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Strangers in a Strange Land: Foreign Volunteers in the Struggle for Ukrainian Freedom


In March 2022, just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine began to escalate, Grant Shapps, the British transport secretary, sharply rebuked the “inappropriate behavior” of British soldiers volunteering to fight the Federation, exclaiming, “you cannot just get up and go and fight” to an unnerved British public.

Shapps’ words sound more like those of an indignant Russian diplomat than a senior minister in the British government. They come into direct conflict with the United Kingdom’s support for Ukraine’s pro-Western government — to whom the country has given millions in both aid and arms. Two-thirds of British citizens support economic sanctions against Russia, and it is not difficult to see why. Anyone who has used social media or read the news since March has seen the shocking consequences of Vladimir Putin’s invasion: The atrocities committed by Russian troops have spurred a strong support for the Ukrainians from the Western world. The threat of court-martial has done little to deter British soldiers from abandoning their duties and heading East. It’s not just them: Citizens of other nations have also flocked to the frontlines in support of a Ukraine under siege.

The enthusiasm of volunteer fighters has created a headache for government officials the world over. Western nations have sought to draw down the conflict, not escalate it, but an influx of foreign soldiers could have the opposite effect. The British government has sent mixed messages about the legality of volunteering. Then-Foreign Secretary Liz Truss endorsed the action, breaking with other members of her party and even British law. Other countries, such as Canada, have been less ambiguous, outright refusing to allow enlisted soldiers to fight. From a moral standpoint, Ukraine’s decision to develop a brigade of foreign fighters — known officially as the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine — is admirable. Its volunteers represent a spark of hope in the fight to preserve Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. In an unprecedented and rapidly-changing conflict, though, the implications of a foreign legion in Ukraine are yet to be known. These volunteers are not just trapped in a war between two states, but also of two ideologies — realism and idealism.

Glory To The Heroes

Journalists and writers have been quick to point out the similarities between the volunteers in Ukraine and the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War because the latter is a salient example of how the international community once challenged hostile right-wing authoritarianism. “Take any description of Vladimir Putin,” said Giles Tremlett, author of “The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War” in an interview with the HPR, “and change the name [to] Francisco Franco.” Both leaders ruthlessly pursued, in Tremlett’s words, “a sort of mythological history” for their respective countries. Putin once wrote that the idea of a Ukrainian identity separate from Russia was “the result of deliberate efforts” by Russia’s enemies — a form of scapegoating that fascists like Franco might appreciate. Anyone who disputes this version of history could, as in Franco’s Spain, be violently silenced. It would be a mistake, however, to simply equate the two groups of volunteers and their respective conflicts.

Each is rooted in its own geopolitical moment, and saying that the International Legion is just like the Brigade in ideology, skill, or scale detracts from a more nuanced understanding of this contemporary fighting force. The memory of the International Legion will therefore be of a much different sort than the Brigade. The Spanish Civil War began after Franco and his allies in the military schemed to take over the country’s government; the Russian invasion, meanwhile, is a purely external threat. The ideological makeup of the International Brigades was also skewed heavily toward leftism. According to Tremlett, many officers were “ultra-orthodox communists” and were promoted based on party loyalty. This is in contrast to Ukraine, where “in 2014 you had communists and Nazis in the same trench on the separatist side,” according to Dr. Kacper Rekawek of the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo in an interview with the HPR. Similar odd pairings are likely for the current International Legion, where leftists and Nazis fight side by side. This makes it difficult for one side of the political spectrum to lay claim to the Legion, as leftists had done with the war volunteers of the 1930s.

Diverse ideologies became a problem for the Spanish Republicans in 1936 as various left-wing groups shot at each other as well as Franco’s fascists. Thankfully, infighting does not appear to be a problem in Ukraine between either international volunteers or guerilla groups. For Rekawek, the reason for this is simple. “This might be unpopular… but there’s just too few people fighting from abroad in Ukraine,” he said in the same interview with HPR. The biggest reason is the Legion’s restricted recruitment — only those with combat experience can join. In Tremlett’s mind, the biggest weakness of the International Brigades was an officer class that did not have the know-how to lead poorly-trained soldiers to victory. “Most of the volunteers were ordinary working-class men,” he said, adding that “it’s a mistake… to think that spirit alone helps you win battles.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported in April that “[v]irtually the entire first crop of recruits was sent home” from Ukraine because so many were unqualified. A smaller force is more effective despite being less visible to a global audience.

Spain, for its part, never experienced infighting among victorious leftists because Franco won. The Brigades’ defeat, however, should not discourage nations from supporting an International Legion for Ukraine. The Brigades succeeded in alerting many to the dangers of fascism, in part because the Spanish Civil War transformed how journalists relay information. “Photography really had its first big war moment,” Tremlett said. Photographers shocked media consumers with “proper visual images of things we are now very used to seeing in Ukraine… intimate detail of how war interrupts normal lives.” Thanks to the spread of cell phones, the number of available images multiplies daily. Violent and tragic imagery makes people sympathetic, but it can also motivate them to take action. Some of the weakness of Ukraine’s propaganda machine has therefore been made up through the organic distribution of photos, videos, and fighters’ stories on social media. Although this distribution means that more people will be exposed to real-life experiences of the war, control of the narrative is indeterminate.

Lights, Camera– Action?

Communist networks gave the International Brigades a way to directly enlist soldiers, whereas Ukrainian recruitment is much more organic and decentralized. According to Dr. Rekawek, most foreign soldiers on both sides joined the conflict via “all sorts of social media groups, web pages, [and] profiles” on the Internet before the Russian invasion. Since then, online spaces have only gained influence. Fighters chronicle their experiences on Twitter and solicit donations for weapons. Some articles link directly to the International Legion’s website, streamlining the process for especially determined readers.

This decentralization, however, means that few people really know how effective volunteer recruitment has been. One source reports that “some 20,000 volunteers have reported for duty in the Ukrainian armed forces,” wording which implies that these volunteers are on the ground and ready to fight. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, said that 20,000 volunteers applied to join the International Legion. The number of volunteers that will actually see a day of combat is probably much smaller. “Forget the 40,000 emails,” Dr. Rekawek said. “There’s really hundreds [of fighters]… it’s nothing like it was meant to be or how some people felt it would be.” Compared to the 35,000 International Brigade members, as calculated by Tremlett, Ukraine’s International Legion appears to be inconsequentially small. For supporters of Ukraine, this is a disappointing result, and one that should lead viewers to reassess the influence of the group. Ukraine has ensured that its foreign volunteers will be battle-ready rather than incompetent. It has also, however, greatly reduced the scale of operations the International Legion could conduct.

Both the Ukrainian and Russian governments want the public to think of the International Legion as large and well-organized. For the Ukrainian side, the Legion is a rallying point and an example of global solidarity. The Kremlin, on the other hand, wants to use foreigners as proof that Russia is the victim. In an interview with the HPR, George Krol, former US Ambassador to Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, shared more about the diplomatic and legal consequences of a call for foreign volunteers. “I believe the Russian Federation would view this as an escalation of the conflict,” he said. The Russian narrative posits that there is something sinister about the International Legion — that it is an arm of the Western intelligence machine instead of a group of independent actors.

The prospects for volunteers captured by the Russians seem grim. It is no secret that Russian soldiers have committed war crimes in Ukraine, especially against prisoners. Volunteers from Britain and Morocco could share the same fate if separatists in Donetsk have their way. Foreign captives, though, are much more useful to the Kremlin alive than dead. Dr. Rekawek said that Russia would “stage a show trial… milk [POWs] as much as possible propaganda-wise…and then use them as a bargaining tool.” So far, his predictions have been proven correct. American POWs, for example, were featured in Russian media; their “confessions,” posted to Twitter, have since been picked up by pro-Russia accounts on the social media platform. As of November 2022, they are no longer imprisoned. These soldiers are still proud of their service to Ukraine despite the immense suffering they endured on the country’s behalf. Volunteers’ empathetic connection to Ukraine is the ultimate refutation of Russian propaganda narratives. Still, this will not prevent the Kremlin from exploiting captured fighters at every opportunity.

Legal Battles

Show trials in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine are not the fighters’ only legal concern, however. Complex legislation at home makes decentralized recruitment necessary and could result in prosecution upon the end of a volunteer’s tenure. Speaking about US law, Krol explained, “the Neutrality Acts… prohibit Americans… from organizing themselves in any kind of military formations… to fight against a country with which the United States is not at war.” If a person does not violate these conditions, they can probably volunteer without incident. This was previously exemplified, albeit on an even smaller scale, by Americans joining the PKK and other Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq. Other countries have stricter rules. British and Canadian law, for example, would not permit volunteers to join the Ukrainian military unless Russia declared war on either country. Whether these nations would decide to prosecute an international legionnaire is another matter entirely.

Punishment within the Ukrainian military is another potential gray area. During the Spanish Civil War, the International Brigades had its share of deserters and mutineers. Anyone who signed up to join the Spanish Army, according to Tremlett, “had to obey the rules, the norms of that army.” Cowards’ lives were often forfeit. Those who break their word to Ukraine could also legally be killed by their former comrades. Despite this, many foreign soldiers have left Ukraine, sometimes with the approval of their commanders. According to Dr. Rekawek, desertion rules are rarely enforced when foreigners choose to leave. “The Ukrainian attitude towards the foreigners fighting… is extremely welcoming and lax,” he noted. Even if fighters have to worry about prosecution in their respective countries, at least they are unlikely to face resistance on the journey back.

Nevertheless, foreign countries are more anxious about desertion within their own militaries. Grant Shapps’ comments reflect this worry — from the Russian perspective, could British soldiers in Ukraine be anything but a provocation? The Kremlin has a habit of pretending that highly-trained special forces are civilian volunteers, so perhaps Putin is projecting his own concerns. Although the number of volunteering soldiers is too small to constitute a threat to Russia, their presence in Ukraine is an easy propaganda victory for Moscow. As a result, American soldiers who assist their Ukrainian counterparts mostly do so in neighboring countries, such as Germany, or within the US itself. “I believe it would not be legal for a serving American military officer… to actually sign up and fight in this International Legion,” Krol said. Deserting soldiers face five years’ jail time in both Britain and the United States. This is a risk, however, that those passionate enough to die for Ukrainian democracy are willing to run. 

Looking Forward

The future of the International Legion is more than a few prosecutions, pardons, or Russian propaganda films. It will be a memory of great or little importance to the conflict’s history. From the numbers alone, it is clear that the group will not be as prominent a factor in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as the International Brigades were in the Spanish Civil War. The Brigades were able to mobilize tens of thousands of troops, a strength that would be impossible for Ukraine to call forth with its decentralized, quasi-legal recruitment. Indeed, as of right now, the International Legion might number fewer than the foreign volunteers on Franco’s side, of whom there were at least a thousand. That does not mean, however, that the Legion’s story is unimportant. What the Legion is and how it will be remembered are two very different things. It was always designed to be something larger than its membership — larger than life. Social media has ensured that its fighters and what they represent are constantly visible. Thousands cheer them, mourn them, support them with words or currency. These viewers — an International Legion of their own — carry the torch and spread the fighters’ message through likes, memes, and retweets.

Tremlett opines, quite bluntly: “War is binary… you can only choose one of two sides.” One wonders if this applies not only to Ukraine and Russia but also to remembering and forgetting. Upon asking Dr. Rekawek about Tremlett’s quote, he said, “I’m probably too old, so I agree with this statement, but I have a certain suspicion that your generation… might be of a slightly different outlook.” If this generation remembers standing in solidarity with Ukraine — if we remember Ukrainian flags in our neighbors’ yards, protests on the steps of Widener Library, blue and yellow heart emojis in Twitter and Instagram bios — the Legion will stay with us. If not, it won’t. We have the capacity and the will to remember. After all, we are living in the same cultural moment that convinced a few hundred or maybe a thousand people that some things are more important than the law, or politics, or death. Time will tell if we follow their example or let it pass into obscurity.

Image by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona licensed under the Unsplash License.


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