Ukraine’s eastern front attracts foreign fighters from all over Europe.
There appear to be two sides to the war: those who fight for Russian-sponsored separatists and those who fight for Ukraine. At closer inspection, there are many more.
The war in Ukraine has echoes of the experience of former Yugoslavia, in that it has become a gravitational point for pan-ideologies: Pan-Slavism blended with notions of Orthodox solidarity; Pan-Islamism blended with notions of jihad; White Supremacy in different ultranationalist incarnations, pro and anti-Russian.
Soldiers come from countries around the world to fight, for free, for a paycheck, or for the opportunity to work with organised crime for territorial control of a different kind. There is never one motivation to wage a war.
The picture of East versus West, “liberal values” versus “patriotic values,” and imperialism versus patriotism are neat oversimplifications. There are volunteers, jihadis, clans, criminal and paramilitary groups, all fighting in a war between coordinating, but not perfectly aligned, “sides” to the conflict.
Fighting for Ukraine and whatever comes our way
Ultra-nationalists and far right-wing ideologues support Ukraine against Russian imperialism and what they see as neo-Soviet expansionism.
There are members of the Ukrainian diaspora from Poland and Germany to Canada and Australia. The new generation of Ukrainian far-right Nationalists devised a theory of “perpetual warfare” against the Russian Federation, the country perceived as the main obstacle to the consolidation of the Ukrainian nation-state.
Probably a few hundred former fighters of the caliphate chose Ukraine as a hiding place. These Nomadic Jihadists can claim they fight in solidarity with their Crimean Tatar minority, but there are reasons to believe they are taking advantage of political instability to set up a new base of operations following the collapse of the Islamic State regime.
One of the most notorious figures in the ranks of Jihadi fighters’ hails from the Caucasus, namely Cezar Tokhosashvili, also known as Al-Bara al-Shishani. He faked his death in Iraq and settled in Bila Tserkva. Chechnya and Dagestan.
In July 2019, two Azerbaijani citizens were sentenced to 10 years and 3 months in Kharkiv, Ukraine. They faced charges of transporting Islamic State militants from the North and South Caucasus and Central Asian countries via Ukraine to Turkey, and from there to Syria and Iraq.
Other ultra-nationalist volunteers come from the Baltics, Poland and Germany, even Australia and Canada, often fighting shoulder to shoulder with private contractors. Over the past decades Russians have created numerous enemies on their borders.
Some communities have seen the current conflict as a way to pay back Kremlin for atrocities stretching from Transnistria to Ossetia. Others argue that it is best to fight Russians in Ukraine than to fight them at home: in Poland, Latvia, or Germany. Others have notions of nationalist solidarity.
Fighting for Russia against “the New World Order”
Since 2014 pro-Russian forces have attracted different kinds of volunteers, often through online recruitment. Political groups, NGOs, and “grassroots” ultra-conservative Orthodox organisations have been calling the faithful to arms. Several fighters began their journey from the Balkan Peninsula to Eastern Ukraine; from the ethnic Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Republika Srpska), Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, and Bulgaria.
In the Balkans, the call to arms often comes from a well-known Kremlin preacher, Viktor Zaplatin, the leader of the Balkan Cossack Army linked to Vladimir Putin. A BIRN investigation has revealed that the “Union of Cossacks of the Balkans” signed a friendship charter in Belgrade in early 2018 with the Veterans Organisation of Republika Srpska, BORS. Of the scores of Serb volunteers who have fought for Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine, few have been prosecuted. Serbia has convicted a total of 29 individuals for fighting abroad, but most of them were given suspended sentences.
The Ravna Gora Movement, a Chetnik Association, has also been monitoring the travel and local communications between Russian backed military groups and Balkan volunteers. They are all ready to return and fight in Donetsk and Luhansk alongside locals and international private contractors hired by Moscow. The Russophiles and supporters of the pan-Slavic ideology are uniting themselves under the Kremlin banner.
Play it again, Ivan
Ukraine has a long history of attracting foreign fighters, a historical narrative that has a bearing as each side accuses the other of being “neo-Soviet” or “fascist”. History is usually evoked as a comment on the present.
Ukraine’s World War II legacy is divisive. The men who fought as part of the SS are remembered either as traitors or patriotic heroes. During World War II, once Nazi Germany occupied an area of the Soviet Union, they would form the Schutzmannschaft or Auxiliary Police. The Ukrainische Hilfspolizei or the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police (35.000 men) terrorised the population, particularly in large urban centres and the eastern regions.
The 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Galician) is another example. It was dominated by ethnic Ukrainian volunteers fighting alongside Slovaks and Czechs. They fought in Austria and Yugoslavia and after some time the unit was rebranded “the first division of the Ukrainian National Army.”
Currently, in occupied Crimea, there is a sizable Tatar population, hailing from the Golden Horde that converted to Islam between the 13th and 14th centuries and joined the Ottoman world. Tatars consider themselves victims of occupation, first Soviet and then Russian and have fiercely resisted Russification. Unlike Cossacks, Tatars continue to object to the annexation of Crimea. Since 2014, more than 20,000 Tatars have fled the peninsula and re-settled. At the same time, Moscow will not easily forget the community’s “allegiance” to Turkey and Nazi Germany.