Fugitive Combatant

Wanted for Murder, an Army Vet Escaped to Ukraine — and Fought the Russians

A portrait of Craig Lang in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 14, 2023. Photo: Ira Lupu for The Intercept

Craig Lang was all alone. It was March 2022, and the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine had just begun. There were nightly air raids, the rumble of bombs falling on Kyiv, and cracks of gunfire in the distance. His wife and two children, before leaving for the relative safety of western Ukraine, had been sleeping on mattresses in the hallway, far from windows that could shatter from missile strikes. 

Weapons and ammunition were being handed out to civilians in the streets of the capital. Lang, who had served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on Ukrainian front lines following Russia’s first incursion into Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, realized that his combat skills would be useful. He thought to himself, “My country is under attack, I have to do something.” 

Born in North Carolina, Lang enlisted in the U.S. military at the age of 18. After his service, which ended under murky circumstances, he moved to Ukraine and lived there on and off since 2015. Between now and then, he has also been accused of war crimes in Ukraine, a double murder in the U.S., and has spent time inside a jail cell. The man is no stranger to violence.

On that March day in 2022, Lang woke up early to make a phone call, but before he could dial, his phone rang. The man at the other end of the line went by the call sign “Dragon.” He was an old contact from the Right Sector, an ultranationalist militia once loosely attached to the Ukrainian military.

“He’s like, ‘You want to come to Irpin with me and fuck the Russians?’” Lang told me in one of our many text and phone conversations over the last year and a half. “And I was like, ‘Absolutely.’”

The Right Sector largely formed in 2014 during the Maidan protests that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, sparking a Russian-backed invasion of the Donbas region and the annexation of Crimea. The Right Sector was part of a ragtag, emergency mobilization of Ukrainian troops that included groups like the infamous Azov Battalion. 

To many in Ukraine, the Right Sector and groups like it were a key part of helping the country fend off the initial 2014 invasion and establish the legitimacy of the nascent government, even if the group waved a red and black fascistic flag and counted among its ranks anarchists, soccer hooligans, and some neo-Nazis. 

With the war entering a new, even more violent phase in 2022, the Right Sector was rallying to join the national resistance. Five minutes after the call, according to Lang, Dragon pulled up to his home in Kyiv. Shortly after that, Lang says, he was asked by Dragon’s commander if he was familiar with a number of “Western weapons” systems and if he could help lead attacks.

“I looked over everything and I was like: ‘Yeah, I know how to use all of this.’ And it was like, ‘Awesome, take whatever you want.’”

The Right Sector commander, who Lang said was serving under a branch of the Ukrainian special forces, put him to work in a squad with other foreign vets who were skilled and could take on Russian regulars in the streets of Irpin, a strategically crucial city north of Kyiv and near Bucha, the site of eventual Russian war crimes.

“We would basically create small kill teams,” Lang explained. “So groups of 10 to 12 guys, and we would go out and we would ambush Russian convoys … basically hit, get away, and disappear.”

Opposing Russia was second nature to Lang. Fighting was too. But Lang had never before served in uniform while an international fugitive.

Craig Lang shows a military tattoo of his blood group in Kyiv, on July 14, 2023.

Photo: Ira Lupu for The Intercept

The story of Craig Lang is messy and ominous because it raises questions about who we ask to fight for us. 

Lang’s time in Ukraine is in some ways a microcosm of the muddy and convoluted foreign interventions peppered across the last nine years of warfare in the country. Whether it was the failure of diplomatic interventions by the Obama administration and the fumbling of Javelin rocket sales — or instrumental training missions that helped wean Ukraine off of Russian-styled warfare — Western intervention has both inhibited the Kyiv government’s power and undoubtedly helped it.

Lang was a trendsetting foreign volunteer years before some 20,000 foreign applicants responded to the February 2022 call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for NATO veterans and other able-bodied fighters to join his country’s International Legion against Russia. Lang had made his way to Ukraine not long after he left the U.S. Army with what he says was an “Other Than Honorable Discharge” in 2014 after an alleged armed altercation with his ex-wife and going AWOL from his base. (The Pentagon would not clarify the specifics of his exit.) Though Lang once claimed in court to have traumatic brain injuries from one of his tours in the Middle East, he has volunteered — or tried to volunteer — for at least three foreign conflicts (for example, one in South Sudan in 2017), not including his U.S. Army tours. That obsession with fighting, along with his connection to alleged war crimes, is backed up by court documents and yearslong reporting by multiple outlets.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Intercept about his history of fighting in Ukraine and his legal troubles, Lang was candid about his past. 

In his telling, it all started when a post-military job in the oil fields of North Dakota wasn’t enough. He saw the news clippings about what was happening in Donbas during 2015, a time of intensified trench fighting between Kremlin-backed separatists (plus covert Russian regulars) and Ukrainian forces. Lang decided to try to find a way over to the war. After a little bit of Facebook digging and some text message exchanges with contacts, he found himself on a flight to Ukraine. 

This coincided with my own foray into covering the conflict. In 2015 and 2016, I was investigating the NATO-backed training programs that countries like Canada and the U.S. were leading to bolster the Ukrainian military. The training goal was to quietly and cheaply transform a rusting and corrupt Soviet-era outfit into one capable of countering any future Russian attempts at total war, without triggering an open conflict between the alliance and Russia. 

It was a classic case of proxy war, and as time went on, the Western training and funding helped grow and professionalize the Ukrainian military.

But volunteer militias like the Right Sector that had overtly far-right and ultranationalist ideologies continued to play a role in key areas of Donbas. In 2017, I was embedded at a Right Sector base near the now-decimated town of Marinka. I observed a platoon of very capable militiamen engaging in regular firefights and artillery exchanges with Russian-backed forces across the no man’s land. On walls and shoulder patches, I also saw sonnenrads (the Black Sun symbol of the Third Reich) and various other neo-Nazi runes.

These units formed a tiny fraction of the Ukrainian forces, though some were trained by NATO. Right Sector soldiers fought to defend Kyiv last year and still do; Azov, whose fighters were seen dipping their bullets in pig fat as a taunt to their Chechen Muslim enemies, put up a relentless defense of Mariupol. (Azov was made an official regiment of the Ukrainian military that until recently used a neo-Nazi symbol in its emblem.)

Even in the U.S. military community, signs of far-right extremism linked to violence aren’t hard to find. According to a University of Maryland study from last year, since 1991 over 600 American active duty and veteran soldiers committed acts of extremist violence. The large majority of those were politically far right, including several of the January 6 attackers and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a strict adherent of the neo-Nazi book “The Turner Diaries.”

The presence of groups like Right Sector and Azov is a complex feature of Ukraine’s war effort since 2014 but not a sign of widespread Nazism. The country, facing total annihilation, has needed everyone and anyone it could muster to fight back against a vastly superior Russian force. But even if your country is facing an existential battle, that choice comes with a price if the conflict entangles NATO and draws billions of dollars in weapons transfers from the Pentagon. Everyone from U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized on these connections to portray Kyiv as a modern-day Fourth Reich, although Ukraine’s president is openly and proudly Jewish

Then there’s the further complicating matter of the thousands of foreign volunteers who have fought on Kyiv’s side, who are sometimes painted as mercenaries in league with a Nazi regime. Not unlike the weapons transfers and NATO’s training efforts, waves of volunteer foot soldiers have been a Western and global export to the war since 2014.

“I went to the Right Sector because it was easier,” Lang told me. “Because back then, it was actually illegal for foreigners to serve in the [Ukrainian] army. It didn’t become legal for us to serve in the Armed Forces until 2016.”

The Right Sector was a well-known and popular landing spot for foreign fighters, some with links to American extremist organizations and the global neo-Nazi movement. Though Lang described himself as a “constitutionalist” in a 2016 Vice profile of his Right Sector unit, he fervently denies being a far-right extremist. The United Nations formally accused the Right Sector of human rights violations in a 2017 report before it was subsumed into the regular Ukrainian military after the war intensified last year.

“It was mostly like trench fighting in some places,” remembered Lang. “Sometimes the Russians would push on the positions and try to take it, and you could get into some sketchy situations.”

Like many American volunteers with combat tours in the Middle East and Afghanistan, where the enemy rarely has howitzers, Lang experienced incoming shelling for the first time in Donbas. 

“I’d been around the occasional mortar rocket in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said, “but this was the first time that I actually had force-on-force encounters with artillery.”

Lang told me the unit he first fought with in 2015 had several foreigners and English speakers, including “a group of Austrians” with military experience, some of whom “were literally AWOL from the Austrian army. They had illegally left their unit.”

That same Right Sector unit became known to authorities. In 2018, the FBI began investigating claims that Americans and other foreign fighters in Ukraine committed war crimes in 2015 and 2016, when Lang was serving. He was suspected of beating prisoners and possibly executing some of them before burying them in unmarked graves. The probe into the allegations came to light after a pro-Russian and ex-Ukrainian security services worker leaked documents about the war crimes allegations; the documents included correspondence between the U.S. Justice Department and Ukrainian authorities in 2018 and 2019, asking for information on Lang and others.

The FBI said it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation” into Lang. But last year, Austrian media reported that an Austrian who served in Lang’s Right Sector unit and with other Americans was convicted of war crimes in a regional court in Feldkirch. Lang has never been charged with any alleged crimes in a U.S. court for his service with the Right Sector. By 2016, he had left the group and joined up officially with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He left the country sometime in 2017 and returned in late 2018, after which he met and married a Ukrainian woman and had two children.

Craig Lang at the Teatralna subway station's underpass in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, July 14, 2023. (the Intercept / Ira Lupu)

Craig Lang at the Teatralna subway station’s underpass in Kyiv.

Photo: Ira Lupu for The Intercept

Between July 2017 and late 2018, Lang’s story took a dramatic or sinister turn, depending on whether you believe his version of events or the lengthy one offered by the Justice Department in court records.

According to a series of Justice Department documents, Lang is accused of murdering Serafin and Deana Lorenzo in a Florida parking lot in April 2018 with the help of another U.S. Army veteran, Alex Zwiefelhofer, who is currently in jail awaiting trial for those murders. The Justice Department says the two men, who met in Ukraine while serving with the Right Sector, intended to rob the couple of $3,000 in a fake gun sale. Their plan, according to court documents, was to use the stolen cash to finance a trip to Venezuela, where they both wanted to join paramilitary forces resisting the government. The same filings note that in June 2017, the two came to the attention of U.S. authorities when Kenyan border guards detained and subsequently deported them for trying to join forces fighting in South Sudan.

Flight records show Lang flew into Colombia from Mexico City in September 2018 and then left in November of the same year, eventually landing in Spain on his way back to Ukraine. One NBC News report from 2019 cites an Arizona court document saying Lang got a fake passport in North Carolina and then traveled through the border state to Mexico on his way south to Colombia. He categorically denies any involvement in the Florida murders and says that after a brief stint in the Colombian jungles with an unnamed paramilitary unit that opposed the Venezuelan government across the border, he flew back to Ukraine.

Since 2019, Lang has resisted a U.S. extradition order over the alleged murder of the Lorenzos. He was first taken into custody at the Ukraine-Moldova border crossing, setting off a back-and-forth in Ukrainian courts, which involved time in jail. He was facing almost certain extradition in the waning days of 2021. But his lawyers appealed the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which agreed to hear it over considerations that he could face a life sentence or the death penalty in Florida. Previously, the Ukrainian government had asked for assurances from the Justice Department that Lang wouldn’t face the death penalty, which a U.S. attorney reportedly agreed to in court. By February 2022, Ukrainian prosecutors confined Lang to Kyiv’s city limits as he awaited word from the European Court. 

Then Russia invaded, and Lang’s fate became intertwined with the region’s bloody geopolitics. In the chaos of that initial period, all seemed potentially lost for Ukraine. The CIA, the Pentagon, and even President Joe Biden, in private chats with Zelenskyy, predicted certain defeat for Ukraine within a matter of days. During that time, when it wasn’t clear whether Zelenskyy would be assassinated or imprisoned or continue as a head of state, Lang found his way back into the war effort. 

Once Lang linked up with Dragon and his Right Sector unit, he wasted no time getting into combat. He was quickly assigned to a team of foreigners, he said, including British citizens as well as “some Colombians, and some Argentinians.”

“We had one time where we’re sitting there engaging a BMD,” said Lang, using an acronym for a Soviet armored vehicle. He described firing a rocket propelled grenade at the vehicle in the streets of Irpin when he and his comrades suddenly came face to face with a Russian soldier. 

“We turn a corner and there’s a [Russian] machine gunner coming, running towards us,” Lang told me. “The two Ukrainians in the front, they pop the guy in the shoulder, he fucking runs behind a piece of cover and we call out to him, we’re like: ‘Hey, man, you surrender. Come on over.’ He won’t come so I prep a [fragmentation grenade], toss the fucking frag at him.”

The Russian tried to flee but, according to Lang, “He just gets lit up like it’s a fucking turkey shoot.”

While it can be difficult to confirm the accounts of foreign fighters, Lang provided a series of contract documents signed from the beginning of the full-scale invasion until the summer of 2022. One of the documents is a contract between Lang and the “Special Forces of the Marines of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine from the aggressor — Russian Federation.” It was signed in March 2022 and has no end date. International Legion documents, signed by Lang with a blue pen, state that the legion is enlisting the “service of foreigners and persons without citizenship in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Those documents are dated July 2022. In a Raw Story report from May, an FBI agent confirmed that Lang was “fighting with Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces against Russian forces” as late as August 2022. 

Photo provided by Lang from what he says is April 2022, while fighting in front of what appears to be a market in Hostomel, a city close to Irpin.

Photo: Courtesy of Craig Lang

Kacper Rekawek, a nonresident research fellow at the Counter Extremism Project who is familiar with documents between the Ukrainian military and foreign fighters, said that the legion contract appears to be real.

The Right Sector declined to speak to The Intercept about Lang’s record fighting with the unit.

“We are active military personnel and are not authorized to provide any information,” a spokesperson said in a text message, citing a commander who wouldn’t authorize any comment on Lang. “At this stage communication on this matter is prohibited by the management.”

Did Ukrainian military authorities care about his status as a fugitive from the U.S. government when they enlisted Lang last year? 

“Oh, they were all aware of it,” Lang said, referring to Ukrainian military leaders and his ongoing extradition case for the Florida killings. “You know, everybody was aware of it. Nobody cared.”

Lang said he fought as far east as Kharkiv in the Donbas region until an order “came down from the top” demanding that he leave the front and return to Kyiv.

The Zelenskyy government is now determined to ship him back to the U.S. to face charges, which highlights questions about how foreign fighters and members of the International Legion have been used since the war began. Several foreign volunteers who signed contracts with the legion have denounced what they call the Ukrainian military’s double standards, particularly in the early stages of the war. They have complained of being treated as cannon fodder and given few weapons. Though some standards have risen in the last year, many foreign fighters have left and far fewer are joining up. 

Lang, meanwhile, faces possible extradition and has again been confined to Kyiv by Ukrainian prosecutors. Ukrainian prosecutors declined to comment, while the Ukrainian Armed Forces have yet to respond to requests for comment on Lang’s criminal case or his military service on behalf of Ukraine.

A Department of Justice spokesperson said they “cannot make any comments” regarding Lang’s status. But court records show that in July 2022 — around the time Lang claims he was booted from the Ukrainian military — his case was assigned to a new judge in the Middle District of Florida. On June 8, U.S. attorneys filed a notice of status acknowledging that Lang’s extradition “remains pending” as they await the outcome of the European Court appeal. 

Whether Lang will ever step into a U.S. courtroom remains to be seen. 

“I don’t want to go back [to the U.S.] because I don’t feel like I’d get a fair trial,” he told me. “When we find out that there’s a secret war crimes investigation against me, it doesn’t give me a warm fuzzy that I’m going to have a fair trial.”

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