Plenty of attention has been paid to the European-born fighters who have joined the Islamic State and other Islamist militant groups in the Middle East — and the efforts of European countries to stop them. But what about those fighting in Ukraine?
In Italy, it has long been an open secret that far-right activists were fighting in Donbass, the eastern Ukrainian region where pro-Russian separatists — with Russian government assistance — have been fighting the Ukrainian government since 2014. Italian authorities, however, didn’t seem interested in stopping them.
That suddenly changed last week, when prosecutors in the northern Italian city of Genoa ordered the arrest of six men accused of joining pro-Russian militias in Donbass and recruiting others to their cause. The arrests marked the first time Italian authorities have charged anyone with fighting in Ukraine, though three of the men remain at large. The same prosecutors have also charged 15 other people with being part of the recruitment ring.
“What’s interesting is that some of them were already known faces whose activities in Ukraine were common knowledge,” said Francesco Marone, a research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
One of the fugitives is Andrea Palmeri, a former leader of the far-right hooligan group Bulldog Lucca who had previously appeared on national TV boasting about fighting in Ukraine. Another one is Gabriele Carugati, the son of a politician from the far-right League party — the League is one of Italy’s two current governing parties — who had publicly praised her son’s choice to fight in Ukraine.
The Genoa police had been investigating far-right networks in the area since 2016, according to the newspaper Genova Today. But the arrests seem to have come in response to complaints from Ukraine earlier this year. In April, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament submitted a list of 25 Italian citizens believed to be fighting with pro-Russian militias.
Authorities in Genoa carried out the investigations and arrests in collaboration with the ROS, the anti-organizated-crime and anti-terrorism branch of the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary national police force, but no officials from the national government have yet commented on the arrests.
Foreign fighters from Italy generally fall into three categories: those fighting with Islamist groups, mostly in Syria or Libya; those joining the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia, and other Kurdish groups; and those fighting in Ukraine, Marone said.
While Italy approved a special law against foreign fighters in 2015, it targeted youth joining the Islamic State and other Islamist groups. But it does not apply to those joining separatist groups in Ukraine, who are being prosecuted as unauthorized mercenaries rather than terrorists because pro-Russian militias are not considered terrorist groups by Italy.
“Authorities have different attitudes toward these three groups,” Marone said. “ISIS returnees are seen as a threat, because they belong to an organization that also carries attacks in Europe, while foreign fighters coming back from Kurdistan are widely tolerated, and so were those coming back from Ukraine”
Marone argued that far-right fighters still post a threat because of their links to violent groups within Italy. “They are seen as dangerous not because they could carry some kind of terror attack or guerrilla operations in Italy, but because they are violent individuals who have learned how to use weapons,” he said.