25th May 2022

First volunteer fighters leave Belgium to join Ukrainian brigades

  • Anti-war protest in Brussels on day one of Russian invasion on 27 February (Photo: Bartosz Brzezinski)
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The first batch of volunteers left Belgium Thursday (3 March) to fight Russia in Ukraine — despite official Belgian advice not to go.

Seven men were travelling from Brussels to the Polish-Ukrainian border on a coach provided and driven by a volunteer driver, Ukraine's embassy to Belgium told EUobserver.

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The foreign fighters are coming after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky issued an appeal Saturday for foreigners to join an "international legion."

As many as 16,000 foreigners have so far answered the call from some 20 nationalities, Zelensky said Thursday, according to the Reuters news agency.

"They are in the embassy now and they are leaving right now," a Ukrainian diplomat said Thursday afternoon, speaking of the first men from Belgium.

Another 18 were due to follow in the coming days after completing Ukrainian application forms and interviews, out of 70 men who have so far contacted the Ukrainian embassy to volunteer.

Alongside Belgian nationals, men from Brazil, France, Georgia, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Morocco, and Sweden, several of them with prior military experience, applied.

Ukrainian authorities have also created international hotlines to help foreign fighters join the front line.

"Hello," was the answer when EUobserver dialled one of the numbers on Thursday for information on the initiative. "You have called the hotline for those who want to support Ukraine with humanitarian aid or contribute to territorial defence. My name is Olha, how can I help you?"

Olha identified herself as a civilian Ukrainian activist in Ukraine. She declined to give further personal details for security reasons.

She said that people who phoned were being asked to declare how they wanted to help and to leave their contact details so that fellow Ukrainian activists could follow up.

"We've been getting many calls today — people from Ukraine but also all of Europe, who want to help," Olha said.

There were some 400 fighters coming from Sweden, media there said. Another 70 volunteers, including 50 former soldiers, were also coming from as far afield as Japan, Reuters reported.

Many Belarusian volunteers already have been fighting against Russia in east Ukraine for years, but their ranks were now swelling too, said a Belarusian opposition source, who asked not to be named.

Some EU governments, such as those in Denmark and Sweden, have given people the green light to join the anti-Russia brigades in Ukraine.

But the Belgian foreign ministry's advice is for people not to go. "Our advice is clear: do not travel to Ukraine for any purpose or reason due to the security situation," a Belgian spokesman told EUobserver.

The Belgian interior ministry is studying the legal implications of foreign fighters, not least looking into questions such as: whether they would be committing murder if they killed people in Ukraine, even in a combat situation; and whether their status would be as prisoners-of-war or civilian captives, were they to be captured by Russian forces.

The surge of volunteers were travelling into Ukraine as Russian forces began to encircle and bombard Ukrainian cities in the north, south and east of the country. The onslaught is leading to thousands of civilian casualties and pushing 1 million refugees towards the EU borders.

The foreign fighters also are going into an environment into which EU and Nato countries, including Germany, the Nordic states, the Baltic states, and the Netherlands have been pouring in small arms and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles — much of that being delivered across the Polish border before supply routes are cut.

Russia has threatened reprisals, including nuclear threats, against Nato states that interfere in the war.

But the Belgian foreign ministry spokesman said the fact that volunteers were being allowed to travel could in no way be construed as violating Nato's promise to stay out of the fighting.

"How can we be accused of provoking Russia if we have asked people not to go?" he asked. "This attack by Russia on Ukraine was unprovoked, period."

Russia martial law

EU foreign ministers meeting Friday were expected to discuss further economic sanctions on Russia, amid Ukrainian calls for an oil and gas embargo.

The effects of existing sanctions already are being felt inside Russia, where there are calls by the Russian opposition for people to gather for mass protests against the war, but where there is also growing concern about a clampdown on dissent.

"There is talk of martial law legislation being introduced Friday," Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian émigré living in London who worked with jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, told EUobserver. "This would be seen as a bad sign" of how the war was going for Putin, he said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday denied the reports.

But if martial law is imposed, it could stop Russians leaving the country and it could mean media blackouts, fast-track jail sentences for dissidents, and mass military mobilisation, according to an EU diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was not an official spokesman.

Some EU countries, such as France, have urged their nationals to leave Russia amid concern that European and Russian aviation sanctions and counter-sanctions could lead to people being trapped, even as relations with the West collapsed.

"It's about the risk of not being able to leave as transport routes are closed down and the risk of shortages, for instance of medicine [in Russia]," said Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at British think-tank Rusi.

Russian president Vladimir Putin told French president Emmanuel Macron by phone Thursday he had no intention of stopping the war.

"We expect the worst is yet to come," the Élysée told international media after their 90-minute call.

Russian beachhead Belarus hit with sanctions

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