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Ukraine’s Foreign Legion Is Ready for Battle

Thousands of fighters are already flooding into Ukraine from around the world.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
A man who said his name is Ian, who is from a town near Liverpool in the United Kingdom and is 61 years old, but who did not want to be otherwise identified, prepares to enter Ukraine to join the fight against the Russian army at the Medyka border crossing on March 3, 2022 at Medyka, Poland.
A man who said his name is Ian, who is from a town near Liverpool in the United Kingdom and is 61 years old, but who did not want to be otherwise identified, prepares to enter Ukraine to join the fight against the Russian army at the Medyka border crossing on March 3, 2022 at Medyka, Poland.
A man who said his name is Ian, who is from a town near Liverpool in the United Kingdom and is 61 years old, but who did not want to be otherwise identified, prepares to enter Ukraine to join the fight against the Russian army at the Medyka border crossing on March 3, 2022 at Medyka, Poland. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin is growing as foreign fighters start trickling in to join forces with Ukrainians on the ground and those returning home to fight for their nation. These foreigners have taken inspiration from Ukrainians’ fight for their independence—and in showing solidarity with the outnumbered Ukrainian army, they are also sending a clear message to the Russian president that he shouldn’t set his eyes on the European Union, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere.

Foreign Policy met more than a dozen of the newest members of the Ukrainian resistance force, queued at the same railway station and border crossing where trains and busses are ferrying Ukrainian refugees into Poland. These men all claimed to have had some sort of military training earlier in their lives and, as if to confirm their credentials, were dressed in a mix of camouflage jackets, military boots, and cargo pants, with each one of them carrying a ruck sack. Although many were Ukrainians returning home, the foreign fighters included Britons, Belarusians, an Israeli citizen of Ukrainian descent, and an ethnically Ukrainian Polish man. Men from many other nationalities have also reportedly volunteered.

According to Ukrainian officials, at least 16,000 foreigners have already registered with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s International Legion of Territorial Defense, and many have reached out to local Ukrainian embassies to get information. The Ukrainian missions are dispensing tips on how to join the legion, the requirements each candidate must meet, and where to go and fight in the war.

Resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin is growing as foreign fighters start trickling in to join forces with Ukrainians on the ground and those returning home to fight for their nation. These foreigners have taken inspiration from Ukrainians’ fight for their independence—and in showing solidarity with the outnumbered Ukrainian army, they are also sending a clear message to the Russian president that he shouldn’t set his eyes on the European Union, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere.

Foreign Policy met more than a dozen of the newest members of the Ukrainian resistance force, queued at the same railway station and border crossing where trains and busses are ferrying Ukrainian refugees into Poland. These men all claimed to have had some sort of military training earlier in their lives and, as if to confirm their credentials, were dressed in a mix of camouflage jackets, military boots, and cargo pants, with each one of them carrying a ruck sack. Although many were Ukrainians returning home, the foreign fighters included Britons, Belarusians, an Israeli citizen of Ukrainian descent, and an ethnically Ukrainian Polish man. Men from many other nationalities have also reportedly volunteered.

According to Ukrainian officials, at least 16,000 foreigners have already registered with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s International Legion of Territorial Defense, and many have reached out to local Ukrainian embassies to get information. The Ukrainian missions are dispensing tips on how to join the legion, the requirements each candidate must meet, and where to go and fight in the war.

A passport as well as documents confirming previous combat experience are required to obtain clearance from the respective defense attaches in Ukraine’s foreign embassies, and the aspirants must also fill out a form expressing their will to fight without any pressure. They will then get instructions on how to reach Ukraine and whom to contact. They are advised to wear their military uniform or its elements, and the fighters Foreign Policy met on the Poland-Ukraine border were indeed easy to spot precisely for that reason.

After arriving in Ukraine, territorial defense forces will provide the foreign fighters with assistance and deploy them to fight alongside fighters from other nations. It is unclear how fighters from various countries who speak different languages will coordinate on the battlefield, but since most are expected to be from either English-speaking Western nations or from the post-Soviet bloc where Russian is spoken, it is likely not an issue the defense forces are losing sleep over. Many Ukrainians speak English, Russian, or both.

Three Prague-based Belarusians signed up for the international legion at Ukraine’s embassy before they arrived in Przemysl, a city on the Poland-Ukraine border. They told Foreign Policy that they were fighting for a democratic world—against Putin and their “own dictator,” Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. “We left Belarus because of him, because we want to live in a democratic country. Now, he is aiding Putin to capture Ukraine. We’ve got to go,” said Pawel, a middle-aged man who did not want to give his last name out of concern for his extended family back home. When asked whether a foreign legion comprising of a few thousand men could turn Russian prospects, Pawel said the Russians were not as strong as they portrayed and have already suffered huge losses. “We can defeat Russia—but if other countries help,” added Artem Rossa, another Belarusian.

Several Western governments and those in the post-Soviet bloc have actively backed or at least encouraged their citizens to join the fight. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has openly supported Zelensky’s call to foreigners to join the armed struggle against Russia’s invasion, not just for the sake of Ukraine but for whole of Europe and the world. Latvian lawmakers unanimously voted in favor of its citizens joining the war in their independent capacity while Denmark said it was not illegal if individuals decided to join the war. Canada said whether to fight in Ukraine or not is a decision Canadians can make for themselves.

A larger number of volunteers are headed to Ukraine from Georgia and Belarus. But volunteers from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada are catching up. A report in Voice of America, an U.S. media outlet, reported that Ukrainian officials in Washington said as many as 3,000 U.S. volunteers have responded to Zelensky’s appeal. A number of Canadians have reportedly already crossed the border.

But the majority of people entering Ukraine from abroad are Ukrainian themselves. They included Aleksiej and Alexander, young men who stood at the international railway station in Przemysl, watching tearful mothers arrive from Ukraine with young children clinging teddy bears. The scenes strengthened the resolve of the two former Ukrainian soldiers to heed their president’s call and fight for their nation. They were desperate to board the same train back to their homeland.

Aleksiej is a resident of Poland and Alexander lives in the Czech Republic, but both had no doubts about returning to Ukraine. “[Putin] put his hand in our house,” Aleksiej said. “Why? We are motivated like you cannot imagine.”

“Putin has made Ukrainians very, very, very angry,” Alexander said in response to whether he thought the Ukrainians could defeat Russia’s massive military machine, pointing to my notebook to emphasize his point.

Another former Ukrainian soldier stood a few feet away and said it didn’t matter if he died, but losing to Russia was not an option. “I am obliged to fight for my country,” he said. All three men said that if the capital, Kyiv, fell, they would (without a shred of a doubt) organize and resist for as long as it took to oust the Russians. Just a few days ago, Zelensky warned Russia that its occupation would face stiff resistance were it to succeed in the war, and he alluded to a long-term insurgency against Russia’s puppet regime.

On the battleground, Ukrainian soldiers and fighters who have returned are taking on the Russian army and succeeding in inflicting heavy costs. Ukrainian armed forces said more than 11,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and nearly a thousand armored vehicles, hundreds of tanks and artillery systems, and tens of Russian aircraft destroyed thus far. But the Ukrainians are also paying with their blood.

At a kebab shop in the market square right outside the international train station in Przemysl, a Ukrainian man sat with his head hanging down. An Israeli of Ukrainian descent seemed to be consoling him and, by way of explanation, looked at us and said: “His son died fighting in the war. He is drunk.” The Israeli showed us his passport but did not want to reveal his name, saying before he joins the fight and “kicks Putin’s ass,” he needs to rescue his step daughter from Kyiv. “I just met this man, and you [know] what he said [to me]? He said he is going to fight to tell Putin he shouldn’t have killed his son,” the Israeli told Foreign Policy. “Now, we are going together, and after I bring back my daughter here, I will return to fight alongside him.”

For foreign fighters, it’s a worthwhile cause to help Ukrainians, protect the idea of democracy, and challenge an arrogant Russian president who has decided to attack a sovereign nation on little more than a whim. For Eastern Europeans from the post-Soviet bloc, it is about discouraging Putin from further expansion. But for the Ukrainian fighters, it is a matter of the nation state’s survival. All of the fighters displayed ample anger, bravado, and motivation. Yet it is too early to say whether they can win the war.

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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