Zelensky Calls for Flooding Ukraine with Foreign Fighters to Push Back Russia

Ukrainian soldiers inspect a damaged military vehicle after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine,
Marienko Andrew / AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky established a new wing of the armed forces on Monday called the “International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine,” intended for foreign nationals who wish to come to fight in the country’s war against Russia.

Zelensky signed a decree creating the military wing on Monday and has lifted visa requirements for individuals who fit the requirements to join the forces. The initiative comes as reports indicate Russian leader Vladimir Putin may be planning a much larger military assault on the country after his initial push towards Kyiv failed.

Putin announced last week that he would recognize two territories in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, as sovereign states and that the leaders of these “states” had requested the presence of the Russian military in Ukraine to fight Zelensky’s forces. Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, colonizing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and funneling support to the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively referred to as Donbas.

Russian forces have moved far past Donbas, however, and have regularly bombarded Kyiv and other critical metropolitan areas. Putin has since asserted that toppling the Zelensky government is necessary to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Zelensky has responded to the claim by noting that he is a descendent of World War II veterans who fought Nazi Germany and is Jewish.

In light of what appears to be preparation for a much larger military effort by Russia, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced the creation of a “legion” for foreign fighters.

The state news outlet Ukrinform published instructions on how to enter the Ukrainian battle theater legally, a process that begins with interested parties contacting the Ukrainian embassy in their countries. Zelensky, Ukrinform’s instructions read, “noted that this is not just [a] Russian invasion of Ukraine, this is the beginning of a war against Europe, basic human rights, and all rules of coexistence on the continent,” and thus foreigners have a stake, he claimed, in fighting.

The news agency Reuters identified “dozens” of Americans and Canadians interested in heeding the call on Monday.

“With their governments refusing to send troops to Ukraine out of fear of sparking a world war, Americans and Canadians told Reuters they were inspired by Ukrainians’ fierce resistance,” the outlet claimed. “Many believe their democratic rights will be threatened at home if they do nothing to defend Europe.”

Reuters noted that some of those interested in going were not doing so to fight as soldiers, but to serve as medics, cooks, and other auxiliary aid.

The call for foreign fighters to join Ukraine has created a legal predicament for countries with interested citizens, and domestic laws in most countries impose limits on citizens fighting with foreign armies. It is not a new problem – American volunteers, for example, joined Kurdish forces in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – but one addressed by little legal precedent. The Washington Post observed on Tuesday that several countries are considering carve-outs to help their citizens fight with Ukraine.

“On Monday, lawmakers in Latvia voted unanimously to allow Latvian citizens to fight in Ukraine, according to Reuters,” the Post reported. “In Denmark, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said Sunday that ‘there is nothing at first sight that would legally prevent someone from going to Ukraine to participate in the conflict, on the Ukrainian side.'”

The government of Canada abstained this week from discouraging citizens to go and fight, the Post noted, calling it an individual choice.

The United States has yet to comment formally at press time about any Americans potentially fighting for Ukraine, but has no tradition of taking action against citizens who joined the fight against the Islamic State. The Islamic State is a designated Foreign Terrorist Association, however, not a sovereign state like Russia, which America does not recognize as a state sponsor of terrorism or any other designation that would possibly expand private citizens’ scope in combatting its military.

The State Department did distance itself from Americans independently fighting ISIS in 2015, however, telling Time magazine, “Any private U.S. citizens/civilians who may have traveled to Iraq or Syria to take part in the activities described are neither in support of nor part of U.S. efforts in the region.”

The effort to expand Ukraine’s ability to fight by inviting foreigners joins other attempts to unconventionally increase Kyiv’s number of fighters. Last week, Zelensky’s administration announced a program to give firearms to any Ukrainian willing to fight the Russian military, with little to no oversight. Zelensky announced on Monday that he would also free convicted criminals from prison if they have “combat experience” and would send them into the “hottest” war fronts.

“We dedicate every minute to the struggle for our state. Everyone who can join the struggle against the invaders must do so,” Zelensky said. “Therefore, the decision was made, not simple from a moral point of view, but useful in terms of our protection. Ukrainians with real combat experience will be released from custody and will be able to compensate for their guilt in the hottest spots.”

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