By Mark Soo
On February 27, the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine was established under the Ukrainian Army, with its formation announced online by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. The announcement resulted in numerous volunteers making inquiries with Ukrainian embassies and/or consulates on how to join the legion. The Ukrainian military recruited volunteers who had prior experience in the military or law enforcement or had specialist skills such as medical skills, IT and firefighting, although some chose to travel to the Polish-Ukrainian land border instead, especially those who don’t have military-related experience or skills. Russia later condemned the formation, warning that any foreigners detained in Ukraine under Ukrainian command would not be given prisoner-of-war status.
Most countries have raised concerns that any of their nationals volunteering to fight with the Ukrainians could be radicalized and use their military skills and experience picked up from fighting the Russian military for terrorist activities if and when they return to their respective countries. However, Kacper Rękawek from the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo indicated that the volunteers traveling to Ukraine are motivated by the need to help the Ukrainians after Russia invaded Ukraine. Volunteers helping the Ukrainians are a morale booster because the Ukrainian military needs all the help they can get as they are vastly numerically outnumbered.
It is estimated that 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries have been recruited into the legion’s ranks. Foreign Minister Kuleba said that he chose not to reveal the nationalities of the volunteers out of concern that some countries have laws that specifically forbid their nationals from joining a foreign military. By March 7, the Ukrainian military posted their first tweet related to the legion with the first soldiers already deployed outside Kyiv with more to follow.
The creation of a foreign legion has precedence in the history of the Ukrainian military. The Georgian Legion was formed in 2014 by ethnic Georgians living in Ukraine when the war in Donbass broke out, with non-Georgian foreigners joining the unit over the years. Mamuka Mamulashvili said in an interview with The National on March 5 that “democracy is defended physically in Ukraine… everybody who has a conscience and knows what democracy and freedom are, they have to come and help.” This was the only unit prior to the 2022 invasion where foreigners were allowed to join up under Ukrainian law.
Despite the enthusiasm of volunteers coming from numerous countries to travel to Ukraine and enlist with the military, there are countries that have enacted strict laws against their nationals from fighting under a foreign military, even if they work with an allied country in their ranks for a noble cause. Their penalties range from fines to imprisonment. Others have laws to legally allow a government to take away a volunteer’s nationality, rendering said person stateless unless he or she takes on Ukrainian nationality.
According to Vjekoslav, a Croatian national who volunteered to serve in the Ukrainian military, he has interacted with Ukrainian civilians who were grateful for his service to defend Ukraine even though he was a foreigner. This example is an illustration on how the volunteers fighting for Ukraine serve to bolster Ukrainian morale.
With Kyiv and most of the cities being targeted by the Russian military in sieges now a month after the war started, it might appear as though it won’t be long before they are all captured. The presence of foreign volunteers willing to fight with the Ukrainians to defend their homeland are admirable. Their numbers can bolster Ukrainian units in the field and hold back the Russian advance.
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