A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 28, 2024

Ukraine Foreign Fighters Mostly From US, Europe, Motivated By Ideals. Russian Foreign Fighters, Mostly From Global South, Want the Money

Most of the foreigners fighting for Ukraine were and are volunteers from the US and western or eastern Europe who enlisted either because they oppose Russia on principle or because they felt Ukraine was unfairly attacked. 

Most of the foreigners fighting for Russia in Ukraine were either duped, forcibly enlisted or are doing it for the money - and most are from impoverished countries in the global south. Different motivations, different economic circumstances and different treatment. JL 

Ishaan Tharoor reports in the Washington Post:

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, thousands of sympathetic volunteers — largely from the West and post-Soviet states — enlisted under Kyiv’s banner. 20,000 foreigners from over 50 nationalities make up Ukraine’s international legion. At least 50 American citizens - the majority former U.S. military veterans - have been killed. Nationals from Syria, Cuba, Colombia, Nepal and India have all been deployed on the Russian side of the war. Some of these people were duped by human traffickers; others joined the war out of desperation to help families. But "We didn’t realize we would be sent to the frontlines quickly and how horrible the situation would be.”


“Nothing should be ruled out,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in comments that triggered a mini continental uproar. Macron was briefing reporters on the sidelines of a Monday meeting with 25 European leaders in Paris on their continued support for Ukraine as it resists Russia’s invasion. Kyiv has suffered recent battlefield setbacks as it grapples with shortages in munitions and workforce. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose views are more sympathetic to the Kremlin than many of his peers, had earlier suggested that there were European countries “prepared to send their own troops to Ukraine” — a revelation that was put to other European officials in attendance.

Officials from the United States, Germany, Poland, Spain, the Czech Republic and a number of other NATO countries all dismissed the suggestion that they were considering sending troops. But Macron chose “strategic ambiguity” and stressed the importance of not allowing Russia to win the war. “I remind you that two years ago, many around this table were saying: ‘We’re going to offer sleeping bags and helmets,’” he told reporters at the Paris meeting. “Today they’re saying: ‘We’ve got to go faster and harder to get missiles and tanks.’ They have the humility to realize that we have often been six to 12 months behind schedule. That was the aim of tonight’s discussion. So anything is possible if it helps us achieve our goal.”


Kremlin authorities seized on Macron’s remarks, arguing that NATO troops in Ukraine would prefigure a direct armed confrontation with Russia. “In this case, we would need to talk not about its likelihood, but about its inevitability,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, referring to the prospect of a wider war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin still casts the conflict as a proxy battle with the West that Moscow claims is propping up Kyiv. But Western governments have been at pains to maintain a plausible distance from the war, no matter their robust support for Ukraine’s defense. Leaked documents last year confirmed that some NATO countries — including the United States, Britain and France — had deployed small numbers of special forces and military advisers to Ukraine in unspecified roles probably related to logistical support work and training. The United States’ CIA has funded and partially equipped a sprawling network of spy bases across Ukraine that aid Kyiv’s efforts to track Russian troop movements and target the Kremlin’s prized military assets.

With U.S. aid in doubt, Europe struggles to rearm Ukraine

Whatever these footprints, the deeper reality of the war in Ukraine is that there already are plenty of foreign fighters on both sides. After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, thousands of sympathetic volunteers — largely from the West and post-Soviet states — enlisted under Kyiv’s banner. The international legion that emerged has been deployed across the front lines and in some of the war’s most grinding battles. It comprises a motley cast of ideological die-hards, grizzled warriors and mercenaries for hire. Some have earned social media fame for their impassioned dispatches from the war zone. At least 50 American citizens — the majority former U.S. military veterans — have been killed in Ukraine.


Though official numbers are a bit murky, some 20,000 foreigners from over 50 nationalities make up Ukraine’s international legion, according to Ukrainian officials. Last week, amid mounting concerns over troop shortages, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree allowing foreign nationals legally residing in the country to enter the National Guard, the military branch of the Ukraine’s interior minister. He also proposed legislation last month making it easier for foreign nationals defending Ukraine to receive citizenship. Other volunteer brigades fighting for Ukraine include detachments of Belarusian fighters opposed to the Putin-backed dictatorship in Minsk, anti-Kremlin Russians and ethnically Turkic nationals from Russia, and post-Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Russia, despite a massive demographic advantage, has faced its own workforce challenges over the course of the conflict. Its waves of mobilization pooled in unprepared conscripts from far-flung regions of the country and hardened convicts from its jails. Infamously, soldiers from the Wagner organization, a state-backed mercenary company, participated in what was a short-lived putsch last June amid internal anger over the management of the war.

Last month, Putin issued a decree fast-tracking citizenship for foreign nationals who signed military contracts to fight in the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Russian authorities have allegedly carried out police raids on Central Asian migrant homes in various cities, where those detained are sometimes pressured to enlist, according to the Associated Press.

With Russian economy far from collapse, U.S. opts for tougher punishment

Russia has reached out much further afield to boost its ranks. Nationals from Syria, Cuba, Nepal and India have all reportedly been deployed on the Russian side of the war. Some of these people were duped by human traffickers; others joined the war out of sheer desperation to help their families make ends meet. Their presence belies the constant state propaganda produced by the Kremlin, detailing accounts of Russian forces capturing or “eliminating” foreign mercenaries fighting for Ukraine in a bid to underscore the supposed illegitimacy of Kyiv’s government.


A number of recent stories chart the tangled, tragic global fault lines of the war. Reuters traced the journeys of Cubans from Havana’s depressed environs who encountered recruiters on social media, and then left for Russia and later Ukraine. The Nepali government has asked Russia to send back hundreds of Nepali nationals recruited to fight for them in the war. According to officials in Kathmandu, more than 200 Nepalis have gone to Ukraine’s battlefields and at least 14 have been killed, while a number of others are in Ukrainian custody. Other analysts say the real number of Nepalis sent to fight for Russia in Ukraine is much higher, perhaps in the thousands.

For poor Nepalis, the prospect of a salary at $2,000 a month and potential access to a passport with more possibility for mobility than their own is a strong sell. But returning fighters have detailed horror stories where they and other foreigners were sent into battle as cannon fodder.

“I didn’t join the Russian military for pleasure. I didn’t have any job opportunities in Nepal,” Ramchandra Khadka, 37, who returned to Nepal after sustaining injuries in Ukraine, told CNN. “But in hindsight, it wasn’t the right decision. We didn’t realize we would be sent to the frontlines that quickly and how horrible the situation would be.”


The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper, documented how at least 100 Indians were recruited by the Russian military as “army security helpers.” Some had no idea the contracts they signed would place them in the firing line; a group of Indians digging trenches for Russian troops in the Donetsk region were hit by a Ukrainian missile strike last week, killing at least one Indian national.

Speaking to the BBC, a man from Indian Kashmir described injuring himself while training near the occupied city of Mariupol with 10 people from India, Nepal and Cuba. “I had never touched a gun,” he told the British outlet. “It was extremely cold, and with the gun in my left hand, I ended up shooting my foot.”

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Ukraine has also seen a surge in fighters from the Global South. The Associated Press delved into how numerous former soldiers in Colombia, which maintains one of the largest standing armies in Latin America, have entered the international legion. Their deployments lack the ideological zeal of the foreign legionaries who flocked to Ukraine in the early months of the war. “They’re like the Latin American migrants who go to the U.S. in search of a better future,” a Colombian ex-combat medic who has trained departing mercenaries told the AP. “These are not volunteers who want to defend another country’s flag. They are simply motivated by economic need.”


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