The leader of the Base, a U.S.-based neo-Nazi terror group, once discussed using the war in Ukraine as a training ground for his organization. He thought the conflict could serve members of the Base who wanted first-hand experiences at war, who would then return stateside, battle-hardened and ready to share their knowledge with others.
VICE News obtained a leaked phone call with the head of the Base, revealed to be 47-year old New Jersey native Rinaldo Nazzaro by the Guardian in January, and other leaders of the terror group, discussing how the conflict in Donbas, Ukraine could aid them in professionalizing the organization and its military tradecraft.
“The best way to make use of Ukraine,” said Nazzaro in a fall 2019 phone call, referring to the ongoing war that has lasted more than six years and claimed more than 13,000 lives, “is use it as a resource for our guys who have the ability to travel out there for training, to do it, because they can come back and they can bring that knowledge back to us.”
The Base's discussion of the war in Ukraine as a training platform and part of their ultimate goal of “race war” in the U.S. is evidence of what many terrorism analysts have long feared about the conflict, which already has elements of far-right militants fighting on the frontlines: That it is becoming an insurgent hotbed for neo-Nazism in much the same way past jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have exploited wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to transform their extremist movements into violent, global organizations capable of terror attacks.
In February, VICE News revealed that 20-year old Virginia native and member of the Base Ryan Burchfield had gone to Ukraine in search of war. After the report, an assistant district attorney in Georgia, in the midst of prosecuting other arrested members of the Base who allegedly plotted the assassination of an antifascist activist, asserted in open court that Birchfield fought for the Right Sector, an ultranationalist militia (with neo-Nazi ties) on the frontline in Donbas. (Burchfield denies this.) The war continues to pit the fledgling government, only just free in 2014 from Russian control, against Kremlin-backed separatists in the east of the country, which are widely accepted to be at least mostly Russian regulars.
Responding from a personal encrypted email he has used to correspond with VICE News for two years, Nazzaro denied he had any intentions of using the war in Ukraine to create a terror cell or a training pipeline inside an active warzone.
"No, I did not intend to create a training pipeline via Ukraine,” he said. “I was never interested in doing so, and that's why I turned down the offer to establish a cell there. In my opinion, training in [the] USA is the most straightforward option and more effective."
Nazzaro also continues to maintain that the Base is not a terror group, but a “survivalism and self-defense network.”
Last week, BuzzFeed News broke the story that two Americans linked to neo-Nazism had been deported from Ukraine on charges that they were attempting to join one of the nation’s far-right military units for “combat experience.” Ukrainian intelligence said the Americans were part of Atomwaffen Division, a parallel organization to the Base.
The conversation obtained by VICE News begins after Nazzaro explained to other senior leaders of the Base, who had just finished vetting a potential recruit, how one unidentified American, already fighting in Ukraine with another fellow American, offered to create a new cell for the group in eastern Europe, an offer Nazzaro declined.
“I did have one guy who's out there now contact me and said […] do you want to start a cell in Ukraine?” said Nazzaro. “He's telling me about all the great training opportunities in this now.”
On the call, despite his having declined the offer, Nazzaro discusses how time in Ukraine could grow the violent movement back home in the U.S. with returning fighters training and sharing their new knowledge with cells of the Base.
“They come back and they have a lot of good connections and an experience that they can share with the rest of us.”
Mollie Saltskog, an intelligence analyst at the Soufan Center, a world-renowned private firm that tracks international terrorism, said she isn’t surprised the Base was interested in the war in Ukraine.
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“Ukraine has emerged as a critical node in the transnational white supremacy movement,” she said. “Some of the most lethal groups here in America, like the Atomwaffen Division and the Base, have long had established relationships on the ground in Ukraine, traveled there to network, attend events, and train.”
While Nazzaro was reluctant to set up a Ukraine cell for the Base, at least one member seemingly had ties to the military in the region. Someone who went by the alias "Yanisson" in the Base's encrypted chat room claimed to be a 35-year-old Latvian who trained with the country’s special forces, posting photos as proof to the rest of the Base. The man claims to have since relocated to the U.K. where he works as a security guard. He offered to use his training to aid the group.
“I am ex-military,” he wrote in January. “Maybe you think I am soft, no, I am ready for this. I like to do actions and be active and not talk about what size a gun is or [something].”