Russia warns pro-Ukraine foreign fighters won't get POW status, will be criminals

Konashenkov warns that pro-Ukrainian fighters won't be considered combatants in accordance with international humanitarian law or become prisoners of war.

 Image posted by the Ukrainian armed forces along with a guide on how foreigners could enlist to the foreign legion. (photo credit: Ukrainian Armed Forces/Facebook)
Image posted by the Ukrainian armed forces along with a guide on how foreigners could enlist to the foreign legion.
(photo credit: Ukrainian Armed Forces/Facebook)

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov warned that foreign fighters in Ukraine will not be afforded the rights given to lawful combatants according to international humanitarian law (IHL) as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed what he claimed amounted to 16,000 foreign volunteers to the International Legion of Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine on Thursday.

"I wish to make an official statement that none of the mercenaries the West is sending to Ukraine to fight for the nationalist regime in Kyiv can be considered as combatants in accordance with international humanitarian law or enjoy the status of prisoners of war," Konashenkov said on Thursday, according to Russian state media outlet TASS. "At best, they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals. We are urging all foreign citizens who may have plans to go and fight for Kyiv’s nationalist regime to think a dozen times before getting on the way."

Instructions on how foreigners could join the Ukrainian military were published by the Ukrainian armed forces on Thursday evening. 

"If your citizenship is other than Ukrainian, but you are standing with Ukraine against Russian invasion, if praying is not enough for you if you want actively participate in fighting for European freedom and democracy if you have combat experience or want to gain it standing with brave Ukrainian defenders, this is the time to act!" said the statement.

The instructions assured that there would be no visa requirements for fighters until the end of the enforcement of martial law. Volunteers were instructed to contact the Ukrainian embassy in their country and fill out documents. From there they would get instructions to travel to Ukraine and join operational units.

 A woman takes part in a basic military training session on February 28, 2022 in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. (credit: Alexey Furman/Getty Images) A woman takes part in a basic military training session on February 28, 2022 in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. (credit: Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

Zelensky accounted for the formation of the foreign legion on Sunday.

“Foreigners willing to defend Ukraine and world order as part of the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, I invite you to contact foreign diplomatic missions of Ukraine in your respective countries,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted at the time. “Together we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat Putin, too.”

The Ukrainian embassy in Israel briefly promoted enlistment, where many Israelis could volunteer to fight with Ukrainian forces.

On Tuesday,  70 Japanese men - including 50 former members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces and two veterans of the French Foreign Legion - had attempted to join Ukraine's foreign legion.

The UK, Latvia, and the Canadian government have all stated that they will allow the enlistment of citizens to the legion.

Zelensky announced on Monday that prisoners with military experience would be released if they agreed to join the fight against Russia. 

According to IHL, lawful combatants are afforded certain rights when captured by enemy forces. As POWs, they cannot be prosecuted for taking part in combat, are legally protected from torture and degrading treatment, and are to be provided with food, accommodation and medical care. 

Anna Ahronheim, Eliav Bruer and Reuters contributed to this report.