Foreign Fighters in Ukraine

The outpouring of support for Ukraine is astounding: governments around the world are joining sanctions and shunning Russia. European governments, including many that previously favoured neutrality or otherwise tread carefully with regard to Russia, are joining the opposition to Moscow and many are sending military aid. Some individuals, however, are doing more and are heeding President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call to join the fighting

Call to Join

On February 27, just three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy put out a call for foreign volunteers to join the Ukrainian armed forces, announcing the creation of an international legion. A day later, the president signed a decree waiving visas for any foreign nationals wishing to join the Ukrainian army, while the foreign ministry launched a website providing details about how to apply. The Ukrainian president’s call for foreign volunteers to join an international brigade to help bolster his country’s defence with a new layer of resistance to Russia’s invasion is for now a ragtag army.

Russia’s threats to target what it calls “mercenaries” compound the dangers facing foreign fighters. Russia has claimed it killed 180 “mercenaries” in Sunday’s training base attack, and Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said Monday that the Russian forces will show “no mercy for mercenaries wherever they are on the territory of Ukraine.” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the creation of a foreign defence legion in late February, apparently surprising everyone, including embassies tasked with lending a hand.

It was not clear how many people from across the globe have joined Ukraine’s international brigade. Zelenskyy said at one point that there were 16,000. The figure, which would now be outdated, cannot be confirmed, but based on interviews in Ukraine and in some European capitals, a motley volunteer war effort is shaping up. In recent days, the Ukrainian authorities have said that some 20,000 people from 52 countries have applied to join the legion. Meanwhile, on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin also called for foreigners to be allowed to join the Russian army in the war in Ukraine, while Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed some 16,000 volunteers are ready to do so. According to Aljazeera, the first three citizens who joined the international legion for the territorial Defence of Ukraine are from the USA, Britain and Germany.

On March 3, the Russian Defence Ministry referred to all foreign volunteers in Ukraine as “mercenaries,” none of whom “can be considered as combatants in accordance with international humanitarian law or enjoy the status of prisoners of war… At best they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals.” In the context of the Russian approach to other foreign volunteers, the policy is even worse than it sounds for any captured combatants.

A Range of Reactions by Western Governments to the call

The United States discourages its citizens from travelling and fighting in Ukraine; while in the United Kingdom, positive initial comments by the UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss signaled her support for British nationals who would do so. Such individual efforts are understandable, and the motives are at times even heroic—but they are also often a mistake, and foreign governments should not encourage such private warfare. The government has now backtracked, with the possibility that such activity may be subject to investigation and possible prosecution. Notwithstanding these warnings not to travel, the pattern of mobilisation and travel from Western nations is clear. Most credible analyses suggest that hundreds, many of them military veterans, are in the process of making the journey to Ukraine, or have already arrived there.

The Phenomenon of Foreign Fighters is Far From Being a Novelty

Throughout history, there have been many cases of individuals and groups that, for various reasons and with divergent backgrounds, have joined conflicts overseas. On the European scene, the English poet Lord Byron and the American writer Ernest Hemingway are well-known examples, given their respective involvement in the Greek War of Independence (1821–32) and the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). More recently, several European citizens and residents have travelled to Iraq and Syria in order to join jihadist groups, such as Daesh (also known as the so-called Islamic State (IS)) and the Islamist Al-Nusra Front.)

Foreign fighters have been a feature of conflicts for centuries. One instance the Russian policy in Ukraine echoes is that of Mexico in 1836 when it faced an independence movement in Texas bolstered by roughly 2,000 foreign volunteers. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin today, Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna at the time dismissed his adversaries as unlawful and therefore decreed summary executions for any foreigners.

Syria is another instance. Some 1,500-2,000 European citizens have left for Syria to fight, they are also known as ‘foreign fighters’. European foreign fighters travel to Syria for very different motivational reasons such as humanitarian reasons, ideological reasons (being attracted to the jihadi, nationalist or pan-Islamic narratives), and disillusion towards national government responses or adventure quest. Around 80% of them have now joined terrorist groups like ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Jabat al Nusrah. In other words, most of those who have travelled are there with the intention to fight.

The Families of Foreign Fighters as Collateral Damage

According to a recent estimation citing European intelligence sources, around 5300 men and women from Europe have left for Syria and Iraq since 2012. It is further estimated that around 1000 children left together with their parents, and that some 600 were born there. Taking into account the several waves of returnees, the war casualties and the fighters who left to join other war theatres, around 2500 of the 5300 people are believed to still be in these territories. Importantly, the ratio of children returning is much lower: around 1400 of 1600 are estimated to remain (not considering war and famine casualties). Arguably, it has been more difficult for families, women and children to return; currently, most Europeans still remaining in former Daesh territories are in fact women and children.


The military record of foreign fighters is mixed. In many cases, they are zealous but untrained and do not come well-armed. They are eager for combat and martyrdom (in the case of jihadis), but add little to the combat power of their fellow fighters overall, especially in cases like Afghanistan in the 1980s and Ukraine today, where there is plenty of manpower. Most end up as cannon fodder. In some instances, however, the fighters themselves come with skills. The foreign fighters are often more useful in an insurgency, which Ukraine may become. For guerrilla conflicts, the foreigners’ dedication is vital, and their more limited firepower is less of a disadvantage. Yet foreigners bring with them many problems in addition to the limited skill of many volunteers. Language difficulties are one issue. Few will speak Ukrainian, and if they are put in a separate unit they may speak dozens of languages or otherwise have difficulty communicating with one another. The outcome of the foreign fighters is not clear, and time will tell whether this phenomenon is a remedy or a new pain in the Ukraine crisis.

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