Foreign fighters muddle Ukraine-Russian conflict

No living society can be indifferent to the problem raised by terrorism. Sadly, different societal systems react differently to terror, keeping in view their self-interests. Experts have suggested several estimates from Kyiv and Moscow that foreign fighters joining the Russia-Ukraine war may be part of the information warfare. But their presence in the ongoing conflict is established, and the numbers are growing, which may worsen matters in the coming days.

While it may remain legal for citizens in many countries to join the International Legion in Ukraine, experience raises some concern about people fighting wars on the soil of other countries. Certain security risks are associated with foreign fighters fighting, muddling the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Will it generate a backfire in how foreign terrorist fighters have done in other countries? Various risks will appear depending on how the war shapes up in the future.

The ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter…’ maxim contests the notion that ‘terrorism’ and ‘freedom fighting’ are mutually exclusive concepts where the former is always illicit. But certainly, there is a lot of chaos & confusion among international foreign fighters joining the Ukraine-Russian war as to whose freedom fighters or terrorists they are.

For instance, Grozny, Salakh Mezhiev, an Islamic scholar based in the Chechen capital of Grozny, declared that the Russian invasion was a Jihad and soldiers of Chechnya were fighting for the God/Allah to save Russia and Islam from the filth of the US-led NATO forces. Also, Muslim clerics in Russia have backed Vladimir Putin’s offensive on Ukraine.[i] On the other hand, A jihadi source close to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib told Al-Monitor that the Chechens supporting the Russian Army were dissenters. They have lost their way to the religion of Islam, even if they claim to perform the five daily prayers. They are collaborating with the enemy whose actions are against the teachings of Islam. He further added that joining the side of the Russian forces is no less than blasphemy and betrayal. The source further added that the Chechen soldiers taking part in the Russian invasion of Ukraine are the same as soldiers of the Russian forces. Both are colonisers, but the Chechen soldiers falsely brand the Islamic religion. They are untrustworthy and have ruptured the morals of Islam.[ii]

Adding to the already existing confusion regarding the justification of Muslims fighting on both sides. Turkey-based Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood scholar Dr Yasser Al-Naggar on March 11, 2022, on Mekameleen TV, said that the perception of Islamic law on Muslims joining both sides of the war between Ukraine and Russia is legitimate as they fight both sides against each other and kill infidels.[iii]

Jihadists in Ukraine-Russia conflict. Chechen fighters have been deployed in Ukraine to fight alongside the Russian troops. Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen region, said that the president of the Russian Federation took the right decision in inviting the Chechen soldiers to participate in the special military operation in Ukraine. He further explained that more troops would be committed in the coming days.[iv] I think Russia has decided to employ Chechen fighters to reduce its military casualties. It is believed that Kadyrov has promised more troops of the Chechen Volunteer force for the ongoing Special Military Operation in Ukraine.

Also, the Syrian fighters who fought who carried out combat actions against the Islamic State have supposedly decided to fight in conjunction with Russian troops in Ukraine. These fighters include regular soldiers, former rebels, and veteran fighters who are the part of 5th Division and the Quds Brigade that had combat actions in Syria. Amongst them is members of the division of Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan called the Tiger Force in Syria.[v]

Another group of Chechens has jumped into the war across the front lines, but they plan to defend Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Adam Osmayev, an exiled Chechen leader, said that Ukraine should see Kadyrov’s soldiers as Chechens, but they are traitors and puppets of Russia. He added that real Chechens are standing with you, bleeding with you, as they have been doing for the past eight years. It is believed that Osmayev leads the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, named after the late Chechen rebel leader. The group is one of the two publicly known Chechen volunteer groups fighting against Russian-backed separatists and Russian forces in Ukraine since 2014. The other is called the Sheikh Mansur Battalion and is commanded by Muslim Cheberloevsky.[vi]

Neo-nazi and extreme far-right elements are fighting for Ukraine.

Persons from all over Europe and other Western countries reinforce the rank and file of Ukraine’s volunteer army, ensuing President Zelensky’s call to help his country against the Russian onslaught. “Anybody who wants to join the defence of security in Europe and the world can stand side-by-side with the Ukrainians against the invaders of the 21st century.” (President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky)[vii]. This has created a new brand of foreign fighters and poses severe challenges to security worldwide as the experts see it.[viii]

It is pertinent to mention that the Azov Special Operations Detachment, better known as Azov Regiment or Azov Battalion, is already operational and has formed part of the National Guard of Ukraine since 2014. This neo-Nazi Battalion is located at Mariupol in the coastal areas of the Sea of Azov. “The dominance of a multinational global fascist terrorist network has drawn attention, in quest of military training with openly neo-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-semitic organisations like the Azov battalion.” (Bacigalupo, James; Valeri, Robin Maria; Borgeson, Kevin (14 Jan 2022). This Azov Battalion was established in May 2014 as a volunteer paramilitary militia and had been fighting the Russians in the Donbas region since then. In its first fighting action, it took Mariupol from Russian fighters in June 2014. This Battalion attracted glimpses in Feb 2022 for its military defences of the Mariupol and resisting the special military operation of Russia.

Nevertheless, the Battalion was involved in a controversy because of alleged war crimes and other atrocities committed, its alleged neo-Nazism ideology, and its symbol Wolfsangel sign, which the Nazi SS division used. In March 2015, the spokesperson of the Azov Brigade confirmed that 10% to 20% of the Battalion are Nazis.(Oren Darell, USA Today, 10 March 2015). Members of this outfit come from 22 countries with doubtful credentials. In 2017 the strength of this organisation was 2,500, but it dropped to about 1000 in 2022. A provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, passed by the US Congress, blocked the military aid to Azov Battalion due to its neo-Nazi ideology.

About 20,000 volunteers from various parts of the world have united up to fight against Russian forces in Ukraine.[ix] Many foreign fighters have never handled a firearm yet but are ready to die and have arrived in Ukraine from European and other western countries. They are eager to get equipped, instructed and made battle-ready.

Has Ukraine become a pivot of TransationalTerrorism? The way foreign fighters, private mercenaries, and religiously and racially radicalised militants join the Ukraine-Russian conflict has only complicated the already contested war and has its long-term ramifications. The Ukraine war has entered a dangerous phase and is fought on multiple fronts. Heavy losses of both men and material are reported from both sides. So far, the talks between Ukraine and Russia have not headed in a desirable direction. The US, Europe, NATO and other western countries impose punitive economic sanctions and thus have started economic warfare against Russia. Now, this is a new kind of hybrid warfare.

Various problems are associated with countries not initiating steps to desist their nationals from joining the conflicts abroad. Because volunteers having gained the combat experience are likely to remain active in the arena of ideological environment and may create networks of like-minded fighters. In the past, people who fought for ISIS in Iraq and Syria were allegedly involved in violent extremism in various parts of the world, including attacks in Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016).

Also, like jihadists, far-right volunteers in the Ukraine-Russian conflict could establish links with their counterparts and develop networks to strengthen the domestic platform for carrying out terror-related activities. In the 1990s, German neo-Nazis who participated in the fighting in the former Yugoslavia and Croatia later on established paramilitary training camps remained active within the far-right scene and trafficked arms and equipment from the conflict zone back into Germany.[x]

Keeping the above realities in view, the current flow of foreign volunteer fighters in Ukraine poses a serious threat to Europe and the rest of the world. They might indulge in terror-related activities and develop transitional terror networks in their home countries. It appears to be less ideologically driven, yet they are vulnerable to various extremist ideologies. And some analysts believe that the Ukraine-Russian war is a ‘battlefield for the far-right ideologies’. To defeat this Ukraine govt must prefer war veterans rather than raw people who want to gain military experience.

Conclusion: The Russian special military operation in Ukraine might prolong. The Russian forces have taken south-eastern Ukraine under their control. The eruption of insurgency is a real possibility. In that case, the Russian troops would face the opposition of the forces using guerilla tactics. The Azov regiment, which has far-right leanings, and the Resistance Movement established in 2019 give a tough fight to Russian forces. It is most likely that foreign volunteers would be co-opted with these forces by Ukraine. It is estimated that the strength of volunteers has reached 20,000 in International Legion- an organization set up by the Ukraine govt.

This could further complicate the matter. Insurgent war could be long-drawn and vicious, and national interests could get hurt. They may turn their weapons against the locals for cooperation and support and indulge in criminal activities. As long as influential groups receive assistance from sympathetic states, terrorism will sustain.

The motives of foreign volunteer fighters traveling to Ukraine to fight the war against Russia may not be the same as foreign terrorists who had joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but they certainly carry the inherent risks.

According to Carl von Clausewitz, ‘war is the province of uncertainty. This equally applies Ukraine-Russian conflict also. The participation of foreign volunteers and jihadists in this war creates further skepticism. They don’t know how fighting will emerge and have little control over the development of the war.

The jihadists, white supremacists or far-rights, foreign fighters fighting on both sides of the Ukraine-Russian war would undoubtedly pose the most significant security threat to the world community. Indeed, they will try to establish their ideological networks in their homeland and worldwide. The world is already passing through an ‘age of terrorism’ characterized by ideological wars due to the variance between the East and the West and between the Left and the Right. And the participation of foreign volunteer fighters in the Ukraine-Russia war would further escalate security concerns worldwide.

I Robert De Crews, “Muslims are Fighting on Both Sides in Ukraine”The Washington Post, 10 March 2022.

[ii] Khaled al-Khateb, “Jihadis in Idlib Bash Chechen Leader Ramazan Kadyrov for Role in Ukraine War”Al-Monitor, 6 March 2022.

[iii] “Muslim Brotherhood Scholar Dr Yasser Al-Naggar: Muslims are Allowed to Join Either Side of The Russia-Ukraine War, In Order To Pit Them Against One Another; They Will Be Rewarded for Killing Infidels, Or Be Killed and Become Martyrs”MEMRI TV, 11 March 2022.

[iv]  “Chechen leader, a Putin ally, says his forces deployed to Ukraine”Al Jazeera. 26 February 2022. Retrieved 7 March 2022.


[v] Syrian fighters who fought against Islamic State sign up to fight. › world › syrian-fighters-who-f  dated 18 Apr, 2022. Acessed on 8 May 2022.


[vi] Chechen and Tatar Muslims take up arms to fight for Ukraine › chechen-and-tatar-muslims-take dt 24 March 2022. Accessed on 8 May, 2022.


[vii] Fight for Ukraine accessed on 8 May,2022.


[viii] Foreign fighters in Ukraine – A definitional dilemma | ORF › expert-speak › foreign-figh dated 12 March,2022. Accesed on 7 May, 2022.


[ix] Band of others: Ukraine’s legions of foreign soldiers are on the . › news › 2022/03/24 › ukrain 25 March, 2022. Accessed on 6 May, 2022.


[x] Foreign volunteers in Ukraine: some security consideration for Europe, ICCT, Prespective 4 May, 2022. International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – ICCT Accessed on 9 May 2022



About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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