Alberto Suarez Sutil, currently Team Leader at the CENTCOM Counter Terrorism Group analysing security dynamics and terrorist threats in the Middle East. Previously worked in NATO and the European Parliament.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revived a phenomenon last seen in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War: The call for foreign volunteers by a government to fight on their side. This has been the case with the Ukrainian government. On February 27—three days after the start of the invasion—Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed for foreign volunteers to join an International Foreign Legion. This gave birth to the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine—also known as the Foreign Legion of Ukraine—which, as of the time of writing, has its own website.
This call for foreign fighters by the Ukrainian government opens the possibility of analysing how Kyiv frames the conflict to attract foreign fighters. Issues in this respect include how the conflict is portrayed: whether it is described as a local struggle or a global war, what values are promoted (e.g. bravery, honour), and finally if Ukrainian national symbols and history are used to attract recruits. Analysing this narrative will very likely enable analysts to understand the discourse employed by the Ukrainian government. It will also enable us to evaluate the likelihood of this discourse being hijacked by far-Right groups such as the Azov Battalion for its political aims, using the Ukrainian conflict as a façade for their extremist views.
The webpage of Ukraine`s Foreign Legion gives us an insight into how the Ukrainian government has framed the conflict to the international community.
Global Struggle for the Free World
The conflict is presented by the Foreign Legion’s website as a global struggle for freedom and human rights. Globalizing what initially can be seen as a regional conflict and appealing to the free world is aimed at stirring in volunteers a belief that they are fighting for a positive cause, the protection of freedom, democracy, and human rights, against the authoritarian Russian regime. This narrative is very likely to be effective as potential volunteers will very easily find evidence of Moscow’s authoritarianism in the repression of free speech and human rights. The notion of the Free World is also accessible to Westerners because it is familiar, echoing the narrative of the Cold War, where the term “the Free World” described the democracies led by the United States in their struggle against the totalitarian Soviet Union. Another reason this will resonate is the memory of the Soviet invasions to crush the democratic uprising in Hungary in 1956 and the liberalizing trend in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Ukraine clearly needs men with military skills and its messaging aims to attract such people. The term “Foreign Legion” is a homage to the French Foreign Legion, composed of foreigners serving France and known as a hard and capable military unit. Prospective volunteers are very likely to perceive their service in Ukraine under this Legion as equally honourable and daring as its French equivalent. Another way the military aspect is used by the Ukrainian government to attract volunteers is by identifying weapons with the struggle, such as Stinger and Javelin anti-tank missiles, and perhaps above all the Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, which have become almost a cultic symbol, even in popular culture. These weapons have become symbolic of the struggle of Ukraine due to their effectiveness against Russian forces, just as the Stinger was for Afghan Mujahideen resisting the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s. In associating these weapons with fighting for freedom, the Ukrainian government very likely aims at instilling in foreign fighters the sense that they, too, can use these weapons against Russia, becoming heroes in the process.
The far-Right is very likely to exploit the Ukrainian government’s call for a Foreign Legion as it echoes the presence of foreign volunteers in Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS during the Second World War. The Waffen SS are a favourite of the far-Right for their combat story and presence of divisions composed of foreign volunteers in their ranks. For example, the Fourteenth Waffen Grenadier Division der SS “Galizia” was composed of Ukrainian volunteers, and this history has been overtly mobilized already. The Azov Battalion, whose shield includes Nazi regalia such as the Wolf Hook and the Scandinavian sun wheel, are very likely to hijack the Ukrainian government’s narrative by identifying the Ukrainian conflict as a legacy of the fight of the Waffen-SS against a common foe. This would provide the appearance of some legitimacy to Russia’s claim the invasion is “denazifying” Ukraine, and undermine Ukraine’s claim to be fighting for democracy and freedom.
The Ukrainian government’s call for foreign fighters opens the possibility of analysing the narrative employed by the government for recruitment. Kyiv frames the conflict as one where it is the frontline for the Free World in a fight for democracy and human rights. The use of the term “Free World” is evocative of the long struggle with Soviet Communism, and its employment provides foreign volunteers a familiar frame of reference to understand their participation in the war as one theatre in a global fight for democracy against authoritarian Russia. That Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union and is engaged in a massive crackdown against the media and opposition reinforces this narrative.
Militarily, the “Foreign Legion” is being used by Ukraine to evoke the French Foreign Legion, likely aimed at instilling in volunteers a sense of belonging to an elite force. Identifying military hardware such as missiles and drones with the conflict provides volunteers with icons and a sense that they, too, can use these weapons to fight against Russia, inducing feelings of pride when they destroy a tank or helicopter with these weapons.
The far-Right is very likely to try to hijack this narrative as the term “Foreign Legion” can also be used to revive the memory of the Nazi Waffen-SS, which recruited foreigners into its ranks, including Ukrainians. The presence of units such as the far-Right Azov Battalion in the official Kyiv order of battle makes this possibility more likely, and if it came to pass would play into Russia’s narrative that it is denazifying Ukraine, undermining Ukraine’s narrative that it fights for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
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