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Ex-US soldiers with alleged neo-Nazi links arrive at Ukrainian front line

Men shared ample photos, footage with geotags of them sporting combat gear at Ukrainian army’s positions

At least half a dozen former US military servicemen have made their presence known at the front line in the Ukrainian conflict – so far by just posting a string of photos and videos on Instagram, with geotags suggesting the men are in eastern Ukraine. The Americans are depicted in combat gear, apparently inspecting the Ukrainian army’s battle positions, including trenches. Some of the men in the photos are holding assault weapons, though it is not clear whether these are American or Ukrainian soldiers. All the men featured in the photos have their faces blurred.

© Instagram / forwardobservations

© Instagram / forwardobservations

© Instagram / forwardobservations

A short clip shot from inside a vehicle traces the group’s journey through numerous Ukrainian army checkpoints, with the car stopping by what looks like 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. It all 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.

According to some Russian commenters, the US veterans have allegedly come to the region to train the Ukrainian military.

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The photos and videos were posted on the Instagram account of Forward Observations Group, a military lifestyle brand. However, a quick Google search suggests its members could also be providing security consulting and tactical training.

In fact, the group’s founder, Derrick Bales, paid a visit to Ukraine in May last year, as reported by Vice at the time. Back then, he, too, posted a slew of photos of himself surrounded by armed men clad in military gear. One of the photos Bales posted was captioned “Up to some sh*t in Ukraine,” another picture featured the US national brandishing an assault rifle.

His trip to the front line sparked an outcry among his subscribers, however, since some of those photos were tagged with Vadim Lapaev, alias ‘Balak,’ who Bellingcat back in 2018 described as a radical neo-Nazi who’d served with the ultranationalist Azov Battalion. The fact that Bales is black might have further added to the negative perception of his association with the man. Speaking to Vice at the time, the 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 a coup that saw pro-Western and nationalist forces seize power in Ukraine. 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 mostly turned into a frozen one, with sporadic fighting, however, breaking out since. According to UN estimates published in June 2021, more than 13,000 people had lost their lives since the start of the war.

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