The Foreign Troops Fighting on Eastern Ukraine’s Frontlines

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Christopher Allen

On the frontline of the war in Ukraine are a group of European volunteers fighting under the aegis of the Azov Regiment, a far-Right, pro-Ukrainian paramilitary group now integrated into Ukraine’s Interior Ministry and National Guard.

On the 26th of January, NATO dismissed Putin’s accusation that there is a “foreign legion” of Europeans fighting for the Organization in Ukraine, claiming instead “the foreign forces in Ukraine are Russian.” However, while this squad of between three and fifteen Europeans (their number fluctuates) is the primary group of Westerners fighting in Ukraine (there are approximately 10 others who have spent time on the frontline with other groups) and although these men are not directly affiliated with NATO, their active role in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine proves that Russian soldiers are not the only foreigners here.

Though they are paid the same 10,000 Hryvnas ($465) allotted to the (mostly Ukrainian) soldiers alongside whom they fight, these men have no direct relationship with Ukraine and instead hold passports from the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Finland, and Greece amongst other European countries.  None have come for the money; in fact, most have left more secure work at home to join the fight in Ukraine.  While almost all of the Europeans fighting in Ukraine have previous military experience in European armed forces – most have spent time in the French Foreign Legion or served in their respective national militaries – these are not the NATO or Government-supported soldiers recently sent by Europe and the United States to train forces in Western Ukraine nor are they the “foreign legion” that Putin claims is fighting here.

These soldiers have come for various reasons, but their fight is personal as well as political.  Within this small group a variety of motivating factors are manifest amongst the men and even within the individuals themselves.  “Of course, everybody believes in the War,” said David Eriksson, a 48-year old Swede now resident in Estonia who took time away from his businesses in marketing and real estate to come fight two separate tours with Azov Regiment, “but [for each individual] there are different reasons.”

For these European fighters, the motivations for coming, the reasons for staying, and the rationale for leaving are often based on very different factors and are impossible to reduce.  “It changed maybe my second tour… Now, it’s many reasons, I could give you ten reasons [for returning and staying],” said Eriksson, “and it’s hard for me even sometimes to know which are the highest ones.” The motivations and justifications for coming to the war and for continuing to fight are mixed; rationale changes over time and varies from man to man.

The Personal Fight

While all of the men fighting here have political sympathies, this is more than just a political fight.  Politics can be propagated through a variety of means, but it is war that has drawn these men together – conflict has an appeal that has brought them to, or kept them in, Eastern Ukraine.  “You’re never so alive as when you’re close to death.  That’s for sure,” said Mikael Skillt, a former Swedish soldier who fought with the international squad.  He is not the only European here who has found some sort of pleasure in conflict.

While all of these men have developed their political allegiances over time, some justify their initial involvement in this war in an overtly apolitical way and even considered joining the Separatists before deciding to fight for the pro-Ukrainian Azov Regiment.  “You fight for the war,” claimed ‘The Greek’, a 33-year old soldier in the squad who served in the Greek army and the French Foreign Legion before working in private maritime security. “At first I was neutral toward the rebels, I didn’t particularly care.  I didn’t particularly care about the ideology of Azov,” he said.  “I didn’t sympathize with Ukraine at first particularly, but now of course, after all these months [joined beginning of August], I have been completely immersed in the war and I identify myself completely with the Ukrainian side.” The involvement of these Europeans in a war that has real political significance for the Ukrainians alongside whom they fight does not necessarily need to be justified by these foreigners, at least initially, by any sort of political motivation – though it always is eventually.

‘The Greek’ and most others amongst the group of European soldiers are products of their national militaries.  These men were trained by European national governments to fight and for many, their personal identity is connected strongly with their training and professional experience of being a soldier.  Most of these men are, in fact, frustrated by the fact that while they identify as soldiers, they have not been able to fight.  “I was only doing training in the army,” argued ‘The Greek’ who came to Ukraine in order “to actually [fight], to be a soldier normally, really.  I mean, what kind of a soldier are you if you’ve never fought in a war.”  And “Ukraine, it’s a soldier’s dream”, he argued.  With no large-scale Western war in which to take part, the chance to practice their trade plays an important role in involving themselves in the conflict here.  It was not political ideology that brought ‘The Greek’ and others like him to Ukraine; instead, it was the chance to fight because “war is the epitome of the soldier’s experience.”

Most of these former professional soldiers left Western armies and sought the opportunity to practice their trade somewhere else; however, their motivations are often about more than just the existential issues surrounding their choice of profession.  Being a soldier has exposed these men to a very different sort of life than most civilians.  Many left the civilian world in Europe in search of recapturing the stimulation of a life lived on the edge.  “When these people [former soldiers] are not satisfied, they just want more things and more things and different things, many of them end here [in Ukraine],” argued ‘The Greek’.  “If you read about all those mercenary wars in Africa, you’ll see the same elements, the same traits.  It’s not the money that makes them do that.”

The war zone in eastern Ukraine presents a stimulating, dynamic, high-energy, and high-risk environment.  This is a world that these men, though they are from different countries, of different backgrounds, and of different political persuasions, occupy, based at least in part, according to ‘The Greek’, on their “restless” character and “adventuring spirit”. “This is a good adventure,” claims Petteri Kääpä, a soldier here who had previously served as a ranger in the Finnish military.  But “in Finland, you don’t go to places where you, if you like this lifestyle, you don’t go anywhere, but you can go to Ukraine.” These men dismiss mortgages and 9-to-5 jobs and the banalities of daily life that occupy most of their friends back home as, according to The Greek, “behavior that is [only] important to you by societal norms”. They have traded the trappings (or entrapments) of a civilian life in Europe for the insecurity and adventure of the frontline.  For most of these men, integration in the civilian world was difficult before coming to Ukraine and the question of what they will do after the war is one left answered.  But when on the frontline, they are content to fight.

Eriksson originally came for his politics, to fight Russia and defend Europe, but stayed for the friendship and excitement of the front.  “It’s the friends, you know, coming back to the Greek and other guys I love.  I love those guys.  Also, you feel like you’re a traitor if you don’t take part in the fight.  It would be like you’re at home just as ‘The Greek’ said, ‘living my white middle class life,’ you know.  So that feels also like I want to do something.  But it’s also because you get hooked on it, you get hooked on the adrenaline and stuff, and it’s a good life.”

War seems to bring a sense of purpose, camaraderie and excitement that transcends the banality and constraints of ordinary civilian life in Europe.  On the frontline, many of these men have found those important components of life that might not have been fully manifest in Europe: the close relationships, the excitement, the meaning and the purpose that come with a life built in a violent and uncertain world and often motivated, at least eventually and in some part, by political ideology.

Before a mission in March, as the group prepared to leave their appropriated seaside villa on the frontline in Shyrokyne, with its shrapnel-pocked fence and the tank parked in the small street adjacent, ‘The Greek’ asked ‘Baghira’, a 21-year old member of the European group, why he is here. “Get this [expletive removed] experience, man” he replied.  But “[this war is like a game] except you can’t win here anything,” Baghira later said, “You can only lose.”

The Political Fight

Despite appreciating the experience of combat, many of these men do have political motivations in mind.  ‘Baghira’ argued that “you can’t [fight] if you don’t believe in that attitude of your side… you need to believe that what you do, it’s actually good and has some sense” and all the men either came because of their political beliefs or developed them after arriving.  It is not only excitement and adventure and the chance to practice their profession that brings the men here and justifies their fight – Ukraine has become the locus of conflict for various, often competing, national and international political ideas.

For many of these soldiers, fighting here is a chance to propagate their personal politics through violence.  Finland and Estonia, from where some of these men come, share a border with Russia.  Sweden, from where many others have come, has a border that is only about 130 miles from Russia.  “I understand [Ukraine] as the border of Europe,” says ‘Baghira,’ “and we need to protect our borders.” Many of those now fighting here see the war in Ukraine as a product of a Russian re-expansion that threatens to encroach on European territory and that sets a dangerous military precedent.

Most of these Europeans justify this war by citing current geopolitical issues.  “For me, it’s a very good fight… it’s [a fight] against Russia” argues Eriksson, “it’s a fight for Europe.”  Many of these men were disturbed by the military aggression demonstrated by Russia and resisted it through violence.  Chris ‘Swampy’ Garrett has served in the British army, run a small tree-trimming business in the United Kingdom, and done de-mining work as a volunteer explosive ordinance technician in the Karen State on the Thai/Myanmar border.  After leaving Karen State, Garrett saw a post on Azov’s Facebook page inviting foreigners with military skills to assist in the war effort and joined Azov’s European group in mid-October.  “I don’t hate the Russians,” Garrett argued, “I just don’t think they should be in this country fighting.”

For others in this group though, the international conflict for which Ukraine has become the nexus, is less important than the fight for ultra-conservative and nationalist politics in Ukraine itself.  While some of these men fight for Europe and against Russia, for some, particularly those who are more nationalist, the fight is simply against Russia and in order to espouse certain politics within Ukraine itself.  Many of these men do not believe in the concept of Europe or the EU.  Azov Regiment was founded by Andriy Biletsky as an ultra-conservative paramilitary group.  Biletsky himself is currently a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and the founder and leader of the Social National Assembly and Patriot of Ukraine groups, both of which are nationalist and far right.  Not all of the European soldiers here were drawn by their ultra-conservative politics, but some of them, especially those who came at the beginning of the War came “for the national socialist revolution”, claimed ‘The Greek’.

Biletsky and many of Azov’s early members, including some of the first Europeans that came here to fight, had ultra-conservative, fascist, or neo-Nazi political views.  “I was attracted of course, by the nationalistic ideas that were taking form” on the Maidan and during the early stages of the war, said Mikael Skillt and at that time, “the core of Azov Battalion were hard-core nationalists… And in the beginning, that’s why you see all these guys with SS markings… of course there are National Socialists in the battalion.”

The ideology of Azov Battalion has been tempered over time and as the group has grown from a quasi-autonomous, rag-tag paramilitary group to a mechanized and heavily armed battalion integrated into Ukraine’s Interior Ministry and National Guard.  “If you want to find Nazis, this [Azov] is the place to come,” one Azov soldier said on the way to the frontline and there are certainly these undertones of fascism in the European group affiliated with Azov.  One of the Europeans here claimed “we’re all Nazis,” referring to the fascist politics of at least a subsection of the European group.

And yet, the political reality of Azov and the European group is more complicated.  One soldier in the European group estimated that “twenty percent [of the Battalion] I would consider neo-Nazis” while Eriksson suggested that now “I think almost a hundred percent of foreigners, it used to be maybe ninety percent of foreigners are not Nazis actually.  They are here to fight.”

These statistics do not necessarily mean that the ideas upon which Azov was initially founded have been completely lost; indeed, they are still manifest in many of the men who fight for Azov, including the Europeans.  During the early stages of the revolution and the war in the East, the political space of Ukraine was relatively open and thus attracted those European radicals who wished to fight for certain political agendas but felt restricted from doing so in their countries of origin.  Many of these men were attracted to Azov Regiment because of its nationalist, ultra-conservative, neo-Nazi or fascist political leanings.

Some of the foreigners however have struggled to reconcile their own politics with the ultra-conservative or fascist politics of those alongside whom they fight.  Azov was, though, the only volunteer battalion actively recruiting foreigners.  Garrett “saw [Azov] as my route in even if I didn’t stay with the Battalion [because of its neo-Nazi affiliations]”.  Eriksson too, though “uncomfortable” with the politics of the Regiment, joined because it seemed to be the simplest way to fight.

Contemporary political activism can stem from more than just an analysis of the current geopolitical situation; it can also be the consequence of previously extant national and familial historical narratives. ‘Baghira’, who came from the Czech Republic to fight in Ukraine, cited his country’s troubled “historical experience with Russian mentality [and] Russian politics” as well as the fact that “part of my family was persecuted [by the Soviet government]”. He came not just out of a sense of responsibility to act according to his political beliefs regarding this war, but also because of an overarching historical narrative, a perspective that contributed to his construction of this contemporary conflict and his decision to fight in it.

More than just the opportunity to remedy historical wrongs, the war also presents the chance to contribute to contemporary history.  These men play a small role in shaping the world and the events currently unfolding in Eastern Ukraine.  “[We] are a really small part, but a part nevertheless, of a historical event,” argued ‘The Greek’, “This is history… I was actually, not proud, but happy, if you may, that I participated in the… Ukrainian War.”  On the frontline, these men become a part of the history which, for those at home in the West, plays out in black and white on the pages of newspapers and for future generation will be written about in books.  “There was also a sense of doing something greater because what I saw at the time was history in the making, argued Mikael Skillt, “I couldn’t… stay away.  Everyone wants to make their impression in history and I think I made mine.” While The Greek continues to fight with Azov hoping to shape history through violence, Skillt has now moved to Kyiv where he hopes to influence it politically.

### 

While for many here, the conflict has largely become a fight against Russia, for some, the war and the political instability of Ukraine still provide the opportunity to remedy historical wrongs, contribute to an unfolding historical narrative, or fight for an ultra-conservative, nationalistic, or fascist political future.

Despite their efforts to fight for their respective political beliefs, the impact these men have is difficult to quantify.  “It’s not like a Rambo movie where you go out and shoot all the enemies, so I don’t think I can do that much, actually,” claimed Eriksson, “I will be part of the group and if the group can do something, perfect.”

Because it is so difficult to measure the influence they have in the conflict, these soldiers are content to be motivated by their personal desire to fight for their own politics.  “I could give money to the cause,” argued Eriksson, “but in a sense, I’m selfish, I want to be here [fighting] and doing less, probably than if I was contributing in [a financial] sense.”

The motivations of these European volunteers fighting together in Ukraine are complex and sometimes contradictory.  Ultimately, in each man, the personal and the political are inextricably linked and a common enemy and within the group, the shared desire to fight is more important than a unifying political ideology.  The complex and contradictory political motivations of the soldiers fighting this war make conflict, on one level, a very personal, human phenomenon rather than simply a macro-political one.

Though Garrett acknowledged “no side is right in this conflict, no side is right in any conflict,” he came to the war motivated by the realization that “Russia was actually making an incursion into Eastern Ukraine”.  Garrett ended up joining these foreigners fighting as a part of Azov Regiment, a volunteer battalion propagating an overarching nationalist and ultra-Conservative political agenda far different than his own.

These Europeans, with their various political perspectives, have had to find a way to integrate themselves into a conflict that often means something very different for those alongside whom they fight.  For these men, the overarching macro-politics superimposed on the conflict by the regiment, media, government, and citizens are less important than their own personal politics and internal motivations.  And even in the context of what is, for many, a political conflict, “I don’t see anyone talking about politics that much,” claimed Eriksson.

Instead, the group’s desire to fight against a common enemy and the relationships that come with close cooperation and shared experience seem more important than the political impact that the war might have.  On the frontline, politics are quickly replaced by the realities of conflict.  Garrett reduces the fight to a simple equation: “Defending Mariupol, all of it, doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s bollocks – some guy is shooting at you, so you want to [expletive removed] kill him.”

Despite the complexity of the conflict and the manifold nature of their internal motivations, sometimes specific motivations can carry great importance.  Garrett justified his decision to leave Ukraine by citing the relationship he had with his girlfriend (a pacifist), one strained significantly by the war and his involvement in it.  Relationships with family and partners often pull these men home and there is no complete detachment from the outside world, even while on the frontline.  But these personal motivations can also be the catalyst for returning to the war, where purpose and camaraderie come together, where meaning in life is simple to find.  “If I go home,” said Garrett, and “if my girlfriend throws me, I’ll come back. If the war’s still going on, I’ll still come back.”