The Soufan Center hosted a webinar on 29 March, entitled, “Foreign Fighters, Volunteers, and Mercenaries: Parsing Non-State Actors in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict.”
Non-State actors engaging in the conflict generate an increasingly complex set of challenges, which include legal, practical, moral, and humanitarian issues. Governments should be aware of those issues both from a short- and a long term perspective.
The Speakers included:
- Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and Professor in the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service’s Security Studies Program;
- Vera Mironova, Reporting from Ukraine, Visiting Research Fellow at Harvard University, and Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute;
- Naureen Chowdhury Fink, Executive Director of the Soufan Center;
- Stephanie Foggett, Resident Fellow, the Soufan Center;
- Colin P. Clarke, Senior Research Fellow at the Soufan Center, as moderator.
Dr. Vera Mironova gave an important overview about the issue from her on-the-ground perspective. She described some of the major components within the foreign fighter groups fighting for Russia and for Ukraine.
A particularly interesting point relates to the Chechen contingent: Dr. Mironova exhorts us to understand that there are Chechens forces on both sides and, in the case of those fighting with Ukraine, there are both secular-nationalist and more religiously-oriented groups.
The distinction that is most used about foreign fighters on the ground, however, is the one between those with previous experience and individuals without any military training. The majority of people with previous experience are Russian-speaking, often Belarusians and Georgians. Given their expertise, they are usually on the frontline on the Ukrainian side.
The majority of Westerners possess more limited experience. They are often located very close to the boarder with Poland, far from the front line, and often provide help and assistance individually without fighting. This is the case with Western Europeans, according to Dr. Mironova. From a communicative and PR perspective, their presence is undoubtedly great for Ukraine, whereas from a military point of view they do not represent a game changer and it would take months to train them.
Given the high numbers of foreign fighters, internal conflicts are already taking place. Known among the observers on the ground, for instance, is the rift among different American groups: it is well known that pro-vax Westerners arrive through Poland, whereas anti-vax individuals arrive through Hungary.
Dr. Dan Byman, an expert in white supremacist movements, highlights that only a relatively small fraction of the fighters in this conflict have links to white supremacy. A small fraction of a very big number, however, is still concerning.
There are multiple issues related to this. Sometimes individuals who show up for one reason, maybe an understandable one, once in the conflict zone mix with people who have very different agendas, links to violent organizations, and white supremacist ideas.
This process can lead to the creation of networks that make these individuals more capable of undertaking violent actions, which is made even easier because in the meantime they are receiving training and are exposed to the brutality of war.
Their need to survive might make them more violent in a sort of Darwinian process that might have multiple repercussions, often on their mental health, which is an aspect that does not receive enough attention during and after conflicts.
Naureen Chowdhury Fink notes that it is always good to flag some of the anticipatory challenges when we are at the early stages of a conflict.
Our recent foreign fighters experience with jihadists in Syria and Iraq showed that it is still complex to determine what terrorism is and who can be prosecuted. There are changing motives to fight and lack of clarity where conflict and terrorism overlap. It is not clear what the legal framework is, and the sides can manipulate this lack of clarity.
In the case of the conflict in Ukraine, it is not a foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon but still, the biggest challenge is what to do when the fighters return to their home countries: they might experience disillusionment, they might have become hardened advocates of violence, and they might need reintegration and legal support.
States have to make sure that people are registered when they leave; this is the first, easy-to-manage step. Secondly, Western governments should explore the opportunity to exploit existing rehabilitation and reintegration programs and, most importantly, clarify what is legal and what is not legal to the citizens.
Stephanie Foggett, an expert in far-Right online activities and narratives, reminds us that the international far-Right is not monolithic, so the reactions to the war in Ukraine are diverse.
Some stand with Russia, some with Ukraine and specifically with far-Right elements in Ukraine. Another group embrace a narrative where white populations fighting each other does not serve the cause of white supremacy. What is common among all those groups is a tremendous amount of antisemitism.
When talking about white supremacist narratives online, we usually tend to focus on hate, violence, and rage, which undoubtedly play a crucial role. Other elements get less coverage, although they are extremely significant to understand these movements.
This is the case, for instance, with gender dynamics, and there is a lot we can learn from them. There is a lot of anti-LGBTQ+ content related to this conflict. Putin’s sexist and macho rhetoric is often embraced, and strong, manly Russian soldiers are often compared to Western men “talking about their feelings” and becoming “weak”. According to this narrative, American and Western militaries are being destroyed by diversity and inclusion.
In general, these groups share an obsession with machismo and with past glories, tradition, and current humiliations to be erased. According to all these narratives, “The Future is Behind Us.”