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The Ukrainian Conflict: Foreign Volunteers and Online Identity Formation

The Ukrainian Conflict: Foreign Volunteers and Online Identity Formation
31st January 2020 Chelsea Daymon
Chelsea Daymon
In Insights

Despite its local context, the conflict in Ukraine has attracted large numbers of foreign volunteers with estimates from 2014-2019 of around 17,000 individuals from over 50 nations making it a transnational struggle, composed of numerous actors with varying ideologies, including far-right, far-left, and neo-Nazi leanings. To date, a great deal of research on foreign volunteers in Ukraine focuses on who these individuals are, the units they join, and why they travel to the region to fight, missing important communicative aspects of the conflict associated with foreigners. Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and the Russian social networking site, VKontakte (InContact) are important elements of the conflict, providing online spaces for recruitment, battalion news, updates, and identity formation. While dispatches from the battlefront are important, one could argue that identity formation is a vital foundation of the conflict, not only for recruitment purposes but for the longevity of the dispute, and the wider expansion and political aspirations of various actors involved.

In order to attract recruits, especially foreign ones, the multinational appeal of any conflict must supersede common identity markers that provide shared belonging including language, culture, and citizenship. Therefore, actors adopt innovative forms of communication to surpass geographical boundaries and local cultures to make a conflict internationally appealing. Tarrow maintains, “internationalization and communication are the large impersonal processes that lie in the background of all forms of transnational diffusion.” Thus, the internationalization of communicative elements in a conflict, aids in creating shared identity, especially in online environments.

One key element used in the Ukrainian conflict is symbolism. Symbols associated with both Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists’ groups are used in the online sphere while also manifesting on the ground through what Hegghammer describes as “observable products.” Although Hegghammer discusses observable products associated with jihadists, the concept is transferrable to groups across ideological perspectives.

Social networking sites (SNS) offer spaces where commonality takes place. For the conflict in Ukraine, this includes a mixture of observable products in pictorial form, posted and shared on SNS pages. These products can also be found in tangible form, like unit badges and flags. Some of these products reflect wider ideological properties that incorporate but surpass the conflict in Ukraine, resonating with wider ideological movements.

Dittmar notes that social-symbolism provides people with roadmaps on how to understand, interact, and classify other individuals, based on their associations with symbolic objects. Thus, shared symbols or symbols that share similar characteristics, may have the ability to increase identity formation and bonding among individuals.

In the Ukrainian conflict, this is done through the use of dual symbolism. Take for example the flag of the self-proclaimed Confederation of Novorossiya (New Russia) also known as the Union of the People’s Republics, a unification of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine, under the control of Russia and pro-Russian separatists since 2014.

The design of the Novorossiya flag is simple combining the saltire (blue crossed stripes) of the St. Andrew’s flag outlined in white against a red background, strongly resembling the Russian navel Jack used by the Russian navy. Some have also noted its striking resemblance to the Confederate battle flag of the United States, excluding the stars.

Adaptations of the Novorossiya flag are observed in separatists’ groups known to enlist foreign volunteers. This includes the Rapid Response Group “Batman,” or Batman Battalion, the Mechanized Brigade Prizrak, or “Ghost Brigade,” and Unité Continentale (UC), a pro-Russian group in Donbas, started by four French men in 2014, considered on the far-right spectrum. UC is of interests due to its foreign construction, mainly made up of French volunteers, along with a few Serbian and Brazilian recruits according to its Facebook page. Although the group’s flag is different from the Novorossiya flag, a Facebook post from 24 October 2018, shows a UC badge featuring the group’s name, the Novorossiya flag, and the group’s emblem superimposed on it.

Similar use of dual symbolism is observed in groups fighting for Ukrainian autonomy, particularly the Azov Battalion, known for its foreign recruitment and reports on its association with far-right, neo-Nazi elements. Flags and badges of the battalion, including their Foreign Legion badge, use symbolism connected to Ukraine (similar coloring as the Ukrainian flag), while incorporating elements, like the kolovrat (ancient sunwheel) and Wolfsangel into their designs. While both of these symbols have ancient Slavic, runic forms, modern renditions are adopted by neo-Nazis in Europe and the United States.

When considering these two cases, symbolism is used in the Ukrainian conflict both online and off, to foster identity formation at group and national levels, while also communicating shared identity with broader audiences and ideologies. This is observable through pro-Russian separatists’ groups adaptations of the Novorossiya flag, even if groups are created by foreign nationals, as with the case of UC. The use of symbols seen in Azov Battalion insignia, displays nationalist elements, while using icons identifying with wider far-right, neo-Nazi audiences. While not all members and foreign recruits joining the Azov Battalion are associated with far-right, neo-Nazi beliefs, the group’s use of symbolism reflects ideologies present among some members.

Identity formation through the use of symbolism is only one element of the Ukrainian conflict online, however it creates transnational appeal for recruitment and ideologically purposes through the dissemination of content. Although the fighting has subsided, identity formation on the ground and one click at a time, generates long-lasting relationships that are beneficial to the actors involved, along with their deep-rooted aspirations.