Five foreigners, including three Britons, members of the Azov regiment, are on trial in absentia in Russia from this Wednesday, May 31 for having fought for kyiv. Four of them, a Croat, a Swede and two Britons, are charged with “mercenarism” and for having undergone training to commit “terrorist acts”. The last Briton is only accused of “mercenary”.
Taken prisoner during the Battle of Mariupol, the five men were all released in a prisoner swap in September 2022.
From the first days of the Russian invasion, Ukraine appealed for foreign volunteer fighters. President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on February 27, 2022 the creation of an International Legion for the territorial defense of Ukraine and signed a decree the next day authorizing foreign nationals who came to fight to enter the territory without a visa.
► How many fighters concerned?
According to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, as of March 6, 2022, there were 20,000 foreign volunteers, with and without military experience, from 52 countries who had applied to join the Ukrainian forces.
The main nationalities represented are those of neighboring countries: Baltic States, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Then come the states where there is a large Ukrainian diaspora, such as Canada. The defectors, Russians, Belarusians or Chechens also responded.
Since then, Ukraine has no longer communicated precise data on these fighters. However, most experts believe that the influx would have dried up, many would have given up, either for lack of experience, communication difficulties. 109 of them, including three French, died in combat, and 17 were taken prisoner. The number of foreign fighters today is less than 3,000.
► Where are the foreign fighters engaged?
The international volunteers have joined the ranks of the International Defense Legion of Ukraine. However, on the ground, the volunteers are dispersed among a dozen formations, battalions or units, with varying implications in the fighting. They are grouped according to their common language to facilitate communication.
Among these formations, we can cite the Canadian-Ukrainian brigade, the Task Force Baguette which includes French and Americans, the Djokhar Dudayev and Cheikh Mansour battalions made up of Chechen volunteers, the Pahonie regiment and the Kastous-Kalinowski battalion where Belarusians, the Georgian Legion or the “Freedom of Russia” Legion, refuge for Russian defectors. In addition, a foreign special forces unit, separate from the International Legion, was created.
► What is their status?
The status of foreign volunteers who joined the Ukrainian forces is disputed. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry considers these men to be soldiers of its army.
However, Russia considers these volunteers to be “mercenaries”. As early as March 3, 2022, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov warned that foreign fighters, if captured, would not obtain prisoner of war status, as guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions.
However, the Geneva Conventions define mercenaries as persons directly involved in the conflict “with a view to obtaining a personal advantage” and whose “material remuneration is clearly higher” than that granted to combatants or soldiers. The text also stipulates that these people cannot be “neither nationals of a party to the conflict, nor residents of the territory controlled by a party”.