Popular South Korean YouTuber Ken Rhee and a group of four British soldiers are potentially facing criminal charges and court martial for leaving their countries to fight as volunteer soldiers in Ukraine, underscoring the complex legal and political dynamics at play for the thousands of people responding to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea for foreign citizens to help his country fight Russia.
A British combat volunteer who said he is going to Ukraine to fight against the invading Russian … [+] army heads towards the Ukrainian border.
Four British soldiers on Wednesday who have reportedly gone AWOL—absent without leave— are suspected to have joined Ukraine’s legion of foreign volunteers, which would violate a ban on service personnel traveling to the region and amount to a court martial offense, officials warned.
Civilians are also breaking local rules to travel to the region and fight, including Ken Rhee, a former navy officer and popular South Korean YouTuber, who will reportedly have his passport revoked and could face criminal charges for leaving the country without getting prior government approval, reported Yonhap news agency.
The cases illustrate the complexities of those answering Zelensky’s plea for foreign help fighting against Russia, which has overwhelmed Ukrainian embassies with eager volunteers but sparked mixed messages among government officials.
Countries like the U.K. and Australia have warned would-be-volunteers that going to fight for Ukraine could be breaking the law and African nations including Nigeria, Senegal and Algeria have condemned Ukraine for trying to recruit its citizens and noted that recruitment on their soil is likely illegal.
Other countries like South Korea prohibit travel to Ukraine without permission and many countries, such as France or India, have laws against mercenaries or joining a force that acts against national interest, that could leave volunteers in a legal grey area if they join.
Many countries, the U.S. included, strongly advise against volunteering to take up arms in Ukraine, though others like Canada, Denmark and Germany have reportedly cleared the way for citizens to volunteer if they want to.
Recruiting foreign fighters is not a new phenomenon. Ukraine itself is no stranger to the practice and thousands have reportedly joined fighting with the eastern Donbas region since civil war broke out in 2014. Other recent examples include foreign fighters moving across regions of Africa, others from around the world traveling to join terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and American Albanians in Kosovo. The standards and usefulness of volunteers—as well as their equipment—can vary wildly, ranging from untrained enthusiasts with no relevant skills to combat-hardened veterans with expert knowledge and training. In an active warzone with scarce equipment or time to train, there is a very real danger of injury and death, though the lack of training and firepower is more common in the case of insurgency and guerrilla warfare.
The politics of foreign fighters is complicated, experts argue, especially if the individual serves in the military and Russia’s assertion that any country actively assisting Ukraine will be considered at war with Russia as well. Foreign soldiers fighting without the permission of their government are a PR nightmare and make for an especially potent propaganda tool, potentially inflaming international tensions and even expanding the war. Dead foreign civilians who have volunteered to fight also stoke political tensions back home and risk escalation.
20,000. That’s how many people have expressed an interest in volunteering for Ukraine’s International Legion, according to the Associated Press and CNN, citing Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and the commander of the Defense Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, respectively. It’s unclear how many of the volunteers, coming from 52 different countries, will go on to serve in the Legion.
Russia is reportedly hiring Syrian fighters familiar with urban combat to help Moscow take and hold key Ukrainian cities, according to the Wall Street Journal, citing U.S. officials. “It is unclear how many fighters have been identified, but some are already in Russia preparing to enter the conflict,” the Journal wrote, citing one official.
For foreign fighters, Ukraine offers purpose, camaraderie and a cause (Reuters)
‘I Just Can’t Stand By’: American Veterans Join the Fight in Ukraine (NYT)