The clumsy attempt, in mid-September, of an Italian man to allegedly join pro-Russia separatist forces in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, reignited the issue of Western “volunteers” fighting in this worn-torn country. The would-be Italian combatant for the self-styled separatist “people republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk was arrested by the Ukrainian Border Guard Service on September 19, and released a few days later (Ukraine Today, September 20; Il Mattino, September 25).
Italian fighters in Ukraine fill the ranks of both warring parties: military units loyal to the government in Kyiv and Moscow’s proxy armed formations in Donetsk and Luhansk. In the absence of official numbers, journalistic investigations speak of perhaps half a dozen Italian nationals fighting on either side of the conflict (Corriere.it, February 12; Corriere della Sera-Sette, February 20). These are relatively low figures that, nonetheless, outnumber those of Italian fighters engaged in the Syrian war, which is perceived as a more dangerous threat to Italy than the Ukrainian conflict. Italy’s Ministry of Home Affairs stated in September that there were ten Italian foreign fighters in Syria: five with single Italian citizenship and five holding dual nationality (TgCom 24, September 11; Interno.it, September 11).
Italian foreign combatants fighting for the rebel movement in eastern Ukraine are all male individuals of different ages, often unemployed and in some cases with pending convictions at home. Some have military experience, while others lack of any formal armed training. Their core narrative is that they are helping a popular resistance against the “fascist” and “repressive” government in Kyiv, to supposedly stop it from perpetrating a “genocide” by indiscriminately shelling towns and villages in Donbas.
Foreign fighters from Italy are most often members of ultra-leftist political groups (Il Fatto Quotidiano, June 11, 2014). But exceptions also exist: One Italian citizen who took up arms in eastern Ukraine turned out to be a supporter of Lega Nord (Northern League), an Italian political party that advocates the secession of northern Italy from the rest of the country, while another is a neo-fascist sympathizer. These individuals, despite their different backgrounds, fight together in the Moscow-supported rebel militias because they share a common loathing for the United States and its “imperialist” policy in Europe. In large part, they admire Russian President Vladimir Putin and praise Alexander Dugin, a Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher who promotes “Eurasianist” theories about the role of Russia as a bulwark against Washington’s domination of the globe.
Like aspirant fighters from other countries, Italian nationals are encouraged by rebel recruiters to undertake “non-linear” travel to Donbas, so as to deceive the authorities of their own country and those in Kyiv. They usually reach the frontline through Russia, first arriving in Rostov with a tourist visa and then heading across the border to Luhansk and Donetsk by bus. Prospective foreign militiamen for the pro-Russia side are discouraged from traveling to Donbass through territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. Indeed, as the case of the Italian citizen blocked in Ukraine demonstrates, it is difficult and dangerous to try to reach eastern Ukraine from the west (Sputnik News, March 10).
In the words of some Italian volunteers in Donetsk and Luhansk, recruitment is quite simple. Joining the rebel forces involves contact, via online social networks, with “solidarity committees” based outside of Ukraine. Once in Donbas, recruits are given a week of paramilitary training. Some Italian foreign fighters told Italian media outlets that, in summer 2014, they had been trained at a military camp near Luhansk under the supervision of Colonel Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), the former commander of separatist forces in Ukraine’s east (La Stampa, September 15, 2014). In this training facility, they were given a uniform and then trained to use AK-47 machineguns and hand grenades. They also underwent psychological training to face the hardship of trench warfare (Il Giornale, April 4).
For the most part, pro-Kremlin volunteers from Italy fight in the Vostok Battalion, one of the largest Russia-backed separatist militias in Ukraine; they do not receive a salary, only room and board. Some foreign combatants, including at least one Italian man, do not fight on the front line, but help with communication and propaganda as well as humanitarian assistance to local civilian populations (Il Giornale, September 22).
Italians in the opposite camp of the conflict live in similar conditions. They fight in the Azov Battalion, an armed militia accused of Nazi sympathies, which is part of the Ukrainian National Guard and under the control of Kyiv’s Ministry of Interior. They largely operate around the strategic Black Sea port city of Mariupol, one of the hottest fronts of the war (Vice Italia, June 12, 2014).
These pro-Kyiv Italian fighters are driven by nationalistic or anti-Communist sentiments and can have links to Pravy Sektor (the Right Sector), the radical ultra-nationalist group that gained notoriety in Ukraine following the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych. Mostly, these fighter declare themselves Italian nationalists with a past in ultra-right-leaning political formations. They also share a common aversion to the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union; some also openly criticize the Ukrainian government.
On this side of the conflict, the Internet is again the main means of recruitment. An important role is played by the recruiting network managed by Gaston Besson, a well-known French mercenary who fought in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s. All foreign volunteers who join pro-Kyiv militias and armed formations like the Azov Battalion have to undertake a period of training in the Ukrainian capital city and receive a salary of $200 a month (Il Giornale, July 2, 2014).
Italy is trying to halt the flow of nationals who go abroad to fight. An anti-terrorism law approved by the Italian government in February contains measures to deter Italian citizens from joining foreign armed groups. It also allows the authorities to clamp down on recruiters and financial backers as well as on websites that support their activities. Punishments range from three to ten years in prison, depending on the violation. Yet, the enforcement of these measures could face serious problems of interpretation. A major issue is that Italian citizens fighting in the Azov Battalion do so under the legal cover provided by the Ukrainian government—which does not apply to foreign volunteers on the separatist side.
Another problem is the potential emergence of “ghost fighters.” The second Minsk ceasefire deal, signed in February 2015, mandates the withdrawal of all foreign armed formations and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory (UNIAN, February 12). Ultimately, Minsk Two may prompt some foreign fighters, including Italian nationals, to hide their identity and presence in Ukraine—thus further complicating current efforts to tackle the phenomenon of European going to fight in Ukraine.