Yellow Vest protests highlight the presence of French fighters abroad, particularly Ukraine
Imagery of yellow vest (gilets jaunes) protesters holding the flag of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) caused a stir in online circles in the early days of 2019. Calls of Russian involvement were widespread, but the presence of Russian-backed separatist imagery was more symptomatic of a broader subculture in France that rejects western values, sometimes turning to extremism.
Unsanctioned, far-right fighters from France and elsewhere around the world have traveled to conflict zones, with the Donbas in Ukraine a particular draw, over the past few years, often as part of an organized mercenary group. Their presence abroad indicates the trend of foreign recruitment for localized conflicts has not yet dissipated, though cracks have begun to show.
Six Degrees of Unité Continentale
While French and international media have reported on French foreign fighters for some time, Kyiv Post recently reported that Victor-Alfonso Lenta, a prominent figure in many of the media reports and former pro-Russian fighter in the Donbas, was not just participating in the yellow vest protests but rather had proclaimed himself to be “heading security” at the protests in Paris.
A French veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Lenta was allegedly discharged from service for his connections with a neo-Nazi gang known for torching mosques. Following his service, Lenta fought in the Donbas in 2014 and 2015, where he headed the far-right fighter group “Unité Continentale.”
In the early days of the conflict, Unité Continentale was headed by two individuals — Lenta and Nikola Perovic, a fellow veteran of the French military. The two eventually fell out over who was in charge of the group, a disruption that caused the group to fall off the radar for a while.
Unité Continentale draws from Alexander Dugin and his anti-Atlanticist and neo-Eurasianist stances, in particular, as foundational principles. These ideologies are a feature of Russian national bolshevism (Nazbol), a radical movement followed by units close to the group. @DFRLab recently reported on one of these groups as a prominent commander fell out of favor with new leadership in the so-called DNR.
While most recruits originated primarily from France and Serbia, Unité Continentale also attracted fighters from elsewhere, including Brazilian Rafael Lusvarghi, who tagged along with the group for some time. @DFRLab previously reported on Lusvarghi and his strange journey from pro-Russian separatism to a life as a monk in a monastery outside Kyiv.
On Facebook, Sergei Munier identified a total of four former fighters for Russian-backed forces in Donbas, himself included, as being present at the yellow vest protests. Munier referred to these four individuals as “Victor, Mika, Ghislain,” and himself, referring to Lenta, Mickael Takahashi, and Ghislain Lagrega. All four individuals were identifiable in photographic imagery, and there was no reason to believe that these were not French citizens. No evidence suggested that Munier himself was active with Unité Continentale, but, based on his Facebook “likes,” he does appear to subscribe to the same core pan-Eurasian beliefs that make up the core of the group.
Lagrega’s exact affiliation was also unclear, although he had liked two separate pages dedicated to the group on Facebook. On an archived version of a now-deleted Vkontakte (VK) page supposedly belonging to him, Lagrega took the liberty to clear up any confusion and state:
“I am not communist, but nationalist.”
He then went on to issue threats to a woman living in Luhansk and claimed, “My money, or you are going to work for me like prostitute [sic] in France to give me back my money.”
The French American
Unité Continentale, while hardly a household name, has produced some of the most prolific non-Russian foreign fighters for the separatist side of the conflict in Ukraine. One such recruit was Guillaume Cuvelier (AKA Lenormand AKA Frederick Lynn AKA Francis Cuvelier), a Franco-American who gained notoriety in 2017 after The Washington Post exposed him for having joined the U.S. Army, from which he was discharged less than a month after the story broke.
Prior to his brief tenure in the U.S. Army, while in the Donbas, Cuvelier made up the furthest right element of Unité Continentale. This element was also comprised of Lenta among others. These members maintained good relationships with other far-right elements within Russian-backed Donetsk such as “Assault Group Rusich,” known for its overt neo-Nazi symbology and extraordinarily violent members. In a recent blog post, long-time Unité Continentale fighter Erwan Castel lamented the presence of these elements in the group, posting previously unseen imagery of Cuvelier holding a white supremacist flag while giving a Nazi salute.
Cuvelier later spent time in Iraq after an apparent exodus of Unité Continentale members from the Donbas in 2015, a period during which several far-right groups left the region. Cuvelier went to Iraq along with fellow Unité Continentale member — and current yellow vest protester — Mickael Takahashi (AKA Misha Ronin). Takahashi and Cuvelier were stationed with the Ninth Volunteer Brigade of the Peshmerga near Daquq in northern Iraq.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, Cuvelier ran an organization called Qalubna Ma’kum with his girlfriend “Kat Argo.” The organization came under fire for misappropriation of donation funds, as well as allegations of plans to start a private military company in Iraq. As allegations mounted, Cuvelier assaulted a fellow fighter and fled the country.
Photographs of Cuvelier in Iraq in 2015 showed him wearing insignia of the “First International Brigade” from his time in the Donbas, though he later claimed to have changed in a terse response in the 2017 Washington Post story.
Less Unity for Unité Continentale
Today’s Unité Continentale looks significantly different from that which entered the war. After most extreme right members left the Russian occupied territories in 2015, the group apparently effectively ceased to exist.
It was not until 2018 when Unité Continentale began to resurface as a group within the “International Brigade Pyatnashka” (Пятнашка), with which Sergei Munier was also known to be active. Pyatnashka is a unit that has been subject to multiple command structure reforms and, most recently, was transferred to the “DNR Ministry of Internal Affairs Internal Troops” as part of the “special forces [spetsnaz] regiment,” with which it has long been embedded. The spetsnaz regiment was one of the most loyal units to Alexander Zakharchenko, the now deceased leader of the DNR.
During most of 2018, French national Philippe Khalfine commanded the Unité Continentale crew in Eastern Ukraine and made up one of the last remaining French fighters there. In a social media post announcing he would step down, Khalfine mentioned that Belgian national Xavier Vrancken had also decided to leave his post after just three months with the unit. While acknowledging the loss of personnel, Khalfine alluded to new recruits taking their places. In a surprisingly candid interview with TV5Monde, Vrancken expressed dissatisfaction with the apparent monotony of the stalemate, even though he found himself in one of the hottest areas of the conflict near the Donetsk water filtration station.
ASerbian national who goes by Darko Pavlovic took over command from Khalfine. It is unclear how many fighters are left for Pavlovic to command, but @DFRLab estimates the number to be fewer than six. This estimate stems from an inability to identify any active members in eastern Ukraine beyond those listed in this article.
The far-right elements that left the West to fight in the Donbas at the outbreak of the war have largely left Ukraine and now reside in their home countries.
As the war winds down, not only do local civilians grow increasingly weary of the war, but those who left everything behind to fight it grow disillusioned, leading many to return home. As with any returned foreign fighters who once embarked on a war with ideological motivations, these men could pose potential security risks, especially when accompanied by increased far-right nationalism locally.
Michael Sheldon is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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