Foreign Fighters in Ukraine: A Situational Assessment


    Georgian National Legion in Ukraine


    With the progression of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is highly likely that there will be an increase in foreign fighters from Baltic, Balkan, and Central European states over the next 12 months. However, despite Russian claims, it is unlikely that a significant number of pro-Russian Middle Eastern or African forces will be sent to Ukraine over the next year. Moreover, there is a realistic probability that captured foreign fighters will be treated unlawfully over the next 6 months.

    Key Judgement 1

    It is unlikely that a significant number of pro-Russian Middle Eastern or African fighters will be sent to Ukraine over the 12 months.

    • On March 11th Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, stated that there were 16,000 applicants from the Middle East ready to join pro-Russian forces.
    • Signing up does not guarantee deployment, so far only a limited number of Syrian fighters have been deployed to Russia for military training.
    • By taking significant amounts of pro-Assad fighters for the war effort in Ukraine, Russia would create security gaps for the Assad regime, making it more vulnerable to offensives by opposition groups. This may strain Russia-Syrian relations and would reduce Russia’s influence and economic prospects in the region.
    • There have been reports of large numbers of men gathered outside the Russian embassy in Addis Ababa, to sign up to be fighters in Ukraine.
    • Currently, Ethiopia is in a ceasefire with Tigray insurgents and is facing a growing insurgency in Oromia. Large numbers of Ethiopians joining the Russian forces would create security gaps for the Ethiopian Government and would strain relations with Russia at a time when Russia is attempting to grow its influence in the region.

    Key Judgement 2

    It is highly likely that there will be an increase in foreign fighters from Baltic, Balkan, and Central European states in Ukraine over the next 12 months

    • Russia’s actions in Ukraine have greatly worsened fears of an increasingly aggressive Russian foreign policy, that has further ambitions in post-Soviet Europe.
    • President Zelensky has set up ‘The International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine’, publicly inviting any willing foreign fighters to help defend Ukraine against the invasion.
    • Latvia has passed a law allowing Latvian nationals to become fighters in Ukraine. Moreover, the Lithuanian Army has stopped accepting appeals from soldiers to end their service so that they can fight in Ukraine, due to the number of requests.
    • The Georgian National Legion was recently reactivated in Ukraine to help fight Russian forces, and has been reportedly been receiving hundreds of applications daily from around 27 countries, including Georgia, Albania, Croatia.
    • Since Spring 2021, there have been signs that Serbian volunteers have been travelling to Ukraine to support pro-Russian forces in anticipation of escalating hostilities.

    Key Judgement 3

    There is a realistic probability that foreign fighters captured in Ukraine will be treated unlawfully over the next 6 months.

    • Two British foreign fighters, Sean Pinner and Aiden Aslin, have been captured by Russian forces in Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry has stated that captured foreigners that are part of Ukraine’s International Legion are ineligible for the protections of the Geneva Convention.
    • The Kremlin declined to negotiate with Ukraine regarding a prisoner exchange for the captured Kremlin ally Viktor Medvedchuk.
    • Russian authorities have released videos of the two captured British foreign fighters, with visible injuries, asking to be exchanged for Medvedchuk. This is potentially a ploy by the Kremlin to place tension on the relationship between Ukraine and the UK, and to lower Ukrainian morale if Zelensky concedes to potential pressure applied by the UK government.
    Ethan Lierens
    Ethan Lierens
    Ethan is a graduate in History and Politics from the University of Exeter. Following his bachelor’s degree he completed a master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London. His research focuses are disinformation campaigns, post-soviet politics and conflict in the Middle East. Linkedin:

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