Ruth Pollard

Are Foreign Fighters a Blessing or a Curse for Ukraine?

Ukraine has most of the world on its side. It now has as many as 20,000 foreign fighters, too.

From former members of the US, British and Canadian militaries to citizens from Japan, Jamaica and Europe and an Edinburgh grandfather, volunteer soldiers from across the globe have signed up — at the invitation of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself — to help fight Russia’s invasion. Many are arriving at the borders with suitcases full of medicines and other first aid material, ready-to-eat meals, helmets and body armor. They’ve been joined by an influx of Ukrainians living abroad who are returning to fight for their home country.

With images flooding social media of the aftermath of a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol and some 400,000 citizens still trapped in the besieged city, it is easy to see how such suffering could compel people to act. But will this be a blessing or a curse for Ukraine and for the rest of the world?

Previous conflicts have inspired similar outpourings of service but have also left rancorous legacies. The “anti-Soviet jihad” in Afghanistan in the 1980s — the first modern conflict to see high levels of foreign-fighter participation — was the genesis of a global militant community. Volunteers also mobilized a decade later in Bosnia and Chechnya. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, many of these were veterans of Afghanistan or were funneled into the Balkans by guerrilla networks that had sprung up in Afghanistan.

Reporting from the Syrian conflict, I interviewed men from Europe to Australia, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa who had flocked to fight alongside the then-pro-democratic rebel forces aiming to bring down the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Kurdish struggle for independence continues to attract people from around the globe willing to fight for their cause. Internationals also enlisted with more hardline groups across Syria like the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, while ISIS used social media to draw nearly 40,000 foreign fighters from around 120 nations.

But the risk of complications from this influx of fighters is high. Most who arrive in Ukraine’s shattered cities won’t have the combat experience of a marine, or indeed any skill set that would be useful in this conflict. And they probably won’t speak the language. Some will be captured, some will die and many will return home physically injured and emotionally traumatized after serving with the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine.

In terms of the battle for dominance of the information war, Zelenskiy’s call has, so far, been effective. The number of foreign fighters is a tangible demonstration of global support. It’s galvanized the international community and boosted the morale of the Ukrainian resistance, said Lydia Khalil, a research fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute who holds an academic appointment with the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University.

“There are military veterans and others with special skills who are signing up, but there are also many others with no combat experience or training who will be a risk and limited value,” Khalil told me. “Some foreign fighters are also bypassing official Ukrainian government processes and going straight to the front or joining up with militias.”

So who takes a long flight halfway around the world to go up against the might of the Russian military? Some are veterans disillusioned by their time in previous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — campaigns that were strategic failures — and by their own governments who started and sanctioned the campaigns that were part of the global war on terror, Khalil said. “Participating in Ukraine could offer a sense of redemption, a chance to fight for a ‘purer’ cause and against a clear aggressor as well as renew their faith in democracy.”

There’s even a “small number of soldiers” who are suspected of disobeying orders and going absent without leave to fight in Ukraine, Sky News reported, citing a British army spokesman.

Along with safety concerns, there’s also the risk of exposure to the many right-wing and neo-Nazi extremist groups operating in eastern Europe and the implications for regional and domestic security. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine has been a magnet for fighters from around the world, many of them linked to far-right organizations. The Azov battalion is the best known on the frontline fighting in Ukraine’s war against pro-Russian separatists in the east.

To Ukraine’s credit, it has been turning people away who were likely to cause serious danger, said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.”

“But now the situation has been supercharged by the Russian invasion,” Pantucci told me. “Not all of them are motivated by right-wing ideas, although some probably are. And we need to worry about what happens when these people with battle experience go home.”

On the other side, you have others going to join the Russian fighters, buying into President Vladimir Putin’s muscular narrative about “denazification” and the defense of the Orthodox church. Russia, says Pantucci, has also been very open about recruiting Syrians, as it did in Libya. Still, it’s not clear how useful Arabic-speaking fighters will be in this war.

UK Defence Intelligence has also reported that experienced mercenaries from Russian private military companies are “likely deploying to fight in Ukraine to support the Russian invasion,” noting Russia maintains extensive links with these outfits “despite repeated denials.” These groups have been accused of committing human rights abuses in several countries, such as Libya, Syria and the Central African Republic while operating on behalf of Russia, according to the March 9 statement.

So, it is already a complex battleground, with a lot of room for error.

A look back to the Spanish Civil War shows just how deadly those mistakes can be. From 1936-39, almost 40,000 men and women from 52 countries — including 2,800 Americans — joined the International Brigades in the fight against fascism. The US volunteers were known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Around 900 were killed in action.

But what’s most striking is that the political reaction to the current crop of volunteers has been markedly different to those who made their way to Syria. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss even publicly backed Britons going to Ukraine to fight Russia. It wasn’t long ago that governments were investing millions of dollars in deradicalization programs and prosecuting some of the returnees from the Middle East. Now they need to ask themselves: Are they really prepared to go there again?