Why Foreign Volunteers Enlist in the Ukrainian International Legion

Joining forces: The International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine has enabled thousands of foreign volunteers to join the fight against the Russian invaders. Image: Mil.gov.ua / Wikimedia Commons

A new study, conducted using primary sources, shows the many motivations foreign volunteers have for fighting on the Ukrainian side, from normative considerations to ethical imperatives.

Announced to the world by President Volodymyr Zelensky on 27 February 2022, and formally established two days later, the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine (also known as the Ukrainian International Legion or Ukrainian Foreign Legion) has enabled thousands of foreign volunteers to join the fight against the Russian invaders. That said, the creation of military corps that allow for the recruitment and integration of foreign volunteers into a country’s armed forces is not a novelty in and of itself.

From the French Foreign Legion, founded way back in 1831 and still in service, to the International Brigades active during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), there are numerous examples in which the government of a country at war has readily accepted the help of foreign citizens, whether classified in special units or aggregated into pre-existing ones. And, to be precise, the International Legion is not even the first foreign legion to be established in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Indeed, the so-called Georgian National Legion has been fighting in the Donbas region since 2014. The latter, founded and initially composed exclusively of Georgian citizens, was first integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces in February 2016 and subsequently opened to foreign volunteers of various nationalities.

Given the sudden and widespread interest in this topic, it is no surprise that publications on the Ukrainian International Legion have mushroomed since Zelensky’s announcement. Scholars and pundits have sought answers to a wide range of questions, including how many foreign volunteers actually answered President Zelensky's call, where they have come from, whether they had military training prior to their enlistment, what gear and weapons they have brought along, and what legal or social sanctions they may incur upon returning home. To date, the most glaring gap in our understanding of the phenomenon concerns the motivations that prompted – and continue to prompt – foreign volunteers to enlist in the Ukrainian International Legion. In a nutshell, why do they fight and risk dying for a foreign country? What drives people from different countries and walks of life to quit their job, leave their family behind and embark on such a risky endeavour? As we explore these questions, let us not forget that this is no ordinary moment for the armed forces of numerous countries worldwide. From Germany to the US and from Russia to Japan, governments face acute recruitment crises and are struggling to find solutions. Against this backdrop, the decision of foreigners to enlist in the Ukrainian International Legion appears at best puzzling.

This article purports to fill the aforementioned gap by sharing the results of a new study, the main contribution of which lies in its unparalleled access to primary sources. This study draws on 26 interviews conducted between January and April 2023, either in-person in Ukraine or online, with foreign volunteers from 16 countries and four continents. It also benefits from significant variation within the participant pool, from age to gender and from pre-recruitment military experience to post-recruitment role (combatant, instructor, paramedic, non-combatant volunteer and so on). The interview questionnaire consisted of 12 questions in total, the first four of which pertain to the interviewee's personal data and previous experience (age and gender, country of origin, previous military experience and military unit of choice at the time of enlistment). The fifth question asks interviewees what the main reasons that led them to enlist in either the Ukrainian International Legion or the Georgian National Legion were. The intentional use of the plural allowed them to list more reasons in support of their decision.

The ongoing war embodies the clash between the model of Western democracy (and peaceful European integration) on the one hand and Russian neo-imperialism on the other

The analysis of the motivations – and motives – put forth by participants begins with normative considerations up to and including ethical imperatives. As many as 10 interviewees stated that fighting alongside the Ukrainians was simply the right thing to do. For five veterans, it is a soldier’s duty to take sides and fight in a war of aggression. Four others decided to take up arms to protect otherwise defenceless civilians; just as many were convinced to enlist after watching videos of atrocities committed by Russian troops and paramilitaries against the civilian population on television or social media. Lastly, for another two interviewees, it is a matter of principle, meaning that Ukraine has every right to defend itself from Russian aggression and to recover territory which has been illegally occupied since 2014 in whatever way it can, including by asking foreign volunteers for help.

Considerations about the values characterising the Russo-Ukrainian war closely follow ethical and moral imperatives. For eight recruits, the ongoing war embodies the clash between the model of Western democracy (and peaceful European integration) on the one hand and Russian neo-imperialism on the other. And that Russia is an enemy like no other for many interviewees becomes all too clear from the historical and geopolitical arguments they raised during the interviews. For four interviewees, Russia simply cannot be trusted. On this point, they recall that Russia has broken almost all the promises written down in the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994. The non-exhaustive list of violations by Moscow to date includes the blatant failure to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty within its 1991 borders, the constant economic pressure exerted on Kyiv in order to influence its domestic politics, the unlawful use of conventional military force and, last but not least, the repeated threat of the use of atomic weapons. If Russia appears to be the ‘perfect’ enemy, for two Georgian legionnaires, Ukraine is both a friend and a loyal ally. Finally, there are those who enlisted because of family ties or other personal reasons; three volunteers had family members living in Ukraine at the time of Russia’s full-scale invasion, while a fourth enlisted because he was born in Ukraine, albeit from foreign parents.

Perhaps the most curious and elaborate explanation regards the geopolitical context within which the Russo-Ukrainian war is unfolding. For five volunteers, it is utterly mistaken to think that the conflict concerns only two countries. In this regard, two legionnaires from the US believe that Russia is actively seeking direct confrontation with their country. A Brazilian volunteer, meanwhile, fears that Moscow aims to expand its malicious influence in Latin America. By contrast, two European volunteers believe that the Kremlin's geopolitical ambitions are best described as regional and aimed at increasing Russian influence in the so-called ‘near abroad’. No matter what the actual extent of Russia's geopolitical ambitions is, these five interviewees agree that, even if Russia somehow manages to achieve a decisive victory in the ongoing war, it won’t stop at subduing Ukraine and will push further, although they cannot anticipate in which direction.

These results finally shed some light on the reasons why volunteers have enlisted in either of the foreign legions integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces. That being said, our analysis would not be complete without some concluding remarks. First, it should be noted that 21 of the 26 participants (or 80.77%) were career soldiers or had otherwise gained considerable military experience prior to relocating to Ukraine and joining the fight against Russia. The decision to enlist could therefore depend, in whole or in part, on their past personal and professional choices (so-called path dependence). Second, while it is fair to question whether – and to what extent – the participant pool is representative of the wider set, it is worth underscoring that, to date, the present study is the only one to have had such extensive access to a group of people who are generally reluctant to grant interviews, let alone participate in academic studies.

We find no evidence that money informed or otherwise contributed to foreign volunteers’ decision to join the fight against Russia

Lastly, we should ask why it took us so long to gain any meaningful insight into foreign volunteers’ decision-making. In truth, both Russian propaganda and the inaccurate use of certain terms worked to distort the academic and policy debate on the motivations of foreign volunteers. Moscow’s propaganda, for starters, wants us to believe that far-right ideology motivates foreign fighters, yet we find no mention of Nazism in the interviews conducted. Also, the uncritical use of terms such as foreign fighters or mercenaries has generated additional confusion and problematic assumptions. While technically correct, the former has often been used in regard to Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Still, none of the 26 interviewees mentioned religion, let alone religious extremism, as a factor contributing to their decision to enlist.

As for the term ‘mercenary’, confusion has arisen from the fact that the majority of foreign volunteers receive a basic salary for their service upon being integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces. Indeed, it has been noted elsewhere that ‘mercenaries and foreign fighters have many similarities’. To avoid any confusion, some foreign volunteers prefer to remain unpaid and fund themselves during active deployment. Still, there is a two-fold distinction between paid foreign volunteers and mercenaries. First, mercenaries fight for private gain, whereas foreign volunteers receive – or are eligible to receive – monetary compensation as a result of their service. Put another way, money is the primary motivator for mercenaries and merely a consequence for paid foreign volunteers.

Second, we should pay attention to how much these two categories are being paid. Foreign volunteers receive a salary equal to that of their Ukrainian counterparts, whereas mercenaries are usually promised ‘material compensation in excess of that paid to combatants or armed forces of similar ranks’. These distinctions notwithstanding, we find no evidence that money informed or otherwise contributed to foreign volunteers’ decision to join the fight against Russia. As a matter of fact, several interviewees had far more profitable and stable careers prior to moving to Ukraine, and others were covering their own expenses at the time interviews took place. All in all, we should refrain from drawing an improper comparison between foreign volunteers fighting alongside the Ukrainians and actual mercenaries, such as members of the Wagner Group or other private military companies on the Russian side.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Naira Arutyunova

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Marco Bocchese

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