A Year of Foreign Fighting for Ukraine

Executive Summary

  1. Foreign fighting for Ukraine did not start with the founding of the International Legion of Defence of Ukraine (ILDU) in late February 2022. Foreigners went to the country to help it defend against Russian aggression since spring/summer of 2014. Some of these very early arrivals actually returned to Ukraine to fight in its defense in 2022.
  2. The year 2022, however, saw a
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    creation of what effectively is a significant and transnational social movement of volunteering for Ukraine, which also includes individuals who chose to physically fight on the frontlines in the country’s defense.
  3. These foreign fighters are dispersed throughout different Ukrainian units: two and not one ILDUs as well as a string of units within the Armed Forces of Ukraine (Zbroini syly Ukrainy or ZSU), or, in particularm the Territorial Defense Forces (Viiska terytorialnoi oborony or TDF). Moreover, the foreign fighters are in constant flux as they shop for new units, rotate back home, or change roles within the newly formed transnational social movement for volunteering in Ukraine—be it as trainers or humanitarians/logisticians.
  4. The fighting component within that movement, the foreign fighters, are significantly less than the often mentioned 20,000 volunteers. Likely, a tenth of that figure have actually fought in Ukraine. Americans and Central-Eastern Europeans constitute the highest numbers of Westerners fighting for Ukraine. Within the foreign fighters, the largest contingent comes from Belarus with its representatives mostly fighting in monoethnic units. Georgians have so far suffered the highest casualties from all the foreign fighters present in Ukraine.
  5. These foreign fighters quickly had to learn how improvisational the Ukrainian way of conducting war could be and embrace the pre-Global War on Terror paradigm of mechanized warfare but in conditions of scarcity and while operating as the weaker side. Hence, one of the quips regularly mentioned by fighters is “in this war we are the Taliban.”
  6. Ukrainian flexibility and pride in their ability to improvise enables foreign fighters to shop for units while in Ukraine, terminate their contracts with the ZSU, or go back home for rest and recovery, including prolonged periods of absence from Ukraine.
  7. Existing problems within the ILDU partly stemmed from its “open” character as Ukraine initially invited anyone who wished to fight in the country’s defense. The influx of foreign volunteers led to the creation of two ILDUs which suffered from a string of organizational and structural issues, characteristic for hastily established and improvised military units. Most of these issues were later addressed but some, especially related to administrative and logistical grievances, have persisted.
  8. Both the arrivals and the hosts have demonstrated a significant degree of respect, goodwill, and flexibility towards one another—largely accommodating preferences of both parties. At times, however, some of the administrative and logistical grievances and the haphazard nature in which the ILDU was initially rolled out led to situations in which some foreign fighters would complain about not being used to the best of their ability while fighting in Ukraine. Simultaneously, other fighters would stress the need to get the “job done” or “look past the drama” so that the infighting or bickering does not consume the efforts of this new transnational social movement of which they are part.
  9. Russian claims that foreign volunteers for Ukraine are all “Nazis” or “mercs” (mercenaries) are inaccurate and perceived as insulting by the representatives of the movement. The first and much smaller foreign fighter mobilization of 2014 was more politically radical and involved some fighters originating from the nationalist/far-right milieu of different Western countries. In 2022-2023, however, the situation is markedly different. Only a small group of far-right individuals are amongst the foreign fighters active in Ukraine. These are vastly outnumbered by the much larger body of “concerned citizens of the world.”
  10. Units which used to host some of the 2014 more radical foreign fighters in their ranks, such as Azov or the Right Sector, have largely been absent from recruitment of such individuals abroad in 2022-2023. At the same time, smaller far-right Ukrainian groups forming volunteer forces attempted to recruit foreigners but had very limited success in the process. Their transnational connections, however, must be monitored to ascertain the degree to which they constitute any security challenge to Ukraine or its Western partners.
  11.  A similar approach should be adopted while dealing with the so-called “volunteer corps”—the monoethnic units of, e.g., Russians or Belarusians and potentially others, which have now emerged in Ukraine. The fact that they are led by expat nationalists who have broader war aims than Ukraine, and who, in the case of Russian foreign fighters on the side of Ukraine, adhere to traditions of the pro-German Russian Liberation Army (ROA) from World War II should be of particular concern. The question of how these will be decommissioned after the end of the war will gain in urgency and should not be ignored, especially given the events of March 2, 2023, when one such unit staged a raid inside the Russian territory. Russia quickly branded it a “terrorist act.”
  12. Some volunteer fighters have already returned from Ukraine and more will be returning home in 2023. They are not “returnees” in the sense of returning foreigner terrorist fighters (FTFs) from Syria and should be perceived and treated differently. Existing Western or European models geared towards returnees are insufficient since they are mostly geared towards returning FTFs.
  13. Thus, a new approach and a policy focused on dealing with foreign volunteers/fighters returning should be devised. Mechanisms for the identification and classification of returnees should be developed. For non-extremist returnees, a de-securitizated approach should be taken. This should also entail a recognition of the returnee’s experience in Ukraine—including their immediate needs upon return, in particular Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues. Contact between the returnee and government authorities should be established and maintained. For non-extremist returnees, the maintenance of this contact should be organized through trusted third parties. The intelligence value of returnees should be recognized and appropriately exploited and appropriate mechanisms should be developed against potential Russian reprisals, in particular for returnees that had a public role and profile while operating in Ukraine. 

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