Impact of foreign fighters on war in Ukraine will be minimal, experts say

Tens of thousands of volunteers and mercenaries are flocking to join both sides in the Russo-Ukrainian war.

 Ben Grant and other foreign fighters from the UK pose for a picture as they are ready to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 5, 2022. (photo credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS)
Ben Grant and other foreign fighters from the UK pose for a picture as they are ready to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 5, 2022.
(photo credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS)

Russia's war on Ukraine isn't just being fought by the standing armies of the two warring countries; tens of thousands of foreign fighters are converging on the battlefields of Ukraine as the Russian war on its neighbor enters its third week.

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Volunteers and mercenaries are already making their way to the front lines. Fighters are coming from Syria, Chechnya, America and Europe to fight on both sides of the conflict.

Russia and Ukraine have mobilized hundreds of thousands of their own soldiers to fight in the war, and both countries have appealed to foreigners to join their side.

Ukraine says up to 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries have signed up to join an international legion fighting on the beleaguered country’s behalf.

"If this person fits the requirement, we give this person a contact in Ukraine and the person goes to Ukraine and then signs a contract with the armed forces of Ukraine. So, there are no mercenaries who are coming and no money. Not at all. This is people of goodwill who are coming to assist Ukraine to fight for freedom," according to Borys Kremenetssky, defense attache for the Ukrainian embassy in the United States.

 A badge is pictured on a uniform of a foreign fighter from the UK as they are ready to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 5, 2022. (credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS) A badge is pictured on a uniform of a foreign fighter from the UK as they are ready to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 5, 2022. (credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS)

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Moscow of hiring "murderers from Syria,” calling it a country they have destroyed "like they are doing here to us."

The Ukrainian army said that Russia has recruited at least 1,000 Syrians so far, and 400 of them already have arrived at the front lines of the conflict.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO based in the United Kingdom, has reported that more than 40,000 Syrian fighters have registered to fight alongside the Russians, in return for financial incentives and privileges. It also said that, so far, no one has left Syria to fight on behalf of Ukraine.

According to Western media reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued orders to involve more than 16,000 “volunteers” from Syria and other countries in the Middle East to fight in Ukraine alongside Russian forces.

Putin on Friday backed plans to allow volunteers to fight in Ukraine, where his invasion is now entering its third week.

“If you see that there are people who want (to fight) on a voluntary basis, then you need to meet them halfway and help them move to combat zones,” Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during a televised security council meeting.

Speaking at the security council meeting in Moscow, Putin labeled those who are arriving to assist Ukraine in the war as "mercenaries."

"As for the gathering of mercenaries from all over the world and sending them to Ukraine, we see that they do not hide it, the Western sponsors of Ukraine, the Ukrainian regime, do not hide hiring mercenaries, they do it openly, ignoring all norms of international law,” Putin said. 

"If you see that there are people who want to come on a voluntary basis, not for money, and support people living in Donbas, well, we need to come to meet them and help them move to the war zone," he said, referring to the region in Ukraine that the Russian president recognized as “independent” just days before he invaded Ukraine.

Prof. Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that Putin wants to highlight the battlefield-tested fighters to deliver a message to the Ukrainians.

"This is the method by which Russia would like to instill anxiety within the Ukrainian public, because these are people who are mercenaries who are being brought up by the Russians in order to provide some atrocities and serve as trouble makers,” Rabi said. “It is known when it comes to this kind of a war that this stuff is definitely going to be used by the aggressor in order to have a greater impact on the population and thereby apply some pressure on the Ukrainian government and from there to the West."

Rabi says the Russian army is not in desperate need of help from these fighters.

"This is not something by which to change the rhythm of the war itself, but this is an auxiliary element that definitely can be found, and we have seen that a lot when it comes to wars like this," he said.

Volunteering to fight for freedom may feel noble, but it is an explosive addition to an already volatile situation.

Many who are willing to take up arms and fight in Ukraine on behalf of Moscow are Syrians, who have benefitted from Russian fighters in their own civil war.

"We owe Russia and President Putin a great deal of gratitude, he helped save our country from falling into the hands of terrorists when no one else did, and for that we are indebted. We have no choice but to go fight with our brothers, the Russians," Alla'a Adima, a Syrian from a village near Latakia who has signed up to fight in Ukraine, told The Media Line.

For other Syrians, this could be an opportunity to escape the endless war, harsh living conditions and economic collapse in their own country, for another conflict that they believe won't last long.

Dr. Eitan Shamir, a senior lecturer in the Political Science Department at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate with the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA Center), says what motivates these foreign fighters to join the Russia-Ukraine conflict is the perception that this is a fight of "good versus evil."

"Because the way the conflict is perceived in the West as bad versus evil, freedom versus tyranny and suppression, that lead many people to identify with the Ukrainian cause. Therefore, they felt they had to join the struggle which is much more than a struggle between two nations, but is a struggle between ideals."

The US believes Moscow is recruiting in Syria, where Russia has been helping government forces since 2015. Meanwhile, the Kremlin says those from the West who fight on Ukraine's side will be considered mercenaries with no protection under the Geneva convention.

"I don't think so because when you look at the Ukrainian side these are volunteers whose sole purpose of being there is based on principle and wanting to fight evil. They are mostly Westerners and they come to promote Western ideals, so I don't think they will resort to terrorism or anything like that," Shamir said.

The chance that these fighters might pick up arms elsewhere after this war concludes is low, according to Shamir. He argues that those fighting on opposite sides don't have many parallels, other than that they are both carrying weapons to fight against each other.

"I don't see the similarities. This is not about Muslim jihadists who are flocking from all corners of the world, like the fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. This one is different," Shamir said. "This is similar to what took place during the Spanish war."

Shamir is referring to the Spanish Civil War, when thousands of idealistic foreigners came to fight fascism, and he insists that this is what motivates these volunteers or foreign fighters to join in the current conflict.

Western governments have adopted the term "volunteers" to describe those joining Ukraine's side, while slapping the term "mercenaries" on those fighting on the side of Russian forces. Some say this is a double standard.

"Definitely. One is ‘volunteers’ and the other is ‘mercenaries,’ but you know when you are trying to explain your stand that you are doing a positive thing and the other is not. It's propaganda. This is not a new thing," Rabi said.

The idea of foreign fighters taking part in a war that their own countries are not directly involved in is not a new phenomenon. Several conflicts around the world have attracted volunteers, from Afghanistan – where the Arab jihadists flocked to assist the Afghans against the Soviet Union in the late 1970's with the knowledge and backing of the US, and again when the US invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Foreign fighters also found their way to Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria when, between 2011 and 2016, nearly 40,000 people traveled from more than 110 countries to join a war.

The war in Syria has seen one of the largest mobilizations of foreign fighters, with thousands coming from Western Europe to fight.

Many joined extremist organizations like the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.

In 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolutions to prevent the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters.

Some countries, such as Belgium, have tried to discourage their citizens from taking up arms in Ukraine, while others, including Latvia, have approved legislation that would allow their citizens to go fight alongside their neighbors.

Rabi says there are threats to take those fighting with the Russian forces to the International Criminal Court (ICC), but the chances that it will happen are "slim to none."

He points out that there are “an abundance of examples” of similar conflicts where there were no consequences for foreign fighters.  “It would be pity to deceive ourselves and think that this time war crimes will be dealt with in a different way," he said.