British authorities are worried that the current threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine may attract far-right extremists from the UK, who could travel to the country seeking weapons training and military experience.
Counter-terrorism police were positioned at the departure gates of at least one main British airport this week, where they quizzed travellers flying to Ukraine about their identity and reasons for travel.
The checks came after at least half a dozen known neo-Nazis travelled to Ukraine from the US and a European country this week, security sources said.
Last autumn, Kyiv deported two American men with links to neo-Nazi groups in their homeland, BuzzFeed reported. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said at the time that the men “tried to join one of the Ukrainian military units in order to gain combat experience, which the representatives of the group planned to use in illegal activities”.
Western leaders have warned that Russia may be planning an invasion of Ukraine, after Moscow massed more than 130,000 troops – at least 60% of the country’s ground forces – along its borders. Western intelligence officials floated this week as a possible time to launch the attack, even as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, urged calm.
In Kyiv and other cities, civilians have been buying weapons – legal with a permit in Ukraine – and taking first aid courses in preparation for violence potentially surging to their doorstep.
But potential recruits to the far right would probably be looking to join paramilitary groups fighting on the frontline in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
Russia has armed and funded an insurgency there since 2014, and though the conflict is largely frozen, exchanges of fire continue. US officials have warned that Russia could be preparing a “false flag” incident in the region which could be used as a pretext for a military intervention.
In 2014, when Russian proxies attacked in the east, the Ukrainian government took all the help it could get, including from far-right extremists. Over time, these battalions were integrated with the country’s army and national guard.
The most notorious far-right grouping is the Azov Battalion, a paramilitary force which uses Nazi-linked symbols and has had many members who have professed far-right extremist views. It was accused three years ago of actively seeking British recruits by Hope Not Hate, a leading anti-fascist watchdog.
In recent years political and media concern about foreign recruitment of violent extremists has focused predominantly on Islamist radicals seeking to join groups such as Islamic State. However, far-right radicals also pose a serious threat to their home societies if they return with combat experience.
The US is seeking the extradition of former US soldier Craig Lang from Ukraine to stand trial over the 2018 murder of a Florida couple, after he returned from time spent with far-right groups in eastern Ukraine.
FBI director, Christopher Wray , warned in 2019 about increasing numbers of white supremacists seeking military experience abroad. “We are starting to see racially motivated violent extremists connecting with like-minded individuals online certainly, and in some instances, we have seen people travel overseas to train,” he told Congress.
Canadian journalist Michael Colborne, who in January published a book on the far right in Ukraine, said if war did break out, battles could serve as both propaganda and training opportunity for the far right.
“In the worst-case scenario Azov will get even more opportunities to present themselves as the ‘true defenders of the homeland and the avant garde of the revolution’. If it comes to capturing Ukrainian cities, I’m afraid we will see far-right guerrilla fighters in the streets,” he said in a recent interview with Marker, a website created by the Far-right Violence Monitoring Group.
Asked about the counter-terrorism checks at airports, the Home Office said it did not comment on policing operations.