Foreign Fighters in Ukraine: What Concerns Should Really Be on the Agenda?
When the simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine turned into a full-scale war in February, a flurry of media articles followed, anticipating a large influx of foreign fighters on Ukrainian battlefields and debating their potential dangers. A solid body of research had already explored the global rise in violent extremism and radicalization after battle-hardened fighters had returned home from the Middle East. Initially, there were concerns about similar cases radiating out from Ukraine, with a shade of right-wing extremism.
Yet the current picture of foreign fighters in Ukraine differs both from the Middle East and from the fighting in the country’s east during the “gray-zone” phase of the conflict with Russia that began in 2014. Countries whose nationals have made it to the front lines in Ukraine—with some governments officially or tacitly encouraging such travels—should be giving much more thought to the fighters’ fates in the war’s aftermath. While concerns about their espousal of extreme views seem somewhat unfounded, genuine concerns about reintegration into civilian life persist, including the availability of mental and other health care. If these are not addressed, they could become the factors leading to frustration and radicalization.
In this article I attempt to unpack some key points concerning foreign fighters in Ukraine, namely:
- Their number on both sides is much smaller than initially expected. Early in the war, Russian, Ukrainian and Western officials spoke of 10,000-20,000 foreigners aiming to join each side. Today, the best estimates we have place the numbers much lower, at maximum “a few thousand” on the Ukrainian side and even fewer on the Russian.
- Most of the foreign fighters in Ukraine lack combat experience, which limits their battlefield utility.
- Combat unit integration has been difficult even for experienced fighters due to factors such as insufficient arms, organizational support and coordination, as well as language barriers.
- In contrast to earlier stages of the conflict, the vast majority of foreign fighters in Ukraine now seem to be apolitical and the presence of white supremacists and other extremists seems negligible. (Paradoxically, the Russian military—which claims “de-Nazification” as one of its goals in Ukraine—seems to be forging closer ties with such elements, along with convicts, through battlefield engagement.)
- Thus far, the most tangible impact Western foreign fighters in Ukraine have had on their home countries has been opening up long overdue discussions about acceptable types of military involvement abroad. For now, however, little has been done to help returnees get official support in the face of classic veteran challenges they will face after coming home.
Foreign Fighters by the Numbers
By March 2022, both Ukraine and Russia were jumping onto the foreign-fighter hype bandwagon, with international Google searches for the term spiking. Ukraine announced that over 20,000 prospective volunteer fighters from 52 countries had registered on its officially designated website, with Russia shortly thereafter announcing that 16,000 fighters from the Middle East would be joining its ranks. While exact numbers of foreigners who have come to fight on either side are still hard to come by, these widely publicized estimates seem wildly inflated.
A group of experts gathered by the Counter-Extremism Project believes the number of pro-Ukraine foreign fighters present in-country ranges from “several hundred… to a few thousand.” Fighters from Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics still seem to constitute the bulk of arrivals,1 with Poland, Georgia, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania among the most frequently mentioned in open sources as countries of origin. Western countries of origin with the greatest number of arriving foreign fighters include the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany, and France, with “dozens of Japanese men” reportedly also applying. In terms of deployment, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych claimed last month that around 1,000 pro-Ukrainian foreign fighters had taken part in battles. Russia, meanwhile, claimed in mid-June that nearly 7,000 "mercenaries and weapons specialists,” including trainers, from 64 countries had come to Ukraine’s aid since the war began, around 2,000 had already been killed and nearly 1,800 had left. (Besides foreigners, a far larger number of Ukrainian nationals—estimated at 22,000—have returned from abroad to join the fight.)
Reliable statistics on pro-Russian foreign fighters are even more difficult to find. An unnamed U.S. official told The New Yorker that, “within the first 10 days of Russia’s invasion, it deployed an estimated 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group” to Ukraine. While the group’s national composition is difficult to ascertain, many of these men—mostly redeployed from the Middle East—seem to be Russian nationals. Nevertheless, there have been reports of a sizeable Serbian presence in Wagner Group’s ranks and some successful recruitment of locals in the Middle East and Africa. Initial reports of a large-scale influx of pro-Russian fighters from Syria (and elsewhere) have not panned out, however. In terms of casualties, the U.S. official who spoke to The New Yorker said that around 200 of the 1,000 pro-Russian “mercenaries” had been killed almost immediately. In the wake of these developments, Russia in general and the Wagner Group in particular seem to have relaxed the vetting of new recruits (both local and foreign), which has reportedly resulted in less experienced people joining the ranks. In May, for instance, Russia raised the age at which both locals and foreigners could join the military from 30 to 50.
Finally, it is worth noting that, by summer, both sides were reporting a decline in foreign arrivals due to a complex interplay of factors, some of which are discussed below. Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed on June 2 that the flow of pro-Ukrainian foreign fighters had slowed to a trickle by early May, saying that their number had fallen from 6,600 to 3,500.
Roles and Types of Foreign Fighters in Ukraine
Arguably the central role of foreign fighters in this war has been their prominence in public relations campaigns on both sides. For Ukraine this has helped internationalize the war, feeding the narrative of an East-West (rather than Russia-Ukraine) confrontation. Putting faces to Ukraine’s struggle may be helping to maintain the attention of citizens in allied nations, as well as political and financial support for the cause. Russia, meanwhile, has been using captured foreigners to publicly drive the narrative about Ukraine having “Western sponsors” and about the fighters from abroad being mostly neo-Nazis. The latter is ironic, given the gradual shift of Ukraine’s Azov regiment away from right-wing ideology, while Russia itself has cultivated increasingly close ties to right-wing extremists and international right-wing movements.
That said, foreign fighters have also taken part in significant battles—earning commendation, for example, for helping Ukraine recapture Irpin from Russian forces—although, overall, their presence seems not to have been a decisive factor militarily thus far.2 Their limited impact stems mostly from their limited numbers on the front lines, the many foreigners arriving with limited experience—meaning a steep learning curve (more on that below)—and the even more limited availability of equipment and support. In the notoriously brutal battle of Severodonetsk, for example, foreign fighters played a role in enabling Ukrainian forces to hold out against the Russians for as long as they did, but the city was ultimately captured. Similarly, the Georgian Legion—which reportedly includes around 700 foreign fighters—was among the first to counter invading Russian forces at the Hostomel airport, but it, too, was lost in the end.
In addition to fighting and training local troops, some foreign veterans have contributed to Ukraine’s war effort by raising funds and delivering supplies, as well as playing a variety of other support roles. For instance, Swedish veteran Jonas Ohman has been at the helm of a Lithuanian NGO, Blue-Yellow, delivering military equipment to Ukraine since 2014, and recently announced a willingness to assist foreigners who’d like to join the fight. Similarly, retired American lieutenant-colonel Hunter Ripley Rawlings and his wife have founded an organization providing non-lethal aid to Ukraine. (At least one of the U.S. veterans who helps deliver the aid, James Vasquez, has also joined the fight.)
In terms of their social profiles and motives, the foreigners coming to fight in Ukraine this year differ in some key respects from those who showed up during the earlier years of the conflict. In a study published in 2019, I identified four main categories of those early-war fighters: (1) veterans of former wars with Russia or Ukraine looking for a re-match3; (2) ideologically driven civilians disillusioned with the poor outcomes of the international East-West confrontation and looking to take matters into their own hands4; (3) members of the political opposition and non-governmental activists willing to turn from politics to arms5; and (4) battle chasers moving from one international conflict to another. In 2022, on the contrary, most arrivals are clearly apolitical. And, while there are scores of veterans among them (including Western soldiers who were reportedly keen to join a redeeming cause after taking part in the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), the vast majority of today’s foreign fighters-to-be seem to have come to Ukraine lacking any previous military training or combat experience.
These inexperienced volunteers have both faced and created a host of problems. While experienced fighters have been welcome arrivals, my interviews with Ukrainian and foreign experts involved in delivering assistance to fighters, and otherwise familiar with frontline realities, suggest that integrating foreign volunteers is often a burden, especially when Ukrainian volunteers are available in sufficient number. The presence of inexperienced fighters, both Ukrainian and foreign, has reportedly led to friendly fire incidents, putting even more pressure on the ranks. Foreigners interested in joining the battle but unable to make it into Ukraine’s official International Legion have joined—or formed—other fighting groups. Confronted with the realities of training, and sometimes having made it to the front lines, they have tended to leave quickly, according to some assessments, disillusioned by the mismatch between what they’d imagined they were signing up for and what the war was actually like. Overall, eyewitnesses have reported a crippling lack of training, arms, organization and coordination, as well as challenges related to the language barrier. The difficulty of integrating non-professionals has likewise created a considerable burden for veterans from the West, as well as former Soviet states, who have been able to offer valuable training to Ukrainian counterparts.
In contrast to Russia’s increasingly relaxed approach to recruitment, the official screening for pro-Ukrainian foreign fighters has been incredibly tough by most accounts. The stringent requirements at least partly account for the large gap between the publicly touted 20,000 foreigners signing up to help Ukraine early on and the number making it to the field. Even among Americans, many of whom had previous training, the acceptance rate as of early March was less than 2 percent—about 100 out of at least 6,000, Ukraine’s military attaché to the U.S. told the AP.
Moreover, even experienced foreign veterans have been struggling, as the situation in Ukraine has presented a very different type of conflict and battle experience than they were used to. Compared to serving in the regular armed forces of their home countries, foreign fighters in Ukraine have little to no auxiliary support to rely on, the deployment periods are much longer, the casualty rates have been higher and the delays in Western arms deliveries have been understandably frustrating. Despite the tough selection process, there have been reports of criminality and high turnover in most foreign fighters units. Some International Legion recruits reportedly quit due to the shocking impact of Russia’s March 13 bombing of a training center in western Ukraine.
Foreign Fighter Home Countries: Outcomes and Aftermath
As noted above, not only is the number of foreign fighters in Ukraine considerably smaller than initially predicted, the presence of white supremacists and/or extremists among them—in contrast to earlier stages of the conflict—currently seems negligible (with some white supremacist websites even discouraging their members from going). Despite broadly expressed Western concerns about the potential spread of extremism in the aftermath of this war, it is Ukraine that would likely be at greatest risk—from both remaining foreigners and a newly galvanized domestic movement. Notably, in line with the usual post-war practices of moving toward a peace process, foreign fighters who find themselves in Ukraine as hostilities are concluding would require naturalization—which has been a topic of policy discussions for some time—and/or demobilization and disarmament, which, thus far, has not been considered.
Foreigners returning from either side of this war will likely face classic veteran challenges, such as physical and mental disorders; the particularly high-pressure environment is also likely to produce adrenaline junkies struggling to adapt to peacetime (and potentially turning into the battle chasers described in my 2019 study). However, currently, even countries that have encouraged their citizens to join this war have not established support systems for those who come back. In contrast to 2015, many European countries have decriminalized fighting abroad, and some leaders even speak of the volunteers as heroes, but governments have not taken steps to offer them any benefits comparable to veterans of the national armed forces (e.g., health benefits, psychological counseling or pensions). On the Russian side, the future prospects of foreign fighters have been looking even more grim: There have been indications that fighters accused of committing war crimes in Russian-controlled areas were being singled out for deployment to the front lines, to raise their chances of death in combat rather than deal with potentially troublesome prosecutions.
Finally, the most tangible international impact of Western foreign fighters so far has been to open up long overdue socio-political and legal discussions in their home countries about the types and extent of military involvement acceptable to Western electorates. For decades, many in Western Europe have seen economic tools, such as punitive sanctions or economic aid, as the preferred means of conflict engagement, with even the use of lethal drones seeming too risky, to say nothing of the involvement of national armed forces. The war in Ukraine has not only changed attitudes toward foreign fighters as a phenomenon but opened up new avenues for civilian initiative, such as fundraising for lethal aid. Nevertheless, foreign fighters captured as prisoners of war, put through show trials and arriving home in body bags have presented diplomatic challenges to countries of origin. There is already speculation about the future use of captured foreign fighters as leverage to break international unity over continued sanctions, as well as the risk of escalation if countries were to get more deeply involved in the conflict because of their presence.
- This is the author’s conclusion, based on her research and interviews, and concerns foreign fighters joining any unit—not just the official International Legion in Ukraine. Other researchers and some officials have offered differing assessments: Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom from the University of Cambridge, for instance, contends that “the foreign fighters in Ukraine mainly come from Western countries”; the spokesman for Ukraine’s International Legion, which does not reveal total troop numbers, said in July that, by nationality, Americans and Britons make up the largest contingents in its ranks.
- Scholars have reached similar conclusions about the earlier stage of the war in Ukraine.
- E.g., Moldovans from Transnistria looking for revenge against Ukraine for the 1990 war or Chechens looking to continue resistance against Russia.
- This category includes a broad typology of civilians with strong ideological convictions, ranging from white supremacists and other radicals to middle-class men in white-collar jobs convinced that the cushy Western way of life is diminishing the traditional role of a man.
- E.g., some members of the Belarussian opposition persecuted by the increasingly Russia-friendly regime in Minsk reportedly joined the armed fight against Russia in Ukraine early on.
Egle E. Murauskaite
Egle E. Murauskaite is a senior faculty specialist with the University of Maryland’s ICONS Project.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry shared under a Creative Commons license.