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A Most Perilous Option

The implications of foreign fighters' joining the Ukrainian War

23 March 2022


On March 6, 2022, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that more than 20,000 foreign fighters (from about 52 countries) have volunteered to fight for Ukraine, in response to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's call for joining 'the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine'. This is a very serious development, given the conflicting parties' brinkmanship, and Moscow's brandishing of the nuclear option. Therefore, it is important to investigate the background and dimensions of allowing foreign fighters to take part in the current war in Ukraine, and the implications of this step for both the regional scene and the international scene.

The Background of Engaging Foreign Fighters

Foreign fighters, especially from the Right and the Far Right, have always played a vital role in confrontations between Russia on the one hand and former Soviet Union countries on the other hand. For instance, following the Eastern Ukraine crisis in 2014, groups of fighters were formed to compensate for the defeat of the Ukrainian army in Donbass. According to estimates, the numbers of these fighters amounted to 17,000 fighters; 15,000 of these were from Belarus, and the rest were from about 54 countries. After the Minsk II ceasefire agreement was signed, Kyiv started to incorporate these semi-military battalions in the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry, establishing them as the military reserve component of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

In 2022, when it became obvious that the Russia-Ukraine crisis would take a military turn, Ukraine's authorities took legislative and organizational measures to allow more foreign fighters to join Ukraine's Armed Forces and Territorial Defense Forces. On January 27, for instance, the "Fundamentals of National Resistance Law" was passed, permitting foreigners and stateless persons to volunteer for the Territorial Defense Forces. Ukraine's president also called fighters all over the world to join 'the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine'. Ukrainian embassies and diplomatic missions worldwide announced that they would receive the volunteers, and a website was launched so that volunteers can apply through it.      

The Make-up of the Prospective Fighting Groups

In the light of the current developments, the foreign fighters expected to support Ukraine against the Russian intervention can be classified into four groups, as follows:

1.     Private military companies:

These companies have been involved in the Ukraine crisis for years. They have the ability to increase the number of their fighters in confrontations whenever this is needed. The conflicting parties already accused each other of engaging the services of these companies in the current war. According to Western reports, 4000 fighters from the Russia-backed Wagner Group were transferred from Africa to Ukraine. Ukrainian sources said that about 400 Wagner fighters were in Kyiv, with instructions to assassinate several Ukrainian top officials, including President Zelenskyy and his Prime Minister. In a similar vein, Moscow is accusing military companies backed by the West, notably the USA, of fuelling the conflict by sending fighters and military experts to Ukraine to conduct sabotaging tactics in the regions around the cities besieged by the Russian forces.

2.     Extreme-Right organizations:

The situation in Ukraine has attracted several Extreme-Right elements and organizations engaged in 'white terrorism'. The pro-Ukraine legions and battalions fighting the current war maintain strong relations with Far-Right organizations and extreme nationalist groups in several western countries. This makes these organizations and groups among the most likely sources for foreign fighters as far as Ukraine is concerned. One of the most active Right-wing groups in Ukraine is the Azov Battalion, a semi-military group consisting of fighters from Ukraine and other countries which have strong connections with extreme-right groups in Europe and the USA. In the past few years, the Azov Battalion has managed to reinforce its position and remain active in certain Ukrainian regions.

3.     Terrorist organizations:

Russian reports mentioned that elements from several terrorist organizations are being prepared to join the Ukrainian forces. According to these reports, CIA and US Special Operations Command are training ISIS terrorists in the US-controlled Tanf base in Syria so that they can be sent to Ukraine. These terrorists include Russian citizens and CIS citizens who had been imprisoned in Syria but were released when Syrian prisons were broken into in 2021.

4.      Other armed active players:

Russian-Western moves have revealed an increasing tendency to depend on armed non-Jihadist, non-nationalist groups in the military confrontations currently taking place in Ukraine. In Syria, lists of fighters from pro-Russia fractions have been drawn up so that these fighters can join Russia in its armed conflict with Ukraine, according to Syrian reports.  It is highly likely that pro-NATO armed players will have a similar chance in case they are needed. It is believed that the Turkmen groups in northern Syria are the NATO's prospective candidates.

The Expenditure of Foreign Fighters

The Ukrainian President's call for foreign fighters to fight for Ukraine (February 27, 2022), and the West's reaction to this call (which is in stark contrast to the American and European attitude in previous, similar situations) give rise to the following questions: what are the motives behind the West's support for this call? And what are the goals which the USA and Europe aim to achieve by seconding this call? Following is an attempt to answer this question:

1.     Stressing the West's support for Ukraine:

With the advance of Russian military forces on Ukrainian territories, Western countries in general and NATO in particular are growing keener to show that they did not abandon Kyiv amid its war with Moscow. As NATO's direct involvement in the current battles would mean a third world war, the West decided to go for the second best option-namely, giving its approval to President Zelenskyy's plan to recruit volunteers to fight for Ukraine, even though this approval contrasts sharply with the West's stance in previous, similar situations, in which the USA and European countries were strongly opposed to transferring foreign fighters to other parts of the world at war time, and despite the fact that the laws of western countries forbid their citizens to fight abroad.

2.     Adopting hybrid (i.e. guerilla) warfare tactics:

Ukraine is fully aware that it will not be able to deter Russia by employing the tactics of traditional warfare, especially as it became obvious that NATO countries will not send forces to fight in Ukraine against Russia. Therefore, Ukraine decided to resort to the guerilla warfare tactics which have proved effective in the Donbass Province since the beginning of the conflict with Russia in 2014. Thus, by forming a foreign, semi-military force (most probably consisting of fighters who formerly served in militias or even standing armies), Ukraine may stand a much better chance of restoring balance on the front. In other words, adopting 'non-traditional' hybrid warfare tactics may help turn the conflict into a war of attrition, thus thwarting Russia's plan to besiege and take over Ukrainian cities.

3.     Institutionalizing foreign fighters' participation in the war:

By inviting foreign fighters to Ukraine, President Zelenskyy has more in mind than simply propping up the Ukrainian army. In fact, the Ukrainian president aims to institutionalize these foreign fighters' involvement in the war, and legalize their roles and activities in upcoming battles. Launching the so-called 'International Legion' and passing legislation to organize national resistance are actually attempts to legitimize these fighters' presence in Ukraine.  Allowing these foreign fighters to sign volunteering contracts facilitates incorporating them into Ukraine's standing army, so that the accusation that Kyiv is using mercenaries in its war with Russia can be avoided. This also helps the governments of the western countries of these fighters to avoid any embarrassing questions by their citizens or their press in case these fighters are killed or taken war prisoners during the current military operations.

4.     Undermining the foundations of Russian security:

The current Russian-Ukrainian confrontations have led the western bloc to believe that it is important to rethink its strategic priorities. Western countries, which have been primarily concerned with containing Chinese progress, came to realize that Russia still constitutes a threat to the interests of Europe and the USA. Therefore, the West decided to prevent Russia from harming these interests by making sure that Moscow will remain swamped with both internal and external issues. For example, the economic sanctions on Moscow and the decision to bar Russian banks from SWIFT system are meant to ignite an economic crisis in Russia. In addition, using foreign fighters in Ukraine's war will lead to the dilution of Moscow's military and security-related efforts, which may even force Russia to deal with direct threats in an area of vital interest to it.  

Serious Implications

Given past Ukrainian-Russian experiences as far as the issue of foreign fighters is concerned, it can be safely said that President Zelenskyy's aforementioned call will have several implications. Following is a brief discussion of the most important of these implications:

1.     Prolonging the current conflict:

If foreign fighters get involved, this will hinder any efforts to end the Russian-Ukrainian war, as the new groups of fighters will seek to ignite confrontations and prolong the war so as to make as many gains as possible. As it will be difficult to control the moves and activities of these groups, there will be gross violations which will, in turn, make it difficult to reach a formula for ending the war. Besides, it is likely that these groups will seek to undermine any future agreements between Russia and Ukraine if these agreements entail that foreign groups of fighters lose some privileges or be restricted one way or another. A similar situation occurred when Minsk II was signed, as some battalions objected to the arrangements pertaining to disengagement.

2.     Aggravating the danger of the Extreme Right:

Having managed to become particularly influential in the past few years, Extreme-Right groups will grow all the more powerful on account of Ukrainian recruiting of foreign fighters. Many people will join these groups so as to be able to give vent to their violent tendencies and conduct acts of terrorism within a 'legal' framework. Thus, the discourse of hatred towards minorities will find more responsive ears, and Extreme-Right ideas will be more widely disseminated. As a result, 'white terrorism' will spread even further in Ukraine and in the countries of the foreign fighters when they return to their homelands.

3.     Reviving radical organizations:

President Zelenskky's call will actually give the kiss of life to Jihadist organizations. Jihadists are expected either to join the foreign fighters heading for Ukraine or to resume their activities under the pretext of retaliating for the Extreme Right's acts of terrorism against Muslim minorities. Jihadist organizations will have an opportunity to recruit more fighters and send them to the Russian-Ukrainian front. This will have serious implications for the security of the regions where these organizations are usually active, especially the Middle East. New waves of terrorism are expected there after these Jihadists return from Ukraine.

4.     Creating chronic, security-related problems:

Recruiting foreigners to fight for Ukraine will create security-related problems worldwide which are not expected to be solved easily or in the short run. For instances, other countries are likely to follow in the footsteps of Ukraine by legitimizing the use of mercenaries and foreign fighters in conflicts. In addition, extremists will tend to arrange themselves in new terrorist organizations which will certainly constitute a serious threat to international peace and security. It will not be easy to counter the dangers which will arise from the growing tendency to depend on foreign fighters in the Ukrainian fashion. As a result, the international community will have to deal with unprecedented, non-traditional, and increasingly serious threats, which may even culminate in a graver round of violence and terrorism. The consequences are expected to be far severer than anything which the world has seen in the past few decades.   

In the final analysis, it can be said that by launching the International Legion of Territorial Defence, Ukraine is resorting to an option which is highly perilous as far as world security and peace are concerned. The Russian war in Ukraine will be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of international conflicts. Employing 'hybrid warfare' tactics and institutionalizing the roles of foreign fighters and mercenaries will be among the main characteristics of international conflicts from now on, and western attempts to counter the rise of China and the conflict with Russia may be reformulated in the light of these developments.