The Foreign Fighters Battling for Ukraine
Profiling volunteers who joined Ukrainian battalions
There have been countless investigations into the foreign fighters who side with the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass, with the bulk of these men (and some women) being Russian citizens, and sometimes active servicemen. DFRLab profiled three particularly interesting cases in September, focusing on fighters from Serbia, America, and Colombia and uncovering their digital footprints to see what motivated them to come to the Donbass and risk their lives on the battlefield. However, it is not only the separatists who have enlisted foreign fighters into their ranks, as there are hundreds of foreigners from eastern Europe, Scandanavia, western Europe, and elsewhere who have joined pro-Ukraine militia groups, including the notorious Azov and Aidar Battalions. The tenth measure of the Minsk II agreement calls for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries in eastern Ukraine — so why have these foreigners come to fight on the side of Ukraine, what can we learn about the conflict through them, and what has Ukraine done to remove them from the battlefield?
Ukrainian militia groups: who fights, and whom do they serve?
With pro-Russian separatists, the exact loyalties and makeup of groups of fighters are difficult to parse. Over the past two and a half years, various rebel groups have feuded, merged, and aligned with one another, and in some cases, just faded away. While the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are ostensibly in charge of these groups, there are some with closer ties to Russia than others — and even in those cases, there are always rumors of various factions of the Russian military and intelligence structure that have their own pet projects. With Ukrainian militia groups, there is more structure than with their Russian and separatist counterparts, but still plenty of gray areas.
In September 2014, Hromadske reported that there were about 50 volunteer battalions fighting on the side of Ukraine. In late 2014, the Ukrainian government made an effort to integrate all active volunteer battalions into the structure of the Ukrainian military, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Guard, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, these battalions were not all necessarily “rogue” groups which had been operating on their own —most were created with the permission of the Ukrainian government, or were already operating under the guidance of Ukrainian military leadership. Most of these volunteer battalions became Territorial Defense Battalions in the Ministry of Defense, while others are under the National Guard or the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Officially — or, “officially” — pro-Ukrainian foreign fighters are only allowed to fight within the the Azov Battalion, which has been one of the most effective, and demonized, Ukrainian battalions near Mariupol. The real story is more complex, as there are numerous militia groups operating outside the bounds of Ukrainian control, such as Right Sector-backed military groups. As with our piece in September on foreign fighters battling for the separatists, we will study the digital footprints of pro-Ukraine foreign fighters and examine who they are, why they came to Ukraine, and what they have done in their time in the Donbass.
Austrian Ben Fischer
In June 2016, VICE News published a fascinating account of the Right Sector-aligned “Volvika Tactical Group” (incorrectly spelled “Voloveka” in the VICE article) in the Donbass. Right Sector is a nationalist and far-right political organization in Ukraine that was considered the most radical of the groups that participated in the Euromadian demonstrations in Kyiv. Ben Fischer, an Austrian, was the focal point of the profile, as he fights alongside 26 other Volovika members near the frontlines in the town of Novogrodovka. By researching Fischer’s time in Ukraine, we can not only find out more information about why European foreign fighters come to Ukraine, but also the circumstances of how illegal groups with foreign fighters participate in the war.
Fischer gave an interview to the Belarusian television channel Belsat, where he describes his reasons for joining the fight in eastern Ukraine.
When asked why he came to fight in Ukraine, Fischer — a veteran of the Austrian army — describes how he was upset by Russian activity in Ukraine, and his intense dislike for Russia and its politics. Fischer dismisses accusations that Right Sector has neo-Nazis in its group, and describes his feelings on the war. As he describes, he has become quite disillusioned by the war and the enforcement of the Minsk agreement, and expresses support for a so-called “second revolution” in Kyiv to replace the current government.
While most volunteer battalions have been absorbed by organs of the Ukrainian security apparatus, this Volovika group exists on the fringes of the law and operates as an illegal organization. But, as the VICE article points out, there is an informal arrangement between the authorities and the Right Sector group:
The Ukrainian army was also technically obliged to arrest Right Sector members on sight at the front lines, but it didn’t. During the night, officers sympathetic to Right Sector’s cause filled the Voloveka’s school bus with rockets and other large-caliber guns forbidden by European monitors. Right Sector was the Ukrainian army’s way of getting around Minsk II while still hitting back at separatists who refused to allow international organizations anywhere near their trenches: Right Sector, Ukraine told inspectors, was out of its control. The local police also wouldn’t arrest any members of the Voloveka, to whom they outsourced their terrorism. Of course, when asked about their connection with Right Sector, Ukraine’s SBU, army, and police vigorously disavow it. But what I saw on the front lines was nothing short of active cooperation.
It is not difficult to verify the key facts of the VICE article and find more information about Volovika. The group was named after Vsevolod Volovik (codenamed “Seva”), a Right Sector fighter who died near the Donetsk Airport in November 2014. A Right Sector fighter in Volovika named “Simeon,” who is described as skilled with anti-tank guided missles, and fought at the Donetsk Airport alongside Vsevolod Volovik. The climax of the VICE article comes with the death of Simeon after an accidental explosion in the Volovika base in the small town of Novogrodovka. However, as described in the VICE reportage, Simeon’s death was presented differently to his family:
“Two land mines exploded under Simeon as he charged toward the Donetsk airport,” Colibian, who had been declared the Voloveka’s new commander that morning, told Simeon’s family. They cried. “After this, it took machine-gun fire to bring him down. We recovered him, brought him back to our trench. He was still breathing. He refused to die.”
This claim of his death at the Donetsk Airport was also reported in the Ukrainian media, including by 112 Ukraine. Despite Ukrainian attempts to purge foreign fighters from its government ranks, the Volovika group based in Novogrodovka is seen by many as a entry-point for participation in the war without Ukrainian citizenship.
“… I met two Americans in Kiev. Quinn Rickert of Illinois and Santi Pirtle of California were in their early 20s and had checked into the Delil Hostel, where I overheard them hashing out their plans to join Right Sector. They knew nothing about the group other than that it had a bad reputation. But it was also the only battalion in Ukraine still accepting foreigners, and Lang, whom Rickert had found on Facebook, had told them which trains could take them to Novogrodovka.” (source)
There are numerous accounts in Ukrainian news and social media of Right Sector’s presence in Novogrodovka, including unearthed caches of military equipment affiliated with the group and apparently illegal prisons targeting separatists that may have Right Sector involvement. Additionally, Novogrodovka reportedly contains fugitives from the summer 2015 shootout involving Right Sector members in the Ukrainian town in Mukacheve, which led to multiple deaths. As seen with the participation of foreign fighters, including Ben Fischer, Novogrodovka exists in a different world than the rest of Ukraine in relation to the enforcement of the law.
British Chris “Swampy” Garrett
It is not entirely accurate to label Chris “Swampy” Garrett as a foreign fighter, as by all accounts he is actually doing volunteer de-mining work with the Azov Battalion in the Donbass. He was embroiled in a minor scandal in January 2015 when numerous Russian and fringe English-language sites, including InfoWars, identified him as an American or British soldier fighting for the Azov Battalion, largely based on videos of English-speaking men in Mariupol and his (now-deleted) Vkontakte page. “Swampy” expressed a great deal of discontent with this portrayal in both mainstream and fringe websites.
In reality, there are no reliable open source materials that indicate that “Swampy” has taken part in fighting, and available sources indicate that he is actually a volunteer who locates and removes mines from the battlefield alongside the Azov Battalion. An August 2014 news article in the Isle of Man Courier profiles “Swampy,” describing how the then-30-year-old worked as a volunteer in Myanmar clearing landmines. A November 2015 article from the Diplomatic Courier gives us a clearer picture of his background, describing how he served in the British Army and did de-mining work as as volunteer along the Thai/Myanmar border, matching the Isle of Man newspaper report from the previous year. He joined the Azov Battalion, as described in the Diplomatic Courier, after seeing a post on the “Azov’s Facebook page inviting foreigners with military skills to assist in the war effort,” and joined in October 2014.
The digital footprints of “Swampy” reflect this, including his social media presence and the crowdfunding campaigns he has led. He deleted his Vkontakte page after it was spread in January 2015, and he is inactive on Twitter, but he still actively operates his Facebook account with photographs and accounts from the frontline.
In January 2015, “Swampy” began a GoFundMe campaign to “Help the volunteers of Ukraine,” eventually raising almost $1,000 to purchase medical and logistical equipment, such as first aid kits, mine detecting equipment, food, and flashlights. Two months ago, he began a second GoFundMe to raise money for training at an explosive ordance disposal & de-mining school in Kosovo, with the campaign reaching almost £900. Chris “Swampy” Garrett is still on the frontlines in eastern Ukraine.
American Mark “Franko” Paslawsky
The only American to die in the Ukrainian Conflict suffered from fatal wounds during the Battle of Ilovaysk, on August 19, 2014. The 55-year old New York native and U.S. Army veteran graduated from West Point in 1981, worked in the financial industry, and lived in Ukraine and Russia before the Euromaidan protests. After the overthrow of Yanukovych and beginning of the (Russia-backed) rebellions in the Donbass, Paslawsky took dual American-Ukrainian citizenship, as his family was of Ukrainian descent, and joined the volunteer Donbass Battalion. In an interview to Simon Ostrovsky, then of VICE News, Paslawsky described the reasons why he took up arms:
“Given what I saw, the level of incompetence, the corruption, the lack of activity — I just decided that I needed to go and participate. If there was ever a time to help Ukraine this was the time to do it.”
Most foreign fighters involved in Ukrainian volunteer battalions are relatively silent on social media, compared with their separatist counterparts. This was not the case with Paslawsky, who gave in-depth interviews and operated a Twiter account that gave impressions from the front lines. Tweeting as “Bruce Springnote,” Paslawsky provided a window to the so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in the Donbass to the English-speaking world. Most valuably, he gave regular updates on the morale of the Ukrainian troops he travelled with and the often-dire situations for citizens of the Donbass:
Ostrovsky described the situation that led to the American’s death after receiving information from those on the scene:
The Donbass Battalion is still active in eastern Ukraine, and since being integrated into the Ukrainian government, has been reassigned as the 3rd Reserve Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard. The group is quite active on social media, and often posts videos of its operations, including artillery fire that caused a significant fire in Maryinka (see previous DFRLab research into this incident here). It does not accept foreign fighters into its ranks, as Paslawsky was technically a Ukrainian citizen at the time he joined the battalion.
There have been numerous investigations into the foreign fighters of both sides of the Ukrainian Conflict, often with attention drawn to the far-right elements that have joined volunteer battalions in the Donbass. It is indisputable that there is a sizeable presence of far-right fighters in both pro-Ukraine and pro-separatist formations, but it is not accurate to assume that all foreign fighters are neo-Nazis or Russian nationalists.
As we saw in the first DFRLab investigation into pro-separatist foreign fighters, the volunteers’ motivations and backgrounds are far from uniform: the self-described Antifa activist from Colombia who fought with a Russian nationalist battalion, the Serbian sniper “returning the favor” to Russian volunteers who fought in the Yugoslav Wars, and the Texan who saw Nazis around every corner after consuming stories on conspiracy and Russian news sites. We see the same variance of motivations with pro-Ukrainian volunteers, ranging from the far-right ideologues that are often written about in Western media, but also the British humanitarian who joined the Azov Battalion to neutralize landmines and the American in his fifties who reported the conditions of the frontlines without any filter.
However, in accordance with the second Minsk accords, the number of foreign fighters has drastically dropped. Fewer are joining the separatist ranks after the surge of fighting in the summer of 2014, and Ukraine has moved to reduce, if not eliminate, the number of foreign fighters within the battalions it controls. As seen in the case of Ben Fischer and the Right Sector volunteer militia, the current options for volunteer fighters in Ukraine exist in the gray areas of the law, where there are higher risks of danger compared with those faced by the typical Ukrainian soldier. When asked by DFRLab about the number of foreign fighters (on both sides of the frontlines) he has observed when working in the field, journalist Christian Borys shared his experience from the people he met on the front:
With the ongoing implementation of the second Minsk agreement, the number of foreign fighters has significantly decreased. There’s definitely been a big change — most of them have left. You used to see foreign fighters around all the time, but the majority moved on in 2015. One of them I know, who stopped fighting but remains in Ukraine, told me that after Minsk, there was nothing left to fight for, so he left the front.