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‘Telegram is King’: Extremist Foreign Fighters in the Russo-Ukrainian war

‘Telegram is King’: Extremist Foreign Fighters in the Russo-Ukrainian war
3rd April 2023 Clara May
In Insights

In January 2023, Meta removed the Azov Regiment from its list of dangerous individuals and organisations. The Ukrainian regiment became infamous for its neo-Nazi ideology after the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014 and is now easy prey for Putin in his purported efforts to ‘de Nazify’ Ukraine. In a statement, Meta’s spokesperson said: “The war in Ukraine has meant changing circumstances in many areas and it has become clear that the Azov Regiment does not meet our strict criteria for designation as a dangerous organization.”

With social media being used by both Russian and Ukrainian forces to garner support for their war efforts, the role of technology in the conflict is constantly evolving. In this Insight, we talk to Kacper Rekawek, author of the recently published Foreign Fighters in Ukraine: The Brown–Red Cocktail, to discuss the role of extremist foreign fighters in the Russo-Ukrainian war and how technology is being used to facilitate their involvement.

Hi Kacper. Thanks for joining us. You’ve just published your new work ‘Foreign Fighters in Ukraine: The Brown–Red Cocktail’. Please can you tell us a bit about your research, and how you came to focus on this area?

When I first started looking at people who volunteered to fight in the Russo-Ukrainian war, everyone else was focusing on foreign fighters who were going to Syria. My colleagues – I was working then as a terrorist analyst at the Polish Institute of National Affairs – had their portfolios full, so to speak, with people going off to join ISIS, and I was wondering how my work fitted into the broader picture. Then, in the summer of 2014, I was watching Russia Today when I saw French individuals speaking to the camera from Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. They were talking about why they’d gone to fight, and they explained it was essentially a war with the West, which they hated. For them, every war was a proxy war; one side was always just the US by another name. They were anti-liberal, anti-LGBT, and anti-socialist. I thought it was remarkable, and I was curious why these men would go from France to fight in Donetsk for the Russians.

I quickly realised that they were projecting their expectations, their ideologies, and their fantasies onto a foreign war, of which they knew very little. They spoke little or no Russian and had no contact with the people on the ground. It was this that gave me such a fantastic window of opportunity. These men had to connect with people in Russia and, to do that, they used social media. At the time, most of this took place on Facebook, and partly on YouTube. It was done openly, and so I could see how these people mobilised, how they came together, how they deployed, and what happened to them. For the last eight years, I’ve been monitoring them, and my book is about how these individuals joined the conflict, what their motivations were, and whether they constitute a security threat on returning to the West.

GNET’s aim is to understand more about how technology can be used to facilitate violent extremist behaviours. Did technology play a role in drawing extremist foreign fighters to the Russo-Ukrainian war?

The war in 2014 certainly attracted extreme, ideologically-motivated individuals. This was mostly a far-right milieu – interestingly, the milieu split, with individuals joining both sides – but there was also involvement from the far left. At the time, the conflict wasn’t clear-cut. Those who joined it without any real connection to either side really had to convince themselves that they were joining a cause, and Russia was perfect at sowing the doubt to make this possible. Those from the far-right who flocked to Russia wanted to score a victory over the ‘transatlantic’ West. On the other side, foreign volunteers were split between wanting to stand with a ‘nationalist’ Ukraine against the Russian ‘barbarians’ and defending Ukraine as a remnant of the ‘traditional’, conservative Europe. There were ambiguities among the European far-right during this time, as people chose which side to join, and many of these conversations took place online.

That was both the beauty and the tragedy of it. This was a radical movement, but it wasn’t illegal in many European countries at the time to be a foreign volunteer, so discussions were held online very openly. When it came to organising, the main groups that travelled knew each other before the war so they pre-organised offline. They did, however, have to make connections on the ground. On the Ukrainian side, it was largely a case of flying to Kyiv and then going to the main square, where the volunteer battalions had their offices, and pitching yourself. Where technology did come into it was if you wanted to reach out to foreign volunteers who were already there. The Azov Battalion, as it was called at the time, pushed these volunteers out in their propaganda material early on; incredibly, many of these are still available online. These individuals encouraged volunteers to join their ‘nationalist’ organisation and fight with a group of like-minded people.

Joining the Russian side required a different tactic. To get to the separatist republics, you needed a connection in Russia. It was possible to set up an account on the Russian equivalent of Facebook – Vkontakte – and enter Russian digital society that way, but largely foreign volunteers used their existing social media accounts. Lots of groups appeared online called, for example, ‘Friends of Russia’ or ‘Friends of Donetsk People’s Republic’. You could write to these groups, and ask how to volunteer in the war, and somewhere down the line, there would be a Russian person giving you advice on how to join. You needed that digital person to guide you, and once you arrived in Russia, a patron would be waiting for you.

Another mechanism used by the Russian side was the ‘honeytrap’. An individual interested in volunteering would meet a woman on one of these groups who would become his ‘girlfriend’ or a ‘potential girlfriend’. The man would then arrive with the Russian forces occupying Donetsk, or pro-Russian forces, and the woman would be there to meet him but would tell him he was actually just there to fight. Across the board, there were push and pull factors at play. In situations like this, however, I’d say it was more a case of being roped in. Particularly on the Russian side, technology played a big role in bringing these extremist individuals together to fight in a foreign war. Most of these groups have now been shut down, but, at the time, there were tens of thousands of people in them.

Is there a difference in the way technology is used in this conflict now, compared to 2014?

The biggest change now is that Telegram is king. This is where anyone involved in this war is showcasing their accomplishments, recruiting, and asking for donations. Signal is very popular among the Ukrainian forces – during mobilisation for the International Legion for Ukraine, for example, volunteers were asked if they had a phone with Signal on it – but these are not extremist units. It’s no longer 2014; we’re in the middle of a different conflict, and it’s attracting different people. In 2022, it was the ‘concerned citizens of the world’ and not the far-right that flocked to Ukraine. There is an element of the latter, but this is a drop in the ocean. These more extreme forces, such as Battalion Revenge and Brotherhood in Ukraine, are using Telegram to try and attract foreign fighters, but recruitment is still largely done by stationing recruiters at border points where foreign volunteers are flocking to. 

On the Russian side, there is a greater reliance on social media. The Russian Volunteer Corps – made up of far-right individuals who escaped Russia before the beginning of the war because they saw Putin’s regime as ‘Bolshevik’, and a return to the Soviet Union – is apparently trying to bring in foreign fighters and volunteers, which is really worrying. The Corps utilise Telegram both to show what they’re doing and to try and recruit volunteers. They boast that they’re the ‘real deal’ and the ‘patriotic ones’ who are trying to take the fight to Russia.

Meta recently removed the controversial Azov Regiment from its list of dangerous individuals and organisations. What do you think of that?

Azov is many things. The Azov Regiment is a unit of the National Guard of Ukraine, and I think that any such unit should be allowed to have a Facebook account or page. I’m not denying that many of its members were, and perhaps still are, extremists, but from my interviews, it’s clear that at some point, the regiment made a conscious decision to drop everything and just focus on being soldiers. At the moment, in fact, the regiment is mostly sitting in Russian captivity, having fought bravely in Mariupol in 2022. They don’t have time now for politics. As it stands, and as you can see from their online content, the Azov Regiment does not seem to be ideologically motivated.

The Azov logo is a fixation amongst the global far-right, but it’s the political party of the Azov Movement, the National Corps, that is using the logo most. They’re using the sacrifice, and essentially martyrdom, of the regiment to put on their materials. The Azov Movement is separate from the regiment, which is what Meta recognised in its decision, and I think that is often overlooked. With every passing year, the link between the party and the regiment gets smaller. If you want to debate whether the political party should be brought back, that’s a different discussion, but it’s also a wider discussion. Do you want to have any far-right political parties on your platforms?

That’s a good question. Where do you think the line is in monitoring or moderating the content from the different actors in this conflict? Should social media platforms be doing more?

Social media is being used in different ways in this war. It’s being used by Ukrainian forces to seek donations in what, I believe, is a very black-and-white war, but it’s also being used by Russian units to seek recruits and incite violence against the West. If you’re the Wagner Group, should you be allowed online anywhere? There are many Ukrainian civilians that post graphic content on Telegram because they see it as their duty to show what’s really happening on the ground, and to show the reality of the war. As much as I sympathise, and empathise, with this, I think there should be an element of control over this type of content because we’ve seen how these images and messages can be spun to seem as if they were done by the other side. At the same time, the likes of the Russian Wagner not only post, but also film, extremely graphic content, and here the question of whether this should be allowed online is way more pressing. 

The Russians recognise the value of Telegram, the proverbial king in this war. They have full channels dedicated solely to convincing ‘us’ that any, I repeat any, foreigner on the Ukrainian side is both a ‘merc’, i.e., mercenary, and a Nazi. Telegram, with all its vivid features, is used to showcase individuals, their names, and their families. There’s a platform called ‘Track a Nazi Mercenary’, so even the most liberal foreigner could be called a Nazi mercenary because they’re fighting with Ukraine. For the good of society, and for the good of the Ukrainian war effort, I’d like to see less of this type of content.

We need to recognise that the biggest extremist issue related to this war has nothing to do with Ukraine, but a lot to do with Russia. In the first 20 years of the 21st century, the Russian far-right killed 500 people in terrorist attacks at home. These are violent individuals, and we know they maintain links with a broader extremist network. If this goes badly for Russia, they will be upset, to say the least. A real ‘boogaloo’ might start and, perhaps, this will be attractive to ‘our’ extremists. I think the most important thing is to monitor social media, especially Vkontakte and Telegram, and look at what these individuals are doing and how they’re doing it, and try to learn more about their plan for a post-Putin Russia. We need to look for signs of, and prepare for, the real extremist insurgency – and we’ll be able to find these signs online.


Kacper Rękawek, PhD, is a fellow at the Center for Research on Extremism, C-Rex, at the University of Oslo, and a researcher at the Counter Extremism Project, CEP. He has been involved in researching foreign fighters and foreign volunteers with Ukraine since 2014 and has widely published on the issue, including with CEP. His latest book, titled Foreign Fighters in Ukraine: The Brown-Red Cocktail, was published by Routledge in December 2022 (

Clara May is Communications Manager for the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme at King’s College London. She is currently studying a part-time MA in War Studies at King’s College London.