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Where are all the foreign fighters in Ukraine?
/ 13 Apr.'15 / 15:53
Kacper Rękawek

What is the scale of foreign fighters’ involvement in the conflict in Ukraine? Kacper Rękawek, an analyst at the Warsaw-based think tank Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) tried to find out. His full research has been recently published by PISM and is available here. Below is a short summary penned by Dr Rękawek for Civil.ge 

In late February 2015, within the space of three days, Spanish police arrested a dozen people suspected of either recruiting individuals for a terrorist organisation abroad or returning from a foreign conflict. Interestingly enough, only four of these cases were Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (a.k.a. ISIS/ISIL) linked. The rest were allegedly returning from the war in Ukraine. One of them claimed “several hundred” foreigners are fight alongside the separatists in the “Donbass International Brigades.” President Vladimir Putin, on his side, has claimed that “NATO’s foreign legion” operates in Ukraine. Flashy tags aside, what is the scale of foreign fighter involvement in the conflict in Ukraine and what are the motivations of those who volunteer to fight in eastern Ukraine?

Extensive research, based on analyzing open sources, media reports as well as based on information from Ukraine found that both “NATO’s foreign legion” and “Donbass International Brigades” are a myth.  The Russians overwhelmingly exceed all foreign volunteers. However, since most of them are soldiers, they cannot be counted as genuine “foreign volunteers”. The numbers for all the other volunteer participants do not even come close to that of the Russian military involved on the ground in eastern Ukraine. 
Nonetheless, the EU Member States should be concerned with the fate of Ukraine-based or Ukraine-bound foreign fighters, especially after their return to their host countries. Some completely reject the reality they will encounter back home and might involve themselves in violent activities aimed against their host countries.

Most foreign volunteers on both sides are representatives of wider extreme and anti-systemic political milieus that are vehemently anti-Atlanticist, anti-European, anti-liberal, nationalist and quite often pro-Russian. Through violent acts they might attempt to emulate the creation of entities and/or organisations that dictatorial and repressive in nature. Unfortunately, they are more than likely to find many followers amongst the radicals of Europe who decided not to join the conflict in Ukraine. These radicals will, however, lionise their foreign fighter comrades and may perhaps attempt to copy their deeds somewhere in Europe. According to the motivations of many of the foreign volunteers in the conflict in Ukraine, they will find many tempting targets to strike. This could be the drastic fallout from this war.

Where do they come from?

Table 1. Foreign Fighters on the Separatist Side in the Conflict

Nationality High estimate
Armenia 1
Belarus 7+
Belgium No estimate
Brazil 3
Bulgaria 1
Canada No estimate
Czech Republic 2
Estonia 1
France 4
Germany 100
Greece No estimate
Hungary 30+
Israel 1
Italy 5
Latvia 5
Lithuania 5
Kazakhstan 1
Kyrgyzstan 1
Moldova 1
Norway 1
Poland 5
Serbia 100
Slovakia 4
Spain 9
Tajikistan 1
U.S. 25
27 nationalities + Russians 289+

As the research found, the separatist forces might include fewer than 100 and up to 300 foreign volunteer fighters, i.e., 0.69% of the 43,000 men reported to constitute the “armed forces” of the separatists. This clearly contradicts the notion of “35,000 foreign volunteers” who have passed through the ranks of the separatist “militias.” Thus the claims of the Spanish volunteers detained recently about “several hundred” volunteers from the “Donbass International Brigades” seems highly exaggerated. 

This does not contradict the fact that the separatist forces enjoy a high level of cooperation from thousands of non-Donbass fighters. These mostly include Russian military and Russian “volunteers.” Russian armed forces personnel in eastern Ukraine are estimated upwards of 11,000 as of February 2015. These forces are augmented by alleged “volunteers” from the Russian army, estimated by DNR authorities to have numbered up to 4,000 men in the summer of 2014.

However, there most probably exists another category of non-Donbass fighters who could qualify as genuine foreign fighters. The largest share is the so-called “Russian volunteers.” According to James Miller, who reports from the field for The Interpreter, they make up “the largest bulk of the foreign fighters in Ukraine […] and play a role which is largely indistinguishable from local volunteers, the true separatists.”

From other states, Serbia, Hungary and Germany are estimated to have the highest share among separatist volunteers.

Volunteers in Ukraine forces

The situation is seemingly less complicated on the Ukrainian side. The study showed that no “foreign legion” exists in the conflict in Ukraine. The number of pro-Ukraine foreign fighters stands at between 100 and 300 out of the estimated 50,000 of the total fighting force – a share similar to that of their equivalents on the pro-separatist side. The highest share is formed by the Belarusians and Georgians – the higher estimate of their representatives stand at around one hundred each.

Table 2. Foreign Fighters on the Ukrainian Side in the Conflict 

Nationality High Estimate
Albania 10
Belarus 100
Belgium No estimate
Croatia 32+
Denmark 7+
Finland 1
France 1
Georgia 100
Greece No estimate
Ireland No estimate
Italy 9(?)
Latvia 1
Lithuania No estimate
Netherlands 1
Poland 10
Russia 1
Sweden 10
United States 1
18 nationalities 268+

Who recruits them?

While many Western European volunteers find their way to Ukraine individually or in small groups, there also seem to be organized recruitment efforts in Western Europe. The French seem to play an important role here. Gaston Besson, a French recruiter and alleged mercenary permanently residing in Croatia, publicises the armed struggle by nationalistic and anti-Russian foreign fighters on the Ukrainian government side and was reported to vet volunteers for the Azov Regiment.

Simultaneously, Victor Alfonso Lenta, a former member of the French military, plays a role of a mobiliser on the separatist side, attracting Western European volunteers to the forces of the DNR via Unité Continentale — a “geopolitical and continental” network of individuals who are “Sparta […] and like Sparta …[they] will triumph over the Anglo-Saxon globalism, Atlanticism and the decadent West.”

What are volunteers’ motivations?

Representatives of foreign fighters involved in the conflict on both sides often profess strikingly similar, mostly nationalistic, motivations, which seriously undermines the notion advanced by the Russian officials and media about a sort of “anti-fascist” war being waged by the separatist forces.

Alexander Litoy, Moscow-based journalist captures the most basic understanding of foreign fighter motivations as perceived by the pro-separatist official: “Serbs came to help their Orthodox Christian brothers; socialists from France and Italy came as part of their struggle against capitalism; and the multinationals […] Most of the foreign volunteers are idealists […] These guys have come a long way to help us fight against fascism,” or “American imperialism”.

The biggest ideological and political support for the separatists comes from political figures, parties and associations that espouse the ideology of “Eurasianism.” Their views and comments are consciously or accidentally also utilised by the separatist foreign fighters. Such an approach allows the “Eurasianists” to rally other anti-U.S. and anti-EU radicals (both from far-left and far-right) to their colours, for the purpose of the war in Ukraine. Moreover, some of the fighters are joining the separatists to oppose the alleged “hegemonic” and “expansionist” drive of the European Union, which they see as an instigator of the crisis in Ukraine. They campaign against an alleged internationalist project that reduces new EU Member States to mere colonies. Seen in this light, denying Ukraine a chance for integration with the EU is sparing it from “colonisation”. While this rhetoric might sound “internationalist” the ideological tint of the majority of separatist foreign fighters seems to be radical: as reporters say “half of them are communists and the other half are Nazis” but they get on well together while fighting “American imperialism.”

Interestingly enough, some of the pro-Ukraine foreign fighters profess similar ideological motivations behind their decision to join the fight. One is able to track down a high dose of anti-Atlanticism, akin to that of “Eurasianists,” and as well a racist ideology of opposition to “Global Jewry” or a combat against “multi-racial, cultural trashcan which hides behind the acronym RF (Russian Federation)”. Consequently, while the allegations of “Nazism” levelled by Moscow against Kyiv are clearly propagandistic, the Western European proponents of the racist ideology do fight on both sides of the barricades.

Simultaneously, there exists a desire to combat “an imperialist superpower” – Russia. Northern European volunteers, i.e., the Swedes but also Finns and also inhabitants of the Baltic states, are motivated by historical grievances and a history of combat against Russia. The narrative of fight against a common enemy is also seen among the Georgians and Belarusians, seeing their fight in Ukraine as their continuation of a struggle against post-Soviet and pro-Russian political regimes.

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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania or the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.

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