Is Europe Overlooking the Far-Right 'Foreign Fighter' Issue in Ukraine?

23/01/2015 13:24 | Updated 25 March 2015

Think of a 'foreign fighter'. Are they a young male, aged between 19-29, probably of Middle Eastern origin, and possibly a Muslim? Are they associated with the concern and debate over Syria and Iraq? To most people it's more than likely that this is the image that comes to mind. This isn't necessary wrong, but it's definitely not completely accurate.

Yet, a question has to be raised: Are extremist Islamist fighters the only foreign fighters Europe should be worrying about?

The answer is no. The possibility of returning far-right fighters from Ukraine is a threat currently being overlooked. The conflict in Ukraine has provided an environment where the formation of foreign right-wing paramilitary groups can occur without any opposition. Both pro-Russian and Ukrainian Nationalists have operational paramilitary groups that hold right-wing extremist views, ties to neo-Nazism and welcome foreigners as fighters.

The Azov Battalion stands as a prime example of a violent right-wing group that's attracting foreign volunteers. This neo-Nazi group boasts a number of foreign participants, including "Russians, Swedes and a Canadian". Their emblem includes the "Black Sun" occult symbol, used by the Nazi SS during the Second World War. The unit's founder Andriy Biletsky also heads "two other neo-Nazi groups". Most worrying is their polished social media page with powerful far right ideological material written in English. This makes the recruitment process more accessible for any potential fighters who wish to join.

The appearance of foreign fighters fighting in Eastern Europe is not a new phenomenon. During the Russo-Chechen conflict in 1995 there was a heavy influx of foreign fighters into the region. So why should we be concerned this time around?

The danger from a returning far-right fighter from Ukraine is arguably no different from that of a returning fighter from Syria. An individual with radical views who is well trained and could commit or assisting in committing a violent attack. Currently attached to the Azov Battalion is a Swedish national, named "Mikael Skillt", a trained sniper with 7 years' experience in the Swedish Army. There is currently a "$7,000 bounty" on his head because of the danger he poses to rebels. A man with his skills, who describes himself as an "ethnic nationalist" and holds extremist views, has the potential to be very dangerous.

The brutality of the conflict could also have an effect on a fighter. A group of right-wing Ukrainian nationalists, who refer to themselves as the Aidar Battalion, have been reported to have committed war crimes. The reports from local media suggest widespread abuse from "abductions, unlawful detention and beheadings". There is a possibility of PTSD affecting any returning fighter. Without treatment it leaves open the chance that a person, who is trained and already committing violence, could snap under the right circumstances and commit a random attack. There have been a number of cases across Europe were people with mental health issues embark on violent sprees. There is also a very serious possibility that a foreign fighter in Ukraine may have a radicalising impact on others when they return.

It's completely understandable that the issue of returning Islamic fighters has taken precedence. Attacks in Paris have pushed the issue to centre stage. The high volume of traffic to Syria and Iraq from Europe outweighs that of people going to Ukraine to fight. However it only takes one returning far-right fighter to commit an attack causing utter devastation.

Anders Breivik was a lone violent far-right actor and responsible for one of Europe's most horrific terrorist attack. Imagine the possibility of a returning fighter from Ukraine, who has been trained, experienced combat and has access to connections and weaponry doing the same thing.

One can hope that some attention shifts towards far-right fighters in Ukraine, even though the conflict has mostly dropped out of the mainstream attention. But as long as there are organisations willing to raise the issue and attempting to counter the far-right narrative then there is still hope. The threat is there and it is very real. Let's all just hope that we don't learn this lesson the hard way.