Foreign Fighters Flock to Ukraine
Ukraine is not alone in its struggle against Russia.
Since 2014, more than 17,000 foreigner soldiers have traveled to Ukraine to help its military apparatus in the face of Russian aggression. Now, as the conflict intensifies, groups like the Georgian National Legion are receiving hundreds of applications per day.
“The Ukrainian people have a right to defend their country and be a sovereign nation just like the rest of us, so I’m here to help them maintain that,” says Adam, an American soldier who helps train new recruits. “I hope a lot of these people don’t have to fight,” he adds. “There are some young teenagers here. I wish they could just go on and live their lives and stuff, but it might not be that way.”
According to a Telegram post, as many as 200 Georgian nationals have already been killed.
The Georgian National Legion is a paramilitary unit that functions as a key element of Ukraine’s defense force. It was formed in 2014 by former Georgian serviceman Mamuka Mamulashvili after the start of the War on Donbas and was incorporated into Ukraine’s military in 2016. The legion includes soldiers from more than 27 countries, but is comprised mainly of ethnic Georgian volunteers with combat experience. Mamulashvili adds that many of his men worked for Georgia’s Ministry of Defense before Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991 and decided to join the legion to avoid political discrimination.
“I have said many times that we came here not out of hatred for Russia, but out of love for Ukraine,” says Zurab Chichelidze, who serves as Mamulashvili’s deputy commander. “In contrast to Russian mercenaries, who came for war against Ukrainian statehood…We have been faced with Russian aggression more than once. We understand how unjust the imperialist policy is, and this helps us fight. All of us have experienced this in Georgia.”
Volunteer battalions are not a new phenomenon in Ukraine, but organizing an international fighting force during an invasion comes with a host of challenges including:
- Language barriers
- Differences in military training and equipment knowledge
- Availability of staff to process applications and vet candidates
- Military contracts and obligations
- The potential impact of foreigners on far-right extremist movements in Ukraine
“It’s not surprising that there have been administrative challenges given the scale of foreigners who have responded to this call,” says Austin C. Doctor, a counterterrorism researcher with the US Department of Homeland Security. “But from a broader security standpoint, I think it’s especially important that the Ukrainian government does its best to create the administrative infrastructure to incorporate these hires into formal units for purposes of monitoring and accountability.”
It’s very possible that foreign individuals with radical views and no military experience are hoping to participate in the war in order to learn skills they can use back home, adds Doctor.
“There are likely going to be some [volunteers] who are doing this for more malevolent purposes, especially if the conflict that we’ve seen in the Donbas region is any indicator, particularly as it relates to receiving training or connecting with persons affiliated with Nazi or white supremacist organizations on the ground…Looking at that risk with eyes wide open will be important.”
On the plus side, the presence of foreign soldiers in Ukraine will enhance global unity regarding the conflict and make the Ukrainian cause more relevant in other countries. That being said, the official stance from the Biden Administration seems to be against Americans assisting in the fight:
“We still do not believe that Ukraine is a safe place for Americans to go,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. “We urge them not to go. And if any are still there, we urge them to leave.”