By Lark Escobar.
Predictions of the imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine began floating around the veterans’ networks in mid-February 2022. In the first 48 hours of Russia’s invasion, many handlers from the Afghan evacuation organizations sprang into action; they began preparing their kits and supplies to head to Poland to help crowdsource evacuations of Americans from Ukraine while simultaneously ramping up medical supply runs. These seasoned individuals, experienced with humanitarian response and disaster relief, were not the only actors in the landscape. American military veterans outside the constellation of NGOs working on Afghan evacuations took an interest in the cause. In addition, there were unprepared civilians with little experience and questionable motives who joined the cause. Thousands began flooding into the area on private commercial flights to Poland and neighboring states.
In the absence of ground support from NATO, Zelenskyy called for foreign fighters to join the Ukrainian armed forces, which began waves of interest from Americans, the Israeli Defense Forces, Germans, Brits, Canadians, Dutch, Danes, and Poles, among others. The steps for joining up seemed simple enough, though the US Department of State made it clear that Americans were not to travel to Ukraine and would not be evacuated by the government if they faced an emergency there.
While the idea of an ad-hoc foreign legion sounds like a great idea in theory, in reality, things have not gone smoothly for everyone on the ground. Some volunteers were not issued weapons or requisite protective gear, some were sent on dangerous, difficult tasks, and many were unable to integrate into existing Ukrainian units seamlessly. Interoperability requires having actual combat skills and experience gained through joint training exercises, adequate language skills, and equipment; all of which may be missing in the calculus of volunteering to fight in a crisis.
Although special forces volunteers may have found ways to integrate and be useful, in some cases, the American and British volunteer fighters have been left waiting to be put on the battlefields and or were waiting in the winter cold adequate weapons and equipment. Some were sent on high-risk missions without adequate preparation.
Volunteer fighters also face a questionable legal status if the Russian military captures them since mercenaries do not enjoy the same protections under the Geneva Conventions as official combatants. Captured foreign fighters are not automatically eligible for prisoner of war status.
Some foreign fighters who return home may face court-martials or other legal battles. In the calculus of the war, the foreign fighters’ net impact may miss the intended mark– potentially resulting in unnecessary loss of life. Then again, these adventurers and idealists may make a difference. Although there are no clear tallies of foreign fighter losses and casualties yet, the thousands of volunteers may be gambling with their lives – a risky price to pay.
Image courtesy of Ukrainian government.