The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) hosted a live briefing on 31 March, “Foreign Fighters in Ukraine: Myths and Realities”.
Colborne completed his book late last year and says he never expected a full-scale war to be the context in which Azov would be operating. He said he did not believe as Russia built up troops around Ukraine that there would be an invasion and even by February 2022 he expected that any Russian military operation would be focused on the Donbas and eastern Ukraine, rather than an all-out effort to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and subjugate the whole country because it “did not make sense”. And speaking five weeks to the day after just such an effort began, Colborne says it can be seen to have failed.
The current situation of Azov and the far-Right in Ukraine is unclear, says Colborne, and assessing things is extremely difficult; it is all so fluid and many events have come to pass that had seemed unfeasible. It had, Colborne said, seemed very unlikely that Azov would ever welcome foreign fighters, and he had told this to somebody who asked him about it; then a day later Azov asked for foreign volunteers.
What makes it even more difficult is that the presence of Azov is used by Russian government propagandists to justify the invasion as a “denazification” operation, and discussions about this risk feeding into Kremlin propaganda, which has been a problem with a lot of the media coverage so far. With the world-changing and devastating nature of the Russian invasion, says Colborne, simply talking about Azov can itself lead to distortions—it gives an emphasis to a subject that is out of proportion.
Kacper Rekawek, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at University of Oslo, agreed with Colborne about the problems that researchers and media figures face in covering this issue.
Rekawek said that reducing this crisis to Azov, and even reducing the foreign volunteers issue—which he says is a better term than “foreign fighters”—to Azov is extremely distorting. Azov’s recruitment efforts are “stalled”, says Rekawek: hundreds of people have come to help the Ukrainian government resist the Russian invasion, and maybe thirty of them have ended up with Azov.
Rekawek outlines the myths prevalent in the discourse over Ukraine, beginning with the notion that the Ukrainian Foreign Legion is a unit. In reality, “it’s an idea, a phenomenon”. The call went out from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a moment when things looked bleak for his country as an effort to garner attention for his cause in NATO countries. Since NATO was not going to assist directly, the next best thing was to have the nationals of NATO states involved. Even so, these foreigners are not being organised into “international brigades” in the manner of the Spanish Civil War: they are being distributed and “used to plug gaps” across Ukraine’s army.
Another myth, says Rekawek, is that the present foreign volunteer mobilisation is like 2014. Eight years ago it really was ideological extremists—Left and Right—who went to fight in Ukraine, and on both sides. Rekawek underlines that foreigners flocked to fight for Russia’s forces, too; this is now much more logistically difficult (and less attractive).
A final myth Rekawek outlines is that the foreign volunteers are in any way central to this war. They are a “colourful addition”, says Rekawek, and helpful PR for the Kyiv government, but no more than that.
In the question and answer period, Rekawek expanded on the differences between the foreign volunteer mobilisations in 2014 and 2022. In 2014, he said, mentally speaking, “Donetsk was further than Damascus”: more Europeans were paying attention to the Syrian war at that time than the events in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the Russians had been surprisingly successful in presenting the 2014 Donbas conflict as a “civil war” involving “separatists”, rather than an external invasion. It meant than anybody paying attention to the Donbas in 2014 had to be highly motivated, and this applied only with a small number of extremists, particularly nationalist and racialist elements who convinced themselves to fight for Ukraine against “hordes from Asia” or Leftists who fought for the Russian side by believing that the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” were Communist entities deserving of internationalist solidarity. In 2022, the volunteers are “concerned citizens of the world”: however clueless they are about Ukraine, their motives are humanitarian, not ideological, and the flow of foreigners is no longer divided; they are overwhelmingly for the Ukrainian side.
The international far-Right has split over the Russia-Ukraine War, said Colborne. There are far-Right elements that have connections with Azov that see the it as a duty to protect Ukraine from the Russian invasion by portraying Putin’s Russia as a “multiracial horde” or as “Bolshevik” continuation of the Soviet Union, while Ukraine is a “pure” ethnic bastion of Europe. The pro-Russia far-Right elements see Putin’s Russia as a bulwark against Western liberalism and see Putin himself as a “manly figure standing up against all the debauchery … of the West”. A “key factor” that has helped slant the international far-Right in Russia’s favour is that Ukraine’s President is Jewish, and Azov received money at one stage from a Jewish oligarch in Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskyi. That said, in their public messaging a lot of the pro-Russia far-Right use does not overtly support the war on Ukraine; they present their position as being one of opposition to “brother wars”.
Rekawek expanded on the terminology that should be used for volunteers fighting for Ukraine, a state military, and the use of the “Foreign Legion” designation. The Ukrainians are drawing on a history in Eastern Europe where “Legion” has a positive connotation tracing back to Poland’s struggles in the eighteenth century and more recent cases such as the Czechoslovak Legion that was key in igniting the anti-Bolshevik uprising in eastern Russia in 1918. There is also the French Foreign Legion, which tends to deploy to Africa, and thus has a mystique and a sense of the exotic about it, and Kyiv is clearly playing off this fact.
Colborne brings attention to the unusually deep connection between Ukraine and Canada, which has contributed aid of all kind—not just volunteers—to Kyiv since the war began.
The estimates for the number of foreigners who have joined Ukraine’s army are very uncertain—and are likely to remain so for a number of reasons, including operational security and the outflow of volunteers whose expectations did not match the reality of their experience. Both panellists reiterated that a large proportion of the foreign volunteers are a liability: they do not speak the language, so need translators; they do not have the proper kit and minimal training, which has to be supplied to them, along with effectively a babysitter; and they are largely oblivious to the realities of Eastern Europe, some of them so confused that they even ask if there are roads and running water in Ukraine. These volunteers, in short, are not the people on whom the outcome of the war will turn.