In the 1980s, when Afghanistan was embroiled in a war between Soviet forces propping up a client government in Kabul and the CIA-assisted mujahedeen insurgency, the country became a hotbed of global jihadism, as radical Islamist fighters, most infamously Osama Bin Laden, flocked there to wage armed struggle against the communists.
Several billions of dollars worth of covert U.S military assistance went to training and arming the Islamist guerilla fighters, including with Stinger antiaircraft missiles, which greatly hampered Soviet air power. What the U.S government couldn’t know at the time was how the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan would go on to galvanize radical Islamists and lay the foundations for future jihadist terrorist attacks on the West.
Unfortunately, the case of Ukraine suggests that the West has not learned the lesson from Afghanistan: that supporting and arming insurgencies can later have unpredictable and calamitous effects. Much like the Islamists who traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to wage jihad and later beca-me the vanguard of global Islamist terrorism, present-day Ukraine could have the same mobilizing effect for the global far right.
With a steady flow of m-ilitary assistance from NA-TO nations, Ukraine will s-oon become awash in wea-pons and ammunition. Giv-en the presence of Ukra-ine’s far-right military regiment the Azov Battalion and its foreign supporters, these Western-supplied ar-ms could easily land in the hands of violent white sup-remacists and far-right ins-urgents. As with jihadists in Afghanistan, the West’s actions in Ukraine may again be seeding a movement that could rapidly grow beyond its control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also welcomed foreign volunteers to come fight alongside Ukraine’s military against the Russian forces. With visa requirements for entry into Ukraine now waived, foreign fighters are flocking to Ukraine. According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, 20,000 fighters from 52 different countries have already arrived to defend Ukraine.
This “International Legion,” as Zelensky calls it, is at first glance a positive development, in terms of defending the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian military is severely outmanned and outgunned. Many of these volunteers have prior military experience and will likely bolster Ukraine’s defense forces.
But while most foreign volunteers in Ukraine likely have no political motivations, the Ukrainian military’s International Legion will almost certainly attract far-right extremists, who have long viewed the country as an ideal training ground to gain combat experience for the eventual “race wars” they anticipate waging back home. So the West needs to be careful that it is not equipping the next generation of global white supremacist militants along with the Ukrainian military.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, counterterrorism analysts had already raised concerns that Ukraine was becoming a hotbed of global far-right extremism. In September 2019, the Soufan Center released a report that explicitly recognized the emergence of Ukraine as “a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy extremism, attracting foreign recruits from all over the world.” In 2020, the Ukrainian government deported a member of the U.S neo-Nazi group, The Base, who had traveled to Eastern Europe in order to fight against Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass reg-ion. Western weapons tran-sfers to Ukraine and Zel-ensky’s establishment of an International Legion will only enhance Ukraine’s status in the global white supremacist movement as an ideal training ground for gaining valuable combat experience.
Zelensky’s establishme-nt of an International Legi-on will only enhance Ukra-ine’s status in the global white supremacist movement as an ideal training ground for gaining valuable combat experience.
In fact, white power groups have already urged members to go fight in Ukraine. The Thule Society, a neo-Nazi Telegram chat group, is calling on its members to do so, while also soliciting donations to help the Azov Battalion. Denis Kapustin, a far-right mixed martial arts fighter and founder of the neo-Nazi fashion label “White Rex,” released a video on Telegram urging white nationalists to directly support the Ukrainian resistance movement. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, Western white supremacists on social media forums are coordinating trips to Ukraine in order to assist the Azov Battalion.
In a bitter irony, Putin’s war of “denazification” in Ukraine may actually produce a more emboldened and insurrectionist global far right movement. In his justification for invading Ukraine, Putin pledged to “protect people” who had been “subjected to bullying and genocide … for the last eight years.” Putin claims that Russian speakers in Ukraine are subjected to genocidal policies by the “fascist” Ukrainian government. Considering that Z-elensky himself is Jewish and the grandson of a Hol-ocaust survivor, Putin’s sla-nder is grotesque and blatantly false. Nonetheless, as Freedom House reported, the Ukrainian far right does “represent a sophisticated and politically influential element of society.” And Ukraine has historically had a problem with antisemitism.
Unlike Germany, the birthplace of Nazism, Ukraine does not occupy a sacred place in white nationalist ideology. In fact, some white nationalists now view the Kremlin as the ultimate guardian of Western traditional values and are therefore supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine. But most white power militants simply view the battlefields of Ukraine as a practical way to learn military tactics in an active combat theater. Many have also pledged to aid the Azov Battalion and see the military conflict in the country as a way to help their “white brothers” gain more power in Ukraine. The Ukrainian National Guard recently tweeted a video of Azov members coating their bullets in pig fat, allegedly for use against Russia’s Muslim Chechen soldiers, adding an ethno-sectarian framing to the conflict.
For the global far right, the war in Ukraine offers an opportunity to gain firsthand military combat experience. Later on, these white supremacist militants can use this warfighting experience for the purpose of inciting guerilla wars in their home countries. Given the lingering effects of the pandemic and the economic fallout from Putin’s war, the last thing the West needs now is a coordinated, transnational white supremacist movement determined to carry out violent insurrections as well as terrorist attacks in major metropolitan areas. Western intelligence agencies should keep a close eye on suspected far-right extremists as the war in Ukraine rages on to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Follow him on Twitter@DubstepInDPRK.