In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we’ve seen footage and news reports of an outgunned but righteous Ukrainian military holding firm against a multi-faceted assault, capturing crying Russian soldiers and birthing mythical tales like the “Ghost of Kyiv.”
But with Russian forces gaining strength and making major inroads, Ukraine’s call for volunteer fighters is becoming a crucial element in the war — and so far, the government claims some 20,000 foreign fighters from 52 nations have joined the effort, including 3,000 Americans (a number that’s unconfirmed).
There’s only more to come, with sympathetic people setting up Facebook pages and nonprofit organizations in an attempt to expedite the travel of volunteer fighters to the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, as the effort is formally known. Unsurprisingly, a number of those new recruits already have spent time in the military, including U.S. veterans, members of the French army and British soldiers.
This is an uncomfortable wrinkle for governments trying to figure out the geopolitics of involvement, even tangentially through private citizens. And things are only getting more complicated thanks to the growing participation of private military contractors and nebulous mercenaries in the Ukrainian fight. Participating in foreign conflicts is banned in many countries, including the U.S., and the use of paid mercenaries is prohibited under a 2001 United Nations convention. Nonetheless, there’s a gray area that a number of people are flirting with, all in the hopes of fighting for a moral cause while also making some cash.
The most explicit proof of this opportunity showed up last week on the job site Silent Professionals, which specializes in private security and military contractor work. First reported by Middle East Eye, the listing features an unnamed “U.S. corporation” that needs multiple “extraction/protective agents” to conduct “part-time, covert, extraction/evacuation operations of individuals and families throughout the countryside and major cities of Ukraine.” The job’s pay is listed as between $1,000-$2,000 a day with a bonus, and there’s an emphasis on combat experience as a prerequisite.
Elsewhere, a small group of ex-military men who operate under the moniker Forward Observations Group (FOG) has also landed in Ukraine, seemingly armed and ready for a gunfight. The group’s Facebook page and Instagram have been deplatformed in the last week, but another profile shared by fans of FOG on social media shows the group, which also sells branded lifestyle gear, photography and artwork, as actively being on the ground in Kyiv. (The user raoulduke_69, purportedly the account of FOG founder Derrick Bales, didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.)
This is just the tip of the iceberg, with another military contractor noting to Middle East Eye that more than a thousand “professional” fighters have flowed into Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict. Russia has more than four times the number of troops as Ukraine, which partly explains the massive rush to train up Ukrainian civilians in the basics of operating an AK rifle, maneuvering under fire and staying alive. But if the footage is any evidence, Ukraine is going to need a lot more help — and foreign mercenaries are increasingly being seen as a way to bring NATO experience into the fray without any NATO troops formally assisting in the war.
“John Spencer, an expert in urban warfare, recently estimated that it usually takes five attackers to one defender to successfully execute an urban assault. Therefore, while it remains to be seen how many individuals will cross the border to fight against the Russian invasion force, the foreign recruits already on site carry the potential to produce an outsized tactical effect in defending Kyiv and other major cities,” writes Austin C. Doctor, director of counter-terrorism research initiatives at the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center.
Russia has long claimed that foreign governments were using mercenary forces to meddle in Eastern European geopolitics, including stating in December that “more than 120 U.S. mercenaries” were found in the Donbass region along the Russian-Ukrainian border, allegedly stockpiling toxic chemical weapons (the State Department denied it). The Kremlin has escalated the rhetoric since watching Ukraine’s international legion grow, warning that any foreign combatants caught in battle would be treated as illegal mercenaries and given no humanitarian rights.
Ironically, this posturing has come as Russia itself has unleashed its infamous private military juggernaut, Wagner Group, into the Ukrainian conflict to win major firefights and allegedly assassinate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This is a tenuous situation, to say the least, considering how problematic mercenary forces have been in the global sphere. Wagner Group has a shadowy history of operations in Eastern Europe as well as far-flung locales like Mali, Syria and Libya, effectively helping lead proxy wars for Vladimir Putin without any recourse, observes Sean McFate, a former military contractor and a foreign policy advisor for Oxford University.
“If they wiped out 30 children on the way to kill President Zelenskyy, Putin will try to say: ‘It wasn’t us, it wasn’t the Russians, it was these overzealous pro-Russian patriots — and we condemn that in the strongest language possible.’ The Wagner Group provides ‘plausible deniability,’” McFate told iNews.
It’s not just Russia that’s guilty of using de-facto mercenary forces, of course — the U.S. has a very lengthy history of using companies like Blackwater to fuel its conflicts across the Middle East (and enrichen businessmen like Erik Prince, former founder of Blackwater and brother of Trump ghoul Betsy DeVos). And the same concerns still stand in Ukraine, even if the influx of foreign fighters is helping shape an emotional narrative of how the world stands against Russia in this battle. The United Nations, for one, has long expressed concern about the human rights abuses and social harms that can come with the use of foreign forces, even well-intended ones.
“The arrival of foreign fighters will often act as a destabilizing factor causing a radicalization of the conflict and its prolongation. Indeed, foreign fighters will frequently have different ideological and political motivations. … The experts consequently emphasized the threat posed by foreign fighters to the right to self-determination and to human rights in general, as they will often have more brutal methods,” concluded a U.N. working group in 2018.
There are numerous examples of men, young and old, leaving their home countries in order to find the glory of the fight in a far-flung land. Perhaps the best-known one is the travel of more than 3,000 Americans in the Spanish Civil War, who joined the leftist fight against fascist forces that threatened to overturn the nation. The famous “Lincoln-Washington Battalion” has since served as a shining model of foreign resistance, but in reality, it was a chaotic, often brutal experience for the young men who chose to take part.
In modern times, the opportunity isn’t merely about honor; there are careers to be made and money to be secured in the world of mercenary war, whether it’s through a formal job contract or by being an ex-military war influencer standing on the front lines. Ukraine will be a test of just how far this thesis can be stretched — and how well it can help the nation’s resistance in the face of deeply unfair odds.