Five years on, Mikael Skillt still doesn't know exactly what made him leave his construction job and his girlfriend to fight in the war in Ukraine.
“I’ve done tons of soul-searching, and the more I think about it, the less I know why I came,” the 43-year-old told VICE News.
But an undeniable part of the draw was that Ukrainian ultranationalists, many with barely disguised neo-Nazi or white supremacist views, had been a driving force in the revolution. Skillt, at the time a notorious Swedish neo-Nazi with a 20-year history in the extreme-right scene, felt compelled to join their fight.
“All guys who seek adventure dream about this, to create history,” he said.
Skillt missed the revolution, arriving in Kyiv a few days after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. Instead, he got a war. A Kremlin-backed separatist movement soon swept across the Donbas, Ukraine’s southeastern region bordering Russia. Skillt, who had served for five years in Sweden’s National Home Guard, signed up to fight with the Azov Battalion, a newly formed far-right militia with deep neo-Nazi ties, and headed for the front lines.
Throughout 2014 and 2015 he served as a combat sniper for Azov, fighting in major battles in Mariupol, Marinka, Ilovaisk and Shyrokyne. “I managed to get most of the big ones,” he told VICE News.
“I believe Europe is in great danger”
Though he’s since disavowed his far-right beliefs, he says he still gets chills when he thinks of his time at the front.
“This brotherhood which comes when you share life and death, it’s a poison. I’ve never been a drug user, but I can imagine the feeling is pretty much the same.”
Skillt is just one of many far-right extremists, estimated to number between the hundreds and the low thousands, who have flocked to eastern Ukraine to take up arms since fighting erupted in 2014. Hailing from across Europe, North and South America, and as far away as Australia, they’re drawn by the opportunity to fight alongside other right-wing radicals on either side of the conflict. Many see the battle as a crucial training ground for the defense of white Europe, where they can forge deep international links and gain combat experience they believe will be critical at home.
When they return home, they’re battle-hardened and more radicalized than ever, researchers say, and often fly below the radar of security services more focused on the returning jihadi threat.
“I believe Europe is in great danger,” Alberto Testa, an expert on far-right radicalization at the University of West London, told VICE News. He said eastern Ukraine had become a critical staging ground for the international “white jihad struggle” of the far right, where extremists could “train for what some would call racial holy war.”
Researchers warn that Ukraine is radicalizing far-right foreign fighters in the same way Syria has with jihadis — albeit on a smaller scale — creating a global network of combat-tested extremists who pose a security threat that is now beginning to manifest itself.
“You have individuals who are battle-hardened, probably more radicalized than before they left.”
“We’re very concerned,” said Mollie Saltskog, an intelligence analyst at strategic consultancy firm The Soufan Group, who has tracked the mobilization of far-right foreign fighters. “You have individuals who are battle-hardened, probably more radicalized than before they left. You have a global network of violent white supremacists now who can easily keep in touch on different platforms and go back home, spread that propaganda, conduct training — or move on to the next fight.”
An overlooked threat
Western security services haven't taken the far-right foreign fighter threat seriously enough, said Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute for Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, largely because they’ve overwhelmingly focused on jihadist foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq in recent years.
“It seems that intelligence agencies have not regarded them as even remotely as much of a risk as the jihadist fighters,” Koehler told VICE News.
But that’s slowly started to change, as fighters returning from Ukraine make their presence felt at home.
Earlier this month, Italian police investigating a network of far-right radicals who had fought in Ukraine uncovered a massive trove of military-grade weaponry, including an 11-foot air-to-air missile and rocket launchers. Since January, returning foreign fighters displaying separatist flags from the conflict have surfaced in France’s violent “yellow vests” protests.
In May 2018, Ukraine convicted a French far-right extremist for plotting a string of terror attacks against targets, including a mosque and a synagogue, in France. Authorities said the 27-year-old had been caught attempting to smuggle a huge cache of weapons back to France that he had reportedly acquired through militants in the country’s battle-scarred east.
And in 2017, Swedish neo-Nazis carried out a bomb attack on refugee housing in Gothenburg. According to reports, the attackers had received paramilitary training from an ultranationalist Russian group that recruited and trained volunteers to fight for the separatists.
Training for race war
The extremists have been drawn into the conflict through a savvy recruiting network that appeals to like-minded radicals on social media and in real-world meet-ups, establishing the conflict as a major rallying cause for far-right networks around the globe.
“There’s a sense that there’s a battle brewing to preserve white European culture, and that’s where the desire for learning combat skills comes in”
Azov, in particular, has produced ISIS-like propaganda videos, distributed pamphlets at neo-Nazi concerts in Western Europe, and sent speakers to far-right conferences in Scandinavia. Though the group denies it is neo-Nazi, and publicly stated in 2014 that “only 10 to 20 percent” of its forces identified as neo-Nazis, its first commander and now leader of its political wing has a history in neo-Nazi groups. Their recruitment efforts have targeted far-right networks, including explicit pitches of the war as an opportunity to gain battlefield experience that can be passed on militants at home.
“There’s a worldwide concern across the far right about European countries losing their white majorities through immigration,” Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told VICE News. “There’s a sense that there’s a battle brewing to preserve white European culture, and that’s where the desire for learning combat skills comes in.”
Joachim Furholm, a Norwegian neo-Nazi and recruiter for Azov, used an interview with a U.S. white nationalist outlet last year to encourage U.S. extremists to join him.
“I came to lead a small group of volunteers from all over the West, gain some military experience, and hopefully be able to send some of these guys back home to pass on their skills and their knowledge,” he told Radio Wehrwolf.
Read: German neo-Nazis are trying to go mainstream with MMA and music
In the interview, uncovered by the investigative website Bellingcat, Furholm said their efforts would also help white nationalist forces in the one country where he believed they had the best shot of coming to power.
“It’s like a Petri dish for fascism… and they do have serious intentions of helping the rest of Europe in retaking our rightful lands,” he said.
Experts estimate hundreds, if not thousands, of far-right foreign fighters have participated in Ukraine's war, fighting on both Ukrainian nationalist and pro-Russian separatist sides of a conflict that has seethed since Kremlin-backed separatists rose up in 2014.
Kacper Rekawek, head of defense and security programs at Slovakia’s Globsec think tank, said some recruits had seemed indifferent about which side they actually fought on.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of accident whether a fighter ends up on side A or side B,” said Rekawek, who has extensively interviewed foreign fighters. “They just want to take themselves to war, get this rush of adrenaline.”
The fighters apply a dizzying array of ideological lenses to the conflict to justify their involvement on either side.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of accident whether a fighter ends up on side A or side B”
Those who joined the Ukrainian far-right militia typically saw themselves as supporting fellow European ultranationalists against Russian aggression. Rekawek said the Swedish neo-Nazis who joined on the Ukrainian side saw it as essentially “the continuation of the Second World War on the eastern front. You are white Europe and you’re fighting Asia, in the form of Russia.” In some truly baffling instances, extreme-right Russians fought alongside Ukrainian nationalists against separatist forces backed by the Kremlin, he said.
Read: Inside the far-right conspiracy movement that's preparing for a showdown with Germany's government.
Meanwhile, far-right foreign fighters who joined pro-Russian separatists saw the battle as defending the separatists’ right to self-determination against Western imperialism. Many were also drawn by a sense of allegiance to Vladimir Putin, lionized by many on the far right as one of the last defenders of a white traditionalist Christian Europe.
“On the pro-Russian side, there didn’t seem to be such a coherent ideological agenda,” said Sara Meger, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Melbourne. While most of the foreign fighters on the Ukrainian side were on a spectrum from right to extreme right, those backing the separatist side found themselves fighting alongside a significant number of far-left foreign volunteers, who shared their view of the conflict as “a struggle against U.S. hegemony.”
Rekawek said the divided loyalties of the far right when it came to the Ukraine conflict meant that colleagues from the far-right scene in Europe often wound up on opposing sides of the front lines. “These guys all know each other from before,” he said.
Carolus Löfroos, a 30-year-old Finnish-Swedish dual national who also fought for Azov in 2015 and 2017, told VICE News he had a cordial relationship with a couple of acquaintances who fought for the opposing side.
“Sure, I think they’re fucking dumb," he said. “But at least they’re acting on what they believe is right, even if they’re exposed to danger in doing so, which is something I can respect.”
Löfroos said while his opinions had “always been on the right side of the spectrum,” he considers himself apolitical, and rejected the suggestion that Azov had neo-Nazi politics. “I dont care if people call me far-right, Nazi or whatever. I wanted to fight… and Azov was at the time the soundest choice of unit to aim at for doing so.”
Skillt said that during his downtime away from the front lines, he would chat on social media with a Russian-Norwegian extremist, “Vlad,” whom he’d known since 2011 from far-right demonstrations in Sweden. “We spoke about the situation — if it comes to a point where we have to fight, so be it. No mercy will be given and no mercy will be asked for,” he said.
For many far-right foreign fighters drawn to Ukraine, the outcome of the war is almost a secondary consideration to other, more compelling, pull factors.
Rekawek said Ukraine fulfilled the need, expressed by many ideologues on the extreme right, for a “safe space” for Nazis outside the West, where they could network and organize beyond the prying eyes of domestic security services.
Some, like Löfroos, simply wanted to fight. Speaking of his return to the battlefield outside Donetsk in 2017, the former soldier described it in terms that made it sound like a gap year or working holiday.
“I returned… to see some old friends, see how the war progressed, and do some fighting for strictly recreational purposes,” he told VICE News. “War is like a philosophy and science that is pleasant to study.”
Through the influence of Azov, in particular, Ukraine has increasingly played just such a role, emerging as a key hub in a transnational extreme-right network. Since first forming in 2014 as a volunteer militia commanded by the former leader of a neo-Nazi party, with members drawn from the hooligan scene, Azov has developed into an increasingly powerful three-headed beast. Olena Semenyaka, Azov’s international secretary, boasted last year that the movement had “become a small state [with]in the state.”
“Just having that experience makes you more dangerous”
Alongside the battalion, which has been formally incorporated into Ukraine’s national military, it also boasts a political wing and a vigilante street movement, which has been linked to attacks on pride events and Romany camps. (The U.S., which provides military support to Ukraine, has officially banned Azov from receiving any military aid due to its white supremacist ideology.)
Azov, which did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment, has also cultivated strong links with far-right political groups across Europe. Researchers say the movement now plays a key role in a dangerous extremist network drawing new recruits from neo-Nazi mixed martial arts and hooligan scenes.
Its influence has extended as far as the United States. In 2018, three members of the violent, California-based white nationalist group Rise Above Movement traveled to meet with Azov representatives during a contact-building tiki-tour across the European far right, even participating in a cage fight at an Azov-affiliated fight club.
Skillt, who today lives in Kyiv, has since publicly renounced his far-right allegiances. But he says the war’s impact on foreign fighters should not be underestimated.
“Just having that experience makes you more dangerous,” he said. “If you’ve been under fire and you have enough training, then you’ll react on basic instinct.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the conflict in Ukraine.
Cover: A Ukrainian volunteer soldier from the Azov battalion is holding his position at a military base on the Azov Sea, on February 26, 2015, near the city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. Photo by Rafael Yaghobzadeh/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)