ISSN 2330-717X

Foreign Fighters In Ukraine: A Definitional Dilemma – Analysis


By Maya Mirchandani


As young men from across Europe strengthen the ranks of Ukraine’s volunteer army following President Zelensky’s call to help his country fend off the Russian onslaught, the creation of a new breed of ‘foreign fighters’ now poses a definitional challenge amongst security experts. According to the Ukrainian President, more than 16,000 foreigners have volunteered so far. Reuters reports that many of them are seeing this as a “once in a generation showdown between the forces of democracy and dictatorship.”

Double standards?

However, language is everything, and the verbal gymnastics around ‘foreign fighters’ to suit a context and narrative that pits the West against Russia only underscores the contradictions between morality and pragmatism in global politics.

At the United Nations, the adage—‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ has held a universally-accepted definition of ‘terrorism’ hostage for years. Much of this was blamed on various States that supported sundry foreign fighters, non-state actors, and Jihadist groups for geopolitical reasons, especially in the Cold War years, during which ideologically-motivated violence was considered means to an end.

American support to the Mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan after 1979, or today, Russia’s own position on the Taliban after US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 are some examples. And, in the context of defining terrorism, scholars Chris Meserole and Dan Byman argue that “even the lists compiled by democratic governments are more likely to include some terrorist groups but not others.”

Since 9/11 particularly, the global security community has virtually codified and used the term ‘foreign fighters’ for terrorist individuals who left their home countries to wage Jihad alongside Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. So much so that counterterrorism and counterinsurgency frameworks have since adopted the terminology to frame policies and form judicial processes to deal with such individuals and their support networks.


As a result, an entire contemporary security nomenclature is being turned on its head, virtually overnight. The very security experts who spent the last two decades sounding the alarm over foreign fighters in the context of a Global Jihad are lauding the commitment of non-state actors—military and civilian—from countries like the US and UK willing to pick up arms for Ukraine. The explicit distinction is that fighting for Ukraine is a ‘just cause’. And implicit in their admiration is an expectation that Ukraine, as a responsible nation state will have to take accountability for the volunteer army it enlists, provide it the trappings of a regular army—like regiments and uniforms and a clear chain of command, and ensure the ‘soldiers’ take on the Russian onslaught within frameworks of international conventions that regulate the behaviour of traditional national armies. But will it be that simple?

Being wary of new war heroes

If war fought by national armies and professional militaries is a product of the Westphalian system of nation states, it is equally true that the increase of non-state actors on the battlefield—whether it is foreign fighters here, paid mercenaries from Russian and American companies that have operated in the Middle East, or indeed Jihadi terrorists whose targets are indiscriminate—is akin to a return to much older forms of warfare.

It is true that under the UN Charter, every member of the comity of nations has the right to self-defense in the face of external aggression, and this includes taking help from outside/ outsiders. However, what is the standing of such outsiders under international law? Will they be considered combatants, or illegal combatants? What processes, under what conventions would be used should they commit war crimes? What happens if they are taken by the Russian Army? Will they be considered legitimate prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions?  And, most importantly, who, what kind of individual is signing up to fight today?

A private research group, SITE Intelligence, which monitors extremist groups, told The New York Times that it had observed an uptick in support for Ukrainians fighting against Russia in several far-right online spaces. Disparate, unconnected individuals across ideological echo chambers have rallied around the Ukrainian cause. In countries such as Finland and France, recruitment propaganda is flooding Telegram channels run by far-right militias.

SITE Director Rita Katz told The New York Times that gaining combat training was a key motivator. In a complex global security landscape, with far-right extremism now declared a growing, transnational terror threat, a new breed of foreign fighters being created for one cause, may well find themselves radicalised, and moving on to another.

One of the key takeaways from the Global War on Terror is that those who pick up arms are governed not just by ideology and money, but by a sense of tribalism that overrides any civic or social identity. In the United States,  Neo Nazi and White Supremacist groups, widely held responsible for the 6 January 2021 insurrection on the US Capitol, have further complicated attempts to analyse the kind of fighter travelling to a foreign battlefield, because their commentary online, and their decisions are deeply coloured by their domestic politics (read hatred towards the Biden administration)

The news out of Europe has been a cauldron of apprehension, anger, the need for retaliation, racism, and extreme xenophobia. Whether it is reports from the borders from those trying to flee segregated into different lines based on the colour of their skin, or the open welcome white Ukrainian refugees have received in Europe—quite the opposite of their Balkan, Syrian, or Afghan counterparts, support for the Ukrainian cause is inextricably mixed with divisive identity-based, extreme politics, especially online.

While the Ukrainian cause may well be a just fight, it is imperative that the definitions and boundaries that must govern these volunteer foreign fighters are made clear at the outset. As much as defending Ukraine’s sovereignty is being seen as a global responsibility, the international community must equally ensure that the admiration for an army of volunteer foreign fighters doesn’t end up endorsing or enhancing a shadowy far-right military culture that will produce another stream of radicalised non-state actors seeking violence and adventure in the name of a ‘just’ cause.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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