A number of American veterans are taking up arms and joining the fight in Ukraine—answering the call of the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who last week announced he was creating an “international legion” for volunteers from around the world to help defend his country against Russia.
This is not illegal. U.S. citizens can join foreign militaries under certain circumstances as long as they aren’t acting as mercenaries or recruited while still in the U.S., according to the Washington Post.
Still, it is incredibly dangerous. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has discouraged American citizens from going to Ukraine. And Russia has said it would consider foreign fighters to be mercenaries and therefore not protected by the normal rules for prisoners of war. Most of the foreign fighters in Ukraine now hail from other post-Soviet states, but the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S. has said that 3,000 U.S. citizens have contacted them to express a desire to join the fight. (Ukraine has also said that it is only looking for military veterans and others who do not require substantial training.)
Several years ago, after the outbreak of war in Donbas in Ukraine in 2014, a couple dozen Americans joined other foreign fighters in militia groups to fight Russian-backed separatists in that region. A number of those foreign fighters turned out to be violent right-wing extremists.
But the scale of war in Ukraine is vastly different now.
And so is the type of fighter, according to Kacper Rekawek, a fellow at the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. Rekawek has studied foreign fighters in Ukraine since 2014, communicating directly with on-the-ground networks there. He spoke with Slate this week about the motivations of the foreign fighters headed to Ukraine and what role they have to play in this war.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Slate: What do we know about the new wave of foreign volunteers to Ukraine?
Kacper Rekawek: All the people who go say one thing: “I’m here for humanitarian reasons. I saw something. It touched me deeply. Ukraine should not be abandoned, we cannot stand idly by.” Now, what we don’t know is what triggered this. It could be the same things that trigger you or me, for example, to donate to a humanitarian organization, or could trigger some of my compatriots [in Poland] to pick up refugees from the other side of the border. For some people, it’s “OK, I need to go and pick up a gun and fight.”
There’s a lot of coverage of veterans from the U.S., but also from places like the U.K., from other places where people are saying, “I’m a veteran, I have special skills, I know how to conduct myself in war, I will not be a liability to the Ukrainian forces.”
These fighters probably mobilize in the quickest manner, because they know how to operate in foreign environments. You wouldn’t believe how much of the discussion on social media groups is about logistics. How do I get from here to there? Oh, Jesus, I will have to take the train, and I don’t speak the language.
So you’ve got the group of veterans. And it’s centrist people, it’s right, left, whatever. I mean, they appear apolitical. Unlike in 2014, they don’t appear to be motivated, as a group, by a certain set of ideological tropes. Some of the foreign fighters in 2014 were saying, “We’re here to defend white Europe.” Or “We’re here to defend socialist people’s republics in the east of Ukraine.” There’s almost zero stuff like that at this moment. That is the difference.
I saw that there was one neo-Nazi group in the U.S., the Atomwaffen Division, asking its members to go fight for Ukraine.
Everyone’s talking about this. The nationalist Ukrainian group on the ground, the Azov movement, said yesterday that they facilitated the travel of 20 people to Ukraine. But allegedly, 20,000 people signed up overall. So compare those two numbers. I know there’s a lot of discussion about the extreme right and white supremacy, etc., but I’m trying my best to tamp down the focus around it. I’ll be the first to flag it if there are a lot of fighters headed to Ukraine for that reason, because I research extremists. But I haven’t seen it.
Is there any other part of the discussion surrounding this that you think has been wrong?
There are people saying they’re mercenaries. Foreign fighters headed to Ukraine are going to get paid as members of the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine, but they’re certainly not doing it for the money.
Do you know anything about American fighters, specifically?
There is a unit in Ukraine called the Georgia National Legion, and this unit has been recruiting people for the war in Ukraine since 2014. They have a special affinity, it seems, for U.S. recruits. They are on social media, and they started training people before the war. They started training civilians in Kyiv, it got them a lot of media attention, and they probably lined up quite a few people before this whole thing started. That’s why quite early in the conflict, literally in its first days, you may have seen Americans deployed already.
Are there any foreign fighters going to fight for Russia?
It’s kind of hard when there are no flights. It’s hard to get there logistically, hard to pay them. There are rumors of Russia recruiting people from the immigrants they have from Central Asia, as a scheme to get citizenship, but that’s not foreign fighting. They are also apparently recruiting some people in Syria from the troops of Bashar al-Assad. And they recruited in Serbia in the previous conflicts, and they reportedly have the Wagner mercenary group as well, so there might be people channeled through private military contractors.
But as far as foreign volunteering on the Russian side—look, Russia is pretty pumped up with nationalism now, and they are saying, “We don’t need the West. I don’t need your feta cheese. I don’t need your iPod. You can stuff it. The West is a fallen power. It’s just going to be us and China now.” So imagine recruiting people in these conditions.
Can you say more about the foreign fighters who came to Ukraine in 2014?
2014 was more ideological. That was a way smaller war, and I think it didn’t touch so many people so deeply. It was a war in which Russia pretended, “It’s not us, it’s somebody else who’s fighting against Ukraine.” Which is not true, but that’s probably why it attracted fewer people. And since it attracted fewer people, the ones who were the most radical, the most political, stood out. Those guys clearly were spoiling for a fight.
And they fought on both sides. So you had foreign fighters going to pro-Ukraine volunteer battalions and to so-called separatist militias. And sometimes very little divided them ideologically. Sometimes it was almost a coin toss, where they ended up. Whereas now, it’s a completely different ballgame.
What drew extremists to that fight?
There was a bit of a split on the far right in Europe over this, because a lot of the people on the far right were sympathetic towards Russia. They saw Russia as a traditionalist empire. White, Christian Orthodox. There is a mystique around it—a dominant, aggressive, active political power that stands up to the United States and Western Europe. It’s anti-LGBT. It’s anti–political correctness. It’s how the world should look like. But then on the other hand, you’ve got a lot of people saying they’re nationalists, so they care about states and patriotism—in an extreme sense. And so they turn around and say, “We should actually sign up with Ukraine. It’s trying to fight for its territorial integrity.” That was in 2014. Now, it’s not territorial integrity. It’s survival.
Did those fighters stick around?
Sometime around 2015, the Ukrainians were saying, “Look, we’ve got these volunteer battalions, and we have to bring them under governmental control.” And they have, apart from one. There were two reasons for that. One, the Minsk agreements stipulated that foreigners were to be withdrawn from the theater of military operations.
The other is that at the beginning of the conflict, it was nice to have these guys. You could say, “Oh, we’re internationalizing the conflict. They stand with us. I have guys from this country or that country, etc.” But with the passage of time, it was becoming a bit of an embarrassment because it turned out that these guys were, essentially, radicals. Or they may have done something horrible somewhere on the front lines. And you simply had to play it down. That was the situation especially on the separatists’ side, and Ukraine is still going after those 250 foreigners they say joined those separatist militias. They still want to prosecute them.
So that was a perfect time to say, “OK, all you people who are not from here, you can stay, but we’re not going to be recruiting anybody new. And if you really want to come in and be with us as a foreign volunteer, here’s a contract and you can sign it with an army.” By 2015, the war was getting really cold, not much was happening. And most of these guys went home. They were telling me, “We’re bored. There’s nothing to do here.”
On the separatist side, basically, they did the same thing. The separatists were all over the place. It was just a bunch of militias running around, and at some point Moscow decided, “OK, we have to bring this under control. This cannot be this ragtag collection, or some weird groups of guys coming in from God knows where. We need to control this.”
How many foreigners were fighting in Ukraine back in 2014?
We estimated that there were around 17,000 foreign fighters who joined nonstate units on either side, either with a volunteer battalion or a militia. Out of that 17,000, around 15,000 were Russians, ordinary volunteers recruited via the Russian state [to fight with the separatists], basically pushed there as cannon fodder. (Of course, on the separatist side, you also had the Russian military.) So, around 2,000 on both sides were non-Russians. About half of those were Belarusian, Georgian, or people from post-Soviet republics who mostly fought on the Ukrainian side. Fewer than 1,000 were from the West, including Latin America and the United States.
Do we have a sense of the scale in this war?
It’s too much and too little at the same time. For example, on Facebook, like 10,000 people are discussing signing up to fight, to give you the scale of the madness around it. Those numbers that are circulating around—16,000, 20,000, more, or 3,000 from the U.S.—it’s the people who applied, who got in touch with the Ukrainian Embassy. Let’s see what transpires on the ground. Of course, in a week, I might be singing a completely different song. But to be honest, there is a lot of smoke and relatively little fire behind it.
And I think focusing on those big numbers doesn’t get you anywhere, because chatter from people on the ground says, yes, they’re here, but it’s not thousands yet. We see them there on the battleground, they are already beaming their messages on social media: “Oh, I reached Kyiv, follow me, it’s OK,” stuff like that. Once we see them beaming more out of the conflict zone, we can build a picture of them.
Is there anything else that you really want to make sure American readers know to understand all of this?
For Ukraine, it’s a public relations thing, don’t forget that. This internationalizes the conflict. And that’s what Ukraine wants. They need our help, they’re desperate. They are playing all the cards they can get. And this one, they’re playing it quite well.