In October 2020, Ukrainian intelligence released a video of what it claimed was two American men in baseball caps carrying camouflage-patterned duffle bags as an agent escorted them to the baggage counter at the Kyiv airport. The video was likely choreographed by the authorities: Ukraine’s security services alleged the Americans were members of a violent U.S.-based hate group and among a growing number of men from around the world trying to fight illegally in the still-raging war in the country’s eastern Donbass region against Kremlin-backed separatists.
But as quickly as they made headlines in the U.S. and in Ukraine, the men disappeared and neither was ever identified publicly—until now. VICE World News has learned that Ryan Burchfield, 21, is one of the men in the video. Burchfield is a Virginia native, a Marine Corps dropout, and a former member of the Base, one of the most violent American-born terror groups in recent decades, and one under the ongoing specter of an FBI counterterrorism probe.
According to information from inside Ukraine obtained and reviewed by VICE World News, Burchfield, who by his own admission traveled to the country for a taste of war and to prepare for a future career as a mercenary, was one of the men deported by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)—Ukraine’s main intelligence agency—for “illegal activities.” (The deportation was detailed in a public release where Burchfield went unnamed.) The SBU accused the Americans of trying to join military units on the front lines and promoting terrorism in the country. Both, according to the release, were banned entry into Ukraine for three years.
The SBU asserted that the Americans operated in the cities of Kyiv, Lviv, and Kharkiv, three major cities in Ukraine, the latter being one of the closest to the fighting in Donbass. At one point Burchfield used a unique photo of a nationalist lion statue in Lviv, a symbol some claim is linked to the Galician division of the Einsatzgruppen (SS) death squads, as his personal display picture on Instagram.
While the SBU did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the deportation of Burchfield, he gave his version of events in an email to VICE World News.
According to him, he was booted from the country due to an overstayed visa and not for any links to terrorist activities, with the deportation only happening “right after buying tickets to leave the country in the first place.”
Burchfield admitted he volunteered in Donbass, where a nearly seven-year war has claimed over 13,000 lives, something he previously denied to VICE World News in January 2020.
“I spent a few months volunteering in Donbass,” he said. “That volunteering was not done under any political context besides my support for the sovereignty of Ukraine and the liberation of occupied territories in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea.” (He did not specify what this volunteering entailed.)
Now in the U.S., Burchfield maintains he has no links to the American neo-Nazi movement and said he left the pathway to being a Marine because of unspecified “complications” with his job assignment in the Corps.
The former claim is complicated by the fact that Burchfield told VICE World News in a series of text exchanges in January 2020 that he was “a part” of the Base, but left sometime in November 2019 before he left for Ukraine seeking combat experience. (He now is steadfast that he is not a member of any “organization whatsoever.”)
The Marine Corps confirmed Burchfield “was once a part of the Delayed Entry Program, but was discharged from the DEP in December 2019,” adding that if it had been aware of “[r]acist, supremacist or terror affiliations” he would never have been admitted. (DEP allows “poolees,” or prospective recruits, to delay entry into the branch while they complete high school or a college degree, while committing a future to the service.)
Experts have warned that the scores of extremist travelers from all over the globe who have flocked to the war in eastern Ukraine to gain experience with ultranationalist militias like the Right Sector or Azov Battalion, units in the Ukrainian war effort with links to neo-Nazism, strengthen the terror networks of the far right.
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“The situation is significant for a number of reasons,” said Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security firm. “First, that American citizens adhering to white supremacy continue to travel to Ukraine in order to gain combat experience. It illustrates the important node Ukraine, including the conflict in eastern Ukraine, has become within the broader transnational far-right extremist network.”
Saltskog, who has been tracking foreign fighters in Ukraine for the Soufan Group for years, said the global far right is professionalizing its networks and organizing across borders, which makes it doubly important for world governments to coordinate a response to the emergent threat. “[I]t is crucial for the United States, allies, and partners to cooperate, including by sharing intelligence and best practices, to combat this serious threat,” she said.
The detainment and deportation of the two Americans is a sign the government of Ukraine is taking the threat of neo-Nazi travellers seriously, something it has come under fire for in the past. In a statement on its website, the SBU alleged both men were members of Atomwaffen Division, a similarly violent and parallel organization to the Base. (The groups have been known to sometimes share members.) The Ukrainian security service also charged that the two were responsible for making a notorious propaganda video inside the country calling for terrorist attacks. Both men, the agency said, made attempts to join “Ukrainian military units to gain combat experience, which the group members planned to use in illegal activities.”
To other members of the Base, Burchfield was open about his thirst for violence inside the encrypted chat rooms of the group, where he posted under the alias “Isak.” Burchfield met up with the group’s Georgia cell and leadership—which included members who are facing charges connected to an alleged double murder plot—months before he left for Ukraine. In one online conversation, Burchfield told the Base that “we’re going to make Atomwaffen look like boy scouts.” (At that time, Atomwaffen Division was already linked to five murders in the U.S.)
“I'll still be around, I want the Euro side of the Base to expand. Going to be cool things coming,” he reassured other members of the Base before leaving for Ukraine. “You guys are all solid.”
While the Base’s leader Rinaldo Nazarro, a former Pentagon contractor and analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, is located in Russia, the group became synonymous with the growing ranks of white nationalist terrorism in the U.S. and quickly caught the attention of the FBI when it was started up in 2018. Since late 2019, nine members of the group have been arrested in the U.S. for alleged crimes including an assassination plot, ghost-gun making, plans for train derailments, and a mass shooting. Several of those members, one of whom was recently implicated in a prison sex-assault, are now facing years in prison for their terrorism-related crimes.