From “war tourist” Americans to Russian-connected mercenaries, there are reports pointing to another round of foreign fighters flooding into the Ukraine conflict.
As the eight-year conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalates, with hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers massing near the border, talk of foreign fighters entering a war that has already attracted thousands of them has once again become commonplace. Since the 2014 “little green men” invasion of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas (the war-torn region in the east of Ukraine), an estimated 17,000 foreign fighters from all over the world have poured into the country, fighting on both sides.
In recent days, an American who was a vet of the French Foreign Legion was identified by journalist Nolan Peterson as having joined the Georgian National Legion—a volunteer battalion of soldiers that was once an official part of the Ukrainian military but has since been reactivated under the threat of Russian invasion. Several other European volunteers have apparently already joined the battalion, according to Peterson’s previous reporting. Led by former Georgian military officer Mamuka Mamulashvili, a veteran of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 who went on to fight for Ukraine, the battalion has counted volunteers from all over the world into its ranks, including Americans.
Mamulashvili told VICE News over a brief WhatsApp call that applications for the unit had increased and that he expected about a hundred more recruits from across Europe to show up to his battalion, stationed on the outskirts of Kyiv in the coming weeks.
Are you a foreigner headed to join the Ukrainian war effort or know of somebody who is? We’d love to hear from you. Contact Ben Makuch on email at email@example.com or on the Wire app @benmakuch.
At the dawn of the bloody 2014 Maidan revolution, which removed the sitting Ukrainian president that governed over a corrupt system under the sphere of Russia, foreigners and ex-pats streamed into the streets of Kyiv in support. Since then, many volunteer battalions, some with bonafide links to the political far-right, have attracted foreigners from all over the world and of various political stripes. Some of these fighters, too, have even been documented volunteering with pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and fighting Ukrainian regulars. (The war in Ukraine has been compared to the war front not long ago in Syria and Iraq, which also attracted war junkies of many types.)
Additionally, VICE News reported last week how an American military lifestyle brand influencer set off a minor incident as state-backed Russian media used his visit to the front lines of Ukraine to suggest American mercenaries were training Ukrainian soldiers. Former U.S. soldier Derrick Bales told VICE News he was shooting a doc for his brand, not training anyone.
Multiple reports suggest Russia is recruiting a new round of mercenaries to send into Donbas, something the Ukrainian government formally accused the Kremlin of doing. Then days ago, the Daily Beast published a scoop that Russia was redeploying its soldiers in its battle hardened Wagner Group—a Kremlin-linked firm of private soldiers—from the Central African Republic, to the war in Ukraine.
But the Ukrainian military, which has always been massively outmatched by the Russian forces that have sat at its doorstep in one form or another for years, has never openly recruited foreign soldiers or employed paid mercenaries into its cause.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to VICE News on the issue of American foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine.
Kacper Rękawek, a postdoc fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, has documented and data analyzed the movement of foreign fighters in Ukraine and says he isn’t surprised the recent geopolitical brinkmanship has caught the eyes of foreigners.
“Yes, (there is) a spike in interest, sure,” said Rękawek, who pointed out that “this is not 2014” and volunteer fighters can’t as easily “just walk into their recruitment office in or around Maidan (Square),” which was common during the early chaos of the revolution.
In recent years, the Ukrainian government has taken serious steps to screen fighters from abroad. But some have slipped through the cracks, such as ex-U.S. soldier Craig Lang, who according to BuzzFeed News is being investigated by the Department of Justice for war crimes in Donbas, and Marine-dropout and ex-member of an American terror group Ryan Burchfield (who was very publicly deported on video by Ukrainian intelligence agents in late 2020). The Kremlin has often latched onto these types of incidents as evidence the Ukrainian government is chock-full of Nazis, despite the country being led by a Jewish president.
Rękawek explained that Kyiv passed legislation setting out exactly how a foreigner can legitimately enter the Ukrainian military to make it harder for extremists to join the conflict.
“To be in territorial defence, you need to be a resident and signing a contract with the army takes time,” he said. “Of course, some (foreigners) will arrive… as trainers and will probably stay behind the front lines. I can see the Georgian National Legion becoming more active on this front.
“I wouldn't, however, expect a tidal wave of such fighters. There’s some space between 'on the way,' 'interested,' and being there.”
Even so, it hasn’t stopped one prominent Telegram channel associated with Atomwaffen Division—a neo-Nazi terror group that has seen several of its members arrested by the FBI—from urging its followers to join the Ukrainian war effort and gain battle experience for a future race war they hope for in America.
“It’s time to make sacrifices for National Socialism!” reads an audacious post to its followers, before urging them to join a volunteer battalion.
With files from Andy Hayward