Military leaders in Ukraine charged Russia was deepening its foray into Ukrainian territory and sending new troops to the Crimean border.
Aug. 27, 2014 Bystanders watch a fire consuming a school in downtown Donetsk after being hit by shelling. Several civilians died when their car was completely burned after being hit by shell fragments in central Donetsk, the rebel-held city in eastern Ukraine. Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images
View Photo Gallery —Refugees flee the violence, some seeking shelter in Russia, while Ukraine says its army has penetrated the rebel stronghold of Luhansk in what could prove to be a breakthrough development in the months-long conflict.
Foreign fighters have become central to the narrative of the Islamic State and its fighting in Syria and Iraq: Just this week the distinct British accent of the man believed to have called American journalist James Foley was a grim reminder that thousands of foreigners have traveled to the Middle East to join the fight. It’s a big concern for many governments.
But foreigners have also flocked to other world conflicts, notably Ukraine.
This point was brought home this week, with the death of an American fighting in Ukraine. Mark Gregory Paslawsky, a 55-year-old born in New York, is believed to be the only U.S. citizen who has fought in Ukraine until he died in fighting on Aug. 19. His death was announced in a Facebook post by Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko.
Paslawsky, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, grew up in a Ukrainian-American family. He had moved to Ukraine decades ago, but his decision to fight in the Ukrainian Army’s volunteer Donbas Battalion this year earned him the fascination of the global media. Vice Media produced a documentary about him just a few weeks ago, which you can watch below:
Paslawsky was far from the only fighter with a foreign nationality in Ukraine: There seem to have been many from Russia and South Ossetia among the separatist ranks. But there are also reports of more unexpected guests.
Last month the BBC profiled Mikael Skillt, a Swedish military veteran who had joined the pro-Ukrainian volunteer force Azov Battalion. While Paslawsky’s decision to fight seems to have been motivated by an understandable Ukrainian nationalism, Skillt’s decision seemed to be motivated by something more extremist, even neo-Nazi.
“After World War II, the victors wrote their history,” Skillt told the BBC. “They decided that it’s always a bad thing to say I am white and I am proud.”
The force Skillt reportedly fights for, the Azov Battalion, has become a source of controversy for its use of neo-Nazi symbols and rhetoric. The commander of the group has told reporters that he has fighters from Ireland, Italy, Greece and Scandinavia, with as many as two dozen foreigners fighting for it by mid-summer. There were also reports that an exclusively Polish militia was fighting in Ukraine, though the Polish government later released a statement saying that the information it has “does not corroborate such allegations.”
The numbers may be small when compared to those who have gone to the Middle East, where there are estimated to be as many as 12,000 foreign fighters, but they are a reminder that foreign fighters are not a uniquely Islamist issue.
You certainly have to wonder if attracting fringe far right groups, even in small numbers, is a positive for Ukraine. The BBC says Interior Ministry adviser Herashchenko became angry when asked about the Azov Battalion’s alleged extremist links and denied foreigners were fighting with the group. It also plays into the early Kremlin narrative that the Euromaidan protests were influenced by outside forces – months ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused a private firm of sending American mercenaries to fight separatists in Ukraine, though those claims were deemed “rubbish” by the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.
Pro-Russian separatist forces have some unlikely foreign allies too, however. Earlier this month Reuters reported that a number of Spanish “civil war nostalgics” were fighting alongside pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Two Spanish men, Rafael Muñoz Perez and Ángel, published a video on YouTube explaining their motivation for heading to Ukraine.
“We are here to defend civil people,” Muñoz Perez explains.
By Adam Taylor August 22