Ukraine’s foreign legion joins the battle against Russia
The Ukrainian government has called for volunteers to join its army. Will they make a difference?
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 affairs ministry launched a website providing details about how to apply.
Some European officials have welcomed the call and encouraged their citizens to volunteer. At least two officials – Latvian parliamentarian Juris Jurašs and former Georgian Defence Minister Irakli Okruashvili – have led by example, personally travelling to Ukraine to join the war effort.
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 said some 16,000 volunteers are ready to do so.
These claims by both Kyiv and Moscow have not been independently verified and some observers suggested that they may amount to PR moves, part of the information war. The past participation of far-right fighters on both sides of the war in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, however, has raised concerns about a possible influx of volunteers with far-right views.
Experts Al Jazeera spoke to said that there is still no evidence of a large-scale movement of far-right volunteers towards Ukraine.
Questions of legality
Although officials from Canada, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Latvia and other countries have openly or tacitly encouraged their citizens to join the Ukrainian army in its fight against Russia, there have also been questions about the legality of such an undertaking.
Countries like the UK and Canada have laws banning their citizens from participating in military action against a country they are not at war with. The Czech Republic has also has passed legislation making joining another state’s armed forces illegal. Other countries, such as Germany, have warned that if any of its nationals who join the war effort in Ukraine violate international law, they will be prosecuted.
In the past, several European countries have tried some of their nationals who have fought on either side of the eight-year conflict in the Donbas.
Ukraine is not the first European country to recruit foreigners into its army. France, for example, has had a special legion for foreign nationals since the 19th century, while the UK allows people from the Commonwealth of Nations, comprising former British colonies, to serve in its armed forces.
The Ukrainian authorities have insisted that applicants will have to go through a vetting procedure, that includes proof of a clean criminal record. However, there have been reports that dozens of foreigners have crossed into Ukraine without following the official procedure.
“While some have joined the Ukrainian army, we also observe self-organised battalions that operate separately and do not participate in coordinated military actions, thus many foreign fighters are not assigned duties by commanders on the ground,” Asya Metodieva, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, told Al Jazeera.
According to Metodieva, whether foreign fighters are prosecuted in their home countries when they return from Ukraine will be a political decision.
“I expect that foreign fighters supporting the Ukrainian struggle will not be treated the way governments have been dealing with fighters who joined IS [ISIL],” she said.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala has announced that Czech nationals who go fight in Ukraine will not face legal consequences upon their return.
‘A PR exercise’
Although the Ukrainian government has said 20,000 foreign nationals have applied to join the fight against Russia, it has provided no data on how many of them have actually made it to the country.
“All these numbers are speculative and cannot be confirmed easily,” Metodieva said.
Kacper Rekawek, a research fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo, also expressed doubt about whether tens of thousands of foreigners will actually make it to Ukraine.
“It is much smaller [than what is being said in the media], but it will be bigger than 2014,” Rekawek said, referring to the number of foreign volunteers joining the war in the Donbas between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
According to some estimates, some 17,000 foreign fighters participated on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict between 2014 and 2021. Special units were created for some of the larger groups of foreigners, including a Georgian and a Chechen battalion.
The participation of foreign volunteers on the Ukrainian side is unlikely to make a major difference in the overall dynamic of the war, Rekawek said. In his view, the utility of the Foreign Legion is in drawing media attention.
“I think it’s a PR exercise. It’s for Ukraine to show that ‘OK, we have people with us from all around the world’ … It’s an attempt to internationalise this,” Rekawek said.
The recruitment of foreign nationals into the Ukrainian army has raised concerns about the possible influx of far-right sympathisers into the country. The eruption of fighting in the Donbas in 2014 led to the empowerment and arming of Ukrainian far-right groups, particularly the Azov Battalion.
In November 2014, the group was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard and later its leadership split from the unit and formed a political party. While it enjoyed some electoral success early on, the party failed to garner enough support to enter parliament in the last elections, in 2019.
Even after becoming an official unit within the National Guard, the Azov Battalion continued to recruit foreign volunteers to fight in the Donbas. Despite concerns expressed by US officials, it also received training from Western forces.
According to Oleksiy Kuzmenko, a Ukrainian-American investigative journalist, far-right activity within the Ukrainian armed forces is not limited to Azov. In a 2021 paper, he documented “a far-right group of officer cadets and military officers smack in the middle of what prior to the outbreak of the war was one of the West’s major training hubs in Ukraine, the National Army Academy”.
Yet, in his view, Russia’s portrayal of its invasion as “denazification” is a “propagandist [tool] meant to justify a brutal war”.
“[The West could have] put Russian propagandist claims to rest by implementing specific policies that would [have prevented] extremists’ access to Western assistance to Ukraine’s military and security forces,” he told Al Jazeera.
The possibility of members of far-right groups travelling to Ukraine has alarmed some Western countries. German officials have told local media that they are monitoring individuals known for their far-right activism and are trying to stop them from travelling to the conflict zone. According to the German interior ministry, fewer than 10 German nationals with far-right affiliations are known to have gone to Ukraine.
According to both Rekawek and Metodieva, there is still no indication of a large influx of far-right volunteers.
“Among the volunteers going to Ukraine, the vast majority have no ties to white supremacist or far-right extremist groups,” Metodieva told Al Jazeera.
Nevertheless, past experiences with foreign fighters returning to Europe or remaining after a conflict – as in the case of Bosnia – have raised questions about foreign volunteers returning after the end of the war in Ukraine.
“[There is] the question of military ‘software’ – the skills people acquire, the way their thinking changes, and what they may deem acceptable in pursuit of political aims,” Stefan Wolff, a professor of political science at Birmingham University in the UK, said.
“If we think that there is a risk of the war in Ukraine attracting people with already ambiguous attitudes towards liberal democracy, exposure to the brutality of war, in my view, would heighten the risk of further entrenching such attitudes.”
In his opinion, encouraging Europeans to join the fight in Ukraine is not a reasonable strategy.
“The West can and should do more, including on the sanctions front and by supplying Ukraine with much needed military equipment, but sending volunteer fighters, or permitting them to go, is not among the useful tools at our disposal,” he told Al Jazeera.
You can follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter @mkpetkova