Security Review

Foreign fighters in the Russia-Ukraine war

Author: Aleksandre Kvakhadze

Foreign fighters in the Russia-Ukraine war

Since the beginning of the large-scale phase of the Russia-Ukraine war, hundreds and possibly thousands of volunteers from all over the world have expressed their desire to fight on the side of Ukraine. Although foreign volunteers also helped the armed forces of Ukraine in the 2014 Donbas conflict, the current war has further increased the mobilization of foreign fighters. Foreign fighters were participants in many conflicts of the 20th century. According to Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty, foreign fighters differ from mercenaries in that their main motivation is ideology, religion, and/or ethnicity, rather than material benefit. Along with the development of information technologies and the simplification of movement between countries, the number of foreign fighters and the scale of their mobilization have increased in the world. This article aims to review the major groups of foreign volunteers fighting on the side of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

 

The Georgians

Compared to volunteers coming from other countries, the number of Georgian volunteers in Ukraine is the most significant. The exact number of Georgian fighters currently there is unknown, but we can assume that their number is at least several hundred strong. It should also be noted that that number is not static: Some return to Georgia as new waves join the fighters in Ukraine. Besides the people directly involved in the battle, some volunteers from Georgia also perform non-combat tasks (e.g., nurses, drivers, etc.). It seems that many people in Georgia want to fight in Ukraine.

The following groups of Georgian fighters can be distinguished in Ukraine: The "Georgian Legion," which, under the command of Mamuka Mamulashvili, has been participating in combat operations in Donbas since 2014. Following Russia's large-scale aggression this year, additional manpower has joined this unit, transforming the "Georgian Legion" into a kind of transnational unit. In addition to Georgians, other foreign fighters (mainly from Western countries) are also part of it.It is worth noting that the Russian propaganda machine is actively working against the Georgian Legion. For example, the Russian Prosecutor's Office initiated a criminal case against those fighters of the "Georgian Legion" who have been visible in open sources.

The second group is the group of Georgians under the command of Georgian military servicemen in reserve, Vano Nadiradze, consisting mainly of ex-militia.

The third group is a group of young people united around the military blog Marksman. Before the war in Ukraine, Marksman was a club for gun lovers, in which both ex-servicemen and connoisseurs of weapons were united. This group is currently fighting in the direction of Severodonetsk.

Apart from these groups, Georgians are also scattered throughout various Ukrainian units. For example, during the defense of the city of Mariupol, at least two Georgians fought in the "Azov" battalion, one of whom - Bakhva Chikobava - was killed.

The motivation of the Georgian volunteers can be explained as coming from a number of sources. First and foremost is the common threat emanating from Putin's Russia. If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, Russian aggression may engulf Georgia. Therefore, the Georgian volunteers believe that Putin should be defeated in Ukraine so he cannot intervene in other countries. "This is our war" and "our fate is decided in Ukraine" are the most frequent phrases we can hear from the Georgian fighters. In addition, they often bring up the participation of Ukrainian volunteers on the side of Georgia in the war in Abkhazia. The absence of disputed issues between Ukraine and Georgia is another important factor promoting the mobilization of volunteers.

The Belarusians

After Georgia, the Belarusian contingent is probably the most notable. Belarussian volunteers were already involved in the Donbas hybrid conflict in 2014. At that time, the tactical group "Belarus" was created, which fought alongside various Ukrainian units. In February 2022, the Belarusian regiment named after Kastus Kalinovsky was formed, which includes about 200 fighters. This unit of Belarusian volunteers actively fought in the liberation operations of the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions. The Kalinovsky regiment includes former members of the tactical group "Belarus", members of the youth organization "White Legion", and Belarusians migrated to Poland.The leader of the Belarusian opposition, Svitlana Tsikhanovskaya, announced the mobilization of Belarusian volunteers who will perform non-combat tasks in different cities of Ukraine. Belarus volunteers have helped Ukraine not only in Ukraine, but also in Belarus. For example, when the attack on the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions was carried out, mainly from Belarus, local volunteers organized the sabotage of railway lines and obstructed the movement of military formations.

The main motivation of the Belarusian volunteers is their anti-Russian sentiment. They are opponents of Belarusian President Lukashenko, and many of them have been affected by the repressions from the Belarusian authorities. For opposition-minded Belarusians, Ukraine is a platform which can precipitate the dismantling of the Lukashenko regime in future. According to one Belarusian volunteer, blogger Sergei Bespalov, "we [Belarusian fighters] must first liberate Ukraine, and then Minsk." This statement clearly indicates the motivation of the Belarusian volunteers.

The Russians

In March 2022, the "Legion of Free Russia" was formed on the territory of Ukraine. The Legion consists of ethnic Russians, citizens of Russia. According to various data, their number exceeds 100. The legion includes both former Russian soldiers and surrendered Russian prisoners. According to the advisor of the President of Ukraine, Alexei Arestovich, the desire to join the Legion is quite large from Russia, however, due to security reasons, the Ukrainian side is careful about the uncontrolled admission of Russian volunteers, and only after multi-layer filtering do they accept relatively reliable personnel.  It is noteworthy that the former vice-president of Gazprombank, Igor Volobuev, joined the legion.

The main motivation of the "Legion of Free Russia" is to fight against Putin's regime. Most likely, the Legion hopes to create an opposition platform in Ukraine, which will then take part in the change of government in Russia. It should be noted that the Legion does not use the official tricolor flag of Russia, but a blue-white flag, a symbol of the Russian democratic forces. In this way, the Russian volunteers are distancing themselves from the current system of Putin's Russia. Moreover, the Legion uses the Latin letter L as its symbol to show its opposition to the Z sign.

Fighters of the "Legion of Free Russia" are fighting in different places. For security reasons, their personal information is strictly confidential. Moreover, in order not to attract the attention of the Russian military and special services, they are dispersed throughout various Ukrainian units, and use Ukrainian uniforms or tactical insignia. According to information disseminated through the internet, Legion activists are not only based in Ukraine, but are also actively involved in organizing subversive acts on Russian territory, for example, by burning down military commissariats. In addition, the letter L periodically appears in various cities of Russia.

 

The Chechens

We can also find Chechen units fighting on the side of the armed forces of Ukraine. Two groups are outstanding from these divisions. The first is Sheikh Mansur's battalion, whose commander is Muslim Cheberloel. His battalion appeared in Ukraine as early as 2014 and took an active part in combat in the Donbas region. The unit consists mainly of veterans of the Chechen War and representatives of the Chechen diaspora.

The second Chechen unit is the battalion named after Dzhokhar Dudayev. It is headed by young commander Adam Osmaev. Dudayev's battalion, like that of Sheikh Mansour, appeared in Ukraine in 2014. At first it was headed by the famous Chechen commander Isa Munaev, but in 2015, he was killed by a mortar shell and Osmaev took over command. The number of Chechens might have been larger on the Ukrainian side, but it is difficult for them to enter Ukraine due to visa restrictions.

The main motivation of the Chechen volunteers is to fight against a common enemy. Their motivation may also be to clear their name. As a result of the Russian information campaign, Chechen fighters are equated with international terrorism in global media, which helps to discredit the Chechen resistance movement.

 

The Western Nations

In addition to those coming from post-Soviet space, the Russo-Ukrainian war has attracted a large number of volunteers from Europe and North America, most notably from Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. In the early weeks of the war in Ukraine, the famous Canadian sniper Wali took part in the fighting. In addition, there was a fairly large number of volunteers from Eastern Europe.

The Western volunteers are fighting in different areas. Many are involved in the hostilities in Donbas. British volunteers also took part in the battle for the Azovstal factory in Mariupol. Two are currently captured and have been sentenced to death by the de facto court of the DNR separatist organization. However, this sentence has not yet been carried out and this issue is likely to be used by Russia as a bargaining chip with the UK authorities.

Western volunteers include both ex-professional soldiers and daredevils whose primary motivation is to fight against Russia. Of the Canadian fighters, it can be noted that many of the citizens of the country have Ukrainian roots.

In addition, it is possible that the command of NATO member states want to see the Russian army in action so as to study its strengths and weaknesses in detail and then draw appropriate conclusions. Volunteers with military experience are making use of this unique opportunity to observe.

 

Conclusion

The war in Ukraine has attracted a large number of volunteers. All such mobilization helps to connect activists living in various countries. It has turned out that there are many people in different parts of the world who want to fight against Russia. Therefore, in case of any new Russian aggression, mass mobilization of foreign fighters is inevitable.

 

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