Ukraine Wants Foreign Reinforcements. Will American Civilians Fight?

·4 min read

Scores of aspiring fighters have expressed on social media their interest in joining the fight against Russia in Ukraine. Most of those interviewed by Military.com claim to be U.S. veterans, some saying they are en route to Poland or packing their bags, though none of their stories could be verified. Others said they plan to go, but are awaiting their passports.

The wave of interest comes after social media posts from Ukrainian government offices, like embassies, began to offer any "foreigners willing to defend Ukraine" the opportunity to join an "International Legion of Territorial Defense."

Hanna Maliar, Ukraine's deputy minister of defense, said Monday that the country has received "thousands" of requests from foreigners to fight in their war.

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While passing interest on social media is scant evidence of any widespread desire among Americans to fight for Ukraine, the rumblings suggest some may be gearing up to do just that.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to questions regarding the number of applications it had received as of Tuesday.

But experts warn that would-be volunteers should be aware that joining a volunteer brigade is risky and devoid of many of the protections Americans, especially veterans, would expect on the battlefield.

Claire Finkelstein, the founder and academic director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, says any volunteers "will fall into the category of civilians directly participating in hostilities, and that makes them targetable by the enemy."

"They're not going to get any breaks" under international law, she added in an interview with Military.com.

More importantly, Finkelstein noted that, in the event of a volunteer's capture by the Russians, "they will be unlikely to be treated with full POW status" under the Geneva Conventions. For Americans, this should be an especially strong worry, she added.

"The United States is in a poor position to insist on humane treatments of those captured in hostilities, given our own treatments of individuals that we detained in the war on terror."

There have been outlier cases of American civilians fighting for foreign armies -- in Ukraine since the war started with Russian separatists following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and alongside Kurdish militias in Syria. The most notable case is the so-called Lincoln Battalion during the Spanish Civil War.

More than 3,000 American volunteers joined that war, nearly one-quarter of whom were killed as the U.S. Navy had ships sitting off the coast while the country was gripped by fighting, much as American troops sit peering across Ukraine's borders today.

Coffee or Die Magazine even reported on two U.S. Army veterans who recently traveled to Ukraine and trained its forces in advance of this year's invasion.

Finkelstein explained that Ukraine making volunteers formal members of its military -- complete with uniforms and training -- would give them the most protection under the law.

"It's really important that those who fight for a state fight as an integrated part of that state and not as a contractor, because then the state is taking responsibility for them. It's giving them the same sort of rights and privileges, and has the ability to confer, at least in principle, the same combatant immunity that anyone else would have," she explained.

However, application forms posted by the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S. specifically make volunteers acknowledge that they are joining "under a contract on a voluntary basis" and that they have to provide their own "uniform, personal protection [equipment]."

A post by Maliar on social media Monday noted that the Ukrainian government will pay its soldiers 100,000 hryvnias -- about $3,300 -- per month. On Friday, the Ukrainian Embassy spokesman told Military.com that volunteers would not be paid a salary so as not to make them "mercenaries."

"If Ukraine were really smart, they would give dual citizenship to anyone who volunteered because that would protect them maximally," Finkelstein said.

If those risks don't put you off, the good news is that legally there are few issues with Americans fighting in another country's war.

"There's no legal repercussions, per se, it's just that you don't have the protection of your own government," Finkelstein said, adding that many Americans regularly serve, and even sustain injuries, in the Israeli armed forces.

One specific protection Finkelstein noted is Department of Veterans Affairs coverage. It's not clear how the agency, which cares for some 11 million patients, would take to treating health conditions that come from another nation's war.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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