BUDAPEST, ROSTOV-ON-DON — The date is July 9, a rainy day in the historical center of Budapest, Hungary. Four imposing young men enter a bar, look suspiciously around them and order beers in bad English. "Here, nobody knows who we are," whispers Victor Lenta, 25, former corporal in the French army's 3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, which served in Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast and Chad. "I can't wait to show the Ukrainians what the French paratroopers are worth," he says in a higher voice.
This former French soldier and his three comrades flew from Paris to Moscow June 20 and then went on to Rostov-on-Don. This charming southern Russian town, located 80 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, is the main support base for separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. From there, the four Frenchmen came to the Hungarian capital to obtain long-term Russian visas via a local network. "That will allow us to take refuge in Russia if things go wrong in the Donbas area."
Nikola Perovic, a 25-year-old with both French and Serb nationalities and a former master corporal in a French battalion that fought in Afghanistan, explains their project. "We will very soon leave for eastern Ukraine to fight alongside our Russian brothers," he says. The other two do not want their full names disclosed. Michel a.k.a. "MMA," 26, and Guillaume "The Norman," 25, have no military background. Fearing an infiltration "or worse," they keep as far away as possible from French authorities and representatives.
Things did not go according to plan. After a month, they were only able to obtain short-term visas. After returning to Rostov-on-Don Aug. 7, Perovic was transported to Donetsk three days later, thus becoming, he claims, the first French fighter to join the ranks of the pro-Russian separatists.
Guillaume, Michel and Victor, however, were intercepted Aug. 6 by the Russian secret service at Moscow's Vnukovo International Airport and sent back to Hungary. "This proves that Russia is not helping us," says Guillaume. So instead, they travelled to Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, 300 kilometers from the front, and caught up with Perovic on Aug. 18. "We're in Donetsk, reunited, with arms and uniforms in a DPR — the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic — unit," they wrote in a text message two days later.
Driven by an anti-West agenda
These four Frenchmen who decided to fight against the Ukrainian army claim to be the founders of an ultranationalist movement called Unité Continentale, a small group whose Facebook page boasts over 2,000 likes and that has attracted some 20 militants since its creation in January 2014. In France and Serbia, it organized pro-Bashar al-Assad demonstrations and marches to call for the liberation of Vojislav Seselj, a Serb nationalist that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) accused of crimes against humanity.
All have been involved with radical far-right movements in France. Journalist Frédéric Haziza recently claimed in a book that Victor Lenta was fired from the army after his participation with a neo-Nazi group in a 2008 mosque torching in southern France. Lenta filed a libel complaint. Guillaume "The Norman" has been a nationalist militant for 10 years. Michel took part in pro-Assad demonstrations in Paris and in the 2013 operation "Christmas in Syria." Finally, Perovic says he has contacts in various radical organizations in France and Serbia, though his involvement has never been official.
They see Russia as the last bastion against liberal globalization, which they say is "responsible for the decay of national values and France's loss of sovereignty." Says Guillaume, before drawing a risky comparison between pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and the Free French forces of World War II, "We are at war, and it's a world war." They insist their fighting has nothing to do with money. "We saved up for several months and launched donation appeals on social network websites to collect enough funds for our departure," Guillaume explains.
A snapshot of recruits
When we contacted them by phone on Aug. 14, Perovic and Lenta claimed that the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic had put their group in charge of recruiting, transporting and training fighters from European countries. They say a few German, Spanish, Czech and Norwegian citizens have joined them. All share the same ultranationalist and anti-Atlantist concepts, heavily influenced by Russian political theorist Alexander Dugin.
"We select people who have a military résumé, or at least experience as nationalist militants," explains Perovic, who says he doesn't want any "hotheads looking for a thrill." They claim that they brought five other Frenchmen, who wish not to be named, to Donetsk during the second week of August. "More are on the way," he adds.
We met another fighter, Pavel, in a trendy Japanese restaurant in Rostov-on-Don July 18. The man, who goes by the nickname "Penza," lost an eye after a shell explosion in a battle in Savur-Mohyla. With a long scar from his nose to his forehead, the taciturn 28-year-old describes how the "Interbrigada" works.
"It's not a unit in itself, rather a pool of fighters divided according to their abilities wherever we might need them," he says. Sitting next to him is Iskander, 30, who adds, "If the Donetsk fighters call to tell us that they've captured T-64 tanks or portable missile launchers, it's up to us to find among the volunteers people capable of handling them and to take them across the border."
Coming from Uzbekistan to fight in Ukraine, Iskander suffered a gunshot during the battle for the Donetsk airport on May 26 and was evacuated to Rostov-on Don to be treated. Both Iskander and Pavel are pleased to see Frenchmen joining them: It will "make our fight known in the West," Pavel says.
Loïc (not his real name), a 51-year-old former military intelligence officer, fought in Burma alongside the Karen rebellion in 1993 and, many times, he crossed the path of famous late-mercenary Bob Denard. Still in France, he is set to join the pro-Russians — though he has his doubts about the Unité Continentale group. "I've been with mercenary networks in the 1980s and 1990s in Africa and Southeast Asia, and everything was much better organized," he says. "Unité Continentale is a young initiative that has had a few setbacks. But the best place to learn how to make war is war itself."
Far-right French soldiers on both sides
In France, the leading figure of soldiers lost to the far-right is the famous Gaston Besson, who also fought in Burma before traveling to Croatia, where he trained brigades in the early 1990s. But he took up the cause of the Ukrainian army and says his Azov battalion counts several Frenchmen within its ranks. In other words, French radical far-right militants are fighting in both camps, each side accusing the other of "romanticism" and "adventurism."
The ground separatists have lost since late July has not cooled enthusiams among these French volunteers. "The ground lends itself to urban guerrilla," Loïc says. "It's the worst thing for an army to face."
As for Victor Lenta and Nikola Perovic, they repeatedly criticize the "amateurism" of the Ukrainian army. These fighters could be prosecuted in France for terrorism. They know they are burning their bridges. "We haven't bought return tickets," says Guillaume, smiling. Perovic has already made plans for the future. "If we're still alive, once this war is over we'll go and help Iraqi Christians and do in some Islamists." After a pause, he concludes, "Still, I hope I can go back to France one day."