EXTREMISMFew Western Extremists Have So Far Gone to Ukraine

Published 1 June 2022

The Russia-Ukraine war has been attracting foreign fighters/volunteers since 2014 – some supporting Ukraine, the others supporting Russia. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, chatrooms favored by extremists were filled with brave statements about how many more volunteers would go to Ukraine to support their favorite side. So far, this chatter has been all talk, but not a lot of walk.

A new report from the Counter Extremism Project examines the role foreign extremist volunteers have so far played in the Russia-Ukraine war.

The Russia-Ukraine war has been attracting foreign fighters/volunteers since 2014. Initially, the number of foreign individuals joining the conflict was limited. However, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, 2022 provided a seemingly seismic shift in this field with up to 20,000 foreigners expressing an interest in joining the Ukrainian war effort.

Foreign fighters that joined the conflict initially after 2014 hailed from various ideological backgrounds—including from the far right, far left, or red-brown national communists—and fought on both the Ukrainian and Russian/pro-Russian sides of the conflict. The 2022 foreign volunteers, however, seem less radical and politicized in nature. Their mobilization is conducted mainly through official channels of the Ukrainian government and less through informal channels setup by non-state-linked “volunteer battalions” and militias, as was the case in 2014.

Precise numbers of foreign fighters having traveled to Ukraine and involved in combat since the end of February 2022 are currently difficult to establish. However, given the available information, it is reasonable to deduce that only a fraction of those who indicated an interest in traveling to Ukraine after February 2022 actually did so. Their number ranges from merely several hundreds to a few thousands. This is dwarfed by tens of thousands of Ukrainian volunteers who joined units in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force (TDF).

Among these foreigners, some individuals with extremist convictions have also traveled to the war zone. Violence-oriented foreign extremists have been in Ukraine since 2014, and at least two of these individuals have been killed in the latest round of hostilities. Both were on the pro-Russia side, including one who was a left-wing extremist.

To correctly assess the current flow of violence-oriented extremists to the war zone, one must study the recruitment input, i.e., local and far-right scenes, their attitudes toward the recent Russian invasion, and whether their members have traveled to Ukraine to fight.