Last summer, German national Vitali Pastuchov traveled 2,500 kilometers from his home in the town of Schweinfurt in central Germany, to the battlefield in eastern Ukraine. The 33-year-old had long struggled to fit into society after moving to Germany from the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan.
Pastuchov was killed by a mortar shell during the battle for the strategic town of Debaltseve on February 12 - the same day a ceasefire accord was signed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.
According to an investigation by the German newspaper "Welt am Sonntag," there are more than 100 Germans who, like Pastuchov, have traveled to Ukraine to join the ranks of pro-Russian separatists. Most of those combatants are also believed to be ethnic Germans, known as "Spätaussiedler," who left the former Soviet Union or Russia for Germany in recent decades.
Of all the Western European countries, Germany received the most migrants from former Soviet states from 1990 onwards, including between 2 and 2.5 million Russian Germans and Spätaussiedler. Ethnic Germans automatically received German citizenship under a special acceptance process.
"Russian Germans thought they were going to their imagined homeland and would be received with open arms," Markus Kaiser with Crossroads Asia at the University of Bonn's Center for Development Research told DW.
"But a lot of them were disappointed…In Germany they were made to feel like second class citizens, much in the same way that Turkish people were."
Kaiser says many Russian Germans ran into the same problems Turkish migrants had with learning the language and integration. In many cases they couldn’t find suitable work, and their Soviet qualifications weren’t recognized.
Turkish immigrants began arriving in Germany in the 1960s and now make up the country’s largest migrant group, numbering roughly 3 million. Studies show they are less integrated on average than other immigrant groups.
While the bulk of Russian Germans successfully integrated, grew up bilingual and progressed through the German education system, Kaiser says there are some isolated Spätaussiedler who never felt accepted by German society. He says this "volatile group" most likely make up some of the young individuals fighting for the separatists in eastern Ukraine, who have appeared posing with weapons and uniforms on social media networks, boasting of their participation in the conflict.
"I’m not really surprised that you see people going to Syria and fighting, and that you also see a lot of Russian Germans with identity problems getting engaged in Ukraine," Kaiser said.
"They are not accepted as Germans, because their German isn’t as good, so they start to identify more with Russianness and start to use only Russian media, and social networks, and then they see the possibility of defending [Russian identity and language] somehow in Donetsk, for example."
Isolated and marginalized
It’s not clear what motivated 33-year-old slain fighter Vitali Pastuchov to fight in eastern Ukraine.
Social worker Eva Matthies works with young people – mainly German Russians - in the central German town of Bad Kissingen. She told Die Welt what she remembered about Pastuchov:
"He told me, ‘I can’t speak German well, and because of that people think I’m stupid,'" Matthies said.
As a teenager, Pastuchov served seven years in detention for manslaughter. He struggled with debt and had trouble holding down a job.
Welt am Sonntag’s findings seem to have come as a surprise to the German government, which says it has no clue as to what is driving dozens of young people to join in the conflict.
According to Susan Stewart at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the situation points to a clear problem with social inclusion and the marginalization of certain groups.
"I’m sure there are more of them than those than this 100, but for some, this sense of not being integrated and looking for a different niche seems to have become so extreme that they would opt like something going to eastern Ukraine to fight."
A good place to start, says sociologist Markus Kaiser, is boosting funding for integration schemes. "If migrants are to be included in German society they need to have language training enabling them to speak fluently, proper job training, as well as more more opportunities to interact with German residents and be a part of the community."