some foreign extremists today.39 That is, if those foreign extremists can join the Azov Regiment or other controversial armed groups. Indeed, as noted by Christopher Miller, “Something that often goes unmentioned in reports about foreign extremists trying to join Azov is the fact they actually can’t join the regiment,40 which is part of Ukraine’s Nat[ional] Guard. But what extremists do is go & link up with Azov Battalion vets & members of the broader movement.”42 It is not clear how many foreign extremists have pursued such an approach, or have been successful in doing so. The limited ability of Azov Movement members to help personally ‘place’ foreigner volunteers in a collection of Ukrainian units, which Kacper Rekawek describes in this issue, strongly suggests that not many foreign extremists have succeeded.42

The general opportunity, though, has led to the principal and immediate concern, as highlighted by Colin Clarke, that “far-right extremists in Europe” and elsewhere could gain “combat experience and training in the Ukrainian theater and then use that for terrorist attacks in Europe proper,” in the United States, or even elsewhere.43 There is some evidence to support this concern. For example, interviews a Die Zeit reporting team led by Yassin Musharbash conducted with former right-wing extremists suggest that some neo-Nazis primarily had joined the Azov Regiment to receive training in the use of weapons.f

The Azov Regiment and Movement have both had a troubling closeness to extremism, and international extremist networks, a closeness that some believe is still a core component of each entity today.44 But just how much of a direct threat the Azov Regiment and Azov Movement present as a potential incubator or operational enabler of terrorism—through the military training, combat, and networking opportunities they have provided—has been arguably overblown.45 Two points bring the issue into focus. First, it is still not clear how many foreigners, and as a subset how many foreign extremists, have been able to embed with, join, or receive direct training from the Azov Regiment or other units affiliated with the Azov Movement since 2014. The estimates that do exist are not high. For example, one report estimates that between 2014 to mid-2019 at most 3,879 foreigners joined units on the pro-Ukrainian side of the conflict, with those numbers falling to at most 879 if Russians are excluded.46 And another more specific estimate suggests that “there may have been up to 100 foreign fighters in the [Azov] Regiment between 2014 and 2015—although not all at the same time—and the vast majority of them were Russians.”47 Second, and more importantly, there has not been a clear-cut, credible public case of a foreign war volunteer or local that was a member of the Azov Regiment who has been directly associated with the Azov Movement, or has received military or weapons training from either entity that has conducted a terror attack. There have been cases of foreign extremists linked to or charged with terrorism who have tried to join the Azov Regiment or who have interacted with regiment or Azov Movement members,g but to the author’s knowledge, none of those cases have been connected to an actual terror attack. And the number of foreign extremists who have actually received military training from, or been able to embed with, the Azov Regiment, who have later been charged with a terror offense or a planned act of terrorism is either very low,48 or potentially even zero.h That is a significant statement for a unit and movement that has been operationally active in Ukraine since 2014 and that has had considerable intersections with transnational extremist networks. As a point of comparison, it is worth remembering that 2014 was the same year the Islamic State announced its caliphate.

This does not mean the Azov Regiment and the broader Azov Movement are not a concern when it comes to terrorism. Both have had, and likely still have, direct extremist ties. And there are credible reports that members of the Azov Regiment have perpetrated war crimes and human rights violations.49 There is also evidence that Azov Regiment members have engaged in weapons trafficking. For example, in “the unified state register of judicial rulings,” the Ukrainian news outlet “Hromadske found more than a dozen sentences against soldiers from the Azov regiment who attempted to take arms out of the warzone.”50 These three issues are of serious concern. But, when it comes to terrorism, the Azov Regiment and Movement have thus far been tangential to terrorism, or terrorism adjacent.

How the U.S. government and technology companies have approached the Azov problem set is also emblematic of the concern that surrounds it. The 2018 version of the National Defense Authorization Act, for example, included language that prevented the United States from “providing arms and training assistance” to the Azov Battalion.51 In 2019 and 2021, there were also two separate efforts by members of the U.S. Congress to designate the Azov Battalion a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Both failed.52

Meta’s approach to the group highlights how responses to Azov have been shifting since the start of the 2022 war. In 2016, Facebook identified the Azov Battalion as a dangerous organization.53 Then, three years later in 2019, Facebook banned the group from its platform in a Tier 1 status alongside groups like the Islamic State and the Ku Klux Klan. But “on February 24 [2022], the day Russia launched its invasion, Facebook reversed its ban, saying it would allow praise for Azov.” A statement released by Meta justified the reversal stating: “For the time being, we are making a narrow exception for praise of the Azov regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine national guard.”54

The Azov Regiment and Movement have both been trying to rehabilitate their images, and part of what makes assessments of the two entities challenging is that both have aspects of their histories and make-up that—given the current war with Russia and the need for external support—would be convenient to obscure or hide. Both entities have evolved since 2014, but just how much the character and make-up of each has changed, and the meaningfulness of that change, remains a point of debate. As bluntly stated by The Washington Post: “The Azov battalion is … not what it was in 2014.”55 Researchers who follow the regiment still harbor concerns about the unit’s affiliations and the presence of extremists in its ranks, but there is also a belief among some that the number of extremists active in the regiment are not as widespread as in the past. For example, as noted by Alexander Vindmann, back “’in 2015, the Azov Regiment itself claimed to have between 10% and 20% far-right extremists in their ranks,’ but those figures are possibly smaller today.”56

It is believed that multiple factors associated with the regiment’s integration into the Ukrainian National Guard, such as vetting practices, efforts to purge extremists,57 observation during training, restrictions placed on foreign membership—which have made it harder for foreigners to join58—and shifts in recruitment practices and the type of person who is attracted to the Azov regiment,59 i are helping to drive change within the unit. In May 2022, the regiment also dropped a neo-Nazi symbol it had been using, another sign that the regiment and the Ukrainian government are trying to de-problematize the unit’s image and/or that the unit is actually changing.60 These steps are important, but there are still questions, and not much detail, about just how effective these efforts have been, and how many extremists still operate within the regiment’s ranks.

The mixed and evolving make-up of the Azov Movement, combined with its public relations savviness, also makes it hard to decipher how deep the movement’s extremist current runs, whether that current—or component of the movement’s identity—is being masked or whitewashed, and how much the movement has meaningfully changed. Statements made by movement figures highlight how it is conscious of its image, and how it is trying to distance itself from specific extremist views while also acknowledging that Azov has been a home for some extremists. In an interview with The Washington Post in April 2022, for example, Andriy Biletskiy—the founding commander of the Azov Battalion who left the group in 2014 to serve in Ukraine’s parliament until 2019—“rejected allegations of Nazism and white supremacist views” but also acknowledged that extremists operate “in his units.”61 j

The movement, as noted by Michael Colborne, has been able to “exert at least some influence on Ukrainian politics and society despite its small numbers (e.g., at most 20,000 members estimated at some points in the past).”62 But, he cautions, “it’s not some invincible far-right force.”63

The performance of the political wing of the Azov Movement, the National Corps, during Ukraine’s 2019 parliamentary elections speaks to how the Corps and other far-right groups do not enjoy significant public political support in Ukraine. During that election, the National Corps along with several other far-right entities ran as part of a “united nationalist bloc,”64 but this bloc “could muster barely 2 percent of the vote, nowhere near the 5 percent threshold needed to enter Ukraine’s Parliament.”65 Put simply, “as a political party, National Corps has been an absolute dud at the ballot box.”66

But that does not mean that the group lacks influence or does not hold other forms of power—including on the street, at a grassroots level,67 or through the threat of violence,68 as some have indicated. It is possible the dynamics of the war may help to strengthen popular support for the Azov Movement over time69 or push the Azov Movement, or elements of it, in new directions.

Despite the changes that have been reported, questions and concerns about the regiment and movement persist. And it remains unclear how the dynamics of the war are going to impact the organizational trajectory of both entities. One, the Azov Regiment “has not entirely rid itself of its toxic legacy,”70 but it appears to be on a path of reform or at least to manage its most problematic elements. And in that way, it has “somewhat moved on from its hateful past.”71 The other, the Azov Movement, appears to be more a wildcard. As a result, the counterterrorism community will need to maintain a watchful eye on the regiment and movement, and pay close attention to how each entity, and their respective spheres of influence, evolve. Given the remaining presence of extremists associated with each entity, attention should also be placed on the impact each may end up having on the personal trajectory of locals—and to a lesser extent foreigners—who embed in their ranks, and for any signs of organizational splintering at any point in the future.

Russia’s Paramilitary Hydra: The Wagner Enterprise and the Russian Imperial Movement
The extremism challenges that the Azov Regiment and movement present are not limited to the Ukrainian side of the war. They exist on the Russian side, too, and manifest in more blatant ways.

What has caused the greatest concern is the ties that Russian paramilitary entities—the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM)k and Wagner group elements,l including Rusichm—have with extremism. On the Russian side, evidence of extremism is not limited to these entities, for as noted by Michael Colborne, “There’s certainly a degree of Neo-Nazism and far-right views among Russian soldiers,” but he adds “it’s difficult to say to what degree.”72

These controversial Russian paramilitary entities have their own identities and connections to the Russian government. And even though they engage in similar types of paramilitary activities, and all have played roles in foreign conflict zones including Syria that are of strategic import to Moscow,73 each entity is believed to provide their own type of value to the Russian government. Despite their individual “uniqueness,” researchers have also observed a level of interconnectivity and personnel crossover between them that they can be understood as operating as a paramilitary network.74 n For example, many “founding members of Wagner also belong to … the Russian Imperial Movement.”75

Open association with extremist symbols, beliefs, and activity is a common thread that binds them, too. “Nazi symbols are popular among the mercenaries”—and not just the rank-and-file, but among senior leaders as well. The cases of Dmitry Utkin, “who many consider [to be] Wagner’s operational commander,”76 and Aleksei Milchakov, the head of Rusich, are illustrative of how Russian paramilitary leaders hold, and are guided by, racist views. Utkin, for example, “has tattoos of Nazi ‘SS’ epaulets along his collar bones.”77 And in a video that was published on YouTube in December 2020, Milchakov stated, “I’m a Nazi. I’m a Nazi … I’m not going to go deep and say, I’m a nationalist, a patriot, an imperialist, and so forth. I’ll say it outright: I’m a Nazi.”78 Association with Nazi symbols and beliefs has been reported to be an issue at lower levels, too; in Libya, Wagner mercenaries reportedly “spray-painted swastikas and SS lightning bolts as graffiti wherever they went.”79

Even more concerning has been RIM’s direct connections to terrorism. In 2020, the U.S. State Department formally designated RIM and its leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.o The move was significant as it was “the first time in history the Department has designated a white supremacist terrorist group.”80 The State Department made the decision due to evidence that RIM was “providing paramilitary-style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe” for acts of terrorism.81 U.S. concerns about RIM were heightened after two Swedish members of the Nordic Resistance Movement, a transnational neo-Nazi group,82 who received training at a RIM paramilitary facility in St. Petersburg, Russia, “committed a series of bombings in Gothenburg, Sweden, targeting a refugee shelter, a shelter for asylum seekers, and a café.”83 In June 2022, the U.S. government sanctioned Anton Thulin, one of the Swedes who was convicted for the role he played in the above activity, and two RIM members.84 Thulin was designated due to “his continued pursuit of terrorist training, even after serving his prison sentence for his 2017 attacks in Sweden.”85

Wagner operatives have also been accused by U.N. components and human rights groups of a growing pile of war crimes, incidents of torture, and the murder of civilians in locations where they have operated, including Syria,86 the Central Africa Republic,87 Mali,88 and Ukraine.89 For example, as noted by Christopher Faulkner in this issue of CTC Sentinel, in “early March 2022, accusations emerged from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali … that Wagner personnel were likely complicit in the massacre of upwards of 30 civilians in the town of Niono.”90 The accusations leveled against Wagner operatives heighten concerns about how the influence of Russian paramilitary units may grow, and how this type of activity may become more frequent and widespread if Moscow continues to rely on them.

Russian paramilitary entities, including Wagner elements like Rusich, fought and played roles in eastern Ukraine in 2014-2015 after Russia seized Crimea.p Shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, observers noticed how Rusich was sending signals that some of its members would be heading back to the country to fight.91 Denis Gariyev, the head of the Russian Imperial Legion—RIM’s paramilitary wing—sent similar suggestive signals via Telegram as well.92 Since then, signs of the physical presence of Wagner and RIM elements in Ukraine have grown.93 For example, according to a German intelligence report leaked to the press, members of Rusich have been in the country since early April 2022.94 According to Der Spiegel, the German intelligence report also stated that Russian Imperial Legion leader Gariyev was wounded fighting in Ukraine, and that his deputy had been killed in the country. Gariyev was reportedly injured in mid-April.95

The scale of Russian paramilitary activity in Ukraine can be difficult to track, and discerning the percentage of Russian mercenaries who have extremist views who are active there is even harder. Estimates of the number of Wagner operatives active in Ukraine vary widely,96 but the U.S. Defense Department has repeatedly stated it believes the number of Wagner personnel active in the Donbas to be approximately 1,000, and that over the past several months, the Russian military and Wagner Group have both shifted personnel from other countries to Ukraine.97 q In terms of the number of Russian extremist fighters active in Ukraine, researcher Alexsandr Verkhovsky suggests that “there were likely far fewer … in Ukraine now than there were in the early years of the Donbas war.”98 It is hard to know if that view is true.

While the Azov Regiment and Movement, RIM, Wagner, and Rusich are key entities for extremism and counterterrorism practitioners to watch, they are not the only actors playing active roles in the conflict that are of concern.r As the war evolves, attention will need to remain focused on how the war impacts the capabilities, influence, and operational reach of organizations that are already of concern, and how it might lead to the development of new entities of concern, too.

A Ukrainian flag is seen on top of a checkpoint as black smoke rises from a fuel storage of the Ukrainian army
following a Russian attack, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 25, 2022. (Rodrigo Abd/AP Images)

Impact on Individuals Playing Roles in the War
In addition to organizations and networks, the war in Ukraine raises questions about how the conflict may influence or impact the lives and views of individuals taking part in hostilities, or those who have personally suffered. Like its prior manifestations, the current war in Ukraine has attracted a diverse mix of individuals from different backgrounds, motivated by varied causes. The overwhelming majority of individuals taking part in the war are local Ukrainians who have taken up arms to defend their homeland and Russian citizens supporting Moscow’s war aims.

A much smaller subset of individuals who have been drawn to the conflict, and are playing different roles in it, is a mix of foreigners that includes foreign war volunteers, legionaries, mercenaries, and those operating behind the scenes in non-combat support functions. Given the extremist linkages of some of the actors in the war and the role Islamic State foreign fighters played in acts of terrorism conducted in the Levant (and around the world), the security community has concerns about the contingent of foreign war volunteers—especially those with extremist ties—who have traveled to Ukraine to play military roles in the conflict.

As has been noted by Kacper Rekawek, the foreign war volunteer continent is “extremely heterogeneous.”99 And there is still a lot that remains unknown about the collection of foreign war volunteers who have been drawn to the conflict, as “systematic research into the backgrounds and motives of these foreign fighters is relatively scarce.”100

So far, the evidence suggests that the largest and most general group of foreign war volunteers are “concerned citizens of the world”101—foreigners not involved with extremist causes who have recently made their way to Ukraine because they believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unjust and/or because they have important skills that they can offer to support the Ukrainian people. It is possible that there may end up being a much smaller category of foreign volunteers who initially decided to join the conflict for less ideological reasons, whose motivations evolve in more ideologically oriented directions based on the experiences they have in the country. For example, during the early part of the conflict in Syria, there was a subset of foreign volunteers who initially traveled to the country to defend “the Syrian people against the regime’s brutality”102 and “not necessarily because of animosity towards the West”103 who ended up joining extremist groups. It is not known if the same phenomenon is taking place in the war in Ukraine, and it might be too early to tell.

The sub-category of foreign war volunteers that represents more of a concern to security practitioners are individuals who already harbor, or are showing signs of, extremist views or beliefs who are attracted to the war because it represents an opportunity to receive training and combat experience, or to network with other extremists in an operational setting. This includes individuals with extremist associations who: 1) traveled to and embedded with or joined a local military unit in Ukraine prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion and never left the country; 2) spent operational time in the country previously, left, and have since returned; and 3) recently joined a unit for the first time.104

To situate the threat that some foreign war volunteers could pose, it is important to contextualize the new mobilization of foreigners; examine what is known about the scale and scope of the issue; and briefly review two cases that demonstrate how foreign war volunteer dynamics, extremism, and concerns about terrorism intersect.

Foreign War Volunteer Dynamics – Context, Scale, and Intersectional Cases
During the beginning phases of the 2022 war, the Ukrainian and Russian governments leveraged the idea of foreign war volunteers/recruits for various purposes. For example, shortly after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly appealed for foreign volunteers to join the country’s International Legion so it could bolster its fight against Russia.105 There was broad initial interest in Zelensky’s appeal, as according to Ukraine’s foreign ministry by early March 2022 over 20,000 foreign volunteers had applied to join the International Legion.106 Zelensky’s foreign volunteer call had a clear ‘we need help’ message, but one could argue that in making the call, the Ukrainian government also sought to further internationalize the conflict (i.e., foreigners fighting in Ukraine would help to make the war more ‘real’ for others back home) and to send a deterrent signal to Russia (i.e., you might be okay shelling Ukrainians, but in the future, you will be shelling foreigners, too, and we will have more manpower). When viewed in that way, Zelensky’s call for foreigners was a form of signaling.

Russia has leveraged foreign recruits to signal as well. In early March 2022, not long after Zelensky made his call, the Russian government publicly claimed that it would recruit and deploy up to 16,000 foreign recruits from the Middle East and North Africa—principally from Syria and Libya, and potentially elsewhere—to support Russian-backed elements in Ukraine.107 Given the timing, one way to read the Kremlin’s similar stated plan to recruit thousands of foreigners is that it also functioned as a form of signaling—directed at the Ukrainian government and its supporters to convey the principal message: ‘We can recruit a lot of foreigners to take part in the war, too.’

But researchers who have been examining the recent flow and scale of foreign war volunteers who have traveled to Ukraine and been able to join or embed with units affiliated with either side have seen enough evidence that they are cautioning others—like that famous Public Enemy song—to not believe the hype.108 For example, in the Ukraine case, it is believed that out of the 20,000 potential foreign war volunteers who expressed an interest in joining Ukraine’s International Legion, the number of foreigners who have since arrived in Ukraine are in the hundreds to low thousands.109 And the number of those foreign volunteers who have successfully embedded with or joined a Ukrainian military or paramilitary unit, and seen combat, is likely on the lower end of those estimates.

Multiple factors explain the ‘high number of foreigners pledging’ versus the ‘lower number who decide to join’ disconnect. The reality of the decision, and risks involved, likely dissuaded some. There is also a category of prospective volunteers who made it to Ukraine, but who were deterred from joining, or decided to support the Ukrainian government’s war effort in other ways, due to the “disorganization on the Ukrainian side,”110 contract terms (including length of service requirements), vetting controls, or not having prior military or combat experience, which emerged, at least for most, as a requirement and/or strong Ukrainian government preference. And the population of foreigners who did end up joining is also mixed, as while there are plenty of stories of foreign war volunteers engaging in combat,s there are also various stories about a subset of foreigners who left after joining due to tough conditions on the ground, a change of heart, or frustrations with the type of support they received.111

Thus, the subset of foreign extremists who have made it to Ukraine so far is much smaller than many had suggested or feared. A recent study, led by Rekawek, that examined the phenomenon came to the following conclusion:

An analysis of the far-right and right-wing extremist scenes in seven countries—the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Poland—reveals that the current conflict has not led to a significant flow of extremists to the war zone. There is a lot of discussion and debate among extremists, but very few have traveled to Ukraine.112

The report went on to add that, for example, “about 30 from Germany and France seem to have traveled. In other cases, such as with Canada, hardly anyone from the local far-right and right-wing extremist milieus appears to have made the trip.”113 The same applied to individuals from the United States, as the report found “very little evidence indicating that more than a handful of U.S. extremist volunteers have traveled to Ukraine since the invasion.”114

Part of the reason is that when compared to the 2014-2016 period, the process foreigners have had to follow in 2022 to join a local Ukrainian military unit is more formulated and structured, and there are also fewer non-state, and less regulated, paramilitary entities to join.115 There is also the emerging view “that the 2014 foreign fighter mobilization was more ideological in nature than that of 2022,” which is believed to be having an impact on the type and number of foreign extremists who want to join.116 For example, a review of “publicly available information on more than 200 foreign volunteers who traveled to fight in Ukraine between February and May 2022” conducted by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and his co-authors “did not point to a significant ideologically motivated or extremist contingent.”117

As for Russian efforts, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, there have been mixed and murky reports about Moscow’s attempts to operationalize its plan to recruit foreigners at scale.118 And there has not been any clear evidence that Russia has been able to mobilize or integrate thousands of foreign recruits from Syria or Libya into its battle plans in Ukraine, at least not yet. That is not to say that Russia has not been trying,119 and it is possible that the effort is still a work in progress, as in early March Martin Chulov at The Guardian reported that a contingent of 150 Syrian troops had arrived in Russia as part of an effort to support the war.120 This was followed by reporting in late March by The New York Times that a contingent of “at least 300 soldiers from a Syrian Army division” had arrived in Russia for military training before being sent to Ukraine.121 But unlike the foreign volunteers who have traveled to join the Ukrainian side of the conflict, reports suggest that Russia’s recruitment of foreign “volunteers” also involves financial compensation,122 which if true and broad in scale will increase the total cost of the war for Moscow over time.

At an individual level, every foreign war volunteer or recruit who travels to Ukraine has their own set of motivations and goals for being there. And from a security perspective, the overwhelming majority of foreign war volunteers participating in the conflict do not represent a security concern or threat. But wars also attract all types, and even though the number the foreign war volunteers is not believed to be high, there are destined to be some ‘bad apples in the bunch,’ a subset of individuals who already pose some type of security concern or who may present one at some point in the future.

The complicated case of Craig Lang, a former U.S. Army soldier who in 2019 was charged by the Justice Department for homicide and armed robbery123 in relation to a double murder in Florida, “with conspiring to kill, kidnap, or maim persons” in Venezuela,124 and with a violation of the Neutrality Act (for his alleged role in a plot to “overthrow the government of Venezuela”), is illustrative.125 After a difficult childhood, Lang joined the U.S. Army, where he served in the infantry from 2008 to 2014, “completing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”126 During one of his deployments, his “Humvee struck a roadside bomb.”127 Lang has also claimed that while on deployment, he suffered a brain injury, and his father has reported that his son has struggled with PTSD as a result of his time in the Army.128 In 2013, Lang’s marriage started to unravel, and in 2014, he was dishonorably discharged from the Army.129

Not long after, in 2015, Lang arrived in Ukraine and—along with several other Americans—allegedly embedded with Right Sector, an ultranationalist Ukrainian group with extremist links that has operated in a paramilitary capacity.t And in 2021, news broke that the Justice Department was also investigating Lang, and six other Americans, for alleged involvement in war crimes that occurred on the battlefield in Ukraine.130 Reporting by Christopher Miller in May 2022 has highlighted how Lang, who has been fighting extradition to the United States, is “again fighting on the Ukrainian battlefield” and how he recently posted a picture of himself with an anti-tank weapon.131

Lang has denied holding “any extremist political views,” but “Damien Rodriguez, a Bronx native who previously fought with a far-right Ukrainian unit and crossed paths with Lang on the battlefield, recalled it very differently. ‘Some of the things he said made me think, Dude, I don’t wanna be next to you right now,’ he said. ‘He was telling me about starting a revolution’ in the US. ‘It was crazy.’ Lang, he said, wanted to ‘watch the world burn.’”132

The concern about spillover is not just limited to foreigners who have traveled to, fought with, or received training from entities like the Azov Regiment or Right Sector in the past. It involves foreign war volunteer aspirants as well. In 2019, for example, U.S. Army Specialist Jarrett William Smith was charged with, and later convicted of, “distributing bomb-making information over social media.”133 Investigators “said he sent recipes for homemade napalm on the social networking site Telegram and discussed plans to assassinate former House representative Beto O’Rourke and blow up the offices of CNN.”134 Prior to Smith’s arrest, he was reported to have been in contact with Lang, and was in talks with other individuals “about traveling to Ukraine, where he wanted to fight alongside … [the] Azov Battalion.”135

The cases of Lang and Smith are cautionary tales, as they speak to the intersectional nature of the war and how the conflict, thankfully in rare cases thus far, holds the power to motivate or enable individuals to engage in political violence or terrorism elsewhere.

By looking at the war in Ukraine through the lens of three different impact areas, this article has highlighted several concerns, questions, and debates that are important for extremism researchers and the counterterrorism community to continue to pay attention to and evaluate as the conflict evolves.

The academic and open-source research communities have done important data-driven work to help situate, parse, and contextualize how the current war in Ukraine and its prior manifestations have intersected with extremism and other interrelated concerns. Security practitioners from Western governments charged with keeping their publics safe have also been closely following developments and have engaged in a tremendous amount of collaboration, information sharing, and investigative work behind the scenes to try to understand, and stay ahead of, how the conflict in Ukraine has (and may) spill over into other threat areas. There has also been crosstalk and knowledge sharing between these two communities—the academic and open-source research community and government specialists—to better understand the intersectional nature of the Ukraine conflict, and how those dynamics have been evolving. But, as with any multi-layered, evolving, and hard-to-track issue, there are ways for both communities to gain efficiencies and more effectively help one another.

One way to do this would be by investing in and/or enhancing common, foundational data resources to help all parties better identify, track, and evaluate change across strategic, organizational, network, and individual dimensions of the war in Ukraine. While these types of efforts could take various forms, two examples highlight what those type of efforts could look like, and the value they could provide.

The first suggestion, which is broad in focus, would be to invest in and develop a structured global dataset of criminal cases that have a demonstrated nexus to the conflict in Ukraine. Such a dataset, which would be ‘historical’ in orientation and include data on cases that reach back to at least 2014, could be constructed with public, open sources as a way to help baseline how the conflict in Ukraine has intersected with criminal activity, extremism/terrorism considerations, and/or other national security concerns (e.g., weapons smuggling). This type of baseline dataset could be leveraged to identity patterns across countries, networks, or time; spot data anomalies or new leading-edge activities of concern; inform threat assessments; and refine mobilization indicators that help government agencies “determine whether individuals or groups are preparing to engage in violent extremist activities.”136 The dataset could also be enriched with other types of open-source or sensitive data depending on a researcher’s or investigating entity’s interests or mandate.

The second data-driven effort would aim to provide greater empirical insight into a set of foreign war volunteer questions that are of deep interest to academic researchers, government analysts, and policymakers, and that will help each community to assess and better understand extremist, and potential terrorism, risks associated with the war in Ukraine. Important research work has been done on Ukraine foreign war volunteer dynamics and how that issue does, and does not, intersect with extremism, but the public approaches that have been taken thus far have been scattered and pursued on an ad hoc basis. Given that academic researchers and practitioners continue to ask similar research questions related to this issue, the governmental counterterrorism community should seriously consider seeding the development of an empirical, open-source Ukraine foreign war volunteer dataset so that the phenomenon, and how it has evolved, can be traced across time in a more systematic and deeper way. Such a dataset, for example, would gather evidence to inform key questions such as: what does the flow of foreign war volunteers (and potentially other foreign participants) on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine look like; what is its scale; and how has it, and the character of who is attracted to the conflict, evolved since 2014? The two proposed datasets—the Ukraine global crime dataset and the Ukraine foreign war volunteer dataset—could also be analyzed in relation to one another to inform other important questions that are of interest to academia and government, such as what type of threat do Ukraine foreign war volunteer returnees pose.

If anything, the questions, concerns, and debates discussed in this article highlight how the war in Ukraine is riddled with complexity; how the groups taking part in conflict and the foreign individuals attracted to the war are evolving; and how there remain a number of important issues that at present are still not well understood. Data, collaboration, and what to do with the data are all a key, central part of the path that will help the counterterrorism community to gain more clarity.     CTC

Don Rassler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the U.S. Military Academy. His research interests are focused on how terrorist groups innovate and use technology; counterterrorism performance; and understanding the changing dynamics of militancy in Asia. Twitter: @DonRassler

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

© 2022 Don Rassler

Substantive Notes
[a] This “mass matters” point was made by Ulrike Franke on Twitter. See Ulrike Franke, “This is a *super important* article. In war, mass matters …,” Twitter, June 18, 2022.

[b] The author acknowledges that Turkey has placed conditions on the consideration of Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership applications.

[c] The war in Ukraine has also had other economic and security impacts. For an example, see Saeed Ghasseminejad, “War in Ukraine Is Destabilizing the Middle East and North Africa,” National Interest, June 13, 2022.

[d] While much less pervasive, some individuals motivated by far-left extremist motivations have also been drawn to and active in the conflict in Ukraine. See Kacper Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022: All Talk, But Not a Lot of Walk,” Counter Extremism Project, May 2022, p. 15. See also Christopher Miller, “Soldier of Misfortune,” BuzzFeed, April 9, 2021.

[e] The Azov Movement has also been described as a “socio-political paramilitary entity.” See Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” pp. 16-18.

[f] In the Musharbash article, the individuals interviewed specified the Azov Battalion. The reference here—since the unit name has changed to Azov Regiment—has been changed to the latter for simplicity. See Yassin Musharbash, “The Globalization of Far-Right Extremism: An Investigative Report,” CTC Sentinel 14:6 (2021). There are also some interesting and potentially useful historical parallels. For example, during “the 1990s, German neo-Nazis who fought in the former Yugoslavia alongside Croatia later set up paramilitary training camps, remained influential figures within the far-right scene, and smuggled weapons and explosives from the conflict theatre back to Germany.” See Teun van Dongen, Gijs Weijenberg, Martijn Vugteveen, and Joshua Farrell-Molloy, “Foreign Volunteers in Ukraine: Security Considerations for Europe,” International Centre for Counter-terrorism, May 4, 2022.

[g] Several cases are instructive here. One important case is the controversial one involving Gregoire Moutaux, a French citizen who was charged and convicted by a Ukrainian court for “planning a terrorist attack and attempted weapons smuggling.” According to the Ukrainian allegations, he planned to carry out a terror attack in France during its hosting of the Euro 2016 soccer championship. As part of its case, Ukrainian authorities “revealed that Moutaux reached out to servicemen from the Azov regiment of Ukraine’s national guard … offering money in exchange for obtaining weapons and ammunition. The Frenchman purchased these weapons from SBU agent and former Azov battalion soldier Mykhaylo Zubov, who he met in Donbas in 2015.” Some of the weapons were fakes. The case is controversial because the “Anti-terrorist Department in Paris deemed the information provided by the Ukrainian authorities ‘insufficient.’” French authorities reportedly did not believe there was strong evidence to indicate that Moutaux was planning serious attacks and that he did not have substantive connections with extremists. The case is reportedly understood from the French side as being more about weapons smuggling. See Ihor Burdyha, “A Hello to Arms: Is There a Black Market for Guns in Ukraine?” Hromadske International, May 23, 2018, and “Sebastien Gobert on Gregoire Moutaux’s Case,” Hromadske International, n.d. for quotes and background. There is also the case of two American Atomwaffen members who were deported from Ukraine after they attempted to join the Azov Regiment in 2020. According to the Security Service of Ukraine, the two men “produced a video promoting neo-Nazism and urging citizens to commit particularly serious crimes, including murder and terrorist attacks in Ukraine.” See Christopher Miller, “Ukraine Deported Two American Members Of A Neo-Nazi Group Who Tried To Join A Far-Right Military Unit For “Combat Experience,” BuzzFeed, October 8, 2020. There is also the case of Devon Arthurs, an Atomwaffen co-founder, who reportedly was trying to receive training from Azov. For background, see Alex Newhouse, “The Threat is the Network: The Multi-Node Structure of Neo-Fascist Accelerationism,” CTC Sentinel 14:5 (2021). And there is also the case of Andrew Dymock, tied to Sonnenkreig Division and who has been convicted on terrorism charges in the United Kingdom, who showed support for the Azov Regiment prior to his arrest. See Jake Hanrahan, “Here’s a photo of ‘Blitz’ (Andrew Dymock), the leader of Sonnenkrieg Division (Atomwaffen’s UK wing) on the left and ‘Soldat’ (Oskar Koczorowski) …,” Twitter, February 28, 2019.

[h] One important caveat to this point is that not much is known about the backgrounds, histories, and views of Russian nationals who have joined the Azov Regiment. The author would like thank Kacper Rekawek for highlighting this issue.

[i] Kacper Rekawek, in his article published in this issue of CTC Sentinel, assesses that “the large majority of Ukrainians joining Azov-linked brigades within the Ukrainian military are doing so not because of right-wing extremism, but because they want to join an effective fighting force to defend their country.” See Kacper Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood: The Limited 2022 Far-Right Foreign Fighter Mobilization to Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

[j] As noted by Kacper Rekawek, “The party regularly refers to the now renamed Azov Regiment as ‘its own,’ despite the fact that the party does not exercise operational control over the Regiment.” See Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” p. 16.

[k] “Founded in 2002 in St. Petersburg by Stanislav Vorobyov, the Russian Imperial Movement subscribes to a monarchist ideology, partly derived from a belief that Russia should be led by a descendent of the Romanov dynasty, the family of the last Russian tsar.” Dmitry Kozhurin, “Who Are the Neo-Nazis Fighting for Russians in Ukraine?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 27, 2022.

[l] As Candace Rondeaux has noted, there is no legal entity/group called Wagner. The group commonly referred to as ‘Wagner’ is instead a collection of entities. See “Russia’s Mercenary Army,” Vox podcast, April 21, 2022.

[m] “The Rusich group was formally founded as the Sabotage and Assault Reconnaissance Group Rusich in St. Petersburg in 2014.” See Kozhurin.

[n] Candace Rondeaux has also argued that Russian mercenaries, and Wagner, and the roles they play are misunderstood. For example, as noted by Rondeaux: “‘Wagner is not an official corporate entity, like Blackwater,’ she said, referencing the American security firm founded by Erik Prince. ‘It is both a set of contingents, that work for Russia, and an online social movement. Wagner is propaganda. More than a paramilitary group, it is a meme.’” See Brian Castner, “The White Power Mercenaries Fighting For the Lost Cause Around the World,” Time, June 1, 2022.

[o] The U.S. State Department did so by leveraging Executive Order 13224. See “United States Designates Russian Imperial Movement and Leaders as Global Terrorists,” U.S. Department of State, April 7, 2020.

[p] Rusich reportedly left Ukraine in 2015 for Syria. See Candace Rondeaux, Ben Dalton, and Jonathan Deer, “Wagner Group Contingent Rusich on the Move Again,” New America Foundation blog, January 26, 2022.

[q] Similarly, British military intelligence estimates that 1,000 Wagner mercenaries are active in Ukraine. See “What is Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries in Ukraine?” BBC, April 5, 2022.

[r] Right Sector is another controversial entity that deserves close attention. For background, see Aris Roussinos, “On the frontline with the Right Sector militia,” Unherd, June 18, 2022, and Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood.”

[s] One example is that of American veteran James Vasquez who chronicled his experience fighting in Ukraine on his Twitter account (@jmvasquez1974). See also Peter Yankowski, “Norwalk veteran says he’s heading back to Ukraine,” The Hour, June 20, 2022.

[t] As noted by Tim Lister: “Lang arrived in Ukraine in 2014 and was one of several foreigners to join the Georgia National Legion, a volunteer group prohibited by Ukrainian authorities from taking part in combat operations. Lang later joined the Right Sector but by 2016 had returned to the United States because—in his words—the conflict had ‘got too slow’ and ‘became trench warfare.’” Tim Lister, “The Nexus Between Far-Right Extremists in the United States and Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 13:4 (2020). See also Betsy Woodruff Swan and Christopher Miller, “Customs and Border Protection bulletin: American fighters headed to Ukraine questioned at U.S. airports,” Politico, May 24, 2022. For background on Right Sector, see “Profile: Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Right Sector,” BBC, April 28, 2014.

[1] “Fact Sheet on U.S. Security Assistance for Ukraine,” The White House, March 16, 2022; “Biden signs $40 billion aid package for Ukraine during trip to Asia,” Associated Press, May 21, 2022; “NATO’s Stoltenberg: Ukraine Military Aid Tops $8 Billion,” Bloomberg, April 28, 2022; Stephen Witt, “The Turkish Drone that Changed the Nature of Warfare,” New Yorker, May 9, 2022.

[2] For a perspective on this issue, see “How military assistance from NATO and the U.S. will impact Ukraine’s battle against Russia,” PBS NewsHour, March 17, 2022, and Sébastien Roblin, “Why U.S. military aid is working in Ukraine,” NBC News, May 5, 2022. There are also different views about the suitability of the military aid the United States has provided. For a perspective on this issue, see Andrew Milburn, “The United States Is Sending Billions in Military Aid to Ukraine—Just Not the Systems It Needs,” Modern War Institute, May 20, 2022.

[3] For a perspective on this issue, see Fernando Reinares, “The overlooked terrorist component of the hybrid threat posed by Putin’s Russia,” Real Instituto Elcano, March 10, 2022.

[4] Jen Kirby, “Germany’s dramatic reversal on defense, explained,” Vox, March 5, 2022.

[5] Lindsay Maizland, “China and Russia: Exploring Ties Between Two Authoritarian Powers,” Council on Foreign Relations, updated June 14, 2022.

[6] Bobo Lo, “Turning Point? Putin, Xi, and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine,” Lowy Institute, May 25, 2022.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For background, see Candace Rondeaux, “Decoding the Wagner Group: Analyzing the Role of Private Military Security Contractors in Russian Proxy Warfare,” New America Foundation, November 2019.

[9] Vali Kaleji, “Iran and the Ukraine Crisis: Complexities and Considerations,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, April 25, 2022; Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrella, “In Iran, Russia’s war on Ukraine is a political flash point,” Associated Press, April 19, 2022; Maziar Motamedi, “‘Rooted in NATO’: Iran responds to Russia’s Ukraine attack,” Al Jazeera, February 24, 2022; Kourosh Ziabari, “In Backing Russia on Ukraine, Iran Is on the Wrong Side of History,” Foreign Policy, March 9, 2022.

[10] Kaleji.

[11] “Lebanon: Hezbollah and allies lose majority in parliament,” Deutsche Welle, May 17, 2022.

[12] Ranj Alaaldin and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “New vulnerabilities for Iraq’s resilient Popular Mobilization Forces, Brookings – Order From the Chaos Blog, February 3, 2022; Hamidreza Azizi, “Iran Faces Growing Challenges to Its Iraqi Ambitions,” National Interest, July 26, 2021.

[13] Karimi and Gambrella.

[14] “Russia reduces number of Syrian and Wagner troops in Libya,” Financial Times, April 27, 2022.

[15] Philip Obaji Jr., “Notorious Russian Mercenaries Pulled Out of Africa Ready for Ukraine,” Daily Beast, January 31, 2022; Bill Bostock, “Russian mercenaries are being pulled from Africa to Eastern Europe as troops amass near Ukraine, report says,” Business Insider, February 1, 2022.

[16] Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

[17] Fernando Reinares commented on this early on in the conflict. See Reinares. See also Tom Porter, “Russia could strike back at the West by calling on its network of white-supremacist groups to commit terror attacks there, analysts warn,” Business Insider, May 14, 2022.

[18] “Beslan School Siege: Russia ‘Failed’ in 2004 Massacre,” BBC, April 13, 2017.

[19] “Chechen Gunmen Seize Russian Theatre,” CNN, October 24, 2002.

[20] Alessandra Prentice and Anton Zverrev, “Ukraine has become a hotbed of illegal arms trading,” Business Insider, July 25, 2016; John Hudson, “Flood of weapons to Ukraine raises fear of arms smuggling,” Washington Post, May 14, 2022.

[21] Hassane Koné, “Where do Sahel terrorists get their heavy weapons?” Institute for Security Studies, February 12, 2020.

[22] Tara John and Tim Lister, “A far-right battalion has a key role in Ukraine’s resistance. Its neo-Nazi history has been exploited by Putin,” CNN, March 30, 2022.

[23] Rachel Treisman, “Putin’s claim of fighting against Ukraine ‘neo-Nazis’ distorts history, scholars say,” NPR, March 1, 2022.

[24] For background on Azov, see Kacper Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022: All Talk, But Not a Lot of Walk,” Counter Extremism Project, May 2022; Michael Colborne, From the Fires of War: Ukraine’s Azov Movement and the Global Far Right (New York: ibidem Press, 2022). For background on other pro-Ukrainian far-right armed groups that have been active in Ukraine, see Tim Lister, “The Nexus Between Far-Right Extremists in the United States and Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 13:4 (2020); Ben Makuch, Mack Lamoureux, and Zachary Kamel, “Neo-Nazi Terror Group The Base Linked to the War in Ukraine,” Vice, February 6, 2020; and Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoureux, “U.S. Man Deported From Ukraine Was Marine Dropout Linked to Neo-Nazi Terror Group,” Vice, March 25, 2021.

[25] Michael Colborne and Eviane Leidig, “An Interview with Bellingcat Journalist Michael Colborne on the Azov Movement in Ukraine,” International Centre for Counter-terrorism, March 29, 2022.

[26] Kacper Rekawek, “Ukraine’s Foreign Legion: 12 Important Points,” RightNow!, March 18, 2022. See also Simon Shuster and Billy Perrigo, “Like, Share, Recruit: How a White-Supremacist Militia Uses Facebook to Radicalize and Train New Members,” Time, January 7, 2021.

[27] Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” p. 16.

[28] “Factbox: Last defenders of Mariupol: what is Ukraine’s Azov Regiment?” Reuters, May 17, 2022.

[29] Rekawek, “Ukraine’s Foreign Legion: 12 Important Points.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” p. 17.

[32] Ibid.

[33] See Kacper Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood: The Limited 2022 Far-Right Foreign Fighter Mobilization to Ukraine,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

[34] John and Lister, “A far-right battalion has a key role in Ukraine’s resistance;” “Profile: Who are Ukraine’s far-right Azov regiment?” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2022.

[35] Lister.

[36] John and Lister, “A far-right battalion has a key role in Ukraine’s resistance.”

[37] For background on Atomwaffen Division, see “The Atomwaffen Division: The Evolution of the White Supremacy Threat,” Soufan Center, August 2020.

[38] Lister; Oleksiy Kuzmenko, “‘Defend the White Race’: American Extremists Being Co-Opted by Ukraine’s Far-Right,” Bellingcat, February 15, 2019; “White Supremacy Extremism: The Transnational Rise of the Violent White Supremacist Movement,” Soufan Center, September 27, 2019; Makuch, Lamoureux, and Kamel.

[39] For a perspective on this issue, see Rita Katz, “Neo-Nazis are exploiting Russia’s war in Ukraine for their own purposes,” Washington Post, March 14, 2022; “US Neo-Nazi Media Group Promotes Azov Call for Foreign Volunteers,” SITE Intelligence, February 28, 2022; “Neo-Nazi Media Group Updates Azov ‘Donation Guide’ with New Crypto Wallet,” SITE Intelligence, March 15, 2022.

[40] For another perspective on this issue, see Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood.”

[41] Christopher Miller, “Something that often goes unmentioned in reports about foreign extremists …,” Twitter, August 22, 2021.

[42] Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood.”

[43] John and Lister, “A far-right battalion has a key role in Ukraine’s resistance.”

[44] For an example, see “Ukrainian Journalist Exposes the Azov Battalion,” Useful Idiots podcast, 2:61, May 20, 2022.

[45] Author’s correspondence with Kacper Rekawek, June 2022. See also Oved Lobel, “The Far-Right Foreign Fighter Threat That Wasn’t,” European Eye on Radicalization, June 14, 2022.

[46] “White Supremacy Extremism,” p. 29.

[47] Lobel. See also Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022.”

[48] Author’s correspondence with Kacper Rekawek, June 2022. See also Cathy Young, “Heroes of Mariupol or Neo-Nazi Menace?: The Messy History of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment,” Bulwark, May 25, 2022; Alex MacKenzie and Christian Kaunert, “Radicalisation, Foreign Fighters and the Ukraine Conflict: A Playground for the Far-Right?” Social Sciences 10:4 (2021): p. 8.

[49] “Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 February to 15 May 2016,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, n.d.; “‘You don’t exist’: Arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture in Eastern Ukraine,” Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, July 21, 2016; “Ukraine convicts Frenchman over Euro 2016 attack plot,” France 24, May 22, 2018.

[50] Ihor Burdyha, “A Hello to Arms: Is There a Black Market for Guns in Ukraine?” Hromadske International, May 23, 2018.

[51] Rebecca Kheel, “Congress bans arms to Ukraine militia linked to neo-Nazis,” The Hill, March 27, 2018; Odette Yousef, “The Russian-Ukraine conflict could strengthen neo-fascist groups in both countries,” NPR, March 5, 2022.

[52] Michael Colborne, “Why Designating the Azov Movement as an FTO Is Ineffective,” Fair Observer, June 2, 2021.

[53] Shuster and Perrigo.

[54] “Profile: Who are Ukraine’s far-right Azov regiment?”

[55] Sudarsan Raghavan, Loveday Morris, Claire Parker, and David L. Stern, “Right-wing Azov Battalion emerges as a controversial defender of Ukraine,” Washington Post, April 6, 2022.

[56] John and Lister, “A far-right battalion has a key role in Ukraine’s resistance;” Raghavan, Morris, Parker, and Stern. See also Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood.”

[57] Raghavan, Morris, Parker, and Stern.

[58] Young.

[59] For an example of these views, see Young and also the embedded video in Ros Atkins, “9 mins on the untruths and distortions that Russia is spreading about …,” Twitter, March 24, 2022.

[60] Tom Ball, “Azov Battalion Drops Neo-Nazi Symbol Exploited by Russian Propagandists,” Times, May 30, 2022.

[61] Raghavan, Morris, Parker, and Stern.

[62] Colborne and Leidig.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Michael Colborne, “The Far Right Just Got Humiliated in Ukraine’s Election, But Don’t Write It Off Just Yet,” Haaretz, July 22, 2019.

[65] Colborne, From the Fires of War, p. 64.

[66] Ibid., p. 64.

[67] Colborne, “The Far Right Just Got Humiliated in Ukraine’s Election, But Don’t Write It Off Just Yet.”

[68] “Ukrainian Journalist Exposes the Azov Battalion,” 2:61.

[69] Yousef.

[70] Young.

[71] Will Carless, “A regiment in Ukraine’s military was founded by white supremacists. Now it’s battling Russia on the front lines,” USA Today, March 5, 2022.

[72] Sam Sokol, “‘Denazification’? Neo-Nazi Groups Fighting Alongside Russian Forces in Ukraine,” Haaretz, May 25, 2022.

[73] Ezel Sahinkaya and Danila Galperovich, “Radical Russian Imperial Movement Expanding Global Outreach,” Voice of America, May 9, 2020. For a helpful visual overview of Russian mercenary activity and its geographic spread, see Brian Katz, Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, and Nicholas Harrington, “Moscow’s Mercenary Wars: The Expansion of Russian Private Military Companies,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2020.

[74] Dmitry Kozhurin, “Who Are the Neo-Nazis Fighting for Russians in Ukraine?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 27, 2022.

[75] Brian Castner, “The White Power Mercenaries Fighting For the Lost Cause Around the World,” Time, June 1, 2022.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Kozhurin.

[79] Ibid.

[80] “United States Designates Russian Imperial Movement and Leaders as Global Terrorists,” U.S. Department of State, April 7, 2020.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Samuel Hodgson, and Colin P. Clarke, “The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) and its Links to the Transnational White Supremacist Extremist Movement,” International Centre for Counter-terrorism, April 24, 2020; “Inside the Russian Imperial Movement: Practical Implications of U.S. Sanctions,” Soufan Center, April 2020; “Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM),” Counter Extremism Project, n.d.

[83] “United States Designates Russian Imperial Movement and Leaders as Global Terrorists.”

[84] “US slaps sanctions on Russian, Swedish far-right extremists,” France 24, June 15, 2022.

[85] “U.S. Sanctions Members of Russian Violent Extremist Group,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, June 15, 2022.

[86] Amy Mackinnon, “New Report Exposes Brutal Methods of Russia’s Wagner Group,” Foreign Policy, June 11, 2020.

[87] Brian Castner, “Central African Republic: Abuses by Russia-Linked Forces,” Human Rights Watch, May 3, 2022.

[88] Catrina Doxsee, “Massacres, Executions, and Falsified Graves: The Wagner Group’s Mounting Humanitarian Cost in Mali,” CSIS, May 11, 2022.

[89] Lorenzo Tondo, Isobel Koshiw, Emma Graham-Harrison, and Pjotr Sauer, “Alleged Wagner Group fighters accused of murdering civilians in Ukraine,” Guardian, May 25, 2022.

[90] Faulkner.

[91] Candace Rondeaux, Ben Dalton, and Jonathan Deer, “Wagner Group Contingent Rusich on the Move Again,” New America Foundation blog, January 26, 2022.

[92] Fidelius Schmid, “Zahlreiche Neonazis kämpfen in der Ukraine für Russland,” Der Spiegel, May 22, 2022; Kozhurin.

[93] Schmid; Sokol.

[94] Schmid; Kozhurin. See also “Official with Far-Right Group RIM Details Fighting ‘Together’ with Russian Forces in Ukraine,” SITE Intelligence, May 2, 2022, and Mark Townsend, “Russian Mercenaries in Ukraine Linked to Far-Right Extremists,” Guardian, March 20, 2022.

[95] Schmid; Kozhurin. See also “Russian Neo-Nazi Group Rusich Fights in Ukraine, Leader Allegedly Injured in Battle,” SITE Intelligence, April 12, 2022; “Commander with U.S.-Designated Russian Imperial Movement Killed in Ukraine as Group Fights alongside Russian Forces,” SITE Intelligence, May 4, 2022.

[96] For example, see Julian Borger, “Russia Deploys Up to 20,000 Mercenaries in Ukraine’s Donbas Region,” Guardian, April 19, 2022.

[97] “Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing, March 30, 2022,” U.S. Department of Defense, March 30, 2022; “Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing,” U.S. Department of Defense, May 4, 2022.

[98] Kozhurin.

[99] Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” p. 15.

[100] Gijs Weijenberg and Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn, “The Forgotten Front: Dutch Fighters in Ukraine,” International Centre for Counter-terrorism, July 16, 2021.

[101] Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” pp. 15, 21.

[102] Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro, “Be Afraid. Be a Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism From Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq,” Brookings Policy Paper 34 (2014).

[103] Rachel Briggs OBE and Tanya Silverman, “Western Foreign Fighters: Innovations in Responding to the Threat,” Institute for Strategic Dialog, 2014, p. 14.

[104] Ibid, p. 15.

[105] Alia Shoaib, “President Zelensky appeals for foreign volunteers to come to Ukraine and enlist in a newly-formed ‘International Legion’ to fight the Russian invasion,” Business Insider, February 27, 2022. For background on the International Legion and its legal status, see Petra Ditrichova and Veronika Bilkova, “Status of Foreign Fighters in the Ukrainian Legion,” Articles of War, Lieber Institute, West Point, March 15, 2022.

[106] Michael Lipin, “Foreigners Fighting for Ukraine Elicit Scorn, Ambivalence, Support From Governments,” Voice of America, March 22, 2022; “Ukraine says more 20,000 foreign volunteers want to join special unit to combat Russian forces,” CNN, March 7, 2022.

[107] Kareem Chehayeb, “In Syria, Russia leads effort to recruit fighters for Ukraine,” Al Jazeera, April 1, 2022; “Ukraine war: The Syrians signing up to fight for Russia,” BBC, March 30, 2022.

[108] Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” p. 4; Rekawek, “A Trickle, Not a Flood;” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Emelie Chace-Donahue, Madison Urban, and Matt Chauvin, “Extremist Travel to Ukraine Is a Cause for Concern, Not Alarm,” National Interest, June 18, 2022.

[109] Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” p. 4.

[110] Rekawek, “Ukraine’s Foreign Legion: 12 Important Points.”

[111] For example, see Tim Hume, “‘I Don’t Want to Be Cannon Fodder’: Foreign Fighters Are Leaving Ukraine,” Vice, March 30, 2022.

[112] Rekawek, “Western Extremists and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” p. 5.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Ibid.

[115] Ibid.

[116] Ibid.; Gartenstein-Ross, Chace-Donahue, Urban, and Chauvin; “Foreign Fighters, Volunteers, and Mercenaries: Non-State Actors and Narratives in Ukraine,” Soufan Center, April 2022.

[117] Gartenstein-Ross, Chace-Donahue, Urban, and Chauvin.

[118] For background, see Gregory Waters, “Will Russia deploy Syrian fighters to Ukraine?” Middle East Institute, March 16, 2022.

[119] Kareem Chehayeb, ”In Syria, Russia leads effort to recruit fighters for Ukraine,” Al Jazeera, April 1, 2022.

[120] Martin Chulov, “Syrians join Russian ranks in Ukraine as Putin calls in Assad’s debt,” Guardian, March 18, 2022.

[121] Ben Hubbard, Hwaida Saad, and Asmaa al-Omar, “Syrian Mercenaries Deploy to Russia en Route to Ukrainian Battlefields,” New York Times, March 31, 2022.

[122] Borger.

[123] Christopher Miller, “The DOJ Is Investigating Americans For War Crimes Allegedly Committed While Fighting With Far-Right Extremists In Ukraine,” BuzzFeed, October 8, 2021.

[124] Betsy Woodruff Swan and Christopher Miller, “Customs and Border Protection bulletin: American fighters headed to Ukraine questioned at U.S. airports,” Politico, May 24, 2022; Scott R. Anderson and Ashley Deeks, “Did Former Green Berets Violate the 1794 Neutrality Act by Invading Venezuela?” Lawfare, May 8, 2020; “Additional Charges Filed Against Two Men Related To 2018 Homicide And Armed Robbery of Florida Couple,” U.S. Department of Justice, December 5, 2019; United States of America v. Alex Jared Zwiefelhofer and Craig Austin Lang, Superseding Indictment, December 4, 2019.

[125] Swan and Miller.

[126] Christopher Miller, “Soldier of Misfortune,” BuzzFeed, April 9, 2021.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Ibid.

[129] Ibid.

[130] Miller, “The DOJ Is Investigating Americans For War Crimes Allegedly Committed While Fighting With Far-Right Extremists In Ukraine.”

[131] Swan and Miller.

[132] Miller, “Soldier of Misfortune.” Italics from original text.

[133] Hannah Allam, “U.S. Soldier Charged With Teaching Bomb-Making To Far-Right Extremists,” NPR, September 23, 2019; “Former Fort Riley Soldier Sentenced For Distributing Info on Napalm, IEDs,” U.S. Department of Justice, August 19, 2020.

[134] Miller, “Soldier of Misfortune.”

[135] Allam; “White Supremacy Extremism.”

[136] “Homegrown Violent Extremism Indicators,” National Counterterrorism Center, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Department of Homeland Security, 2019 Edition; “US Violent Extremist Mobilization Indicators,” National Counterterrorism Center, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Department of Homeland Security, 2021 Edition; Brent L. Smith, Kelly R. Damphousse, and Paxton Roberts, “Pre-Incident Indicators of Terrorist Incidents: The Identification of Behavioral, Geographic, and Temporal Patterns of Preparatory Conduct,” U.S. Department of Justice, May 2006.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up