Customs and Border Protection bulletin: American fighters headed to Ukraine questioned at US airports

The Justice Department has not said whether it’s legal for Americans to join the Ukraine conflict. But no Americans are known to face criminal charges just for traveling to Ukraine to fight Russia, which invaded its neighbor on Feb. 24. This document shows that if law enforcement officials wanted to bring charges, they’ve had plenty of opportunities.

The bulletin also highlights – with little detail – a concern US officials hold: that American white supremacists who fight in Ukraine could return to the US with greater military training. Property of the People, a government watchdog group, obtained the document through an open records request and shared it with POLITICO.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson declined to comment on the document, citing agency policy.

‘Joining the Fight’

The document, titled “United States Citizens Joining the Fight for Ukraine,” is an intelligence bulletin from CBP. It’s dated March 7, 2022 – roughly two weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

“United States citizens, including some with previous service in the United States, will continue to attempt to depart the United States with the intention of fighting alongside the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine to fight in the armed conflict against the Russians.” The document says, referring to a group of foreigners fighting for Ukraine.

The CBP bulletin makes note of six unnamed Americans who traveled to Ukraine to fight.

CBP officers stopped and questioned five of them at John F. Kennedy International Airport and searched luggage belonging to the sixth. Some were questioned earlier in 2022, before Russia launched its full-on onslaught.

One admitted to prior involvement in the anti-government Boogaloo movement. Another was a Marine veteran whose “electronic device” showed he wanted to join up with the “Azov Battalion,” the original name for the volunteer group of Ukrainian ultranationalist fighters formed in May 2014 and brought into the government fold later that year. A friend of that veteran – also a US military veteran and an active-duty police officer – was also traveling to Ukraine the same day by another route, according to the document. Officers searched both men’s baggage and found military equipment.

“Ukrainian nationalist groups, including the Azo[v] The movement is actively recruiting racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist-white supremacists (RMVE-WS) to join various neo-Nazi volunteer battalions in the war against Russia, “the report said.

Another American noted in the document had previously served in the French Foreign Legion and also tried to join the fight against ISIS. A search of his device showed that he had also tried to join “the armed conflict in Burma, the Syrian National Defense Forces, and several other groups.” CBP stopped him on Jan. 27. The document said he planned to travel to a Kyiv sports complex that operates as a training base for people hoping to join the Azov regiment.

The document did not indicate whether the other two Americans they stopped had links to far-right groups. One of those two told officers he had served in the US Army for four years. And in a questionnaire he filled out to join the Territorial Defense of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, he said he had expertise as a Javelin gunner. Another was an Army veteran with demolition experience, who was questioned on Feb. 5 as he traveled to Ukraine. The CBP document said that “post encounter analysis” showed that later that month, after arriving there, he provided military training to Ukrainians.

Besides the American who trained Ukrainians in February, the document did not indicate whether the people scrutinized by CBP actually reached Ukraine.

The document concludes with a list of unanswered questions, called “Intelligence Gaps,” including how many people would travel from the US to Ukraine to fight, what groups they would try to join and what strategies they would use “to avoid detection by law enforcement.”

“What kind of training are foreign fighters receiving in Ukraine that they could possibly proliferate in US based militia and white nationalist groups?” the document also asked.

While it’s unclear how many Americans are fighting in Ukraine, a March Washington Post report said thousands had signed up. It’s unclear how many have been stopped at airports.

‘Music to the Kremlin’s ears’

Daniel Vajdich, president of Yorktown Solutions, which represents and lobbies for Ukraine’s state-owned energy industry, told POLITICO that the Kremlin will cheer the document.

“This document and its explicit reference to supposed ‘neo-Nazi’ groups in Ukraine is going to be music to the ears of the Kremlin and Russia’s propaganda machine,” he said. “They’ll cite it to justify their invasion of Ukraine and the destruction of Mariupol.”

“It’s like CBP is telling the Russians, ‘Yes, we agree with you that Ukraine is full of neo-Nazis,'” he added. “This was the Kremlin’s entire basis for invading Ukraine, and we now have a US government agency agreeing with that. Incredible. ”

Marta Farion, vice president of the Illinois division of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, noted that a key claim of Russian propaganda is that neo-Nazis control Ukraine. Farion’s group is an umbrella organization for the Ukrainian American community.

“That there are white extremists in Ukraine, there’s no doubt,” she said. “But I can bet you anything that the percentage of the population that’s on the right and extremist, white supremacist, Nazi-types is way below the percentage of such people in the US or in Germany or in any other country.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that the “denazification” of Ukraine is the reason for his effort to decapitate the country’s government – even though Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. Russian propagandists often point to the Azov Battalion and other far-right Ukrainian paramilitaries to bolster the claim that Nazis have overrun Ukraine.

In a recent Washington Post interview, the head of the battalion, Andriy Biletskiy, said the group “completely” rejects Nazism. The Post noted that he has been quoted previously making white supremacist statements, and now denies having made those comments. The article quoted Bellingcat’s Michael Colborne, who has written a book on the battalion, saying that “there are clearly neo-Nazis” within the Azov movement’s ranks.

Because of concerns about the group, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act banned the provision of US military aid to the battalion. Facebook has also banned the group, as BuzzFeed News reported. The group was integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard in late 2014, Al Jazeera has detailed, and won praise from Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko for fighting for Mariupol during Russia’s first onslaught.

The day after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, the Azov Regiment invited foreigners to join, Rita Katz of SITE Intelligence Group has detailed. Since then, neo-Nazis around the world have expressed enthusiasm for the fight, with many aligning themselves with neo-Nazi groups on the Russian side, including private military contractor Rusich, as Der Spiegel reported. Katz echoed the CBP document’s concerns about fighters returning to their home countries after battling in Ukraine.

“[I]It is important that governments understand that Azov’s cache among Western extremists is a very material concern, “Katz told POLITICO in an email. “Turning a blind eye to white supremacists fight alongside Azov in Ukraine would be equally reckless as doing the same to Western jihadists leaving to fight in the Middle East.”

The group’s fighters were the last defenders of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, holding out amid heavy bombardment in a steel plant until finally surrendering to Russia last week. They became national heroes for resisting the Russian siege alongside Ukrainian marines and received awards from Zelenskyy. People around the world rooted for the fighters and called for their rescue.

It’s unclear how many people have traveled to Ukraine because of far-right views. Farion said that Americans joining Ukraine’s fighters has become burdensome for local troops.

“A lot of Ukrainians from Ukraine that were involved with defense were telling me that getting Americans who volunteer is a big problem because they’re not properly trained,” she said. “And they have to feed them, and they’re not the kind of people they want in the army – that they’re more of a problem than anything else.”

Just asking questions

A host of US officials have said explicitly that they think it’s a very bad idea for Americans to travel to Ukraine and join the fighting. On March 11 – just five days after the date on the CBP document – then-Pentagon spokesman John Kirby urged Americans “not to go.”

“And if any are still there, we urge them to leave,” he added, according to the Washington Post.

The war has claimed thousands of lives, including a former US Marine who joined the fight.

But the question of whether they could face criminal charges is an open one. The Neutrality Act, a law dating to George Washington’s presidency, bans Americans located in the US from signing up to join foreign armies.

The law is old, but it’s not obsolete. As Lawfare has detailed, the Justice Department used it in 2019 to charge two Americans who allegedly planned to fight to overthrow the government of Venezuela. Both men also had ties to far-right fighters in Ukraine, and BuzzFeed News reported in October that the Justice Department was investigating one – Craig Lang – for committing war crimes there. At the time of that report, Lang was in Ukraine fighting extradition to the US

Now Lang, a former Army soldier charged in an ambush-style double killing of a couple in Florida, is again fighting on the Ukrainian battlefield. He joined a volunteer brigade in February and took part in the battle for Hostomel, a strategic city northwest of Kyiv, Dmytro Morhun, his lawyer, told POLITICO.

Reached on WhatsApp, Lang declined to comment on his current activities. On Twitter, he posted a new profile picture of himself wearing a Ukrainian military uniform and brandishing an anti-tank weapon. Lang opened the Twitter account – one of three he has operated – last October. His brief communication with other users on the platform indicates he is actively serving with Ukrainian forces. Morhun confirmed the photo posted by Lang was taken after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. Lang also retweeted a photograph that included himself and other foreign volunteers at a firing range in Ukraine.

Dakota Rudesill, a professor at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, has closely tracked the legal ambiguity surrounding enforcement of the Neutrality Act.

“What worries me in particular, to be blunt about it, is we could have a different president in a few years, one who is partial to Vladimir Putin, one who might very well hear complaints from President Putin that Americans are in Ukraine killing his Russian soldiers, ”Rudesill said. “And that American president could say, ‘You know what, Kremlin, I agree with you.’ And then that American president could say, ‘Hey, let’s start prosecuting people for violating the Neutrality Act.’ “

The fact that CBP is questioning Americans at airports doesn’t clarify the situation, he said. But it does show that the US is collecting intelligence on Americans traveling there to fight, he added.

“The US government should want to know the composition of forces in Ukraine and should also want to know if there are Americans violating federal law – and indeed, a federal law that dates to the founding of the country,” he said.

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