Foreigners, some trained by the US, are fighting on both sides in Ukraine, seeking cash and adventure

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Foreigners, some trained by the US, are fighting on both sides in Ukraine, seeking cash and adventure
Ukrainian civilians receive weapons training from volunteer foreign fighters and Ukrainian soldiers in Lviv in April 2022.Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • The war in Ukraine has drawn foreign fighters to the armies on both sides.
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The war between Russian and Ukraine has become a magnet for foreign fighters from numerous countries who can be found in the ranks of both armies.

Some of those fighters come from unlikely places. For example, videos have appeared showing citizens from Nepal — home of the legendary Gurkha soldiers — who have joined the Russian military. In a recent interview with the Nepal Express, two young Nepalis described their service. One was a student at a Russian university, while the other was a former Nepalese Army soldier who worked as a security guard in Dubai before visiting Russia as a tourist and then enlisting.

In September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree speeding up the citizenship process for foreigners who signed a contract to join the military. Yet the two Nepali soldiers made clear that serving in Russia's notoriously brutal military was not their first career choice. The Nepali student said emigrating to the US or Britain would be difficult, which left the prospect of unemployment in Nepal, a poor, mountainous nation where about one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

"We were thinking of joining the French army," said the ex-Nepali soldier. "There was a long process and it was difficult to enter Europe. Russia became easy."

Foreigners, some trained by the US, are fighting on both sides in Ukraine, seeking cash and adventure
Afghan commandos at their graduation ceremony in Kabul in January, 2020.Rahmatullah Alizadah/Xinhua via Getty

Ironically, Russia is also recruiting former Afghan commandos who were trained by the US military to fight the Taliban (and whose families probably fought the Soviet soldiers who occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s).

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Like the Nepalis, the Afghans aren't joining out of love of Russia or hatred of Ukraine. They are being hunted by the Taliban who now rule Afghanistan and need sanctuary and money to support their families, so the prospect fighting for Moscow — for $1,500 a month — is likely the least bad alternative.

While Russia is recruiting mercenaries, Ukraine has become a magnet for volunteers who want to fight Russian aggression or find adventure.

By mid-2022, after Ukraine formed its International Legion of Defense, 20,000 volunteers from 52 nations had joined, according to the Ukrainian government. That number has dwindled to an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 — too few to make a major difference in the war — but they still evoke the image of the Spanish Civil War's International Brigades, when 35,000 volunteers from 52 countries fought Spanish fascists who were supported by Nazi and Italian troops.

A new study by Italian researcher Matteo Pugliese found a bewildering array of backgrounds and motivations among the members of Ukraine's International Legion, a battalion-sized force. Some were former officers from NATO nations such as Britain and Canada. Others came from far-right circles or were hard-leftists and anarchists who had fought with the Kurds against ISIS in Syria.

Foreigners, some trained by the US, are fighting on both sides in Ukraine, seeking cash and adventure
Ukraine's International Legion of Defense has drawn volunteers from all over the world.International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine via Facebook

One member had fled to Ukraine and joined the Legion after being accused of committing fraud in Australia, while another had been a career criminal in Poland and Ukraine. The legion's members also included former soldiers from Latin American militaries, which have produced mercenaries who operate around the world.

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"The majority of legionnaires come from North America, Europe and Latin America, but are led by a diverse set of motivations, have a variety of personal backgrounds and the majority has no previous political affiliation," Pugliese concluded.

Politically, these volunteers are a sensitive issue. Governments tend to get nervous about citizens who serve in foreign armies, especially when they come home. After World War II, the FBI persecuted American volunteers who had fought in the Abraham Lincoln brigade during the Spanish Civil War. In recent years, several governments have denied the return of citizens who fought in the Syrian Civil War, viewing them as security threats and political liabilities.

Significantly, Pugliese found that most of the volunteers fighting for Kyiv had not been radicalized by their experiences. They are "either grateful for the fraternal bond of camaraderie among legionnaires, or disillusioned and traumatized."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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