Note: This is part of a series. You can read parts one, two, three, and four, here.
Azov Battalion is actively seeking to recruit Western nationals to join their battalion. Azov, operating as the military wing of the Social-National Assembly (SNA), is self-described as “socialist, nationalist, and radical.” Recruits will receive a monthly salary of $360.
Prospective foreign volunteers will most likely contribute to the military effort. Once in Azov, you will join the ranks of fellow volunteers driven by personal motivations of an ideological or religious nature, or simply by the aspiration to defend their homes. The drive to recruit you is driven by an audacious combination of Azov Battalion’s client-facing social media outlets, polished English-language pages, and message-centric far-right ideology. Azov has thus far been moderately successful in its objective by attracting volunteers from across Europe.
Azov, like Donbass and most other battalions, has always accepted foreigners, but some battalions have been more selective than others. The selection process has largely boiled down to the nationalities of volunteer candidates; whether a given battalion chooses to accept them is at their discretion. As a general rule, the selection process is slanted in favor of those with a Slavic/Russian ethnic background.
This is an officially changing trend, however, as Ukraine’s parliament passed what amounts to the first steps needed before finalizing a bill to allow foreigners to serve in the Ukrainian military. If finalized, foreigners can formally serve in the military of Ukraine and not just in volunteer battalions. Future recruits will have their choice of branch and the option to serve as enlisted or officer, provided the recruit meets the qualifications for acceptance.
This move should help mitigate the substantial internal draw to service by the Ukrainian military and volunteer battalions. There are many foreign nationals already in Ukraine and serving in the volunteer battalions, the bulk of whom are from the Russian Federation. Others hail from former Soviet satellites, predominantly Belorussia and Georgia. Georgian volunteers have become some of the most highly recognized and respected in Ukraine; their predominance and media-friendly nature has been a driving force in the acceptance of foreigners to officially join the ranks of the Ukrainian military. Most recently, the Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, awarded Georgian volunteers with ecclesiastical medals “for self-sacrifice and love of Ukraine” near the time of a public service for a Georgian volunteer who was killed in action.
The complications of not being from around the direct area of Russian influence has not slowed anyone down. The battalion has managed to recruit a number of volunteers from the West, most notably the 37-year-old Swede, Mikael Skillt. Mikael has explained his inspiration to come to Ukraine, saying he wanted to aid “nationalists who were dying on the streets.” Mikael qualified as a reconnaissance sniper while serving in the Swedish Army, and he considers himself an ethnic nationalist for Ukraine. Mikael once fought on the front lines with the battalion, but has since reserved himself to a training role in support of the battalion. He is one of the few fighters who has agreed to speak to the media; most foreign volunteers desire anonymity out of fear of repercussions from their home nation governments. That said, it is important to note that Mikael is the exception, not the rule, for Western volunteers fighting for Azov Battalion.
Another famous face for Azov Battalion is French supporter Gaston Besson. A veteran volunteer who participated in the fight for Croatian independence in the 1990s, he recently officially parted ways with Azov but still supports the recruiting effort via social media channels. Gaston was most recently involved in the operational roles of Azov by assisting Azov’s effort to create a brigade of foreigners willing to fight for Ukraine. Regardless of his departure, volunteers continue to arrive from Russia, France, Italy, Belarus, Canada, Sweden, Slovenia, and many more countries.
Azov wants even more volunteers, but not if you don’t have what it takes and can back it up. The battalion is only interested in accepting foreign volunteers who have applicable experience. A fine example would be an unnamed Georgian Special Forces trainer who has been assisting Azov to build a better training and support pathway. Similarly, Severin from Gothenburg, Sweden was simply helplessly watching television and was frustrated by not being able to take action. Severin came to Ukraine to see what he could do. Others who have come have different reasons. A Canadian in the battalion maintains a strong view against immigration, multiculturalism, and globalization.
A volunteer with Azov Battalion is forced to return fire from cover in Shyrokyne. Video courtesy of the author.
Currently, the high-profile volunteer in Azov Battalion is FSB defector Ilya Bogdanov. The former senior lieutenant claims that he was disillusioned by the propaganda and lies from Russian media outlets and decided to come to Ukraine and make a difference. Bogdanov left everything behind to volunteer his tradecraft as part of the effort to put an end to the conflict. If he is not an active agent of the Kremlin, the experience Ilya Bogdanov offers could be invaluable to the fight. He has a service record in Dagestan and firsthand experience inside Putin’s machine. Bogdanov has said that he decided to join Azov Battalion simply because it is the most active in Ukraine.
Ilya Bogdanov’s story reflects the most peculiar fact about the fight in Ukraine: There are Russians on both sides of the conflict. In Azov Battalion there are many citizens of the Russian Federation. The taboo notion of Russians fighting each other does not seem to be a concern for them or the Russian volunteers on the pro-Russian separatist side either. The Russians for Ukraine have volunteered like many others, out of concern for the safety of their homes and their future, as they view the Russian Federation as a threat to regional and global stability. This is a reasonable cause for concern, as the evidence of human-rights violations performed by the volunteers on the pro-Russian separatist side of the conflict continues to mount. It has become clear that a good number of these volunteers are soldiers of the Russian Federation, as revealed in a recent VICE News report.
The concept of foreign fighters should not seem unusual to anyone. Nearly 80 years ago, volunteers from across the globe gathered in Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War, with many volunteering for service in the renowned International Brigades for the Republicans. In our time, we are witnessing a similar event, as volunteers are again gathering from around the globe to try to do right by humanity in Ukraine, holding the line against Moscow’s pro-Russian separatists.
The precise number of foreigners volunteering with Azov or any other Ukrainian force is extremely difficult to estimate. The vast majority of foreigners hide themselves from the media as they don’t want to be this guy, or become the catalyst for another unfounded conspiracy on Russia Today. Still, various reports suggest that at least several foreigners are in the battalion, including at least one from Sweden.
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