The foreign fighters joining the war in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin attempts to recruit Syrian mercenaries for attack on Kyiv

French soldiers board a bus
French soldiers board a bus after being deployed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine board
(Image credit: Thibaud Moritz/AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow is recruiting Syrians with a background in urban warfare to join its invasion of Ukraine, it has emerged.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), citing four US officials, said that Russia “has in recent days been recruiting fighters” in Syria in the hope “their expertise in urban combat can help take Kyiv and deal a devastating blow to the Ukraine government”.

It remains unclear how many fighters have been identified in the Middle Eastern country, one official told the paper. But those selected to join the Russian war effort are already understood to be in Russia and are preparing to enter the conflict.

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Call to arms

Moscow is not alone in appealing for allies to bolster its war effort. Thousands of people are answering a plea by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for “anyone” from “Europe and the world” to fight alongside his people against invading Russian forces.

At a press briefing last week, Zelenskyy asked “every friend of Ukraine who wants to join Ukraine in defending the country” to “please come over”, adding that they would be given weapons. “Everyone who is defending Ukraine is a hero,” he said.

An official statement released the following day laid out his government’s plan to establish an “International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine”, a subdivision of the Ukrainian army made up of non-national volunteers.

The appeal for foreign reinforcements is “unprecedented in modern warfare” and is “reminiscent of international involvement in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s”, said The Guardian.

Ukraine’s allies

Foreign citizens “have been fighting in Ukraine since 2014”, when Russia-backed rebels seized government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, known collectively as Donbas, said The Washington Post. But with Ukrainian embassies now “openly involved in the recruitment of fighters”, experts “say this is a step far beyond that in ambition”, the paper reported.

Most of the foreign fighters currently in Ukraine hail from other post-Soviet states, such as Georgia and Belarus. But according to The Times, “hundreds of Britons” have written to Ukraine’s embassy in the UK to volunteer following the Russian invasion.

A military source told the paper that 150 former paratroopers who served in Afghanistan were already on their way to fight on the front line.

The Independent reportedly “knows of half a dozen former soldiers, emergency responders and regular civilians hailing from countries including the Netherlands and the UK who are crowdsourcing funds to join the largest ground war in Europe since the Second World War”.

And Buzzfeed said that a group of ten Nato-trained special operations forces veterans from the UK, US and Germany were “preparing to cross into Ukraine” from Poland to join the International Legion.

A British national attempting to sign up at Ukraine’s London embassy on Monday told Sky News that he wanted to enlist because “they look like they need help. “We’re young, strong, fit men and we can help, so why not?” he added.

Foreign governments including those of Latvia and Denmark have backed Ukraine’s appeal for foreign support. The Ukrainian embassy in Israel began “actively recruiting” in recent weeks, The Times of Israel reported.

Oz Katerji, a freelance war correspondent currently based in Kyiv, tweeted that “a group of Iraqi Kurds have joined the Ukrainian foreign legion” to fight against Russia.

Anastasiia Lapatina, a journalist at the Kyiv Independent, also tweeted an image of “Ukraine’s first international legion of territorial defence forces”, adding that its members came from “the US, Mexico, India, Sweden, and more”.

Russian recruitment

According to a report in D24, a magazine based in the eastern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor, Moscow has offered volunteers $200-$300 (£150-£230) “to go to Ukraine and operate as guards” for six months at a time.

In a video seen by Reuters, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s Chechnya region who has described himself as Vladimir Putin’s “foot soldier”, also said that Chechen fighters have been deployed to Ukraine, while urging Ukrainians to overthrow their government.

“As of today, as of this minute, we do not have one single casualty, or wounded, not a single man has even had a runny nose,” the news agency reported him as saying. Putin “took the right decision and we will carry out his orders under any circumstances”.

The Kremlin’s search for Syrian reinforcements hints at “a potential escalation of fighting in Ukraine”, the WSJ reported. “Syrian fighters have spent nearly a decade fighting urban warfare”, the paper added, “while Russia’s largely conscripted force lacks this skill set”.

However, some experts said that the recruitment of Syrian fighters provides yet more evidence that Russia’s invasion of its neighbour has not gone to plan.

Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told the paper: “Bringing Syrians into Ukraine is like bringing Martians to fight on the moon. They don’t speak the language, the environment is totally different.”

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