Is Ukraine a Hub for International White Supremacist Fighters?
Has Ukraine become a training hub for white supremacists on either side of the conflict? Huseyn Aliyev, a lecturer in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow, examines the question. According to Aliyev's research, beginning in the spring of 2014, some of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions served as magnets for adherents of far-right ideologies, drawing foreign fighters from all over the world to join the fighting in the Donbass. However, when Ukraine began disbanding paramilitary groups and integrating them into official forces, this became more difficult and resulted in an outflow of foreign fights, even as claims that the volunteer battalions remained a magnet for white supremacists persisted into 2019.
The start of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014 led to the emergence of over 40 pro-government volunteer battalions fighting on Kyiv’s side. The inability of the Ukrainian armed forces—plagued by corruption, low conscription rates and lack of funding—to halt advances by pro-Russian separatists in some of the initial phases of the conflict were among the key factors behind the rise of these paramilitary battalions. While some of them lacked a distinct political ideology, others were offshoots of far-right and ultranationalist groups, which functioned as skinhead gangs or football hooligan clubs in pre-Maidan Ukraine. My research indicates that almost from the start of armed conflict in the Donbass in spring 2014, some of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions served as magnets for neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other adherents of far-right ideologies who traveled from all over the world to join the fighting. However, this soon became considerably more difficult: Starting as early as in late 2014, Ukraine’s process of disbanding paramilitary groups and integrating them into official forces resulted in an outflow of foreign fighters even as claims that the volunteer battalions remained a magnet for white supremacists persisted into 2019 (see examples here and here). That said, there is evidence that a small number of Western white supremacists are still trying to go to Ukraine to fight—perhaps unaware of the changes on the ground—and that ties between Ukrainian and Western far-right groups persist in the form of direct communication and visits to each other’s countries.