The risks and dangers of foreign fighters taking up arms to fight in Ukraine
This sudden acceptance of the concept of foreign fighters by some Western States and analysts reeks of opportunism and double standards.
The war against Ukraine by Russia has entered a perilous phase on multiple fronts, as a thaw between Kyiv and Moscow seems unlikely in the coming weeks with Europe, backed by the United States (US) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), applying hard sanctions and decoupling political and economic relations with President Vladimir Putin. In midst of this chaos, private citizens or “foreign fighters” have been both courted by Ukraine and promoted by some Western leaders to take up arms. This trend is problematic.
An Indian citizen from Tamil Nadu studying at Kharkiv University joined the Ukrainian side to fight the Russians. The United Kingdom’s foreign secretary Liz Truss backed British citizens travelling to fight Russia in Ukraine, and other European States also offered a lackadaisical response to their citizens looking to fight in the war. According to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, 16,000 foreigners have signed up to take up arms in support of the country.
The idea of foreigners travelling to fight for a cause is not new and can be traced back to conflicts such as the American and Spanish civil wars. However, more recently, the idea of travelling abroad to join conflicts has been attributed to jihadist groups and movements across the world, specifically from Europe, of Muslims looking to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. As a result, many academic and policy imperatives were mobilised to better understand this phenomenon and curtail such movements. However, over Ukraine, the same security threats seem to be not only acceptable strategic responses, but even promoted towards developing a larger insurgency infrastructure in the country.
This sudden acceptance of the concept of foreign fighters by some Western States and analysts reeks of opportunism and double standards. Many European States to date have their citizens who had joined IS languishing in makeshift prisons in Iraq and Syria, not knowing whether to integrate them back, imprison them at home, or outrightly cancel their citizenship due to their association with a proscribed terrorist group. And with the rise of far-Right groups and politics in the West, how will Ukraine as a conflict theatre be disallowed to become an ideological incubation chamber?
Analysts have recognised far-Right, neo-Nazi, and White supremacist groups not only gaining political strength, but organising tactically as well. In February 2021, US secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, intensified the Pentagon’s efforts to clamp down on far-Right and White supremacist supporters within the American military ranks after the attack on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Questions remain on how these fighters in Ukraine will be monitored for issues such as war crimes, conventions that govern conflicts, and their reintegration back into society. Double standards could undo work done by States to treat the issue of foreign fighters for what it is — a national security threat.
India is also one of the countries that strengthened its policy and legal response to foreign fighters only in 2015, considering the threat posed by IS. Even then, it was not due to the sporadic cases of Indians who joined IS in Syria or Afghanistan, but when thousands of Shiite Muslims answered a call by Delhi-based Shiite group Anjuman-e-Haideri to send them to places such as Karbala and Najaf in Iraq in order to protect Shiite shrines from IS attacks. While India has taken back some of its citizens that joined IS, it has also refused to take others, where reintegrating them legally and societally was a challenge. An increasing trend of privatisation of conflict is worrying, with countries such as Russia deploying private mercenaries like the Wagner Group to consolidate geopolitical interests, Turkey reportedly using fighters hired from Syria during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and so on. Finding merit in private citizens bolstering the Ukrainian frontline, while alliances such as NATO balk at getting involved militarily is a recipe for disaster, with implications on conflict strategy, and possibly giving weight to arguments such as “one man’s war is terrorism, and another’s fighting for freedom”.
Kabir Taneja is fellow, strategic studies programme, Observer Research Foundation. He is the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia
The views expressed are personal
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