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Suicide missions, neo-Nazis and life inside Ukraine’s foreign legion

President Zelenskyy’s call for foreign fighters has attracted criminals and extremists, to the dismay of the well-intentioned

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Local residents wait their turn to receive humanitarian aid at Saint-Strytensky Temple of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, in Kostiantynivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.

David Goldman, Associated Press

An independent investigation by Kyiv Independent documents the alleged abuse of power in Ukraine’s International Legion. The organization is comprised of foreign fighters, who traveled from their own country to fight in the conflict.

Members put together a 78-page report outlining reckless orders, threats of violence, sexual harassment and looting but have not received support from authorities.

Life in the legion

In March, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry told CNN that 20,000 foreign volunteers from 52 countries were intent on joining the newly formed International Legion. According to the Kyiv Independent investigation, there are two wings making up the International Legion; one is overseen by Ukraine’s Ground Forces, and another by the Defense Ministry’s Directorate for Intelligence (known by the acronym GUR).

This specific investigation is concerned with the GUR wing, and three of its most powerful commanders. One of the primary allegations involves soldiers being sent on suicide missions.

When Russian troops discovered a squad position in the hotbed city of Mykolaiv, they began heavy shelling, forcing a majority of troops to retreat. The squad under the GUR command was abandoned to hold the front line.

A British military veteran, Scott Sibley, was killed in this exchange, reports the BBC. He was the first Briton confirmed to have died in Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion. In an interview with the Kyiv Independent, an American soldier told his commander that “If we go back there, we are all dead,” yet the commander sent another group to the same position. This time four were killed, many injured and one British man, Andrew Hill, was taken captive per Reuters.

Belgium’s Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper reports many fighters are returning home. One told them “I didn’t feel like serving as foreign cannon fodder.” Vice reports many are quitting because of poor organization, lack of equipment and being forced to sign indefinite contracts. Another concern is the “caliber of fellow foreign recruits,” per Vice.

Looting, threatening, harassing

The Kyiv Independent’s report hones in on one of the top commanders of the GUR intelligence wing of the International Legion. A man going by the name Sasha Kuchynsky is one of the top commanders of the legion and has been accused of threatening other legionnaires with guns, harassing female medics and looting stores. An American Jew reported antisemitism coming from Kuchynsky.

Upon further investigation, the Kyiv newspaper found Sasha was going by a false name, was a former member of a criminal organization from Poland, has been investigated in Ukraine for robbery and sexual assault, and served prison time in Poland for fraud.

One Brazilian fighter called the commanders of the unit “a bunch of wannabes, playing with people’s lives,” and his accounts of other suicide missions were confirmed by the written testimony of other soldiers.

Kuchynsky and two other commanders, the subject of these allegations, remain in their positions currently.

Extremist militias

The promise of military training and combat experience has been attractive to many far-right extremist groups, and Ukraine has had problems sifting through its volunteers to filter out those who are there with ulterior motives, according to Politico.

The New York Times reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin uses “Nazi” liberally to describe Ukraine’s government and fighting forces as a propaganda tactic. The fact that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish, does little to suppress his rhetoric. Putin’s claims have little grounding in fact, yet Ukraine is facing a problem with neo-Nazi groups on the front lines and at home.

Al Jazeera reports that the Azov regiment is an all-volunteer infantry unit numbering close to 900 at the start of the conflict. They are a far-right group, accused of engaging in “xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideals.” A 2016 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHA) has accused the Azov regiment of war crimes,

In February, Meta reversed its ban on praise for the Azov regimen, allowing posts “strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine National Guard” according to Business Insider.

But Time reports that “Azov is much more than a militia.” It has publishing houses, summer camps to train children and a vigilante that “patrols the streets of Ukrainian cities alongside the police.”

Many traveled to Ukraine to protect the country against the Russian occupying force. The Georgian Legion is careful to identify and weed out “bloodthirsty guys who want to come and just shoot somebody,” per Politico. A spokesperson for the International Legion says his force is made of mainly British, American, Canadian and Polish volunteers. Many have ties to the region and combat experience from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and private contractor experience in Africa.

Unfortunately, members of the American far-right “Boogaloo Bois” group, part of a network of anti-government extremists, have been seen in Ukraine, according to Vice. British authorities worry about far-right extremists from the UK “seeking weapons training and military experience” in Ukraine, per the Guardian.

FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress in 2019 that “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,” according to The Washington Post. The conflict in Ukraine has exacerbated this threat.

What to watch

Reuters reports that Kiev’s effort to incorporate independent groups into its armed forces “make addressing the ultranationalist threat considerably more complicated than it is elsewhere.”

According to Josh Cohen, in his commentary for Reuters, “There’s no easy way to eradicate the virulent far-right extremism that has been poisoning Ukrainian politics and public life, but without vigorous and immediate efforts to counteract it, it may soon endanger the state itself.”