Foreign Volunteer Legions on the Ukrainian Side

The particular risks involved are confirmed by the recent widespread coverage in the international public sphere of the death sentences handed down on 6 May by the Supreme Court Appeals Chamber of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to British (UK) citizens Sean Pinner and Aiden Aslin, and to the Moroccan Saadoun Brahim, on charges of taking power by force, serving as mercenaries, receiving training for terrorist activities, etc.

The “trial”, which started on 6 June, took place from 7 to 8 June, the last of which was devoted to “discussions” between the accusers and the accused.

Those condemned have the option of appealing the verdict or seeking a pardon from DPR “leader” Denis Pushilin. If he agrees, the death sentence will be commuted to 25 years in prison.

All three fought in the 36th Separate Marine Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces fighting against separatist forces in Donbas.

According to the Russian business daily RBC Daily, Sean Pinner, 48, and Aiden Aslin, 27 years old, were captured in April in Mariupol.

According to Aiden Aslin’s relatives, Aiden, who fought in the Kurdish People’s Self-Defence Units (YPG) in Syria against the Islamic State from 2015 to 2017, arrived in Ukraine in 2018, settled in Mykolaiv and initially had plans outside the army, especially when he met his fiancée there.

However, in the same year, he took the oath of office and joined the 36th Marine Brigade, which, with the Azov Battalion, defended Mariupol in the wake of the Russian aggression earlier this year.

From a British Twitter post on 12 April about the circumstances of his capture: “48 days have passed, we have tried our best to defend Mariupol, but we have no choice but to surrender to the Russian forces. We have no food or ammunition. It was an honour. I hope the war will end soon.”

Aiden Aslin’s friend, former UK Royal Forces soldier Sean Pinner, also joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2018, captured under the same circumstances as his younger friend.

Saadoun Brahim, 21 years old, left his native Morocco in 2019 because he could not find a job or access to education. In Ukraine, he spent a year studying Russian at the Poltava University of Economics and Trade before joining the Faculty of Aerodynamic and Space Technologies at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. He did not initially have any thoughts of going to war.

Putting aside for the moment the almost obvious prospect that the Kremlin regime (it is already criminally naive to believe in any legal legitimacy of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ – that it, not the Kremlin’s mentors, will actually decide anything) will use the death sentence to conduct a geopolitical bazaar with the West in the first place, it is noteworthy that even though they are aware of the risks, foreigners are still willing to come and help Ukraine.

For the time being, it should be noted that immediately after the verdict was announced, UK Foreign Secretary Lisa Truss tweeted that, as all three are prisoners of war, the “trial” is a sham, and her department is doing everything possible to make things easier for the condemned.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia has indicated that it does not consider the condemned prisoners of war as prisoners of war. Chairwoman of the DPR’s so-called ‘People’s Council Committee on Criminal and Administrative Law’ Yelena Shishkina declared on 1 June that the British and Moroccan could not be exchanged because they were not acting as military men but as terrorists and Nazis.

The Russian portal Mediazona points out separately that all three of them had officially joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces before military aggression of Russia against Ukraine on 24 February, so who is a terrorist, who is a Nazi, is an open and nonetheless rhetorical question of decency.

In Russia, foreign POWs were exploited by the propaganda media – RT TV, Izvestia, etc. The famous propaganda programme “60 Minutes” on Rossia 1 TV channel already in April broadcasted a British appeal that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson should press President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky on the issue of their exchange for Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law Viktor Medvedchuk, arrested in Ukraine for treason against his country.

This is routine on the propaganda front. Talking about the practice of life, as has been said, foreigners, undoubtedly aware of the risks, are nonetheless determined to help Ukraine.

According to various sources, several thousand foreign nationals are fighting on the Ukrainian side. At the beginning of the war, Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned about 16,000 volunteers.

In April, the Ministry of Defence of Russia referred to almost 7,000 “mercenaries” (this is the Russian interpretation), and at the beginning of June it reduced this number to three and a half thousand.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsyhanouskaya, in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on 6 June, said that one and a half thousand Belarusian citizens are helping the Ukrainian Armed Forces to repel the Russian aggression by organising themselves into several battalions.

According to the politician, many Belarusians want to help Ukraine and are secretly training outside their homeland, so the number of 1,500 is not a temporary one, but a growing one.

As for the diversity of the Belarusian volunteer battalions.

On 25 March, fighters from the Belarusian battalion named after Kastus Kalinoŭski, which was formed after the Russian aggression against Ukraine on 24 February, swore an oath to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

On 25 March, Belarusians celebrate the Day of Will on the occasion of the founding of the People’s Republic of Belarus on 25 March 1918. Wincenty Kastuś Kalinoŭski was one of the leaders of the uprising against the Russian Empire in 1863-1864 in the territories of present-day Lithuania and Belarus.

Pavel Kulazhenko, a Belarusian-American serving in Kastuś Kalinoŭski’s battalion, lived in Brooklyn, New York, for the last decade. Before that, he served in his home country until 2011 in the internal army, in a special task unit OMON.

After the fraudulent 2020 presidential elections, he became one of the organisers of the active opposition movements Soprotivlenye (Resistance) and Letiat aisty (Storks are flying).

However, he was in no hurry to return to his homeland, as he said that it seemed foolish to return only to be immediately put in jail by the regime.

Instead, he coordinated extremely active actions against the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenko from abroad, even to the point of attacking the Belarusian domestic army base in Volovshchina (Minsk City) with modified industrial drones.

Already in mid-March, he arrived in Ukraine to fight on its side, bringing with him the methodology of modified unmanned aerial vehicles.

In an interview with Svoboda (24 March), the fighter stated that he is convinced that the Kastuś Kalinoŭski battalion will be the basis of the army that will liberate Belarus from Aliaksandr Lukashenko. And that without a free Ukraine, the freedom of his homeland is impossible. Ukraine has given him, a Belarusian, a historic chance, and if he refuses it, it is unlikely that he will ever get another one.

The battalion is led by qualified, experienced instructors who understand the objectives and are committed to the growth of the unit. Therefore, they invite everyone, especially those with military experience.

To summarise, the tactics used by the foreign volunteers fighting on the Ukrainian side are as follows.

On 3 June, currenttime.tv showed footage filmed by the Ukrainian correspondent for Radio Svoboda Marian Kushnir of the arrival of the ‘Foreign Legion’, including volunteers from Australia, Brazil, Georgia, France, and other countries, to help the Ukrainian military in Severadonetsk in the Luhansk region, which is the scene of a particularly dramatic battle with Russian aggressors.

‘The Legionnaires’ mission is to support the assault teams of the Ukrainian Army of Ukrainian army attacking the streets of Severadonetsk.

Arūnas Spraunius


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