According to reports, the Ukrainian government’s fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin has now begun to draw in foreign volunteers who are prepared to defend Ukraine’s democratically elected government, as if evoking the passions of the Spanish Civil War, when thousands of idealistic foreigners came to fight fascism.
Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declared the formation of a worldwide legion of volunteers only a few days ago. “This will serve as the most visible demonstration of your support for our nation,” he stated.
According to accounts, as photographs of Russian crimes continue to accumulate, the appeal for volunteers has been extensively received, with volunteers going from near and far to participate — many of them are from the Ukrainian diaspora, but also from other parts of the world. Over 16,000 foreigners volunteered to fight in the first week of the battle, according to Zelenskyy; but, only a few days later, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba estimated that figure to be closer to 20,000. Fighters have allegedly come from 52 different countries, including the United States, Canada, Finland, Georgia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, and Belarus, according to media reports.
Several politicians have even gone so far as to express their support for their countrymen fighting Putin in Ukraine as proxy fighters. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, expressed support for Britons who are fighting in Ukraine because people opposing the Russians are “fighting for freedom and democracy not just for Ukraine but for the whole European Union.” According to Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, “It is a decision that everyone may make.” This applies to all Ukrainians who reside in the United States, as well as to anybody else who believes they can make a direct contribution to the struggle.” Some Danes don’t need to be asked twice before they’ll answer.
Although it may seem heroic at the moment, recent history has shown that volunteer fighters’ assistance may have a variety of unforeseen repercussions that might confuse the broader picture of whatever good they are trying to do.
Fighting in other countries is not a new phenomena. In the contemporary period, the globe has experienced a number of examples of foreign conflicts that have drawn the participation of abroad citizens. This includes engagements in Afghanistan (twice), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chechnya, and Iraq, with mobilizations ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of soldiers. We have a lot of knowledge on the Syrian revolt against Bashar al-Assad and the rise of the Islamic State, which we can share with you. However, while ISIS recruitment differs significantly from Ukraine’s appeal for assistance against Putin, the sheer volume of recruits — between 2011 and 2016, nearly 40,000 people traveled from more than 110 countries to join the war — brought the risks associated with foreign fighters into sharp focus.
In war situations, the number of terrorist events and fatalities tends to increase significantly. Later on, when traumatized combatants come home, the ramifications may be very dangerous for nations all over the globe. Foreign leaders’ professions of support for their nationals’ travel, especially in Ukraine, might be exploited by Russia as proof that NATO and its allies are actively participating in the conflict.
The astonishment and dismay at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as its desire to use a “scorched earth” approach in the country, has rightly roused many who want to provide their support to Kiev. Volunteers have apparently been gathering at a quick pace, at a rate that is far faster than that seen in 2014 in Syria and Iraq, which was the most recent substantial surge of international volunteers.
Here are some of the dangers that the combatants and their home nations must contend with:
The kind of volunteers that show up will be diverse, with the potential for a variety of various forms of consequences. While some of those coming to Ukraine may be combat veterans with extensive experience, many civilians are embarking on their journey with no training or understanding of the rules of war to govern their behavior, and they may be exposed to further risk. Meanwhile, if bad actors are able to develop recruiting networks and logistical pipelines to transport fighters, it is likely that they will utilize these networks and pipelines to transfer violent extremists straight to the battlefield. Foreign combatants may, in general, lengthen the duration and raise the severity of a battle. While it is yet too early to tell how foreign fighters would affect the combat situation in Ukraine, it is certain that they will have an influence.
However, the greater the number of external parties participating in a war, the longer and bloodier the battle might become. Sometimes, outsiders might take over the founding cause, forcing more transnationally-focused ambitions onto a conflict that had previously been confined to a single country. In Chechnya, the flood of Islamic foreign soldiers transformed what had previously been a nationalist struggle into a religious one, allowing the Kremlin to score an easy propaganda triumph. Assad has utilized the presence of foreign fighters in Syria to characterize all regime opponents as Islamist terrorists in a similar manner.
People become more battle-hardened as a result of any form of combat. While the vast majority of foreign fighters will not cause any trouble when they return home, there will be a variety of needs for them when they do. These will include rehabilitation and reintegration initiatives, as well as support for mental health challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Certain individuals may harbor resentment against their own governments if they believe that not enough was done to assist Ukraine or if they have been exposed to the far-right ideology propagated by some members of the Ukrainian opposition in their own countries. The conflict zone, according to terrorism expert Daniel Byman, “may result in the indoctrination of idealistic foreigners with more radical ideologies: they go to oppose one foe, but while in the war zone they mix with other radicals and come away from the conflict zone more radical and more networked.”
As more volunteers are drawn into the Ukraine conflict, the history of prior conflicts implies that a number of legal and practical concerns may arise as a result of the influx of volunteers into Ukraine, which nations will need to evaluate early on.
Authorities should issue clear guidelines and information about how volunteers can sign up for officially established organizations; they should provide some basic information about international humanitarian law and the laws of armed conflict to guide civilians; they could establish a registry for those traveling and consider establishing helpline numbers for those who require assistance returning, and they could proactively offer guidance on how to make a positive contribution.
Following the formation of the Islamic State in 2014, the United Nations Security Council passed two landmark resolutions (2178 and 2396), which called for increased measures to prevent the recruitment and travel of foreign terrorist combatants to Syria and Iraq. Several countries responded by implementing new policies, but concerns remain concerning how these regulations connect to problems pertaining to international humanitarian law and humanitarian assistance.
The use of biometrics, passenger name records, and advanced passenger information, among other measures, to prevent foreign fighter travel to conflict zones could be useful in keeping track of individuals who are traveling in order to facilitate returns or other engagements if necessary, on a tactical level. It is probable that collaboration in these other areas would be possible given the great unanimity with which Western nations have decided to confront Russia.
Although it is still early in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the number of people who are interested in volunteering to help Ukraine has already grown significantly, and it only takes a few days for individuals to organize and fly. If the predictions of a lengthy and bitter war are right, the outflow may continue to grow and change in the future. States must begin thinking about the requirements and threats that they and their populations face now, rather than waiting until they are caught off guard.