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“This legion can provide Ukraine with missing specialists and reinforced leadership”

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The extraordinary announcement by the President of the Ukrainian Republic of February 25 was confirmed two days later by a notification to diplomatic representations: Ukraine is calling for international volunteers to come and support it in the face of the Russian invasion. The appeal has been heard. Throughout the world, as far away as Japan, volunteers are showing up by the thousands and many have already set out for Ukraine and the war.

Admittedly, since 2015 Ukrainian legislation has authorized foreigners to join its regular armed forces. But Ukraine had never had an incentive policy, limiting itself to giving a legal status to the foreign volunteers present, with various motivations. And President Zelensky’s announcement goes well beyond the simple “foreign legion” since the Ukrainian diplomatic representations have been instructed to inform and sort out the applicants, a format very similar to that of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. .

Unprecedented diplomatic reactions

This recourse to international volunteerism, followed by the creation of the “International Legion of Ukrainian Territorial Forces” provoked a certain number of diplomatic reactions, which were also quite unprecedented. Britain’s foreign secretary said her government would support British volunteers, while Denmark’s prime minister said anyone could do the “choice to go to Ukraine and fight against Russia”.

However, it is indeed a break, since the British volunteers, like the Danish, who left to fight Daesh had, for their part, been worried by the courts. It remains to be seen what contract and therefore what commitment will bind these volunteers to Ukraine; the volunteer always thinks he can leave when he decides, before becoming aware of his status as a legionnaire.

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This direct recourse to voluntary combatant service, by definition addressed to the civilian world, is nevertheless a true Copernican revolution in the association of foreign voluntary combatants in a conflict. Although the historical depth of the phenomenon is long-term, public calls for foreign volunteers have been very rare. It was, until then, a spontaneous approach issued by the volunteers themselves, without having been required or solicited.

Thus, the Greek patriots had not called for help from the philhellenes who, Lord Byron at their head, had rushed to Greece in 1821. of thousands of foreigners from all over the world to lend them a hand.

A welcome help

But what is the Ukrainian presidency ultimately looking for in this surprising recourse to amateur volunteers? Admittedly, the brigadists who defended Madrid in 1936 or the Machalniks who rushed to Israel in 1948 were reservists or veterans. But, beyond the artifices of propaganda, the international volunteers generally had no major impact on the operations of the conflict joined. But this ambiguous Ukrainian format, both International Brigades in intention and Foreign Legion in fact, allows a number of useful options.

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By skimming applicants and through foreign professionals made available, this legion can enable Ukraine to benefit from missing specialists and reinforced supervision. This option is also a commonplace in the history of international volunteering, like Soviet specialists during the war in Spain or, very recently, in the deployment of Western special forces alongside Syrian Kurdish YPG units. against the Islamic State.

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A bridge and transfer role

The other expected benefit is of a completely different nature. The call for mobilization created a powerful transnational feeling of sympathy and a conjunction of public opinions frustrated by the impotence felt by their States as well as by international institutions. Faced with what appears to be a new “non-intervention”, the option of combat is open, individually. As in previous manifestations of the phenomenon, the volunteers knowingly take on the role of delegates, representatives of an absent but spectator community. In the International Brigades in Spain, each of the “national” units played this bridging and transfer role.

Finally, their mere presence on the battlefield brings unique perspectives. Thus, they engage with them public opinions that identify closely with their diverse fortunes. The question is all the more crucial since the Russian agency Tass declared that non-Ukrainian fighters would not benefit from international laws.

If the conflict were to continue, it is absolutely certain that the phenomenon of international combatant volunteerism would experience a vigorous resurgence in Ukraine, comparable to what it had been with the International Brigades, but accelerated and amplified by the sounding board of the social networks.

Thus, recent statements aimed at limiting recruitment to volunteers with military training or a useful specialty cannot be such as to stem the immense desire to act. Unless the nature of the war changes, and the volunteers finally become precursors, as were the Italian Garibaldians in France in 1914 or, above all, the brigadists in Spain, preceding the great world fight against fascism.

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