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Inconsistency in the treatment of foreign fighters


The scenes from Ukraine we see on our screens are highly sanitised, the written reports less so. We read about but don’t see bodies and body parts of Ukrainian civilians strewn across fields and streets, of exploded Russian tanks containing the charred remains of young Russian conscripts. We are tempted to believe that the Russians and Ukrainians are two easily identifiable monolithic sides divided by race, language, history and perhaps even religion. One wishes to be free, the other to conquer. It couldn’t be simpler.

But it isn’t. The Ukrainian President is from the Russian speaking community. He is from a Jewish family. He is a firm supporter of Israel, a country which, according a 9 July 2018 report in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, was arming groups ‘that espouse a neo-Nazi ideology’. One such group is the Azov militia ‘whose members are part of Ukraine’s armed forces and are supported by the country’s ministry of internal affairs’. The same newspaper on 19 February 2022 reported Azov had its own political party and paramilitary force ‘with ties to Western neo-Nazi groups’.

Unless one were to believe Russia’s state media, it would be incorrect to suggest that Azov is representative of Ukraine’s politics and defence forces as a whole. But Haaretz cites an investigative journalism website Bellingcat on the Eastern Europe’s far-Right to report that Azov ‘is tolerated because of its “patriotism” and willingness to fight for Ukraine’.

Around the same time as this report, the BBC reported that UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss openly supported individuals who wished to join the international forces in Ukraine to fight Russian forces, claiming they would be fighting ‘not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe’.

The Ukrainian government has set up a website to recruit foreign fighters. Already there are reports of thousands of Westerners from places such as Australia, Scotland, Canada and the United States heeding the call. Some have seen war before, having served in the armed forces of their countries. Who knows what unresolved trauma they carry already? Others are idealistic young men and women keen to fight for what they see as a just cause — the defence of innocent civilians and a democratic nation. Still others may be heeding the call of groups like Azov.


'What if young impressionable foreign fighters with little knowledge of Ukrainian history, politics and internal conflicts find themselves fighting with and influenced by anti-Semitic and Islamophobic neo-Nazi groups? What will these foreign fighters do when they bring these ideas with them back to Western nations including Australia?'


I doubt most volunteers espouse neo-Nazi ideology. I also doubt many will be familiar with Ukrainian language, culture, history, religion and nationalism to tell the difference between various groups wearing the Ukrainian armed forces uniform. In the fog of war, nuance goes out the window. The Ukrainians are out-gunned and outnumbered by a much stronger Russian army and its own band of mercenaries and volunteers.

I grew up in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War, a time before many of today’s volunteers in Ukraine were even born. It was a time when the Russians (or rather, the Soviets) had invaded another small neighbour and were committing atrocities against civilians. The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan wasn’t only seen as a symptom of the nefarious spread of communism. It was also a human rights issue. Western athletes boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Western governments openly supported the Afghan Mujahideen and were happy to support, finance and even arm foreign fighters joining the various mujahideen factions (including the faction controlled by a devout Saudi named Usama bin Ladin) to fight the Soviet occupation.

The West and its allies from Muslim-majority countries were happy to allow their citizens to fight the Russians on that occasion. Some went not to fight but to provide aid. Some went as doctors and paramedics. Many stayed home but lobbied and raised funds to support the Afghan resistance. For me, as a young Australian kid who didn’t speak a word of Pushto or Dari or any other indigenous Afghan language, who had never set foot in the country but who shared a religious affiliation with the people of that nation, the call to arms was quite tempting.

Had I gone to Afghanistan to fight, I would not have been seen as a terrorist. In those days, jihad was not a dirty word. The mujahideen (a word literally meaning ‘those undertaking jihad’) were hailed as freedom fighters. In my young mind, the mujahideen were one united force. All Afghans were opposed to communism. The West was backing my team. What could possibly go wrong?

But as we know, much did go wrong. Twenty years later, the remnants of the Afghan mujahideen formed the Taliban. The forces loyal to Usama bin Ladin set up a base there. We all know what happened next. Had I gone to Afghanistan in any capacity shortly before 9/11, it’s possible I may have joined David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib in Guantanamo Bay prison.

Until the pandemic hit us in March 2020, the threat of terrorism dominated much of our domestic politics and foreign policy. Rafts of legislation have created a parallel criminal justice system to investigate, prosecute and punish those with even the most tenuous links to terrorist groups seeking to attract funds and support from Australians. Passports are cancelled. Citizenships are revoked.

This was the War on Terror, a war in which Russia was an ally. Western nations sat back and watched as Russia committed atrocities in cities like Grozny. The Chechens were regarded as terrorists. We weren’t surprised when the two young men who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing turned out to be Chechens.

Russia was also an ally in the war on ISIS. We watched as Russian forces joined forces with the Syrian regime and Iran to fight the brutal ISIS militia. Iranian forces also fought ISIS in Iraq, arguably in tandem with US and Australian forces. It was all very murky and confusing.

In a space of 40 years, Russia has been our enemy, then our friend and now is an enemy again. Russia is again attacking Ukraine. We are convinced the Ukrainian cause is just. But we also know that we face a domestic far-Right terrorism threat at home. What if young impressionable foreign fighters with little knowledge of Ukrainian history, politics and internal conflicts find themselves fighting with and influenced by anti-Semitic and Islamophobic neo-Nazi groups? What will these foreign fighters do when they bring these ideas (and the associated trauma of war) with them back to Western nations including Australia? 





Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Main image: A British combat volunteer who did not want to be identified and who said he is going to Ukraine to fight against the invading Russian army heads towards the Ukrainian border on 7 March 2022 in Przemysl, Poland. (Getty Images News/Sean Gallup)

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Ukraine, Russia, Foreign Volunteers, Islam, terrorism, Azov



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Existing comments

Thanks Irfan. I'm old enough to know the double standards that exist. The good guys and bad guys seem to change camps in the passage of time and context.

Eroc | 12 April 2022  

Irfan Yusuf is quite right. The political situation in the Ukraine is complicated by it’s history. Ukrainians loathed Stalin and when the Nazis offered them a chance to get their own back in revenge for the brutal artificial famine he imposed on them in the 1930s , young men volunteered in their thousands to join the 15th SS Division ‘Galicia’. It was annihilated, before it was ready for combat in Brody. Their SS status did NOT automatically make them Nazis. The German Wehrmacht was unable to recruit foreign fighters by military law. These young men fell into the clutches of the SS by default. Ukrainian personnel however DID volunteer for guard duty at Sobibor, Maidenek and Auschwitz Extermination camps. They wore the peacetime black uniforms of the Allgemaine SS. Their appalling brutality was notorious. The Azov Battalian Fighters in Mariupol had a reputation for brutality in the Donbas region before Putin’s escalation of the conflict. The Azov Battalion is considered ‘Far Right’ and is connected to neo-Nazi groups in Europe. None of this excuses what Putin is doing, but any young Aussie contemplating military service in Ukraine should think twice. It’s complicated. It’s also against the law!

William Stockwell | 12 April 2022  

Thanks Irfan, the article delivers some balanced insights and poses some valid questions, particularly about those who 'volunteer' (for money) then potentially return to their country of origin in very different shape. Australian services and repat have enough difficulty with returned service soldiers suffering PTSD (and worse) from police actions. Due respect for those who serve our nation but I'm struggling with the notion that the Ukrainian occupation which is significantly more intense fighting than (say) East Timor could result in returning untrained and unexamined civilian Australians needing protracted treatment and support for military trauma in a civilian-oriented medical system. What controls will be in place to receive and 'discharge' those who serve as soldiers to rehabilitate them and flick the switch 'off'? Our government is sending military aid and I expect that there'll be a reasonably strong arguement to afford repatriation support to everyone from expats with noble intentions to mercenaries looking for a quick buck ...or just some sicko who wants an excuse to shoot someone but declare being a 'freedom fighter'. The Ukrainian President pleads for weapons and anyone to come and fight...and somehow we're supposed to be dismayed Russian forces push and strike West. Supply lines...

ray | 13 April 2022  

The Holy Spirit is a spirit of order. Cleanliness (a notion which is connected to maintaining things in a tidy way) is said to be next to godliness. Anarchic fervour in pursuit of what is emotionally thought to be a good cause, represented here by volunteers trying to be descendants of the international brigades of the Spanish Civil War, was also found in the January 6 rioters in Washington DC and also in those who want unfettered discussion of everything at the synod.

It is illegal for Australians to fight for non-government forces abroad, although not for official armed forces, although what is officially a Ukraine armed force could become murky. There are also uncertainties about the standards of professionalism in other armed forces, especially to do with values such as political neutrality or military expediency (it’s not hard to become involved in a war crime), and volunteers who are Australian citizens by migration or who hold multiple citizenships should be careful that they don’t put this status at risk because of things they do overseas.

All in all, war is for governments and professional armed forces, not civilian volunteers, even those who think they are above being a QAnon Shaman, because, at the end of the day, they are being one.

roy chen yee | 13 April 2022  
Show Responses

The Holy Spirit has gone on holiday in Russia or is AWOL, and appears to be a mere spectator during the course of the Ukraine war. So at present, prayer, sacrifice and burnt offerings are not going to solve the problem.

Francis Armstrong | 14 April 2022  

Salaam, Irfan! I admire your stick-at-it-ness in identifying the Far Right roots of the problem but at this stage there's another discourse that your article misses. It concerns the plight of innocent victims, once 'Black' and Muslim and now Christian and....nothing!

These victims are invariably women, the elderly and infirm and children: those with no voice but only body-counts to witness to their suffering. While the airwaves are full of taking sides, accusation and counter-accusation and avenging atrocities the outbreak of violence in a 'White' part of the world adds telling evidence of the failure of ideology and even religion to sort out our problems.

What the world is searching for instead is forgiveness, a stop to violence, nomatter who perpetrates it and a determined effort to bury our hurts and grievances.

In my puny subcultural corner of the world it happens to be Lent. In your's its Ramadan. For both of us its a time for soul-searching and atonement and surely not for setting the record straight. My model in this is Jesus's warning when Peter took offence at his arrest, drew a sword and cut off the centurion's ear: 'Those who use the sword perish by it.' Peace!

Michael Furtado | 13 April 2022  

Irfan Yusuf seems to agonise over the question "What if young impressionable foreign fighters with little knowledge of Ukrainian history, politics and internal conflicts find themselves fighting with and influenced by anti-Semitic and Islamophobic neo-Nazi groups?", when I'm less concerned about so-called neo-Nazi groups but increasingly agonised over the question of when will the major world democracies deliver the long overdue knock-out punch to the actual-Nazi tactics employed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine by attacking maternity hospitals and butchering unarmed civilians. Forget about emotional 'labels' focusing on neo-Nazis. The Russian butchers invading Ukraine are the authentic 'real deal' Nazis of the 21st. century, but that's not really surprising, because Putin is proving himself to be nothing more than a copy-cat of Hitler who was a master at orchestrating the massacre of millions of innocent civilians.

Chris Begley | 13 April 2022  

Spare us the high horse judgemental speculation Irfan. The appeal to imagined historic grievances.

This Orthodox Christian unification Crusade masquerade by Putanic forces has to be stopped because an aggressive well armed red army has no regard for civilian casualties to a hitherto peaceful neighbour. It is a quest to seize territory, resources, pipelines and secure ports so that Putin can increase what he charges for energy worldwide.
10 million displaced citizens, 100,000 civilian casualties (so far), rapes, genocide, atrocities with worse to come as another 13km armoured column advances towards Donbas.
Would that lily livered NATO, the US and Allies disregarded the threat on Nuclear strikes. The world has dealt with worse.

Francis Armstrong | 13 April 2022  

My personal opinion is that Australian citizens should not be allowed to serve in foreign armed forces. There are many Australians in the Armed Forces of the UK; some in those of the USA; some in the French Foreign Legion and many Australians serve in the Israeli Armed Forces and some Australian born young men serve in the Turkish Armed Forces to retain their Turkish citizenship. I have doubts about dual citizenship. Some countries, such as India and Singapore don't allow it. My suggestion about foreign armed forces would probably go up like the proverbial lead balloon, as there are too many vested interests involved. I knew the father of a young Englishwoman who died fighting for the Kurdish Forces in Rojava. She had no Kurdish ancestry, nor previous links. I am unsure whether she knew that the Kurds were amongst the greatest persecutors and murderers of Armenians during the Armenian Holocaust. Many Mujahids, such as the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, did not join the Taliban, nor support ISIS. There were many different groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al Quaida was basically Arab led and Saudi funded. There is strong evidence that the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence Agency was behind the creation of the Taliban. If this is true, their creature has come back to haunt them.

Edward Fido | 13 April 2022  

Irfan the bigger problem is that The Kremlin's public pronouncements are now menacing and Putin enjoys taunting NATO, USA and the West with sneering gibes which imply there's nothing anyone can do to stop him.
The Kremlin are calling for the installation of concentration camps within Ukraine of all who oppose the invasion.
The historical grievances between factions and pro Russian supporters within Ukraine are moot.
Whether they are right or left politically has to take second place to the looming genocide and the disregard Putin, Kirrill and Dornikov have for civilian casualties.
The ‘butcher’ of Aleppo and Grozny, Aleksandr Dvornikov, was endowed with a Hero of Russia medal in 2016. He is indifferent to large scale human suffering. Investigations are afoot to the stark reality that Russia has authorised the use of phosphorous weapons in Mariupol.
Therefore if the West does not intervene Totalitarianism will triumph over Democracy.
Dornikov has been tasked with the "SS General Reinhard Heydrich" job of the final Ukraine solution. The systematic annihilation of the civilians who oppose Russian rule.

Francis Armstrong | 14 April 2022  

Putin denounced Ukraine’s leaders as a “band of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” Earlier, Stalin labelled Ukrainian farmers “kulaks” and killed four million of them by starvation (Holodomor). Demonizing opponents was official Soviet policy: “Label them as fascist, or Nazi or anti-Semitic…The association will, after enough repetition, become ‘fact’ in the public mind.”

Former black US Communist Party official, Manning Johnson, wrote that “stirring up race and class conflict is the basis of all discussion.” Communists wanted “Bloody racial conflict.”

Hillary Clinton smeared millions as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic.” Left-wing academics teach racism is everywhere—mathematics, classical music etc.—teaching bogus studies like Critical Race Theory and Whiteness Studies. Black economist Thomas Sowell observed, “Racism is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything—and demanding evidence makes you a racist.”

Why worry about returning foreign fighters when hate and bigotry are routinely taught in most Western educational institutions?

Ross Howard | 14 April 2022  

One would not assume that Australia's domestic far right is organic or independent of similar groups and ideology in the Anglosphere and Europe; there is evidence of clear transnational networks sharing ideology, agitprop, PR and media techniques.

Evidenced by an Oz 'advisor' round US linked think tanks praising UK PM Johnson visiting Ukraine while claiming Macron as 'weak', but suggesting vs. Le Pen she is better?

The latter has not only had material support in loans from Putin and Orban's regime in Hungary, French far right has been central to promoting 'the great replacement' and eugenics linked ideology or tropes aka Renaud Camus inspired by Jean Raspail's 'Camp of the Saints'.

The latter was published by deceased US white nationalist John 'passive eugenics' Tanton, the muse of Steve Bannon, ZPG, Planned Parenthood, admirer of the white Australia policy (& visitor), his 'network' informs media on nativist conservative policies in the Anglosphere under the guise of Malthusian 'demography'., also Trump White House and still, legacy media.

Classic agitprop inspired by ZPG is viewing refugees, immigrants and population growth as an environmental 'hygiene' issue that needs a 'solution'; also supports 'the great replacement' and helped get both Brexit and Trump (plus Orban in Hungary, where another CPAC is coming up.....).

Andrew J. Smith | 16 April 2022  

If I could be personal, Irfan, I think, if your parents had stayed in Pakistan, you would more likely have ended up a member of the Lahore Bar than as a jihadi. The Pakistan Courts, by declaring Imran Khan run out, have done the country a great favour, as have the Sevice Chiefs by not staging a coup on his behalf. The days of Sher Shah Suri are long gone: no Pathan (Pushtun) is going to rule India or Pakistan like he did. He was, unlike Imran Khan, a good ruler who never tried to treat with fanatics like the Taliban. He would have wiped them out. America is in the process of destroying both the Talibs and the country. It is tragic for innocent Afghans of all ethnicities, Sunni and Shia alike. The likes of Ahmad Shah Massoud fought both the Russians and Talibs to prevent this. I have an opinion of David Hicks, who I believe may have revoked Islam. He was a marginal and marginalised figure, like John Walker Lindh. Best forgotten really. Both of them.

Edward Fido | 19 April 2022  

Irfan: All the questions and background not being provided by our so-called "mainstream" media - including the ABC. Thanks at last for some nuance - otherwise only being found with Pearls & Irritations. It seems the vast majority of journalists are mere opinion writers or else conduits for official press releases! And also that they very rarely seem to have studied history.

Jim KABLE | 22 April 2022  

Thank you Irfan Yusuf for this very timely article. There should be open discussion about the implications of what you have written in the lead-up to the coming federal election. Sadly though, the leaders of the LNP Coalition and the ALP would rather talk about electricity costs or make nitpicking comments about the mistakes that the other make rather than have a full public debate on the major issues that you have raised.

Like others, I think that we should be very critical of the Russian war in the Ukraine as well as being critical of the actions by the US and NATO that contributed to it happening

Just as we don’t want young Australians to be involved in foreign fighting, we must also remember that many of our young people have already been officially sent to participate in unnecessary wars because of the US alliance. Further, many Australians don’t want us to be involved in future unnecessary wars or US moves to support repressive governments

It seems to me that Australia could play a far more humane and positive role in world affairs if it's leaders supported peace-building, democratic ideals, the rule of law, human rights, social justice and more effective efforts to control the pollution causing global warming.

Of course, this means Australia becoming an independent and non-aligned nation.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 April 2022  

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