Crossing the Pond: Latin American Foreign Fighters in Ukraine

1.0 Introduction

The War in Ukraine, which began in 2014 and peaked with Russia’s invasion of the country in 2022, has seen an outpouring of international support. The conflict attracted foreign volunteer fighters from all corners of the world. Some volunteers support Ukraine´s struggle for sovereignty, and others align themselves with Russia’s armed forces. 

One remarkable phenomenon has been the participation of Latin Americans on both sides of the conflict. Although Latin America is geographically distant from Eastern Europe, the participation of fighters from this region in the Ukrainian war underlines the power of shared ideals as well as economic incentives.

This article explores the presence, motivations and contributions of Latin American foreign fighters who have crossed continents to participate in the war. 

2.0 Foreign Fighters in Ukraine

Latin American foreign soldiers and volunteers have participated in the conflict since 2014. During the Donbas War period from 2014 to 2022, there were only a few instances.  In 2014, Spanish-Colombian Alexis Castillo became famous for appearing in videos in Ukraine while fighting with the separatist and pro-Russian militias in the Donbas. Since the renewed Russian invasion in 2022,  the number of Latin American volunteers has grown. The exact number is not known. However, we estimate several hundred, although the real number could be more than a thousand.

Latin American volunteers are overshadowed in the media by the more widespread presence of volunteers from Europe and North America. Nevertheless, they play an important role in the conflict, in support of both Ukraine and Russia.

(Source)

2.1 Pro-Ukrainian Fighters

The Latin American volunteers who are fighting on behalf of Ukraine mostly serve in the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine, also called the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. This unit is made up of foreign volunteers from all nations and is part of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces (TDF). Despite we were not able to verify this, some Russian newspapers talk about Spanish speakers who served in the Sich Battalion. This is a Ukrainian special police volunteer unit (source). The unit was very active in 2022 when they fought against the Russian Kyiv offensive. It was later redeployed to combat the Eastern Ukraine offensive, participating in the Battle of Kharkiv (source).

According to the sources consulted, and the information provided to them by the volunteers themselves, most of the Latin Americans participating are ex-military or ex-police. Their prior combat experience, however, varies from case to case. It is not clear how many Latin Americans have joined, or are still participating in the conflict. We estimate it to be in the range of several hundred to a few thousand.

2.1.1 Brazilian Volunteers

There is a significant number of Brazilian volunteers in the Foreign Legion. Reports indicate that there are Brazilian volunteers in the 1st Battalion Vovkodav and the 3rd Special Purpose Battalion. There are also some in the newly created Batallón Bolivar, which we will discuss in more detail below.

In 2022, various Brazilian newspapers reported that around 500 Brazilians were mobilising in WhatsApp and Telegram groups and on social networks to join the International Territorial Defence Legion. These sources talked about more than a hundred volunteers who had formalised their contact with the Ukrainian Embassy in Brazil. The costs of joining amounted to R$7,000 per person (USD 1400), including airline tickets and documentation. According to a consulted volunteer, during the process, there were approximately 15 Brazilians already in the conflict zone. 

According to Segundo Silva, a Brazilian volunteer interviewed by UOL Brasil, 80 per cent of the initial group were primarily ex-military and police personnel, several of them sharpshooters. The rest were translators fluent in Ukrainian or English, as well as doctors and nurses. However, he gave no further information on the latter group.

(Source), (source), (source), (source)

2.1.2 Bolívar Battalion

Image
Coat of arms of the “Batallon Bolivar”.
Image
Patch of the “Batallon Bolivar”.

A relatively new formation of Latin American volunteers is the so-called “Batallón Bolívar” (Bolivar Battalion). This unit, announced publicly around April 2023, is made up of volunteers from South American countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina. However, there are also Ukrainians, Americans and Australians. We do not know why, but is possible that they complete numbers, fill specialised positions, or facilitate translation tasks. The unit is under the command of the International Legion. However, they act as an independent battalion.

While the exact date of Batallón Bolívar’s foundation is not known, members claim the unit formed sometime after April 2023, although most of the videos and online resources date to August. It is mainly composed of Venezuelans, which is why the Venezuelan flag often appears in their images and videos. The founder and current leader of the unit is José David Chaparro Martín, also called “Comandante Chaparro”. Martín was the former Venezuelan Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow from 2001 to 2005. Another known member of this unit is Rodrigo Figueredo, son of former Venezuelan Foreign Minister Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart.

Activity

Videos of the unit indicate that they trained until August and that they are currently deployed in Kharkiv. If this is the case, the unit would be under the “Operational Command East” of the TDF. By September 2023 the Battalion seemed active and beginning to accept new volunteers. It is not known to what extent they are actively engaging in military operations. However, according to Chaparro, the unit’s mission is special operations (SO). He has stated that they have already carried out several in Kharkiv and Zaporiyia. Martin also stated that the unit is currently focusing on assisting the Ukrainian counteroffensive by breaking the supply line between Russia and the occupied territories (source).

At the end of August, the Battalion announced the creation of a small mixed special operations team. Furthermore, in mid-September, the Battalion announced the capture of a Cuban soldier serving for Russia. The overall size of the unit is not known.


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Photos published by the Ukrainian Ground Force also show Mexican volunteers but it is unclear in what unit they serve (source).

2.1.1 Financing

Many of the Latin American volunteers supporting Kyiv have been self-funded. Either with savings or by selling their assets to finance their travel and other expenses. However, there are other forms of funding from Ukrainian Embassies, private firms, and donors. 

Ukrainian Embassies

There are cases where the Ukrainian government has at least partially financed Latin American volunteers. In May 2022,  Infobae reported that the Ukrainian embassy in Buenos Aires had launched a call for volunteers. Ukrainian embassies in other countries such as Mexico and Colombia followed suit. According to testimonies, if volunteers accepted, the embassy would provide them with a temporary passport, 3,000 euros, and tickets to Ukraine (Source).

Private Firms

It seems to be the case that some Latin American companies are hiring and financing volunteers. 

In an article in the Guardian newspaper, one of the volunteers interviewed stated they have been hired by companies that pay up to $10,000 a month for their services. According to this volunteer, a Colombian company hired him and 30 other veterans to join the Foreign Legion. This Colombian volunteer saw the job advertised on a WhatsApp group for military and police veterans. These fighters, which some call mercenaries, are coveted by contractors for their experience in fighting leftist rebels, paramilitaries and drug traffickers. 

(Source)

Private Individuals

We have also found a case of individuals who have agreed to fund volunteers. In March 2022, there was a case of a businessman from Kyiv who launched a campaign to fly up to 50 Brazilians to Poland (source).

2.2 Pro-Russian Fighters

Not many cases are known of pro-Russian Latin American volunteers during the Donbas war. However, a famous case of a foreign soldier in pro-Russian ranks was that of the Spanish-Colombian Alexis Castillo. Alexis was born in Colombia but resided in Spain. In 2014, Alexis (“Alfonso”) went to Ukraine to fight with the separatist and pro-Russian militias in the Donbas.

Alexis joined the “Donetsk People’s Militia” (DPR). According to close sources, Alexis was part of the Vostok Battalion, a unit that included some foreign fighters. His last deployment was in Peski, a town near Donetsk. In October 2022, pro-Russian media reported his death in combat. 

(Source), (source), (source)

Video of Alexis Castillo in Ukraine, explaining how to deal with an unexploded 82mm mortar explosive.

Another known case was Rafael Lusvarghi, a former Brazilian policeman. Before joining the military police in Brazil, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. In 2014 he joined the separatist ranks as an international volunteer, specifically in Donetsk. Although he appeared in several images armed and next to military vehicles, his degree of participation in armed operations is unknown.

In 2017 Lusvarghi was arrested in Ukraine and sentenced to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges. He was the first non-Russian foreigner to be convicted of a Ukrainian felony for participating in the war in Donbas. Lusvarghi was released after 14 months without a passport. In 2019 he was exchanged and handed over to the DPR authorities. He then returned to Brazil where he was once again arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for possession of drugs and ammunition.

(Source), (source)

2.2.1 The Cuban Case

Recently, there have been a significant number of Cuban recruits in the Russian ranks. In September 2023, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Cuban authorities had “uncovered” a human trafficking ring that recruits Cuban citizens, both living in Russia and in Cuba, to fight for Russia in Ukraine. 

Cuban authorities discovered the ring after reports appeared on social media of Cubans claiming to be serving in the Russian armed forces. In these videos, Cuban nationals alleged that they had been tricked into joining the war effort and mistreated when they refused to fight (source). In the same month, the Ukrainian hacker group Cyber Opposition through InformNapalm showed evidence that Russian authorities recruited, trained and transferred entire Cuban mercenary units to Russia to participate in hostilities against Ukraine (source). 

Cuba has a long history of supplying mercenaries to Russia since the Cold War. The Cuban government was likely aware of this activity given the country’s ideological and political closeness to Russia. However, given the lack of financial means of the local population, it cannot be known for certain whether the Cuban authorities were actively involved in the recruitment of its nationals or just chose to ignore it. 

Cubans in Ukraine

The presence of Cuban fighters, however, has been public since May, when the regional Russian newspaper Ryazan Vedomosti wrote about Cuban immigrants living in Russia and enlisting in the Russian army. Their presence was supported again in September when the Bolivar Battalion uploaded a video of a captured Cuban soldier (source). 

In the last months, many media reports have covered Cuban participation in Ukraine. For instance, the US-based AmericaTeVe Miami channel and the Cuban publication Cibercuba have published photographs of Cuban citizens in military uniform. They claim that the Cubans flew to Russia from the airport in the resort town of Varadero.  Since July 1, Aeroflot has had direct flights from Varadero to Moscow. This recruitment seems to be partly done through social networks, particularly a Facebook group called “Cubans un Moscow” (source).

A Russian officer told The Moscow Times that entire international battalions, including Cubans and Serbs, were fighting on the side of the Russian Federation. He also said that these soldiers were not from a PMC, but that they are all on contract to the Ministry of Defence. However, this information is difficult to verify (source). Although the exact number is not known, sources put their presence at several hundred. According to several Cuban volunteers, some 200 Cubans flew to Moscow with them (source).

Un grupo de personas en uniforme militar

Descripción generada automáticamente
Cuban soldiers in the Russian army.
Volunteering under Lies

According to several Cuban volunteers, they were told that they were being sent to build war-torn cities, to dig trenches. However, when they arrived, they were offered a one-year contract with the Russian army. According to the Cubans, they were promised a salary of 200,000 roubles per month ($2,000), as well as Russian citizenship for themselves and their families. In Cuba, the average monthly salary is $150 (source). 

The volunteers stated that their Cuban passports and documents were taken away under the pretext of registering citizenship. After that they were sent to military training, and then to Ukraine to dig trenches in the forest with insufficient food and water. Their phones were also taken away on the pretext that drones could detect them and drop bombs on them.

(Source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

Un grupo de personas sentadas alrededor de una mesa

Descripción generada automáticamente
Cuban citizens are signing contracts with the Russian Army. Photo: Ryazanskie vedomosti.

2.2.2 Wagner Group

An investigation led by the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia reported that some Latin Americans serve in the PMC Wagner Group. According to these investigations, the Russian mercenary group has been recruiting Latin Americans with conflict experience to reinforce its troops deployed in Ukraine for more than a year.

Many Colombians, Peruvians, and Mexicans have combat experience with the security services, paramilitaries and armed groups in their countries. Some examples are insurgent organisations such as the FARC, and Shining Path.

According to some sources, and due to the high attrition of the group in Ukraine, Wagner tried to replenish his forces by recruiting mercenaries from Latin American countries, among other places. According to Carlos Salazar Couto, a member of the working group on mercenaries of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Wagner has contacted former soldiers from Peru, as well as other countries in the region. 

La Vanguardia also pointed out that Wagner is likely to have contacted local organised crime groups in Latin America. Foreign fighters are attracted to higher-than-usual incomes. Before the war, Wagner paid his fighters between $3,000 and $5,000 a month, but sources said those rates had risen to $10,000 in recent months. 

Given Wagner’s recent fall from grace in Russia, and that the future of the group is uncertain, it is likely that other Russian PMCs will follow suit. However, we have not been able to find any information on the recruitment and use of Latin Americans by other PMCs.

(Source), (source), (source)

3.0 Reasons for Volunteering

Each individual has different reasons for joining the ranks. However, most volunteers on both sides describe their willingness to participate in hostilities as a mix of ideological, humanitarian, and economic reasons.

3.1 Ideology 

Most volunteers who participate in the war do so for ideological reasons. The main ideological cause of the pro-Ukrainian volunteers is anti-communism. Many right-wing Latin Americans see Russia as a communist entity that must be eradicated. Although Russia is no longer a communist country, anticommunist volunteers see Russian support for Cuba and Venezuela as evidence that Russia is spreading left-wing ideology in Latin America. Many Brazilians, Colombians and Venezuelans claim to be fighting Russia to prevent the spread of communism, which they see as a source of poverty, inequality, and oppression.

(Source), (source)

In the case of pro-Russian volunteers, the three main ideological causes are anti-Americanism (and Anti-NATO), “anti-fascism”, and “anti-imperialism”. Many volunteers, especially during the Donbas war, saw the Russian struggle as a noble cause against NATO and US fascism and provocation. Many of these belong to left-wing groups and consider themselves communists.

However, some volunteers, despite considering themselves left-wing, support Russia for its defence of traditional values and Christian culture. These volunteers claim that the West, especially the US, is “destroying” traditional values. This includes criticism of feminism homosexuality, and transsexuality. That is to say, Russia has managed to attract both ultra-leftist sectors (associating themselves with the former USSR), and ultra-right-wing sectors (with their traditionalist character).

(Source), (sources)

3.2 Humanitarian

Many volunteers who support Kyiv do so for humanitarian reasons. These volunteers see the invasion of Ukraine as unjust and regard Putin and Russia as aggressors trying to oppress a sovereign state. For example, many volunteers consider the invasion a ruthless attack on the civilian population and accuse Putin of “being a coward”. Many of the interviewed volunteers see themselves as Ukrainian civilians and want to help stop their suffering (source).

In the pro-Russian case, and following the Putinist narrative, some volunteers have also championed this as a cause. For example, many originally joined pro-Russian militias to stop the “oppression” and alleged “genocide” against the Russian-speaking population of the Donbas by the Ukrainian authorities (source). Others argued that the Donbas were legitimately defending the self-determination of its republics (source).

3.3 Money

Many Latin American volunteers see involvement in the conflict as a way to earn more money than they could at home.  In the pro-Kyiv case, there are cases of volunteers who, although they ideologically support Ukraine’s cause, are also attracted by economic compensation. Some volunteers have stated that they will be paid for their services, some expecting up to $10,000 a month. These military and police veterans see war as a way to supplement their state pension (source).

On the other hand, reports suggest that Russia has offered foreign fighters more than $2,000 a month to fight in Ukraine. Foreign fighters are attracted by higher-than-usual incomes. This case is especially important in the Cuban case, given that a large part of the population lives below the poverty line. Apart from the contracts offered by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Wagner Group has also encouraged the recruitment of foreigners with generous salaries. In the last months, Wagner was offering $10,000 per month to recruits. This is a substantial increase, given that initially they were paying their fighters between $3,000 and $5,000 a month.

(Source), (source)

3.4 Nationality

Another reason some Latin Americans volunteer to join the conflict is the promise of acquiring nationality through military contracts. In the case of Cuban volunteers fighting for Russia, participation has been seen as one reason for joining the fight was to obtain (and that of their family) nationality. Acquiring nationality can have economic implications since volunteers are often from countries with lower incomes than Russia.

(Source)

4.0 Conclusion

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has mobilised a large number of very different people. Many are in defence of Ukraine and others support Russia. This is no different in the case of Latin America. Hundreds of volunteers from most countries have joined Kyiv, specifically the International Legion. On the other hand, many others have joined Russia. The reasons change from person to person, but we see that there are four clear reasons. The ideological, the humanitarian, the economic and the obtaining of nationality.

Since this war will not end anytime soon, we will likely see more Latin Americans in the conflict. Some Latin American support for Kyiv will continue as long as people are willing to sacrifice for its values, and as long as there is financing that allows them to cover expenses or make money in certain cases. Many Latin Americans will also be drawn to the Russian armed forces. 

The Cuban case indicates that either Russia lacks people, or it wants to avoid using more of the Russian population as soldiers in a conflict with such high casualty rates. Likewise, Wagner and other Russian PMCs benefit substantially from foreign recruitment, especially after the failed “coup d’état.” It is likely then that we will continue to see Latin Americans in Ukraine. However, this number will likely remain limited. Their presence will grow significantly if Wagner, and especially, the Russian Ministry of Defense considers it necessary to massively recruit foreigners from allied countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela. However, the current recruitment and the Cuban statement indicate that it will be difficult for Russia to do so openly.

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