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Inconsistency in the treatment of foreign fighters

  • 12 April 2022
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