Balkans fighters are taking up arms in Ukraine, with risks for organized crime.

The war in Ukraine has displaced some criminal markets (such as heroin trafficking) and created new opportunities for organized crime, for example for the trafficking of weapons, synthetic drugs and people. Indeed, a recent European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) meeting convened by EUROPOL warned that the war in Ukraine may have an impact on 10 criminal markets and ‘high-risk criminal networks’.1 As dire as this warning is, it fails to mention the potential threat to security and political stability in the Western Balkan Six (WB6) posed by fighters returning from the war in Ukraine. The threat seems not to have been addressed by EU policymakers or the governments of the WB6,2 whether in national anti-terror strategies or organized crime threat assessments.3

Recent studies have shown that organized criminal groups, including those from the WB6, have sophisticated modus operandi and recruitment methods. For example, groups from the WB6 have extended their networks as far as Latin America, South Africa and the Middle East.4 In the past, young men with combat experience from the wars in the former Yugoslavia became foot soldiers for criminal groups, both in the WB6 and abroad. They were entrepreneurs in the market for violence, and were hired as thugs, bodyguards, snipers, hitmen and communications experts, as well as for smuggling weapons and setting explosives. Today, criminal groups from the WB6 operating in the region and abroad seek individuals with military skills, including firearms and explosives training, communications and counter-surveillance, or the ability to smuggle cash or drugs and to neutralize adversaries using sophisticated killing methods.5 Some of the most powerful criminal organizations in the region and in other major criminal markets such as Latin America are led by – or have been composed of – militarily trained individuals.6 Organized criminal groups are increasingly looking to such people;7 returned foreign fighters may therefore be a target group. While there is no strong evidence to suggest that there is a direct link between returned foreign fighters and organized criminal groups in the WB6, this risk should be taken seriously, not least because of the region’s history as both a source of and destination for foreign fighters.

Several thousand men from Europe have taken up arms to fight on either the Russian or Ukrainian side in the war in Ukraine.

Several thousand men from south-eastern Europe have taken up arms to fight on either the Russian or Ukrainian side in the war in Ukraine.

Photo: Goran Uzunovic/EyeEM

In the past, the WB6 has been both a destination and source region for foreign fighters. It is believed that the number of foreign fighters engaged on all sides during the wars in the former Yugoslavia did not exceed 5% of the total number of all fighters.8 Nevertheless, during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic Serbian fighters were supported by foreign fighters known as ‘kontraktniki’ or contracted fighters arriving mainly from countries that shared an Orthodox religious affiliation, such as Russia, Greece, Romania, Ukraine and Poland.9 Around 700 Russian foreign fighters participated in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone, according to the Republic of Srpska government.10 The Bosniak side was supported by a few hundred foreign fighters (estimates range from 400 to 1 200), mainly from the Middle East.11 During the war in Kosovo in 1998/99, hundreds of foreign fighters joined the Kosovo Liberation Army, mainly from Albania, North Macedonia, Sweden, Belgium, the UK, Germany and the US.12 Even during the conflict in what was then the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2001, fighters came from Kosovo to support the ethnic Albanian side, while the Macedonian Security Forces were supplied with air power from Ukraine until July 2001.13

On the other hand, the WB6 is also a region that ‘exports’ foreign fighters. For example, it is estimated that around 1 000 young men and women from the WB6 joined the Islamic State in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2016.14 There have been concerns about the radicalization of those who returned.15

Furthermore, there are indications that Serbian citizens who sided with the pro-Russian forces in Crimea in 2014 came from Serbian paramilitary forces.16 Therefore, the danger of foreign fighters is not only that they may return with radicalized ideological or political views, but also that they former criminals may return to a life of crime with heightened combat experience, new networks and thus access to new illicit economies.17

Balkan fighters in Ukraine

It is estimated that about 1 500 foreign fighters from around the world joined the fighting during the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 (up to June 2016).18 In the second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there were about 36 000 as of July 2022.19 When viewed alongside the estimated 40 000 foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State during its four-year presence in Syria and Iraq (2014–2018), the number of foreign fighters who joined the second conflict (2022) in Ukraine in just the first months of the war is relatively high. Already in the first years (2022) of the crisis in and around Ukraine, it is thought that around 300 individuals from the WB6 took part in the fighting, some of them joining pro-Russian separatists and others the Ukrainian volunteer battalions.20 Serbia was among the principal providers of combatants fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists with approximately 100 men.21 It is alleged that some of them contributed also to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.22

It is not yet clear how many foreign fighters from the WB6 have been engaged in the fighting in Ukraine since February 2022. According to the press, many ethnic Serbs from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina volunteered to join the Russian side,23 including as part of the Wagner Group.24

On the other hand, during the outbreak of the war in February 2022, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov, declared that mercenaries from Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are recruited and transferred to Donbas in Ukraine to fight against Moscow-backed rebels.25 Representatives of Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have denied that there are mercenaries from their countries in Ukraine, and alleged that claims by Russia to the contrary are ‘false accusations’.26

The training of officers for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The training of officers for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Photo: Ministry of Defence of Ukraine

Profile and motivation of foreign fighters

In his detailed study of foreign fighters with extremist ideological backgrounds in the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, Kacper Rekawek notes that Western foreign fighters on both sides came from different ideological backgrounds, including the far right, far left and red-brown national communist. Those arriving in 2022, however, seem less radicalized and politicized.27

When it comes to the background and motivations of the fighters from the WB6 joining the current war in Ukraine, some seem to have been motivated by nationalistic, ideological (such as right-wing extremism) or religious reasons, while others are simply mercenaries. Some fighters from Croatia claimed to be supporting Ukraine because it was ‘among the first countries to acknowledge Croatia’s sovereignty’ in 1991 and had later helped the country ‘after the earthquakes in Zagreb and Banovina’ in 2020.28 Some pro-Russian fighters from Serbia are allegedly motivated by Slavic solidarity,29 gratitude for support from Russia in previous conflicts (for example, the Republic of Srpska crisis),30 revenge against the West or links to far-right organizations such as Serbian group the People’s Patrols.31 Although participants are mainly young people under the influence of propaganda and ideology, some are veterans from the wars in the former Yugoslavia.32 There is a danger that individuals who participate in units with a high degree of political and ideological orientation will – if they survive – return home with both combat experience and radicalized views.33

Studies on the motives of foreign fighters from the WB6 joining the Islamic State and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine also show that some foreign fighters with criminal backgrounds joined conflicts abroad in order to escape criminal prosecution at home.34

Effectiveness of the WB6 in dealing with returning fighters

The countries of the WB6 have had some experience in dealing with the return of foreign fighters who had joined Islamic State in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Almost all affected countries in the WB6 are carrying out rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for people repatriated from areas of conflict since 2020, mostly non-combatant minors and women, but also adult male fighters.35 This is particularly important as in some cases, such as in Kosovo, repatriated men and women have been imprisoned on terrorism charges.36 These programmes include psychological and religious counselling for inmates, social support for families and development of new employment programmes for those re-entering society.37

It should be noted that all WB6 countries adopted UN Security Council resolutions 2178 (2014) and 2396 (2017) aimed at preventing the recruitment and travel of foreign terrorist fighters and ensuring that states develop prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration strategies to deal with returning fighters.38 However, most WB6 countries have not signed the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which entered into force in 2001.39 The risk of not signing this Convention paves the way for countries in the region to allow the use, financing and training of mercenaries who can be hired by international organized crime groups to commit criminal actions and destabilize the rule of law.

The WB6 have amended their legislation to criminalize all forms of participation in armed conflict abroad,40 with Serbia the only country in the region that has not explicitly criminalized public support for travelling abroad to conflict zones. Criminal offences for foreign fighters vary, but Albania and Kosovo have the harshest punishments, with prison sentences of between five and 15 years.41

The issue of the return of foreign fighters – which received considerable attention when hundreds of people from the region joined the Islamic State – deserves a closer look. It can be argued that the risk of radicalization of men fighting in Ukraine is lower than among those who fought in the Middle East. Indeed, thus far the links between organized crime and foreign fighters in Ukraine from the Balkans appear to be weak. Nevertheless, the return of young men from the WB6 fighting in Ukraine could swell the ranks of paramilitaries, heighten inter-ethnic tensions and increase the pool of potential foot soldiers for criminal groups, as witnessed after the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Therefore, threat assessment strategies on fighting organized crime and terrorism should monitor and analyze the potential risks posed by returning foreign fighters.


  1. ‘High-risk criminal networks’ are not defined by EMPACT, but it appears to refer to those that use ‘corruption, acts of violence, firearms and money laundering through parallel underground financial systems’. Council of the EU, Fight against organised crime: Council sets out 10 priorities for the next 4 years, 26 May 2021,

  2. Cooperation on the fight against organised crime in the Western Balkans (P9_TA(2021)0506), European Parliament resolution, 15 December 2021,

  3. The EU Strategy mentions cooperation on fighting terrorism but does not address the risk of returned foreign fighters. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the EU Strategy to tackle Organised Crime 2021–2025, COM/2021/170 final, European Commission, 14 April 2021,

  4. EUROPOL, Joint investigation team leads to dismantling of one of Europe’s most active Albanian-speaking networks trafficking cocaine into Europe, 17 September 2020,

  5. Walter Kemp, Transnational tentacles: Global hotspots of Western Balkan organised crime, GI-TOC, July 2020,

  6. Carter Smith, Gangs and the military note 2: Military-trained gang members as criminal insurgents, Small Wars Journal, 31 May 2018,

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Evan F Kohlmann, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network, Oxford/New York: Berg Publishers, 2004, 18–19. 

  9. Arielli Nir, In search of meaning: Foreign volunteers in the Croatian armed forces, 1991–95, Contemporary European History 21, 1, 1–17; Wspomnienia byłego najemnika, Polaka – uczestnika wojny w Bośni i Hercegowinie / Johny B., ‘Kurier WNET’ 70/2020, Radia Wnet, 1 May 2020,

  10. Meliha Kešmer, Od Bosne do Ukrajine ista lica među ruskim dobrovoljcima, Radio Slobodna Evropa, 10 March 2022,

  11. Vlado Azinović and Merdijana Sadović, Otkuda strani mudžahedini u BiH?, Radio Slobodna Evropa, 20 April 2008,; Edin Subašić, ‘Džihad’ u BiH (1): Mudžahedini su podvala Zapada, Al Jazeera, 3 May 2019,

  12. Adriatik Kelmendi, Kosovars refute Islamic terror claims, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 11 November 2001,

  13. Taraz Kuzio, Ukraine forges military alliance with Macedonia, The Jamestown Foundation, 7, 10,

  14. Vlado Azinović, ed, Between salvation and terror: Radicalization and the foreign fighter phenomenon in the Western Balkans, School of Political Science and Atlantic Initiative, 2017,

  15. Leonie Vrugtman, Future challenges of violent extremism in the Western Balkans, Institute for Democracy and Mediation, February 2019,

  16. Aleksandar Vasovic, Serbian paramilitaries join pro-Russian forces in Crimea, Reuters, 14 March 2014,

  17. Tanya Mehra and Abigail Thorley, Foreign fighters, foreign volunteers and mercenaries in the Ukrainian armed conflict, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 11 July 2022,

  18. Asya Metodieva, Balkan fighters in Eastern Ukraine: Why are they there?, Riddle, 29 April 2019,,if%20it%20was%20their%20own

  19. Tanya Mehra and Abigail Thorley, Foreign fighters, foreign volunteers and mercenaries in the Ukrainian armed conflict, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 11 July 2022,

  20. Vuk Velebit, Serb fighters in Ukraine continue to worry the West, European Western Balkans, 19 December 2017,

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Jelena Beslin and Marija Ignjatijevic, Balkan foreign fighters: From Syria to Ukraine, Brief issue 20, European Union Institute for Security Studies, June 2017,

  23. Nermina Kuloglija and Azra Husaric Omerovic, Serb Volunteers Answer Call to Fight in Ukraine, BalkanInsight, 8 March 2022,

  24. Maja Zivanovic, Donbass brothers: How Serbian fighters were deployed in Ukraine, BalkanInsight, 13 December 2018,

  25. Alice Taylor, Moscow claims mercenaries from Western Balkans fight in Ukraine, Euractiv, 22 February 2022,

  26. Talha Ozturk, Western Balkan countries rebuff Russian claims they sent mercenaries to Ukraine, Anadolu Agency, 21 February 2022,

  27. Kacper Rekawek, Western extremists and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022: All talk, but not a lot of walk, Counter Extremism Project, 2022,

  28. Matea Grgurinovic, Croatian volunteer fighters head for Ukrainian frontline, BalkanInsight, 28 February 2022,

  29. Meliha Kešmer, Od Bosne do Ukrajine ista lica među ruskim dobrovoljcima, Radio Slobodna Evropa, 10 March 2022,

  30. Marko Didić, Dobrovoljci iz Republike Srpske vraćaju ratni dug ‘braći Rusima’? Evo gdje ova teorija vuče korijene, riječi umirovljenog generala otkrivaju sve: ‘Dok su Srbi i Rusi zajedno, Allahov put neće biti uspostavljen‘, Slobodna Dalmacija, 24 May 2022,

  31. Nermina Kuloglija and Azra Husaric Omerovic, Serb volunteers answer call to fight in Ukraine, BalkanInsight, 8 March 2022,

  32. Ibid. 

  33. Snezana Bjelotomic, Serbian and Russian ultra-right joining forces, Serbian Monitor, 22 July 2022,

  34. Jelena Beslin and Marija Ignjatijevic, Balkan foreign fighters: From Syria to Ukraine, Brief issue 20, European Union Institute for Security Studies, June 2017,

  35. Fjori Sinoruka, Xhorxhina Bami and Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Welcome Home? ISIS returnees test Balkan countries’ ability to reintegrate, BalkanInsight, 20 August 2021,

  36. Ibid. 

  37. Adrian Shtuni, Rehabilitation and reintegration path of Kosovar minors and women repatriated from Syria, International Republican Institute, 14 September 2021,

  38. Naureen C Fink and Colin P Clarke, Foreign fighters are heading to Ukraine. That’s a moment for worry, Politico, 10 March 2022,

  39. United Nations, List of signatories to the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, 11 December 2022,

  40. Luka Glusac, Criminalization as anxious and ineffective response to foreign fighters phenomenon in the Western Balkans, Journal of Regional Security, 15, 1, 39–74. 

  41. Ibid.