Ex-US soldiers with alleged neo-Nazi links arrive at Ukrainian front line
At least half a dozen former US military servicemen have landed in Ukraine amid rapidly escalating tensions in the east of the country.
The group, known as Forward Observations, has posted a string of photos and videos on its official Instagram, with geotags showing that the men are in the war-torn Donbass region. The Americans are seen wearing combat gear, apparently inspecting the Ukrainian army’s battle positions and trenches. Some of the men in the photos are also holding assault weapons, though it is not clear whether these are American or Ukrainian soldiers. All of those featured in the photos have their faces blurred.
A short clip shot from inside a vehicle shows the group’s passing through several Ukrainian army checkpoints, with the car stopping by what appears to be a war memorial erected for fallen Ukrainian soldiers. It ends with a slideshow featuring the Americans in trenches, followed by a message reading “I’m beginning to think you aren’t in Paris?” and a photo showing coordinates for the Donbass. The video culminates with a map of Ukraine, apparently showing the possible scenario of an alleged Russian invasion, titled “Russian Seizure of Ukraine up to the Dnepr River.”
Russian commentators have speculated that the US veterans have allegedly come to the region to train the Ukrainian military.
The photos and videos were posted by Forward Observations Group, which describes itself as a military lifestyle brand. However, multiple reports indicate its members also provide security consulting and tactical training.
The group’s founder, Derrick Bales, paid a visit to Ukraine in May last year, as reported by VICE World News at the time. He is said to have posted a slew of photos of himself surrounded by armed men clad in military gear in the conflict zone. One of the photos Bales posted was captioned “up to some sh*t in Ukraine,” another picture featured the US citizen brandishing an assault rifle.
His trip to the front line sparked an outcry among his subscribers, however, given some of the photos tagged Vadim Lapaev, alias ‘Balak,’ who Bellingcat back in 2018 described as a radical neo-Nazi who’d served with the ultranationalist Azov Battalion. Speaking to VICE at the time, the African American founder of Forward Observations Group said he apologized to anyone his posts might have offended. He maintained, however, that he’d never taken part in fighting while in the country, collecting material for his article about the war being the sole purpose of his trip to Ukraine.
The conflict between government forces and separatists in the Donbass region flared up in 2014 following violent street protests overthrew the Ukrainian government. Parts of the Russian-speaking Donetsk and Lugansk regions refused to recognize the new government, with Kiev sending in troops to quell the insurrection. By March 2015, the conflict had stalled, with sporadic fighting breaking out in the years that followed. According to UN estimates published in June 2021, more than 13,000 people had lost their lives since the start of the conflict.