A former American soldier travelled to the frontline of the war in Ukraine with the help of a known neo-Nazi fighter and posted about it to his thousands of followers, some of whom immediately questioned him about his trip and its association with an extremist.
Last week, Derrick Bales, a former U.S. infantryman who operates a popular military lifestyle brand on Instagram called Forward Observations Group (FOG), posted a flurry of images and stories showing himself in Ukraine amongst weaponry and wearing combat gear, with one photo showing him brandishing an assault rifle with other soldiers. Some of those posts were tagged with Vadim Lapaev (who also goes by “Balak”), who was identified by Bellingcat in 2018 as a radical neo-Nazi who served with the ultranationalist Azov Battalion, which caused a stir with some of Bales’ followers. In a statement to VICE News, Bales said he apologizes to anyone he might have offended.
Bales, who is Black, vehemently maintains that he did no fighting whatsoever and says he went to the frontlines briefly in order to conduct interviews for an article about the war in Donbas that he says is intended for a coffee table book he is producing. Bales joins other former American soldiers who have travelled to the frontlines of the now seven-year-old conflict in Donbas and then connected with the well-documented white-nationalists who still fight there.
Azov, once a volunteer force, was absorbed into the Ukrainian National Guard after forming during the early parts of the war in 2014, and has links to the global far right. Some American neo-Nazi extremist groups see Azov as a future model for themselves in the U.S. once their fantasy race war takes place and the federal government collapses.
Bales posted one video in which he was in the back of a car driving along a dangerous highway, approaching the Donetsk Airport—a continued flashpoint in the war and the site of vicious fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists at the beginning of the conflict. Another post shows Bales pictured with several soldiers (with black squares obstructing their faces, including him) near a graffitied building, holding an assault rifle across his chest.
“Up to some shit in Ukraine,” another photo of Bales is captioned. In it, his back is turned to the camera and he is sporting a tactical vest and helmet. It geolocates to the Donbas region, where the war is still being fought. Balak’s own Instagram page is rife with combat photos and shows him sporting both a patch similar to the infamous skull and bones symbol of the Einsatzgruppen death squads of WWII and the Misanthropic Division, a loosely networked neo-Nazi movement that originated in Ukraine and has become popular with fascist extremists all over the world, including members of Atomwaffen Division and the Base—American terror groups under an FBI crackdown.
“Vadim Balak was one of the dudes that helped escort us to the front lines and I do believe that he fought with the Azov Battalion,” said Bales in an email to VICE News. He downplayed the “Nazi aspect” of the battalion, which has an image derived from a Wolfsangel (an icon of the Third Reich) in its inisgnia and was once accused of war crimes by a human rights organization in the early parts of the war. “For instance, we had an openly Jewish guy with us and I'm a Black dude and if you listen to some of the interviews that we did with them [the soldiers] aren't overtly Nazi by any means.”
Balak told VICE News, in Instagram messages that he quickly deleted, that his connections to neo-Nazism were mistakes from his past and that FOG had nothing to do with it. He pointed out that Bales was Black and said that if he was a true Nazi, associating with him would’ve been unthinkable.
Bales, who said he did a tour with 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan and is seen in a post on the U.S. Army website from 2011, claimed he was also escorted to the frontline by members of the SBU, the intelligence agency for Ukraine, which did not reply to a request for comment on this story.
“We were with some SBU guys, again not fighting,” wrote Bales, “just talking to them and interviewing them.”
The State Department declined to address whether or not the embassy knew of Bales and his time in Donbas after several requests. “We’re not going to have any comment on this,” said a spokesperson. (Bales did tell VICE News that he contacted the Ukraininan Ministry of Defense before his trip.)
Some of Bales’ followers were excited about his exploits in Donbas, but he suggested to them that he knew his trip to the warzone could gain the attention of the U.S. government.
“Also not implying we are fighting for any State Department folks reading this trying to wrap us up when we get back stateside,” he wrote in reply to a comment on one of his Instagram posts. In a follow-up call with VICE News, Bales said once he got to Donbas he went to a forward operating base manned by the Right Sector, another ultranationalist militia fighting in the war alongside Ukrainian forces, and then to a frontline position for only “three hours.”
Bales added that he regrets offending any of his followers.
“I didn’t even understand what the Right Sector was [...] Until I was over there,” he said. “I was just trying to provide a unique perspective on the war and maybe I bit off more than I could chew. I guess only time will tell. It sucks if I’ve offended people but a man’s game pays a man's price and whatever comes of it [...] no one’s responsible, but myself to deal with [the fallout].”
Do you have information about foreign fighters and the war in Ukraine? We would love to hear from you. You can reach Ben Makuch by contacting 267-713-9832 on Signal or @ben.makuch on the Wire app.
After publishing the Ukraine images, the @forwardobservations account went down, leading many of Bales’ thousands of followers to assume that Instagram nuked the profile for a terms of service violation. Some users posted the “#freeforward” hashtag in support (including Balak) of FOG’s supposed blocking.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, confirmed to VICE News that it didn’t knock the account offline.
“This account was disabled by the user,” said a spokesperson for Facebook, “we did not take any action [against @forwardobservations].”
But Bales denied what Facebook claimed about the profile takedown.
“Yeah, I didn’t disable it,” he told VICE News, and alleged that an army of bots DDoS attacked his website overnight after the Ukraine content. He said this came from “Russian IPs” and inferred it had something to do with the account suspension.
Experts say the war in Ukraine, which is often described as a frozen conflict with no end, has attracted foreigners from all over the world, some of whom have held neo-Nazi sympathies and seek paramilitary skills they can bring back to their countries for an eventual homegrown insurgency. In October, two Americans with links to neo-Nazi terrorist groups were deported by the SBU for their extremist activities in the country. One of those men was a former Marine dropout.