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FOREIGN FIGHTERS’ INVOLVEMENT IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE CONFLICT AND ITS SECURITY IMPLICATIONS ON EUROPE

Pètra van de Gevel, Benjamin Brooks, Martyna Dobrowolska, EUCOM Team; Elizabeth Leoce, CENTCOM Team

Manja Vitasovic, Editor; Jennifer Loy, Chief of Staff

Week of Monday, April 4, 2022



Ukrainian forces outside Kyiv[1]



On February 27, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky invited foreign fighters to join the Russia-Ukraine conflict against the Russian forces.[2] He announced the establishment of a new formation, the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine.[3] Ukrainian authorities stated that 20,000 people from 52 countries have applied to join the legion.[4] The Ukrainian Azov Battalion, a group of fighters with connections to far-right extremist groups in the EU and US, already fights in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.[5] Russia also appealed to foreign fighters to join the Russian army, stating that more than 16,000 volunteers, mainly from the Middle East, have applied to assist Russian separatist forces in the Ukrainian Donbas region.[6] The open calls from Ukraine and Russia will very likely prompt far-right and radical Middle Eastern groups to join the conflict, likely incentivizing fighters with financial rewards. The increased presence of foreign fighters in Ukraine will very likely deteriorate security in Europe due to the very likely increase of violence and terrorism.


Many of the foreign fighters in Ukraine mobilized via social media, like TikTok, are not sufficiently trained nor experienced in combat zones.[7] Foreign fighters with minimal combat background will almost certainly need training from Ukrainian forces, likely delaying Ukraine’s response to the Russian invasion. Foreign fighters' casualties will very likely increase due to the lack of experience, very likely resulting in a greater strain on Ukraine’s medical resources. Language barriers will likely cause poor communication between foreign fighters and the Ukrainian army, almost certainly hindering Ukraine’s military operations and likely increasing numbers of injured soldiers. Foreign fighters will also very likely struggle to communicate with Ukrainian civilians, likely being unable to warn them about the threats.


Celebrities have condemned Russia and praised the actions of Ukrainian forces on social media.[8] Celebrities are unlikely to be fighting in the conflict themselves and instead are very likely using their online platform to attract support for Ukraine. If more celebrities continue to support Ukraine, the number of donations to the Ukrainian army will very likely rise. Celebrities encouraging foreign fighters will also likely increase the number of inexperienced foreign fighters, very likely leading to more deaths in the conflict.


Far-right militias in the Russia-Ukraine conflict use social media for recruitment.[9] Far-right groups will very likely increase their online presence to spread their beliefs and recruit members by sharing live combat actions and paramilitary tactics from Ukraine. Far-right groups and individuals that plan to join the conflict will likely gain knowledge of firearms and in-person combat online, likely allowing them faster engagement in fights. Foreign fighters’ activities will very likely become difficult to monitor as a result of the increased radicalization and knowledge of paramilitary tactics.


The Ukrainian Azov Battalion, a group of fighters with connections to far-right extremist groups in the EU and US, joined the Russia-Ukraine conflict.[10] The involvement of foreign fighters that have connections with far-right groups is very likely a security threat to Europe. Members of far-right extremist groups will likely join the Russia-Ukraine conflict to conduct terrorist attacks or violate human rights, as their prosecution is unlikely. The presence of far-right groups in the Russia-Ukraine conflict will very likely result in the dissemination of far-right ideologies among other foreign fighters, very likely attracting new recruits. The far-right groups' influence will likely rise in their homelands. Once they return home, violent acts and terrorist activity will very likely increase in Europe, as they will likely feel inspired to continue with the acts they conducted in Ukraine.


In a press briefing from the US Pentagon, Secretary John F. Kirby informed the public that the Wagner Group, Russia’s private military company, has been recruiting foreign fighters from Syria to deploy them in Luhansk and Donetsk.[11] The presence of Syrian foreign fighters will likely shift the conflict’s dynamics in Russia’s favor, likely threatening Ukraine’s security. Syrian foreign fighters’ will likely be ISIS members, due to their likely familiarity with urban warfare, likely giving Russia a strategic advantage. ISIS militants will likely spread their Salafi-jihadist ideology in Ukraine, likely increasing radicalization among Russian military and civilian fighters. An increase in radicalization will likely cause increased Jihadi activity in Europe, likely resulting in new terrorist attacks. In the Middle East, Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine will likely weaken Syria’s defense, very likely leaving the country vulnerable to attacks. Iran will very likely increase its attacks in Syria, particularly in the city of Deir ez-Zor, where Iran-backed militias, like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are stationed.[12] Attacks in Deir ez-Zor are likely aimed to spread Iran’s influence in Syria while Syria is likely weakened without Russian military support.


The foreign fighters’ participation will almost certainly prolong the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as guerilla warfare will likely arise once Middle Eastern fighters that support Russia come into conflict with Ukrainian fighters. Any diplomatic efforts to stall the Russia-Ukraine conflict will almost certainly have negative results as foreign fighters on both sides will very likely ignite confrontations. A prolonged conflict will very likely create a state of unrest among Europeans. EU citizens will very likely be concerned about Russia using foreign fighters to military advance in Eastern European countries close to Ukraine, likely starting an international war. This will very likely destabilize Europe, likely increasing political tensions. EU Member States will very likely have different opinions on specific countermeasures to prevent foreign fighters from engaging in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.


EU intelligence services are monitoring groups that could be interested in joining the Russia-Ukraine conflict.[13] Some countries, like Latvia, encourage their citizens to make their own choice and defend Ukraine if they wish[14] Other countries situated close to Ukraine and Russia likely fear that a successful Russian invasion of Ukraine will result in the occupation of neighboring countries. This likely motivates Baltic foreign fighters to join the Russia-Ukraine conflict. EU countries, such as France and Germany, are dissuading people from joining the foreign legion, almost certainly to protect them from entering an active war zone.[15] These countries likely discourage their citizens from fighting in Ukraine, as Russia will likely portray them as state and NATO-backed, almost certainly allowing Russia to further justify its invasion of Ukraine.


The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) EUCOM and CENTCOM Teams recommend that Ukraine and Russia halt the open calls for foreign fighters to join the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as it is very likely the use of foreign fighters in conflicts will become legitimized as a long-term effect. CTG further recommends EU intelligence services to keep monitoring social media activities and to keep track of groups that could be interested in joining the fight in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with a particular focus on those with firearms experiences, such as military or police. CTG also recommends EU governments to raise people’s awareness on the topic, underlying the importance of spotting and reporting extremist content online.


CTG’s EUCOM and CENTCOM Teams will continue to monitor the involvement of foreign fighters in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The EUCOM Team will monitor the impact that foreign fighters’ involvement is having in Europe at the political and security levels. The CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers will continue to track foreign fighters’ activities in Ukraine and Russia to provide fact-based analysis.


________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Russia Ukraine War - Day 38: Retreating troops leave devastation” by manhhai licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Ukraine’s foreign legion joins the battle against Russia, Al Jazeera, March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/14/russia-ukraine-war-international-legion-foreign-fighters

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Profile: Who are Ukraine’s far-right Azov regiment?, Al Jazeera, March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/amp/news/2022/3/1/who-are-the-azov-regiment

[6] Russia-Ukraine war: Putin greenlights letting volunteers fight, Al Jazeera, March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/11/putin-green-lights-plan-to-let-volunteers-fight-in-ukraine

[7] Among Ukraine’s Foreign Fighters, Pulitzer Centre, March 2022, https://pulitzercenter.org/stories/among-ukraines-foreign-fighters

[8] Following the Ukraine war – and fighting it – on social media, France 24, March 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20220308-following-the-war-in-ukraine-%E2%80%93-and-fighting-it-%E2%80%93-on-social-media

[9] Russia's misguided ”denazification” of Ukraine is a self-fulfilling prophecy, MSNBC, March 2022, https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/how-russia-spurred-ukraine-s-global-neo-nazi-recruitment-n1293177

[10] Profile: Who are Ukraine’s far-right Azov regiment?, Al Jazeera, March 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/amp/news/2022/3/1/who-are-the-azov-regiment

[11] Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing, US Department of Defense, March 2022, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2983648/pentagon-press-secretary-john-f-kirby-holds-a-press-briefing-march-30-2022/

[12] How Iranian Militias Have Swallowed Deir Ezzor, The Washington Institute, February 2022, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/how-iranian-militias-have-swallowed-deir-ezzor

[13] France and other EU countries call on citizens not to join Ukraine's fight against Russia, RFI, March 2022, https://amp.rfi.fr/en/europe/20220329-france-and-other-eu-countries-call-on-citizens-not-to-join-ukraine-s-fight-against-russia

[14] Meet the Foreign Volunteers Risking Their Lives to Defend Ukraine—and Europe, Time, March 2022, https://time.com/6155670/foreign-fighters-ukraine-europe/

[15] France and other EU countries call on citizens not to join Ukraine's fight against Russia, RFI, March 2022, https://www.rfi.fr/en/europe/20220329-france-and-other-eu-countries-call-on-citizens-not-to-join-ukraine-s-fight-against-russia

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