Since the outbreak of large scale hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in February the participation of foreign fighters from across the Western world on the side of the Ukrainian government has been well publicised internationally, with assessments of their numbers, roles and effectiveness varying widely. Although Russian sources persistently sought in the war’s initial stages to broadly portray all foreign combatants as mercenaries on the payroll of NATO member states, the accuracy of this coverage has been very widely questioned with combatants generally falling into three categories all of which are very different from one another including how they recruit and the kinds of roles they play.
The first category are active members of foreign militaries and intelligence services, referred to by the New York Times as a CIA ‘stealth network’ with a very extensive role in the war effort, which are on the payroles of various Western governments and were dispatched to Ukraine under orders. The second are mercenary fighters, primarily from Eastern European states and particularly from Poland, who are not officially members of the militaries of NATO member states but who have shouldered a large burden of the fighting and taken thousands of casualties in the process. Such personnel are sent in by various contractor organisations, which themselves have often shadowy ties to Western governments. Such units are a more ‘deniable’ kind of asset than members of NATO militaries meaning they can be sent to frontline positions and openly engage Russian forces without the risk of causing international incidents that active duty NATO personnel would.Thirdly there have been a large number of volunteers from across the Western world who have joined the war for ideological reasons, at times with the encouragement of their governments. Some volunteers have been retired servicemen from NATO militaries with combat experience, while others have had none. Portrayals of the war as a collective struggle for the Western world and its ideology on the frontier between the West and non-West, emphasising Russia as a partially Asiatic ‘other,’ has been key to gaining support for the effort.
One of the best known foreign units to have participated in the Russian-Ukrainian War is the Georgian National Legion, which has been active since 2014 and was comprised largely of Western nationals. Seen as being particularly effective at recruiting Americans, and having participated in nine of the conflict’s most major battles since February, the Legion is an elite paramilitary unit of approximately 1000 personnel. Its composition, although primarily Georgian, currently also includes 50 British personnel and an unknown number of other Westerners. Sky News referred to the Georgian Legion as operating “with one aim, the destruction of Vladimir Putin.”
Sky interviews with the Georgian Legion’s members revealed significant new details regarding their operations, including investigating the longstanding uncertainty surrounding their motivations and whether it was a mercenary group or an ideological volunteer unit. When the leader of the Georgian Legion Mamuka Mamulashvili was asked to clarify whether his personnel were mercenaries, he stated: “It is not about having a salary, it’s about an idea to be free. Civilised people will understand this.” Mamulashvili was himself a veteran of the Abkhaz–Georgian conflict, fought alongside the Islamist Mujahideen in the First Chechen War, and finally participated in the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 before taking his fight to Ukraine. The Sky report in conclusion referred to the unit’s motivations as follows: “The head of the legion sees the war in Ukraine as a life-or-death struggle, a battle for Western ideals like democracy and personal freedom.”
Sky’s interviews with Georgian Legion personnel provided further indications as to their motivations and perceptions. “Russians aren’t human,” a member of the unit told a Sky reporter, while another asserted that “Russia is a terrorist state.” “We have fewer of them here, it means less to kill at home,” one Georgian militiaman stated in reference to the need to maximise Russian casualties on the Ukrainian front to strength Georgia’s position further east. Potentially most concerning, although far from isolated to the Georgian Legion itself, was a perception of all Russians including civilians as adversaries and potential targets. The group’s leader Mamulashvili stressed, despite dissuasion from his interviewers, that when fighting Russians “there is no difference between so-called civilians and the government, they are the same occupiers.” Far from out of line with the views expressed in recent interviews, the Georgian unit has been accused of war crimes in the theatre, with one such incident evidenced by video footage showing captured Russian personnel being executed. Nevertheless, despite claims by Russian sources, the Georgian Legion appears to be a primarily ideologically motivated volunteer force with its ability to draw volunteers from higher income countries, and its very multinational nature, being indicators of this.