• Breanna Crossman

Volunteer Foreign Fighters Join Ukraine against Russia


Foreign fighters from all over the world have joined the war in Ukraine. (Manhhai/Flickr)


Since February 24, 2022, Russian forces have invaded Ukraine and unleashed violence on its 44 million inhabitants. Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to “demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine” in the so-called “special military operation.” More than 10 million people have been displaced by the ongoing war, and the UN estimates there have been more than 1,000 civilian casualties.


While most countries have condemned Russia’s aggression through economic sanctions, NATO has refused to send troops to Ukraine due to fears of conflict escalation and Putin’s threat of nuclear weapons. Yet despite most countries’ reluctance to send troops, individuals from all over the world have taken action to assist Ukraine.


Ukrainian President Zelenskyy announced the creation of an International Legion within the Ukrainian territorial forces on February 27. This action waived the need for visas and opened the doors for many foreign volunteers to join the war.


Parallels to the Spanish Civil War


The creation of an International Legion composed of foreign volunteers has roots in the Spanish Civil War, in which over 35,000 volunteers from 52 countries joined Spain against fascist-backed Nationalist Francisco Franco in 1936. Germany and Italy had both fallen to dictators, and foreign nations feared that Spain would fall next if they did not take action. The so-called “International Brigades” came from Europe, Latin America, and Canada. Women also participated as nurses in military hospitals. Richard Baxell, historian and author, states that approximately 70 percent of the foreign volunteers were communists, as the Communist Party of the 1930s was the largest organization battling fascism.


During the Spanish Civil War, the United States passed several Neutrality Acts that cemented America’s isolationist stance. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unsuccessfully campaigned for America to back the Spanish Republic. However, about 3,000 Americans, mainly members of the American Communist Party, joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to help fight against fascism in Europe.


In 1938, the Spanish Republican leader Dolores Ibarruri praised the International Brigades: “Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Republicans — men of different colors, differing ideology, antagonistic religions, yet all profoundly loving liberty and justice, they came and offered themselves to us unconditionally. . . . You are history. You are a legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality.”


Many see parallels between the ideological struggle between fascism and democracy during the Spanish Civil War to the war in Ukraine. Pro-west Ukraine has garnered many supporters from democratic countries, while many see Russia’s aggression as imperialist and fascist.


Where are the volunteers coming from?


Foreign fighters for Ukraine often come from Ukrainian diaspora communities in Canada, the UK, the United States, and Israel. Volunteers from the Baltic States are familiar with Russian aggression and now seek to defend Ukraine from Russian violence. Many Ukrainians who immigrated to nearby states also feel a duty to defend their country.


“My Ukrainian grandfather fought against the Red Army and the Nazis in World War II. Now it’s my turn to help,” said Igor Gavrylko, a British citizen from Ukraine who returned to fight. 215,000 Ukrainians have returned home to help defend their country, according to Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.


However, the volunteers may face repercussions in their home countries. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that British citizens who left to fight for Ukraine would face a court-martial on their return. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also discouraged Australians from joining Ukraine, referencing “uncertainties” about the legality of foreign volunteers.


Other countries are more permissive to volunteers. Danish, Latvian, and German leaders said that they would allow their citizens to volunteer, while Canadian defense minister Anita Anand said it is an individual decision for Canadians.


According to Russian news agency TASS, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman called these volunteers “mercenaries” and asserted that they would be treated as lawful combatants. Foreign volunteers have also joined militant groups of pro-Russian separatist forces. Approximately 13,000 foreign volunteers from 50 countries have joined these forces, according to Austin C. Doctor, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the director of counter-terrorism research initiatives at the NCITE Center.


Many believe that President Zelenskyy aims to internationalize the conflict and elicit support from foreign countries by recruiting foreign volunteers. Media attention has rapidly accelerated the number of volunteers going to Ukraine, while the war continues.


What comes next?


The future of Ukraine is uncertain, but many believe that the war will continue as Ukraine and Russia refuse to compromise.


One possibility, states Professor Chirs Miller of Tufts Fletcher School, is “that Russia pushes forward with the invasion, surrounds and eventually seizes Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and then ousts President Zelenskyy and tries to put its own puppet in place.”


Others believe that Russia may withdraw due to the surprising and prolonged resistance by Ukraine, as well as the overwhelming foreign support for Ukraine.


While Russian and Ukrainian officials have discussed compromises in Belarus, neither country seems poised to end the war anytime soon. Russia wants Ukraine to demilitarize the country and pledge to never join NATO, but neither prospect seems likely. Economic sanctions on Russia may influence its actions in the next months, but Russia seemingly remains dedicated to expanding its influence into Ukraine.