Ukraine Is Getting A Lot of Help: From around the world, foreign volunteers have answered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy‘s call to help defend his nation. The president even signed a decree that waived visas for any foreign nationals wishing to join the country’s international legion.
It is now “easy” to enlist via The International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine website.
Better Than Life At Home?
To date, Ukrainian authorities have said that some 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries across Europe, North America and even Africa have applied to join the legion. Many have signed up to help the country fend off an invasion, but some are doing it simply because they say fighting for Ukraine is better than life in their country.
That has certainly been the case for those hundreds of young African men, from countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and Algeria, who have said that taking up arms in the battle against Russia was partly a means to escape the bleak prospects they faced at home.
“We know that it’s war, it’s not child’s play,” 27-year-old Nigerian Ottah Abraham told the BBC. “But being a soldier in Ukraine would be better than being here. I’ll probably be allowed to stay if the war ends, plus I’ll be a hero and fight an undeniable enemy.”
Ukraine has had to make the point clear that it isn’t hiring mercenaries to fight its war with Russia, especially after the Nigerian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it “discourages the use of mercenaries anywhere in the world and will not tolerate the recruitment.”
To that end, Bohdan Soltys, a Ukrainian embassy official in Nigeria, responded that the Ukrainian government was not paying Africans to fight, and added any volunteers would have to pay for their own flights to reach Europe.
“There’s a fine line between foreign volunteers and mercenaries,” Soltys also told the BBC.
Yet while many countries have already warned their citizens not to volunteer, and some even have laws that make fighting for another country illegally, the ranks of volunteers have been swelling. The volunteers from Africa and the developing world are actually in the minority. Most of those who have signed up to aid Ukraine have come from industrialized nations.
To date, 31 percent of the volunteers have come from the United States, while 18 percent have come from the United Kingdom. Despite German warnings that any of its nationals who join the war effort would be violating international law and could face prosecution, 6.8 percent of the volunteers in Ukraine are from Germany.
Other nations with significant numbers of participating volunteers include India, Croatia, Israel, Latvia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Poland.
One question asked is who Kyiv is willing to accept as volunteers.
While the nation has been encouraging its citizens to fight the Russians, and there have been reports of women and even children being trained to use the AK-47 and other small arms, the Ukrainian government has largely called for trained personnel – notably military veterans – to volunteer. The Ukrainian government has also said that applicants would have to go through a vetting procedure, which includes proof of a clean criminal record.
Via the aforementioned government website, would-be volunteers are also asked if they “have any military experience; know first-hand how to handle weapons; are confident in military and high-stress situations; have a strong will to defend world peace, and are ready to join right now.”
Yet, there have been reports that dozens of foreigners have simply crossed into that nation and announced they’d willingly to take up arms.
“While some have joined the Ukrainian army, we also observe self-organised battalions that operate separately and do not participate in coordinated military actions, thus many foreign fighters are not assigned duties by commanders on the ground,” Asya Metodieva, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, told Al Jazeera.
Those who have not gone through the official channels could find themselves in a very bad situation. These unofficial volunteers shouldn’t expect support from the Ukrainians, while there is little reason to believe the Russians will acknowledge them as lawful combatants. Even those who are part of the International Legion may not be recognized as such by Russia.
After the War?
When – and hopefully not if – the war ends, volunteers like Ottah Abraham will, in fact, be welcomed to stay as heroes. Others who return to their homelands may face troubles, including prosecution, but Metodeiva said that is unlikely.
She added, “I expect that foreign fighters supporting the Ukrainian struggle will not be treated the way governments have been dealing with fighters who joined IS [ISIL].”
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.