A plea last week for foreigners to join the fight against the invasion of Ukraine was met Friday by a warning from Russia: Don’t expect to be treated as legitimate combatants if you’re captured.
The Russian warning, leaning on language that echoes America’s own history of legally questionable imprisonment from the War on Terror, comes as the initial surge of popular interest in joining the nearly two-week-old fight for a democracy against an authoritarian regime is met with the reality of conflict, risk and a soup of uncertainty.
Top officials including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have touted numbers of volunteers that exceed 15,000, but scattered media reports from Ukraine suggest that only a tiny fraction of that number actually makes it to the front lines. Military.com has repeatedly reached out to Ukrainian officials for details on the numbers of volunteers, including the number of American veterans seeking to join the fight, with no reply.
Some veterans are making their way into Ukraine for humanitarian purposes, like Chad Robichaux, a Marine Corps force recon veteran who founded the group Save Our Allies during the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan, to help evacuate interpreters and other Afghan allies.
The group's ranks are primarily made up of U.S. veterans, most of whom come from the special operations community. In addition to providing medical aid, they have been running rescue missions to get Ukrainian civilians away from the fighting.
"One of our teams just missed a tank blowing up," Robichaux told Military.com. "There were bodies still smoldering. There's a huge security risk."
The public discussion of reinforcements pushed Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov to issue a statement clearly intended to deter any volunteers from boarding planes for the front lines.
"None of the mercenaries the West is sending to Ukraine to fight for the nationalist regime in [Kyiv] can be considered as combatants in accordance with international humanitarian law or enjoy the status of prisoners of war," said Konashenkov, according to TASS, Russia's state-run news agency.
He added that all "foreign mercenaries" who are captured in Ukraine "would be brought to justice" on criminal charges.
Konashenkov’s suggested legal status for foreign fighters in Ukraine would mean they would not be entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions if captured by Russian troops.
Those conventions, among other things, set out rules for how prisoners of war should be treated -- free from violence, intimidation and abuse -- and stipulate their return at the end of hostilities.
Claire Finkelstein, founder and academic director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, described the idea that Russia could sidestep the Geneva Conventions as "a gross distortion of international humanitarian law" in an interview with Military.com.
“There is nothing illegal about fighting for the Ukrainian army under these circumstances, and history is replete with examples of foreign fighters joining the causes of other countries,” Finkelstein said. "Ironically, the Russians will be violating international law by refusing to recognize their status.”
Even if the legal logic employed by Russia is questionable, the country has a track record of imprisoning people -- including American citizens -- for long periods of time after sham trials.
Former Marines Paul Whelan, convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years of prison in 2020, and Trevor Reed, sentenced to nine years after assaulting police while drunk, remain in Russian custody. U.S. officials say both were convicted based on flimsy evidence in a court system not known for its impartiality.
Russia has also criticized America's recent history of torture and detainment without trial, looking to deflect attention from its own history of human rights abuses by engaging in rounds of whataboutism.
It's unclear how many foreign volunteers are flocking to Ukraine to fight Russians. Experts interviewed are skeptical of high numbers reported in the media, believing that Ukraine is incentivized to exaggerate how significantly its ranks are being bolstered by international sympathy.
Traveling into Ukraine is incredibly dangerous. It isn't just the Russian artillery shells, which can fall at any time. Moving around a country amid an invasion is a delicate operation.
“Tensions are high,” Robichaux said. “You got 18-year-old kids who were just drafted. Now, he has a [rifle] and he's scared at a checkpoint, and you roll up at night trying to pass. Accidents can happen. These situations are dangerous and risky. We don't want to give the appearance we're combatants."
Other veterans working with Robichaux have stayed on the Poland side of the border to assist the refugees, more than two million of whom have fled the fighting in Ukraine.
Dakota Meyer, a retired Marine who earned the Medal of Honor for heroics in Afghanistan, said he couldn't sit at home as the crisis continued. "I got two little girls at the house, but this is the most evil our generation has witnessed," he told Military.com. "It's good versus evil."
While some veterans are working to provide humanitarian aid, others want to volunteer to fight. Two current Army Special Forces officers told Military.com that building a guerrilla force is difficult and can have unforeseen secondary and tertiary effects. If Russia is already threatening not to honor basic prisoner of war rights for foreign fighters, that could have a potential domino effect in which those foreign fighters brutalize Russian prisoners or use unnecessarily vicious tactics.
“It's a two-way street,” one officer told Military.com on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The [Ukrainians] want to be the good guys here. But … a lot of armed men running around a country can be bad news in the long run.”
“War can make good people do bad things,” the officer added. “If I were operating in Ukraine, I'd be worried about these guys playing by the rules long term. What is stopping a Ukraine commander from using foreigners to do dirty work?”
Some sources interviewed were concerned about unregulated groups of fighters on the battlefield leading to more chaos, including uncoordinated missions, alcohol abuse or stealing military equipment, they said.
It is unclear how Ukrainian commanders are deploying the small number of foreign fighters that have reportedly made it to the front.
The information war has been critical for Ukraine. Since the invasion, videos have flooded social media of Zelenskyy appearing calm and collected, having traded his fitted suit for tactical clothing in his new role as a wartime president. He has balked at Russian threats and positioned himself to be the last man standing amid the blitz. Other videos show Russian prisoners seemingly being treated well, allowed to call their mothers and being fed warm meals. Still others show apparently highly motivated civilian guerrilla fighters defending their homeland from falling to totalitarian rule.
But foreign fighters being accused of committing war crimes could destroy all that accumulated goodwill.
"It's important Ukraine uses these [foreign] fighters under Geneva principles," Katherine Kuzminski, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, told Military.com. "Everyone already believes Russia is playing dirty; Ukraine wants to show they're fighting the right way. They have a reputational cost."
Veterans' desire to help Ukraine could arise from frustrations over Afghanistan, what some at one time called “the good war,” that became a prolonged conflict with a botched conclusion and little to show for two decades of blood and treasure spent.
"Some veterans wrestle with Afghanistan," Kuzminski said. "There is an appeal to have a black and white situation, a clear aggressor. Coming just 10 months from Afghanistan and [the] outstanding question of what that was all for, this war might be easier."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.