Following Ukrainian President Zelensky’s announcement of the creation of a new International Legion of Territorial Defense, essentially inviting foreigners to join the fight against Russia and promising them arms upon arrival, reactions have been mixed. Whereas some saw his plea as a desperate call for help and urged troops and civilians to respond to the call, others expressed greater concerns that this could lead to a renewed flood of foreign fighters.
These fears are rooted in historical evidence, where the war in Donbas has had the largest influx of foreign fighters of any conflict in the post-Soviet sphere. Since 2014, it has been estimated that over 17,000 fighters from 55 countries have fought there on both Ukrainian and Russian sides. With Zelensky’s latest call to join this fight, the escalation of the war, and the surge in volunteers, the situation is especially concerning.
That was then, this is now
Not much attention has been given to the possible revival of radicalization the creation of this military unit could represent for Europe and beyond. To provide some context, among the 17,000 foreign fighters which joined one of the armed parties in the 2014 conflict, approximately 15,000 came from Russia while the remaining largely consisted of Europeans, Australians, and North Americans. Over the years, the stagnant conflict in Ukraine has slowly become the grounds for an influx of strongly right-wing and left-wing bent individuals seeking to compensate for historical grievances or oppression committed by or against Russia.
Since the announcement, these apprehensions seem to be materializing as experts have already noticed that the idea of joining the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) fighting against Russia has picked up steam in virtual far-right spaces. Over the last few days, militia leaders from Finland, Ukraine, and France have published declarations urging their followers to rally for the cause and produced recruitment propaganda. These publications have been tracked and translated by the private group, SITE Intelligence which monitors extremist groups. In a statement to the New York Times, the Director of SITE, said that, “numerous far-right white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups through Europe and North America have [already] expressed an outpouring of support for Ukraine, including by seeking to join paramilitary units in battling Russia … with the primary motivation to gain combat training and also being ideologically-driven”. The ongoing instability in Ukraine, provides a similar kind of training and conflict experiences to extremists as the volatility in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan did for jihadist militants over the years. Within the Ukraine conflict, ideological social networks are seemingly an important element in giving individuals with no ethnic or other ties to the country both the idea for the proximity of this war as well as the travel logistical details.
Thus far, the Ukrainian government has said that the International Legion is to be staffed by any volunteer individual from countries with whom it share friendly relations. In order to be eligible, a formal process has been put forward for interested foreigners. First, they need to apply to the Embassy of Ukraine in their home country and provide all necessary documentation to travel abroad (passport and documents confirming military service or work with law enforcement agencies). Then, they are required to pass an interview, write an enlistment application under a voluntary contract, and receive instructions to arrive in Ukraine and what to bring. Nonetheless, even as several of them will include retired or special operations forces operators and soldiers, initially joining for humanitarian purposes, it does not forbid the entry of individuals with more extremist views and their own agenda.
Dangers in Numbers
Given that the Legion was created less than a week ago it remains challenging to assess its effects and magnitude. However, a useful tool is relying on previous research findings and conclusions as to understand how it could prove to evolve into a threat. Within her work on foreign fighters in Ukraine, scholar Sara Meger found that the majority of the ones who joined following the 2014 conflict were young, male, politically charged, and with previous experience in the armed forces. She noted that these individuals shared a common belief that the outcome in Ukraine was likely to have domino repercussions across Europe, “for men on the right, defending Ukraine from a Russian invasion was a necessary step in curtailing a malignant political force and defending Western values”.
The hostilities in the Donbass strike similarities to the situation today. The danger is that through the creation of the Legion, Ukraine could once again be opening the door for extremists or radicalized individuals to travel to the country, get trained, become battle-hardened, and extend their networks. Subsequently, this becomes a two-fold problem. On the one hand, for Ukraine, as it will likely become difficult to control these individuals following the eventual end of the fighting, leading to a potential increase in extremist activity within the country. On the other hand, the fighters who do return home, will have greater influence not only in recruiting and radicalizing others, but also with greater capabilities to deploy violence itself. This becomes troublesome when countries may not necessarily have a comprehensive system in place to control fighters returning home. What appears to be different this time, is that the UAF seem to be attempting to take a more direct command-control of the foreign legion than previously, which ultimately could hinder the direct recruiting by far-right battalions. Given that Ukraine is in an active state of conflict, and that the border crossings with other countries have been described as chaotic, it seems unlikely that the government will have the capacity to keep track of all those entering.
Based on current information made available on social media and open-source data, approximately 591 foreigners from 9 different countries have already applied to be volunteers in the International Legion, including ones already in the country. This includes: 70 Japanese citizens who applied with the Ukrainian embassy in Tokyo; 400 Swedish nationals; 10 NATO-trained war veterans and 2 US infantry officers stationed in Poland [6 American citizens, 3 British, 1 German]; 100 Lithuanians; 1 Finnish reservist [already in Ukraine]; 1 Norwegian [already in Ukraine]; at least 7 Belarusian volunteers. These figures exclude Ukrainian nationals which have returned [or will be returning] home to fight with the army, which has been estimated to be in the thousands and thus far have included at least 3 Ukrainian-Canadians and 10 French-Ukrainians. It also does not include foreigners who have solely expressed interest and have not yet formally applied, of which at least 20 are Australian nationals. Furthermore, there has been reports that the Georgian legion has been facilitating foreign fighters and persuading them that they are not required to have battle experience as they will be provided training upon arrival. Monitoring foreign fighters, Meger adds that, “a signal group of some of the hopefuls was recently active and the consensus seemed to be to join the conflict, but not using the embassy route…a significant number of the members were Canadians and most men had armed service experience”.
Legal Problem: Fighting for a Foreign Country
Among the key issues at stake concerning Ukraine’s International Brigade is the legality of going to fight for a foreign country. On this, states have expressed a wide range of different positions with some providing clear, strict guidelines and others being vaguer about their view of citizens joining the war efforts. In America, the law states that any individual enlisting in or entering himself to serve for a foreign country while still in the US as a soldier, marine, or seaman shall be fined or imprisoned not more than 3 months, or both. Furthermore, Washington has explicitly stated that should US citizens travel to Ukraine after it was discouraged, they would not be getting help from the government in case they need to evacuate. In the UK, the authorities’ position have been contradictory, as the Foreign Minister stated that she strongly suggested that Britons join the fight in Ukraine, while other officials advised against travelling there and the Ministry’s website highlighted that individuals who did go to fight or assist those engaged in the conflict could be prosecuted upon their return home.
The legality of foreigners travelling to Ukraine remains largely “unclear”, and as such creates ambiguity about who can or cannot join. This lack of guidelines will undoubtedly create slips and cracks in the vetting and monitoring system, increasing the risks for foreign fighters to set foot and remain in the country or return home with combat experience.