After Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, the Ukrainian government sought assistance from NATO and the rest of the world. But in addition to anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles and other armaments that the U.S. and its NATO allies provided, the Ukrainians asked for something else — volunteers.
“Anyone who wants to join the defense of Ukraine, Europe and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy implored in a Feb. 27 statement. Zelenskyy went on to explain that a 2016 Ukrainian law gave foreigners the right to enlist in the nation’s Territorial Defense Forces. “There is no greater contribution which you can make for the sake of peace,” he said.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba also tweeted Feb. 27, for foreigners to fight for Ukraine: “Together we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat Putin, too.”
Ukraine even set up a recruiting website, Fightforua.org that gives a seven-step set of instructions for Americans and other foreigners who want to sign up for combat against the Russians. Official applicants need to contact a Ukrainian embassy in their country and show up for an interview, provide documents to show they have past military or law enforcement experience, and gather their own military gear such as helmets and body armor, before making the trip to join the new International Legion of Defense of Ukraine.
In the first week after Zelenskyy’s call for help, 20,000 volunteers took Ukraine up on that offer, according to a tweet from the Kyiv Independent news outlet. In addition, others — many without any military experience — simply traveled to Ukraine on their own, as this Washington Post article details.
U.S. Veteran Matthew Parker told VOA News he wanted to go because he served with a Ukrainian American soldier in Iraq during his 22 years in the army. “He became an American citizen, joined the Army and he told me about his home,” Parker told VOA in early March. “I’d like to think that by going to Ukraine, maybe I protect his mother or his little sister or his home. Maybe in some small way, I say thank you to him for serving by doing something like this.”
History of Foreign Fighters
Idealistic Americans going overseas to join in another nation’s fight against a brutal enemy might sound like a Hollywood fantasy, but there’s actually a long history of brave souls doing it. Before the U.S. entered World War I, Arthur Guy Empey crossed the Atlantic and enlisted in the British army to fight in trench warfare against the Germans, and wrote a bestselling book about his experiences. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, 2,800 American volunteers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight for the leftist Republican regime against the fascist-backed Nationalist forces.
Foreign fighters actually “are surprisingly common, appearing in more than a quarter of civil wars in the last 200 years,” explains David Malet. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University, and author of the 2013 book “Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts.”
Generally, “they’re recruited by the weaker side and so most of them are not mercenaries,” Malet says. “They’re recruited with a message of defending a common community with local fighters that faces existential threat. In this case, a lot of volunteers believe they’re defending the future of the democratic West against an aggressive Russia or preventing WWIII.”
In recent years, American fighters have shown up in various trouble spots, according to Alex Hollings. He’s a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who these days is editor of Sandboxx, which covers military news and provides mail and travel services for service members and their families.
“I’ve known a couple of guys who have gone to foreign countries to fight for foreign causes, not necessarily for national governments, or sometimes for regional governments or organizations,” Hollings says. “I’ve known U.S. Marine veterans who volunteered to go fight with the Peshmerga against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere.”
Hollings also knows military veterans from other NATO countries who went to Syria to fight the Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Fighting in Ukraine Is as Gritty As It Gets
Hollings, who wrote this article on what foreign fighters need to know about going to Ukraine, doesn’t want to romanticize the idea of fighting in wars. But he notes that war is something that some people have an exceptional talent for.
“They develop a skill set, and they know they can make a difference,” he says. “And then when things happen, they sort of feel an obligation to go and do so, because they know that the pool of people with this skill set, and this unique capability emotionally and mentally, isn’t always that big.”
For somebody who wants to fight for a righteous cause, Ukraine’s underdog struggle against the Russians might be as compelling as it gets.
Though they’re joining a foreign army, Hollings says that American fighters probably will be assigned to units with other English speakers — “Australians, Canadians, Brits” — with whom they can readily fit in.
“One of the first things that would happen when you arrive in Ukraine is that you’d be evaluated for the skillsets that you bring, like prior experience and training,” Hollings says. “They’re going to put you in a unit where they think your skillset could benefit. So chances are very good that you’d end up with other with other people that you could communicate with very well that have similar tactics to those that you used in the past. So that way, you can use that to the best of your ability.”
These foreign fighters are going into battle without a lot of the advantages that U.S. forces typically have, such as extensive air support, advanced communications and other cutting-edge technology that normally gives them an advantage on the battlefield. Instead they’ll be compelled to fight in under-equipped, low-tech guerilla insurgency of the sort that they’ve gone up against in the War on Terror.
“It’s a very different type of combat,” Hollings says. “That’s not to say that U.S. infantry officers and enlisted [personnel] wouldn’t do excellently in Ukraine, but it’s just very different than what they’re accustomed to.”
Even so, Hollings explains, they’ve got a reverse-engineered knowledge base that could help.
“The same tactics effectively that U.S. servicemembers have been training to counter are now extremely effective tactics to leverage against the Russians, ” Hollings says. “In a weird way, U.S. service members, especially those who’ve deployed to combat zones over the past 20 years, kind of got a crash course in this type of warfare. And they’re probably more what I would call subject matter experts to a certain extent and how to leverage, you know, fewer resources against a larger opponent.”
That’s particularly true of U.S. special operations veterans. The Army’s Green Berets, for example, are experienced at going into countries and training Indigenous forces to engage in irregular warfare. “All special operations units are trained on how to fight in austere environments with very little support, ” Hollings says. “And that’s what Ukraine’s looking at.”
While U.S. government is advising Americans not to go to Ukraine, it’s unlikely that volunteers who do it anyway will face any legal consequences back home, according to Malet.
“The Neutrality Act is rarely enforced, and it would not be here because Ukraine is a friendly country, ” Malet says. However, Americans could lose their citizenship if they accept a commission as an officer or noncommissioned officer in the Ukrainian military, or if they state an intention to renounce their U.S. citizenship. Additionally, Malet says that an American fighting in a foreign conflict could get into legal trouble by providing support to some group that the U.S. has designated as a foreign terrorist organization — though none appear to be on the Ukrainian side.
The Putin regime has sought to deter foreign fighters from joining the Ukrainian side, warning that if captured, they won’t be treated as lawful combatants entitled to the protections normally afforded to prisoners of war, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Russian forces also staged a rocket attack against a military base in western Ukraine that Hollings says was a training facility for foreign fighters. That all suggests that the Russians view Ukraine’s foreign legion as a force to be reckoned with. The Russians reportedly are trying to recruit their own foreign fighters from Syria, though so far, there haven’t been an indications in media coverage that they’re having success.