Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
Eurasia, specifically Russia and Ukraine, play an important role in the development and growth of the contemporary, global, extreme Right. Beyond the geopolitical implications of the conflict in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion on 24 February, it is important to note that Ukraine has the potential of becoming the Syria of the far-Right as various policymakers and countries allow, encourage, or simply turn a blind eye to, their nationals travelling to Ukraine to join the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, which the government in Kyiv has set up to organize those volunteering from abroad to assist in the country’s defense.
The link between Eurasia and the far-Right has given rise to two main trends.
Firstly, the rise of ultraconservative movements such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Northern League in Italy, or the governing Law and Justice Party in Poland highlights a general trend whereby charismatic leaders capture the interest (and votes) of those deeply dissatisfied with liberal democracy. This constituency accepts that their respective societies—and the ‘West’ in general—are controlled by a globalist cabal that promotes socially progressive ideas, values, and policies deemed incompatible with, and inimical to, ‘Western Civilisation’, understood as Anglo-Saxon, Caucasian, and Christian. These extremists accept that if they are able to assume power through the ballot box, they can change their respective societies to reflect their worldview.
A second strand, which is more worrying, is the violent far-Right, who will look to use the conflict with Russia to gain weapons and training, as well as connect with other extremists. The members of this strand are anti-liberal, anti-globalist, radical ethno-nationalists that favour traditional families and look to defend the Christian identity and heritage the ‘West’. They have given up on the political process as a means of affecting political change. The ideology of these extremists centres on the claim that only through a bloody uprising can they save ‘Western Civilisation’, understood through a racialist, religious paradigm.
Ukraine is important because it sits between Europe and Asia, and since 2014 it has faced an ethno-nationalist-religious conflict—with Russia and within itself—that has attracted extremists from around the world.
Ukraine, a country of 45 million people, rich in human capital and natural resources, is an interesting case when looking at the extreme Right. Ukraine represents two conflicting trends and the tensions that are being overlooked because of Russia’s invasion, ignoring concerns that the country remains on the precipice of becoming a “critical node” or “battlefield laboratory” for the far-Right.
The conflict brings together large geopolitical issues—of NATO “expansion”, the rise of China, and Russia’s search for a place under the sun, which in Moscow’s perception requires “protecting” Ukraine from Western “meddling”. Moscow’s position is that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, with a shared culture, religion, and history. Ukrainian policymakers and people understandably reject this narrative, wanting territorial sovereignty with a distinct Ukrainian identity, one that is free from Russia and closer to the West.
Matters came to a head in 2014, when Ukraine went through what came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity. The Euromaidan Revolution on the one hand emphasised Ukrainians’ desire to adopt Western, liberal democratic process. The revolution was followed by an invasion from Russia, leading to the annexation of Crimea and a low-intensity, open conflict in Donbas, where the Russians stationed occupation troops. The deposed Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, a close Russian ally, and his Moscow-aligned supporters, labelled the revolution as a “fascist coup” and claimed that the government that had replaced Yanukovych is a “fascist junta” organized by the U.S. government.
A lot of attention was centred on the Russian annexation of Crimea, but the conflict unfolding in Donbas was a more live issue. This conflict drew in around 3,000 foreign fighters supporting Ukraine, and around 12,000 individuals looking to support the Russian puppet “republics”. The units that emerged were central to sustaining the conflict, particularly because in 2014, Kyiv had around 6,000 battle-ready soldiers. This is where the volunteer units came in—some on either side. One commentator analogised these groups to the Freikorps (Free/Volunteer Corps) that emerged in Weimar Germany after the First World War to cover gaps in state capacity, notably in dealing with the violent Communist rebellions, where the membership was composed of a mix of ideological extremists, ordinary nationalists, and those disillusioned by the chaos.
The conflict that has spiralled in Eastern Ukraine, primarily around the Donbas, has claimed the lives of over 13,000 Ukrainians and the displacement of 1.5 million. Alongside the political debate is an important religious one, between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the latter of which became independent under the guidance of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in early 2019.
Because of its ethnic-nationalist-religious features of the conflict, with one political faction of Ukrainians looking to the West (the EU and NATO) and the other side looking to Russia (at least prior to the conflict), Ukraine has served as a magnet for ethno-nationalists with international networks. Several far-Right extremists such as Gregoire Moutaux, Craig Lang, Alex Zweifelhofer, and Benjamin Stimson headed to Ukraine to gain experience in weapons’ training and fighting. A major threat is posed by the presence of groups that welcome in such people, like the pro-Kyiv Azov Battalion, whose insignia, a sonnenrad (sunwheel), appeared on the back of the Christchurch shooter’s rucksack.
Former President Poroshenko encouraged the ultra-nationalist narrative during his last months in office, adopting the slogan, “Army, Language, Faith!”, for example, which fed into the far-Right narrative of a society divided between “true” members of the nation (in this case, ethnic Ukrainians) and “others” (ethnic minorities or those seen as “impure”, such as the Roma and LGBTQ individuals).
The challenge with these ultra-nationalists is that they frame their narrative around the anti-Russian cause, which in the Ukrainian context is a legitimate security concern, to say the least, yet beneath it they look to advance an agenda of ethno-nationalist “purity”. In 2019, Andriy Biletsky, the leader of the National Corps, declared the nationalists “will become the backbone of civil defence in Ukraine.” The mainstream media has somewhat played into this effort, most recently when they lauded Valentyna Konstantynovska, a 79-year-old woman being trained to defend her country. It turned out Konstantynovska was being trained by someone from the Azov Battalion—while they were wearing the group’s Wolfsangel logo, a Germanic symbol that was used by various SS armoured and infantry divisions. This gave Azov a degree of coverage and prominence out of all proportion to its size and importance in Ukraine.
Ukraine is under a ferocious attack. Many around the world support Ukraine. However, in seeking to assist Ukraine defend itself against this most blatant act of aggression, some have begun calling for the formation of an “international brigade,” which could create security problems going forward. Ukraine is in no position to seriously vet those who volunteer, and extremists wishing to gain weapons’ training and battlefield experience are likely headed to Ukraine; this holds true on the Russian side, where neo-Nazi-based units are operating.
This concern may explain why the US State Department designated the Russian Imperial Movement as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, because some policymakers had taken note of a rising trend of white supremacists directing their attention to Ukraine and Russia. The security services are alert to the threat the Ukraine war poses. In 2018, Mark Rowley, when he was the head of UK counter-terrorism policing, noted that the UK was dealing with a “home-grown, proscribed, white supremacist, neo-Nazi terror group,” which was looking to build or join international networks, including in places like Ukraine, with the purpose of carrying out attacks back home. Rowley also revealed that four terror plots had been foiled in 2017.
Extremists have shown great interest in Ukraine, necessitating a strong policy aimed at condemning the aggression but also ensuring that those holding extremist views do not use the conflict to gain training and weapons.
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