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The Forgotten Front: Dutch Fighters in Ukraine

From 2012 onwards the primary scholarly and media focus in regard to foreign fighters has been on the large number of Westerners joining jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, much less attention has been paid to another conflict in the ring around Europe that attracted foreign fighters: the Russo-Ukrainian war, which followed from, among other things, the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Gijs Weijenberg and Jeaning de Roy van Zuijdewijn looked into the Dutch travelers.

Gijs Weijenberg & Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn
16 July 2021
Atlantische Commissie

It is estimated that more than 17,000 foreign fighters joined one of the armed parties in the conflict in Ukraine. That number is considerable, although it should be noted that the majority of these fighters – some 15,000 – came from Russia. The remaining group consists largely of 1,800 Europeans, of whom about a third joined the pro-Ukrainian groups, while the remaining two-thirds went to the separatists. According to the Soufan Center, this influx of foreign fighters should be seen in the context of the transnational rise of right-wing extremism (or white supremacy extremism, as the Soufan Center prefers to call it). This claim corresponds to a wider trend in the academic debate, with scholars increasingly shifting their attention away from jihadism towards such an alleged extreme-right wing wave of terrorism. The concern of the Soufan Center is that similar to how Afghanistan became a rallying point for jihadist groups in the 1980s, Ukraine has now become one for right-wing extremists, who are being hardened there both ideologically and militarily. As MacKenzie and Kaunert recently noted, such claims of the country being a “battlefield laboratory” are gaining prominence. Therefore, it seems high time to get a better understanding of the foreign fighters in Ukraine. Despite the fact that the conflict began in 2014 and most fighters travelled there in the first years, it remains a relevant case to study. The conflict is far from over, as was proven once again in April 2021, when tensions were rising with increased Russian troop mobilisation around the eastern Ukrainian border. That same month, the debate in the United States on whether certain local Ukrainian groups should be labelled as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) also redirected the spotlight on this forgotten frontline and its implications for other countries.

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