Mobilizing Foreign Fighters in the Russian-Ukrainian Dispute: Justifications and Ramifications


While the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has been experiencing many political, security and economic complexities since it broke out, a new complexity  in the past days has emerged.  The Ukrainian authorities announced receiving a large number of foreigners wanting  to fight against the Russians. On the other side, Moscow announced receiving fighters of non-Russian nationality to fight alongside its forces in Ukraine. At this point, it seems that the practice of recruiting foreign fighters during the ongoing crisis  is reminiscent of past experiences that involved recruiting and arming foreign fighters in different arenas of dispute among the major world powers — and the incendiary outfits it spawned such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/Daesh) and its manifold ramifications for  national security worldwide.  

The two countries involved in the ongoing crisis opening the floodgates for  foreign fighters  to engage in the war is considered a dangerous turn with multiple  ramifications. This development necessitates  looking into the nature and characteristics of this phenomenon as well as the dimensions of engaging outside elements in the ongoing war in Ukraine and the  repercussions of foreign fighter involvement  on the regional and international landscapes.

Recruiting Foreign Fighters in the Russian-Ukrainian Dispute: Characteristics and Motives

The recruitment of foreign fighters and the formation of   paramilitary groups to fight in  the arena of dispute in Ukraine is nothing new. Since 2015, the Donbas region has  witnessed the emergence of armed groups that entrenched their  military and political clout. They embraced  radical ideological tenets to create a full-fledged militant atmosphere.   These militias have entrenched their presence along the frontlines between Russia and Ukraine. This phenomenon of foreign fighter recruitment  entered a completely new stage after the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine last February through the recruitment of militias and foreign fighters by both parties to the dispute raging on  Ukrainian soil. For its part, Ukraine announced that 16,000 to 20,000 fighters from 20 countries  had volunteered to partake in its current dispute with Russia on its own soil. On the other side, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to allow foreign fighters to join the conflict. The Russian Defense Ministry   said that 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East were  ready to join the Russian forces.

Characteristics of the Phenomenon of Recruiting Foreign Fighters in the Ongoing Crisis

In light of the information available regarding  foreign fighters in Ukraine, it can  be said that there is a host of traits and characteristics unique to this phenomenon. These can be identified as follows:  

  • The  large numbers: It is still too early to estimate the actual number of foreign fighters who are engaged  in the current international crisis. But this does not negate the fact that the number is large — in light of the official remarks made by the parties to the crisis. Ukraine has announced that 20,000 fighters had arrived to join its forces. Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that 16,000 volunteers  were prepared to fight in Ukraine alongside Russian forces. Overall, it  can be said that such figures  are likely to increase as the crisis drags on. Hence, this phenomenon points to a number of significant challenges facing both sides as well as the potential ramifications for regional and international security.
  • The geographical and ideological diversity: Several reports  indicate that Russia and Ukraine have recruited foreign fighters from various regions. Some fighters have come from Eastern and Western Europe  while others volunteered from  the United States, the UK, Mexico, and other countries. Some fighters also  came from the Middle East and Africa, which  further complicated  the phenomenon, rendering its aspects multiple, its dimensions  intertwined and its future ambiguous after the ongoing crisis ends.
  • Mutual employment: Both parties to the crisis have sought to recruit foreign fighters. The Ukrainian president has called for the formation of the “International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine” while the Russian president announced his intent on sending fighters from the Middle East to Ukraine. This confirms  the fact that the battlefield in Ukraine is witnessing the  mutual employment of foreign militias  by both parties to the crisis as part of the developing proxy war in the country. In other words, there is a decline in the  dependence on national forces, with a preference toward the  engagement of armed militias. This preference entails  future dangers and challenges that  will not be confined to the boundaries of Europe.  They are likely  to spill over into Arab countries.
  • Several European countries declare support for the recruitment process: Some European countries have encouraged their citizens to partake in the war in Ukraine, primarily  Denmark. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that her country  would allow volunteers to join the international force formed by the Ukrainian government. The government of Latvia followed suit. The country’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs announced that his country approved legislation that would allow volunteers to join the fighting in Ukraine. Some countries, meanwhile, warned their citizens of engagement in the fighting in Ukraine. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on Australian citizens not to travel to Ukraine to partake in the war. As for the UK position, the issue is a bone of contention within the government. While British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced support for Kiev’s calls on those desiring to partake in the fighting in the ranks of its forces, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that British citizens traveling to Ukraine would stand trial when they returned home. He also called on civilians to avoid traveling to Ukraine to participate in the fighting.
  • Divergent motives: The foreign fighters participating in the conflict in Ukraine are motivated by a wide range of factors. Several foreign fighters  decided to join the fighting because of  European nationalist sentiments  to defend the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state’s borders. Others were fueled by historical motives such as their animosity  to Russian intervention and their  desire to represent  Western forces and defend their principles in the ongoing fighting. The volunteers are also  drawn from countries that were previously under the auspices of the Soviet Union — as well as  fighters coming from European countries and the United States. Economic motives also played  a  role for some actors or fighters.  These were apparent  in the participation of the Russian paramilitary organization the  Wagner Group on the side of Russia in its dispute with Ukraine. This is in addition to the participation of fighters from countries  facing political and economic crises due to internal disputes and competition among  international actors.  

Dimensions of Employment

This landscape is inexorably complicated and  intertwined in light of the parties to the  crisis seeking to recruit foreign fighters and attempting to confer legitimacy on their operations.  This foreign recruitment raises a host of questions about the real dimensions of the employment for both sides  as well as for the rest of the Western powers. These dimensions and the questions surrounding them will be explored as follows:

  • Mutual attrition and pressure: The regular forces of the two countries have faced  difficulties on the battlefield,  and they are attempting to reduce the casualty rate  as much as possible. Yet, Moscow and Kiev are seeking to benefit from  the lever of foreign fighters for the sake of  attrition and exerting additional pressures making  the war costlier and increasing its risks. On the one hand, the Ukrainian government is well aware that it  will not be able to repel the Russian attack via conventional methods — especially as some NATO member countries have refused  to send their military forces.  This prompted Ukraine to counter Russian advances through using  attrition — hybrid tactics as well as other  unconventional tactics — against Russian forces. These tactics aim in the long run to exhaust Russia militarily and economically.

For its part, Russia is seeking  to demonstrate its ability to threaten  global security, particularly European security  in case its demands go unheeded. Russia has hinted  at bringing in fighters from the Middle East to fight in Europe and this has raised  concerns among several European countries regarding the impact of this recruitment on the continent’s security and political dynamics.  

By contrast, the Western powers are betting on this lever of foreign fighters to exhaust  the Russian army  through a long war of attrition — copying the Afghan experience — through creating threats and raising Russia’s geopolitical fears over  foreign fighters joining the war. This  will secure  a major strategic advantage  for the United States through excluding Russia from the global competition arena and allowing it to devote its full resources  to the other and more powerful pole: China.

  • Preparing for the decisive stages:  Several weeks have passed since the crisis broke out. During  this time, Moscow has sought to implement several military strategies, starting from carrying out destructive strikes against  Ukrainian military infrastructure, attempting to take control of  Ukrainian nuclear plants and later encircling and imposing a siege on mid-size and large cities without storming them. It seems that the crisis is now passing  through its most important strategic stage: seeking to storm the major cities. This requires the forces of the two countries to engage in face-offs. Hence, the massive recruitment of foreign fighters is considered as  a preparation for this decisive stage.
  • Institutionalizing the engagement of foreign fighters in the war: The Ukrainian president’s call goes beyond summoning foreign fighters to bolster the country’s military front. Rather, it amounts to the institutionalization and legalization of the operations that foreign fighters will play  in the upcoming battles. Establishing an  international force and issuing  legislation that regulates the engagement of foreign fighters are attempts by  the Ukrainian government  to legitimize and avert the legal loopholes which could be created by  foreign fighters being involved in  an  external dispute. In other words,  these Ukrainian moves aim to prevent foreign fighters from being classed  as mercenaries or foreign fighters transcending national borders, turning them instead into soldiers fighting under the command of the Ukrainian forces through signing volunteering contracts.  These moves also  aim to remove any awkwardness that could be caused to  Western governments, particularly if their citizens are killed  or detained during the ongoing military operations.

Similar Russian Practices in Syria and Libya

The Russian-Ukrainian crisis and the Syrian crisis have many aspects in common,   with Russia  using parallel military formations in this war —mirroring its experience in Syria and Africa. Over the past years, Russia  has formed multiple military units in Syria with the aim of deploying them in the open regions and spaces between Syrian cities and to plug the gap between the Syrian army’s units. Yet such formations also act as a logistical support for the Russian rearguard in Syria and on other frontlines. The Iraqi and Syrian groups are expected to join the fighting under the command of the Russian army in Ukraine in the coming period. This comes especially amid talks  of the Syrian government starting   to mobilize thousands of fighters to fight on the side of Russia. Yet information has also circulated about attempts to recruit Iraqis via social media platforms to partake in the war in Ukraine.

In this vein, it is not ruled out that  Iranian militias are also one of the potential options for the Russians in the future — in search of a lightning victory in Ukraine. The Russian official announcement about opening the door for fighters from the Middle East to join the fighting could be an indirect message addressed to Tehran for several reasons. Among the considerations is the coordination the two sides are pursuing on several regional matters, including the Syrian file. Nonetheless, the actual response from Tehran to such Russian calls depends on the fate of the nuclear file and its desire  to keep room for maneuverability between the parties to the dispute in Ukraine. On the one hand, Tehran  will not take the risk of sending its forces to the Ukrainian battlefield to fight on the side of the Russian forces — not to be accused of backing Russia and not to affect the trajectory of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna which have reached an advanced stage.  On the other, Tehran could send the militias working under its umbrella to support the Russians. This manifested clearly when some parties affiliated with the so-called Axis of Resistance — run by Iran in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen — showed unambiguous bias toward the Russians.

Several of them began leaving  Syrian and Iraqi regions. This coincided with the meeting held in the T4 military airport in Syria between a Russian military delegation and its Iranian counterpart — along with the Lebanese Hezbollah. By contrast, reports indicated that Iraqi fighters from Iraqi militias, including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, received financial offers in exchange for their fighting alongside Russian forces in Ukraine.

In addition to Syria, Russia seeks to marshal support from Libya where several fighters affiliated with the Wagner Group or with other militias are deployed. These  militiamen are looking at the Ukrainian arena as a better battlefield for making several economic gains. Despite the Russian need for recruits from Libya, it is not expected that it  will resort to pulling back all its elements from the region. The Russian presence in Libya remains very strategic for Moscow in terms of empowering it to follow up on its strategy, the centerpiece of which is putting pressure on Europe — especially in the field of energy. Therefore, based on this, the Russian government risks losing this lever in the midst of  its mounting crisis with Europe.

Ramifications  of Employment

The marshaling and mobilization of foreign fighters by both parties to the crisis and deploying them in the current arena of dispute  have many ramifications,  primarily the following:

Prolonging the Internal Dispute

The process of widening the scope of volunteering, recruitment and resorting to foreign fighters with various efficient capabilities and expertise — as some of them are affiliated with  elite military forces — aims to turn the Ukrainian territories into a battlefield for guerilla warfare, with each side aiming to exhaust the other. However, in the long run, this will lead to prolonging the dispute and further complicating the trajectories for resolving it. It will also lead to losing control over its determinants, especially in case of sneaking into and infiltrating Ukrainian society and setting up networks of interests and  agendas independent of the principal cause of the dispute. This will make dismantling such networks difficult when the war ends, even if the parties to the dispute have the desire to dissolve them. Examples of this are too numerous to count. In Iraq, Libya and Mali, the governments of  these countries face major hindrances in controlling  such networks and curtailing their security and political dangers.

Creating Chronic Security Problems

 The race for recruiting foreign fighters, institutionalizing and legalizing them  as well as seeking to establishing extremist outfits and activating  a so-called proxy war under the umbrella of international parties supporting one  of the parties to the dispute against the other represents a high-stakes conflict and  undermines global security and peace. This evolving situation will present the international community with unconventional threats and escalating dangers. Maybe this dispute will  unleash a stronger wave of ideological and political violence and extremism. Repelling such threats emerging from this dispute  will be an uphill mission.  Some European parties are concerned about security risks concomitant to the international mobilization of foreign fighters in this crisis and the empowerment of  extremist right-wing elements, particularly in terms of  the expertise in battles and fighting they could gain. Therefore, such  elements could enhance their  combat expertise and  employ it in promoting  their nationalist and racist propaganda — forcibly imposing  it on Western societies.

The Employment of the Religious Dimension in the Ongoing Dispute Between Russia and Ukraine

Since the previous Russian-Ukrainian crisis broke out in 2014, Islam and Christianity have been engaged in the dispute between the two sides. Clerics in each country stood against their co-religionists in the other country. This appeared clearly when the Ukrainian president appeared on television for several days wearing a shirt with  the symbol of a cross.  This was a sign of employing  Orthodox Christianity in the current conflict and using religion to mobilize people in other vital Orthodox Christian spheres such as in  Eastern Europe, Greece and the Caucasus —in addition to  Christian minorities in the Eastern Mediterranean countries.

This military employment of Christianity is no less significant than the attempts to employ Islam in the ongoing war. This came after the Russian Council of Muftis said that the special Russian operation carried out by the Russian army in Ukraine  is in accordance with the rules of the Holy Quran.

The council did not stop at such a remark. It also called on Muslims in Russia and worldwide to unite for the sake of defending Russia. It seems that  this call came in response to several Ukrainian Islamic institutions that weighed in on the ongoing war. This included the current Mufti of Ukraine Said Ismagilov joining the ranks of the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine to partake in the Ukrainian military confrontation against Russia.

The Future of Fighters After the End of the Crisis

 Readings into the future of foreign fighters after the end of the ongoing crisis have varied. The first reading argues that the mutual recruitment by the parties to the dispute will contribute to turning Ukraine and the neighboring sphere into a new hotspot for international terrorism. Proponents of such a reading contend that the areas of dispute across the world have generally become incubators for  armed and extremist groups. Hence, the ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine will pursue the same path.  Turning the Ukrainian arena into a hotbed for attracting different forms and models of extremist and terrorist groups of varying nationalist and religious affiliations and ideologies will contribute to  the morphing of  these groups and will enhance their expansion and clout and they will actively  search for  loopholes to  exploit in order to sneak into  other countries. In addition, this  dispute provides a suitable  environment for  these outfits to develop their own ideological agendas, generating new organizations.

The second reading  argues that the major world  powers  busy fighting on the Ukrainian front will increase the chances of the re-emergence of  armed groups and organizations in their main strongholds — especially in Syria and Iraq. These potential groups will not take sides in the  ongoing crisis, rather they will take advantage of the world powers’ preoccupation with the fight in Ukraine — whether in terms of widening the scope of their recruitment  or seeking to take advantage of the crisis to carry out operations. The attack mounted by ISIS in the last weeks in the desert of Palmyra in the countryside of Homs, east of Syria, is considered the biggest of its kind in recent months. It appeared clear that the attack took advantage of the absence of Russian planes which were used to  intensify airstrikes before the Ukrainian crisis. Yet the  group’s call on Muslims in Russia and Ukraine not to fight in the ranks of the two armies fighting on  Ukrainian soil and  recalling its elements to come to the so-called Land of the Promised Caliphate represents a clear attempt at taking advantage of the war, the state of instability and security laxity resulting from the Russian-Ukrainian war in order to recruit more foreign fighters to its hotbeds and expand the network of its active cells.

All in all, the two perspectives hold that this crisis marks a dangerous sign and a potential backdoor for the return of  terrorist organizations to the global landscape. This comes at the time when some countries are still grappling with the challenge posed by the hundreds of fighters who joined the ranks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is expected that the crisis  will exacerbate in light of the talk of the flow of tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have volunteered to  fight in Ukraine.

Contradicting the International Posture on the Phenomenon of the Recruitment of Foreign Fighters

 The current foreign recruitment by Russia and Ukraine,  the tacit acceptance of the involvement of foreign fighters by some countries, and the unequivocal support provided by other countries as well as the promotion of their citizens traveling to Ukraine as a  show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people points to the significant weaknesses of international law. This comes despite the fact that traveling to Ukraine is flagrantly against UN Resolution No. 2178 issued in 2014 which includes preventing and criminalizing the recruitment or transfer of foreign fighters. The resolution also bans and restricts the financing and traveling of  these fighters.

The paradox here is that the violation of  international law  is not confined to a single country or party. But it  includes several countries which have supported the phenomenon of recruiting foreign fighters and promoting it apparently within the context  of “volunteering” for the sake of solidarity. This  is despite the fact that the aforesaid volunteering is associated with avowed promises of financial rewards; in contradiction with the definition of volunteering. In this context, it is worth noting the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries defines a “mercenary” as:

Any person who: (a) Is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict; (b) Is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar rank and functions in the armed forces of that party.

Because the convention linked  a mercenary  to material gain, what is happening now is mostly promoted under the pretext of volunteering to avert  collision with this convention.

 The aforementioned also points to the sharp double standards when it comes to the criteria and response to terrorist threats. The takfiri ideology is as dangerous as the desire to take up arms and engage in an armed conflict. Whatever the pretext given for the recruitment of  fighting elements —whether foreign fighters, paid mercenaries, or terrorist jihadists —in all the previous cases they are considered an increasing transnational terrorist threat. This practice must be tracked and monitored to avoid the security and intellectual consequences — whether in the country that is witnessing the dispute or in their original societies  after they return home.

A Complicated Crisis for Arab Countries

The ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine has directly impacted  the region such as  raising the level of political polarization in the region or impacting it from the energy fallout. But the indications  regarding the region’s preoccupation  with the war in Ukraine now go beyond the energy crisis. Countries in the region may get involved in the crisis through deploying combatants in Ukraine. This potential scenario is in light of  Arab concerns  regarding the Afghan crisis in the 1980s and the ideological polarization that occurred between the  two poles in the crisis and the terrorist attacks carried out by those returning from Afghanistan in Arab countries — which spread destruction and devastation there. It seems that the world is now attempting to resurrect this scenario, with Russia and Ukraine pursuing the same policy  of opening the door for recruiting fighters with different ideologies and backgrounds, including former seasoned military officers, mercenaries, and zealots. This is added to the recruitments being carried out inside Syria in bulk numbers — and this  could be followed by militiamen aligned with Iran, who will soon be deployed to the region’s countries, fueling violence there and expanding the scope of confrontation. Therefore, this stage is delicate and sensitive and needs the highest levels of attentiveness and vigilance.


To conclude, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis marks a turning point in  international policy and global security. Its consequences will be of a wider scope, and it will have a deeper impact than what has been revealed. The new turn the two countries have taken in terms of the  increased reliance on foreign fighters reflects a narrow vision of interests, which does not consider the consequences of recruiting such elements or the ramifications of such employment in the post-dispute stage. The impact of such consequences will affect several of the world’s countries — in light of the potential disarray of weaponry and foreign fighters. This   will lead to prolonging the war, let alone the bigger danger related to the fates of  these fighters after the end of the international crisis.

Editorial Team