A Year After 1/6, Ukraine's War Draws U.S. Far-Right to Fight Russia, Train for Violence at Home
A year after the deadly riot that ensued when mostly far-right protestors descended on the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the presidential election, white supremacists and other like-minded radicals see fertile ground to recruit and train abroad in war-torn Ukraine.
And with the Eastern European country teetering on the brink of conflict with neighboring Russia, journalists and researchers are concerned about the kind of combat experience that could potentially be obtained by a strain of extremists branded by the FBI as the most serious threat to the U.S. homeland.
One journalist who tracked this phenomenon in the lead-up to the events of 1/6 is Mariana van Zeller. In the final months of 2020, she spoke with one of the leading neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. and traveled to Ukraine to sit down with far-right figures there as part of an upcoming episode seen exclusively ahead of time by Newsweek for the National Geographic original series Trafficked, airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Asked if she had identified a trend in which U.S. extremists were joining counterparts in Ukraine to obtain battlefield experience, van Zeller told Newsweek, "Yes, this was very much what we found in our investigation."
"We interviewed members of a white supremacy group called the Atomwaffen Division (now known as the National Socialist Order) who has sent members to train in Ukraine," van Zeller said, "where neo-Nazi militias have recruited white supremacists from around the world to join their fight against Russia and advance racist ideology."
Such ideology has real-world effects at home, where right-wing violence has killed more people since 9/11 than attacks motivated by Islamist fundamentalism.
"These efforts to attract misguided young men, propagate racist conspiracy theories and incite violence are inseparable from the so-called 'lone wolf' attacks we see so often here in the United States," van Zeller said.
Ukraine, a pro-West post-Soviet republic that in 2019 became the first country after Israel to elect both a Jewish president and prime minister, may seem like an unlikely candidate to be a hotbed of neo-Nazi sentiment in Europe.
But the 2014 uprising that brought Kyiv into the Western fold was also partially fueled by existing radical elements. They became even more entrenched as Russia moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula without international recognition and pro-Moscow separatists declared breakaway republics in the eastern Donbas region, sparking a war that plagues the country to this day.
The conflict, which has killed more than 13,000 people, has risen once again to international attention as a recent buildup of Russian troops and Ukraine's persistent efforts to join the U.S.-led NATO alliance raise concerns of an all-out confrontation between the two neighbors.
And while the high-stakes diplomacy surrounding these events has been highlighted, including President Joe Biden's talks with counterparts Vladimir Putin of Russia and Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, the darker side of the resistance against the Russia-aligned insurgency in Ukraine remains active in the shadows.
Investigative journalist Oleksiy Kuzmenko is among the leading figures bringing this lurking reality to light. He specializes in research on Ukraine's internationally active far-right as well as its access to the Western military training that is provided to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Kuzmenko has published a number of materials on the matter in outlets such as Bellingcat, the Atlantic Council and George Washington University's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. He argued that "the proliferation of white nationalist ideology in the military and security forces of Ukraine is an understudied topic."
"Since the 2014 Maidan revolution, the government, military and security forces have institutionalized in its ranks former militias and volunteer battalions linked to neo-Nazi ideology," Kuzmenko told Newsweek. "Without screening for extremist ties or views, their integration has not led to depoliticization and/or dissolution once incorporated within the larger body of the government military and security forces."
He cites as a prominent example the Azov Special Operations Detachment, also known as the Azov Battalion or Azov Regiment. It was established by the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior after the conflict broke out in 2014, and was later transferred to the National Guard. Kuzmenko calls the regiment "a highly-capable and heavily armed unit reportedly numbering 1100 or more fighters that is also the military wing of the internationally active Azov movement."
"Via Azov's political wing – the National Corps party; described by researchers as neo-Nazi," Kuzmenko added, "the movement has gone international on multiple fronts with known contacts in Germany's neo-Nazi Third Path (Der Dritte Weg) party, America's Rise Above Movement, Italy's Casa Pound, etc.; but also with less-scrutinized international contacts via other branches of the movement that draw less attention but may carry equally dangerous implications."
Neither the Azov Regiment nor the National Corps responded to Newsweek's request for comment. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry also did not respond.
As Kuzmenko points out, Washington has long recognized the danger posed by the Azov Regiment. For example, language introduced in 2018 to the government spending bill, and maintained since, banned using U.S. funds for the provision of arms, training, or other assistance to the unit. In 2019, 40 lawmakers signed a letter asking for the Azov Regiment to be declared a foreign terrorist organization.
The Azov Regiment's active far-right recruiting efforts were also brought to the attention of the Biden administration in a letter sent by Democratic Representative Elissa Slotkin to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April.
The State Department sent a brief reply to Newsweek's request for comment on whether the presence of far-right elements in or allied with Ukraine's armed forces or the travel of U.S. citizens to Ukraine to associate with such groups was a concern for the Biden administration.
"The United States is committed to Ukraine's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression," a State Department spokesman said, and referred further questions regarding Ukrainian troops to the Ukrainian government.
The issue has proven a sensitive subject for other arms of the U.S. government as well.
The Department of Homeland Security, whose former Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan discussed tracking the activities of U.S. citizens suspected to have ties to far-right forces in Ukraine back in 2019, did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.
Both the FBI and Department of Justice declined to comment.
Kuzmenko criticized what he saw as indifference of the U.S. to the status quo in Ukraine while continuing to provide military assistance, an issue seemingly compounded by a growing trend in Ukraine toward romanticizing fascism.
"As far as the international arena goes, it is puzzling that the U.S. government is alarmed by the far-right Azov movement/Regiment because of its attraction for the U.S. far-right, banned the U.S. funds from being used to provide training and arms to it, yet at the same time is totally fine with the Regiment carrying on as a part of a Ukrainian government that receives billions of dollars in U.S. assistance," Kuzmenko said.
"U.S. influence in Ukraine is very clear and Washington has been able to press the country on reforms it deems necessary," he added. "Apparently deradicalizing the Ukrainian military and security forces of far-right elements is simply not on Washington's wish-list. The same applies to other Western governments supporting Ukraine."
Kuzmenko called on the U.S. and Western allies "to treat neo-Nazis and the far-right in Ukraine's military and elsewhere in the same fashion they treat them in other Western militaries."
Shortly after coming to office in January, Biden's top Pentagon chief, Lloyd Austin, announced an unprecedented review of extremism rooted in the U.S. military, a probe partially prompted by the large number of veterans involved in the 1/6 riots and other far-right demonstrations in the country.
But even at home, the U.S. government's focus on tackling far-right organizations, including white supremacist, white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, has come under scrutiny. While they are often targeted by law enforcement for observation, membership alone does not constitute a crime under U.S. law, nor does traveling abroad to meet like-minded individuals, provided they do not belong to a recognized foreign terrorist organization.
Acting out on the violence preached by such thinking, however, even in the name of another country's national defense, appears to be where Washington draws the line.
Buzzfeed News first reported in October that the Department of Justice and FBI took the rare move of opening up a case against former U.S. Army soldier Craig Lang and six other U.S. citizens for their alleged roles in torturing separatists while fighting with far-right forces in Ukraine, where he traveled in 2015.
The investigation comes pursuant to the U.S. War Crimes Act, under which no U.S. national has ever before been prosecuted since the law was passed a quarter of a century ago. Lang has also been charged by authorities with the killing of a Florida couple during a 2018 robbery that apparently prompted him to flee back to Ukraine.
Van Zeller had made contact with Lang during the filming of the Trafficked episode in Kyiv, though the U.S. veteran ultimately declined to speak on camera after setting up a meeting near a metro station. Lang, who is also accused of helping to recruit other foreign fighters in Ukraine, is currently forbidden from leaving the Eastern European country and is facing extradition to the U.S.
And just prior to van Zeller's arrival in Ukraine, two U.S. nationals allegedly affiliated with the Atomwaffen movement were expelled from the country for apparently attempting to join local military units.
"No good can come from American extremists fighting in Ukraine," Douglas Wise, who served in the CIA as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service and was deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Newsweek. "The courage and sacrifices of the Ukraine people will be sullied and soiled by their presence."
"Ukraine should expel them as soon as they identify and find them," he added.
But beyond this, the intricacies of the U.S. legal system and First Amendment protections limit the space to which certain freedoms of association can be restricted even for fringe groups in the U.S. This issue was noted by Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.
Further complicating the situation, she said Ukraine's severe military disadvantage proved to be an incentive for Kyiv to court far-right fighters.
"They have right now existential issues to deal with, and the far-right groups are helping defend Ukraine," Farkas told Newsweek. "So at this moment in time, the Ukrainian government needs all the help it can get from its citizens, regardless of their ideology."
Russia has seized upon right-wing currents among the Ukrainian military and allied militias as evidence of reactionary Nazism at a time when the Kremlin is looking to emphasize Moscow's leading role in the defeat of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich in World War II, and Kyiv casts a critical light on Ukraine's Soviet past.
At the same time, Russia too has been the subject of criticism for cultivating ultranationalist sentiments of its own, including some far-right elements among the separatists in Donbas and the alleged hosting of U.S. national Rinaldo Nazzaro, head of the neo-Nazi group The Base. Both Kyiv and Moscow accuse one another of distorting the truth when it comes to the other's relationship with extremism, while publicly rebuking any radical tendencies on their own domestic fronts.
Against this complex backdrop of internal and international dynamics, however, Farkas said that the forging of any relationships between U.S. and Ukrainian far-right forces was "absolutely an issue of concern, and I think that Congress and the administration need to include this in their overall policy to address extremism in the United States."
"It doesn't stop with looking at who's peddling extremist ideas or acting on them in the uniformed military, which I know Secretary Austin is focused on, it goes beyond that," she said.
"And we have to make sure that we have adequate measures on the books to address Americans who might consider undertaking extremist activities and perhaps some of the laws that we have don't deter them effectively from doing so," Farkas added. "We need to address that as well."
Journalist and former U.S. diplomat James Bruno saw a two-fold risk if this deterrence fails at a time when tensions are high, both abroad on the border between Ukraine and Russia and at home, where a polarizing political climate in the U.S. fuels potentially violent rhetoric.
"One is that U.S. citizens risk being captured by one side or the other, which would create another diplomatic complication," Bruno told Newsweek. "The U.S. government goes to great lengths to protect its citizens overseas, including seeking the release of Americans held for non-criminal reasons, as we've seen with North Korea over the years."
"The second danger is radicalized Americans with lethal skills tested in combat posing a potential domestic terrorist risk," he added. "The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have been issuing warnings of the growing danger of radicalized far-right and white supremacist Americans carrying out violent attacks domestically."
Bruno drew parallels to the efforts the U.S. and other governments undertook in pursuing citizens who traveled to conflicts in countries including Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen to join Islamist groups considered foreign terrorist organizations.
And while far-right and even neo-Nazi organizations in both the U.S. and Ukraine don't share this same blacklisted status, there are other tools available to crack down on them and the ties they have established, such as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act that has been used to take on organized crime in the U.S.
But far-right organizations have also identified the parallels between their global appeal and the international recruiting efforts of jihadi groups like the Islamic State (ISIS). The Soufan Center has extensively examined the international machine of far-right messaging, including how it emanates from Ukraine.
"White supremacy extremists and violent far-right movements can see in Ukraine a number of issues with which they can identify, including a quest for racial or religious purity, as well as a broader challenge to the progressive liberal democratic order that has dominated much of Europe in the post-Cold War era," The Soufan Center's Executive Director Naureen Chowdhury Fink told Newsweek.
"Ukraine has emerged as a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy extremism, attracting foreign recruits from all over the world," she added. "It allows white supremacists to identify a conflict that amplifies their values and concerns, but also to gain the kinds of operational and tactical experience they've seen others, like violent jihadist groups, obtain in conflict zones."
Despite the vast ideological differences between the white nationalist far-right and ultraconservative Islamist fundamentalism, Fink, who previously served as the senior policy adviser on counterterrorism and sanctions at the United Kingdom's mission to the United Nations, said that acolytes of the former "have often expressed admiration for the militarized experiences terrorist groups like ISIS have offered adherents, and Ukraine provides an opportunity for them to develop some of their own."
"It also allows white supremacist extremists to strengthen their networks and bolster a transnational dimension to the movement so that, as we saw with violent jihadist groups, the local and regional grievances and dynamics can be linked to a global 'master narrative' able to inspire and mobilize recruits and support," she said.
These narratives help to dehumanize perceived opponents and inspire individuals to take action on behalf of the collective. Some tactics include tapping into a sense of emasculation among disaffected young males in particular.
One area of common ground established between far-right groups in the U.S. and Ukraine has been a fixation with mixed martial arts and the promotion of fight clubs that emphasize hypermasculine ideals laced with white supremacy.
Followers of the California-based Rise Above Movement, which calls itself "the premier MMA club of the Alt-Right," has openly broadcast meetings with members of the Azov Regiment and the National Corps, and figures associated with the U.S. group were later spotted at the 1/6 rally-turned-attack on the Capitol alongside those of other well-known far-right forces ranging from pundits to militiamen.
Perhaps even more potently, this messaging is widely disseminated online, often masked with edgy posts and tongue-in-cheek memes in forums that have established themselves as breeding grounds for far-right tendencies.
Kristofer Goldsmith, CEO of the veteran-owned open-source intelligence firm Sparverius, told Newsweek that it often "starts out as what they would describe as a joke," but "when you immerse yourself or you're immersed by your community in propaganda, the funny part of the joke goes away, and the joke becomes reality."
"That's why we have people who describe themselves as nationalist socialist in the United States," he said.
Goldsmith, who also works with the Innovation Lab and Veterans for American Ideals projects at Human Rights First, said he has come across a number of stories of young men spending all their money to travel to Ukraine to meet up with the likes of the Azov Regiment and becoming stranded in a situation he likened to being "stuck in a real-life video game where you can't respawn."
But he sees an even more subversive goal when it comes to the organized far-right in the U.S. itself.
"These extremist American organizations are looking to create a cadre of trained and experienced terrorists," Goldsmith said, "a guerrilla warfare veteran, a potential leader of a guerrilla warfare unit when they get stateside."
At least one foreign far-right attack has been potentially linked to Ukraine. In a manifesto posted shortly before his 2019 shooting spree at a series of Christchurch mosques marked the worst mass killing in New Zealand's history, Brenton Harrison Tarrant referenced trips to Ukraine among other destinations.
The 74-page document has become an icon of the global far-right, and has come full circle back to Ukraine, where Russian national Alexander Sachkov was arrested last year by authorities under suspicion of selling translated copies of Tarrant's words. Interviewed by van Zeller, Sachkov denied translating or printing the book but said he agreed with Tarrant's views on how "our countries are being replaced by newcomers."
The manifesto and the anti-immigrant "Great Replacement" theory were also cited as inspirations by Patrick Wood Crusius, who targeted Hispanic people during a deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in August 2019.
Given the interconnectivity of violent far-right rhetoric, Goldsmith argued that "the lone wolf theory is inherently flawed," citing the young men behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 2017 Charleston, South Carolina church massacre as further examples.
"Timothy McVeigh was not a lone wolf," Goldsmith said. "He was a disgraced former military veteran who was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite who associated with organizations that represented those ideals."
"Dylann Roof was part of a community of people who idolized national socialism and who idolized these fictions of white people establishing a nation of white people in Africa," he added. "His online persona was 'The Last Rhodesian.'"
Rhodesia refers to the period of white rule in what was formerly the United Kingdom colony in modern-day Zimbabwe, which was established with the 1979 victory of Black insurgents against the elite European minority in a conflict known as the Bush War.
Nostalgia for the white fighting force has been cultivated today among white supremacists and white nationalists, who view other races and ethnicities as inferior and unwelcome, even in the U.S., a now-diverse country established forcefully by whites in a foreign land.
"The mythology behind Rhodesia exists in the American far-right," Goldsmith said, "and this Ukrainian conflict is a gateway to using the Rhodesia experiment on American soil. That's the goal."