A Ukrainian Foreign Legion

1 April 2014, 15:01

The use of foreigners as mercenaries in wars is a long-time military tactic. In this day and age, when virtually all armies in the world are professional, two basic mechanisms for the formation of military detachments made up of foreigners exist. One is the patriotic-mercenary based on the Israeli experience, the other one is classic mercenary from France. Ukraine, a geopolitical outpost of the battle against Putin’s imperialism, has every chance to engage quite a few mercenaries from the Baltic States, Central Europe, Transcaucasia and others for this battle, not to mention from the numerous Ukrainian diaspora. These are not only “soldiers of fortune”, thirsting for money, but also ideological fighters who oppose Russian expansionism. The main obstacles to this are a lack of funds and Ukrainian legislation, according to which, foreigners do not have the right to serve in Ukraine’s Armed Forces.


Many countries, such as the USA and Belgium, permit foreigners to serve in their armed forces in exchange for a pretty good salary and certain privileges in the future. Even Russia has offered citizens from CIS States the opportunity to serve in the ranks of its Armed Forces since 1 January 2004. However, serving in the Russian Army requires them to take Russian citizenship from the moment they start serving. One of the main reasons why Moscow decided to recruit people from the CIS was because of the unsatisfactory status of recruitment in Russia. Great Britain has a tradition of engaging ethnic groups, such as Sikhs in India and Gurkhas in Nepal, in its military service.

The French Foreign Legion, the most famous formation existing legally to this day, is made up of classic mercenaries. Its combat history began in 1831, when French King Louis Philippe I decided to establish this detachment to engage in an efficient war for colonies at a time when his own army was inadequate to fulfil the task. This also allowed the then government to get rid of much of the undesirable elements of society, which joined the Foreign Legion en masse in the hope of earning themselves pardons and prosperity.

From the very start of the Legion’s existence, anyone from any country could join, regardless of their past and with dedicated service, they could cleanse their image, earn money and start their lives with a clean slate. Enlistment rules provided for complete anonymity on the part of recruiters and actually offered the opportunity to conceal their real persona. Little has changed since then. Possibly only a person wanted by Interpol cannot join. The Legion’s career officers are selected from the ranks of the regular French Army, while volunteers come from literally all corners of the world.

Legislatively, the Legion is part of the regular French Army. It is made up of 11 regiments with 7,699 legionnaires from 136 countries of the world. More than 600,000 soldiers have served in the legion over its entire existence. Of them, 36,000 died in combat. Previously, the majority of legionnaires came from Western Europe, particularly Switzerland, Spain and Germany, but since the early 1990s, the majority of legionnaires have come from Eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, specifically Ukraine, Croatia and Serbia. Only men aged between 17 and 40 are accepted for duty. The first contract is signed for a period of five years, after which the legionnaire has the right to apply for French citizenship. Valid grounds for gaining citizenship include combat injury, the rank of sergeant and at least three years of service. The average salary is about EUR 1,500 per month, which is doubled or tripled in case of participation in combat.

The Foreign Legion only has the right to execute military tasks outside France. The geography of its operations covers literally every continent, with participation in all of France’s wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. In recent times, the Legion participates ever more often in peacekeeping missions, particularly engaged in policing operations. Legionnaires fought in the Persian Gulf, were in Cambodia and Somalia, also conducted a mission in the Balkans for 10 years (1993­2003). At present, they are executing their obligations to France in Guinea, Djibouti and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as in Afghanistan.

READ ALSO: Russian Aggression: Genesis, goals, counteraction and legal consequences


The structure and principles for the recruitment of foreign volunteers to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF or Tzahal) are fundamentally different. Volunteers have patriotic motivation as most of them are ethnic Jews. Service in the IDF does not guarantee Israeli citizenship. Instead, it is a sort of mobilisation of Jewish diasporas from the whole world to support the State of Israel and improve its defense capabilities.

Tzahal was first formed on the eve of the Arab-Israeli War, which began in 1948. About 3,500 volunteers from more than 40 countries participated in the military action of the regular Israeli Army. Most of them came from the American continent, specifically the USA, Canada and Latin America, as well as from Britain, France, Belgium, North and South Africa. Since the Israeli Defense Army did not have its own air force, it applied for help to volunteers from all countries of the world, which became the basis of its future military aviation and won a convincing victory in the sky over hostile planes. It turned out that the pilots-volunteers included quite a few World War II veterans, who had previously fought on the side of the anti-Hitler coalition.

Israel is currently running the Mahal (translated as “volunteers from outside the Land of Israel” – Ed.) programme for volunteers, who want to undergo service in the Israeli Defense Forces. It operates under the control of the army’s mobilisation agency and the Jewish Agency. Both men and women aged 18-25 are eligible to undergo military service in the IDF.

Candidates face a range of restrictions. First and foremost, they must have documents confirming their Jewish origins, such as parents’ marriage certificates or a reference letter from the community where the volunteer resides permanently. Based on the decision of the Medical Commission, the volunteer is directed to a military unit. No separate formations are envisaged for foreigners, they serve together with the citizens of Israel. The service lasts one to two years. After this, the volunteer must work in a Jewish community for one year, taking part in social and humanitarian work. Non-citizens cannot serve as commanders, nor do they have access to military secrets.

The Mahal programme is not the only one that involves foreign volunteers in the ranks of the army and logistics. Others require a candidate to first work in Jewish communities and join the army after that. Some programmes entail short-term boot camp training for volunteers.

Those who do not practice Judaism can participate in volunteer programmes focused on logistic maintenance of the Army. One of the best known is Sar-El, the Service for Israel, established in 1983. It was volunteers back then that came to work for the mobilized residents of the country’s farming regions. More than 80,000 volunteers from 30 countries of the world have participated in Sar-El since its founding.


Ukrainian legislation does not prosecute citizens who voluntarily serve in legal foreign military formations, but provides for criminal prosecution for illegal mercenary activity. The most famous case was in 1994 when Fizuli Verdiev from Azerbaijan was arrested for recruiting 156 people to fight in the Armenian-Azeri conflict.

In case of Russian aggression against Ukraine, many experts feel that it would be expedient to establish a Ukrainian foreign legion. According to information in public sources, quite a few foreigners would volunteer. Such initiatives have already come from the Karakalpaks (a Turkic community in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan – Ed.), Georgia and the Baltic States, not to mention the Ukrainian diaspora. Not to use this resource would be very short-sighted. All volunteers should not necessarily be in the military, however giving people of good will the opportunity to protect Ukraine in wartime is definitely the right thing to do. According to information obtained by The Ukrainian Week, some former and current officers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are already preparing a draft law to create a Ukrainian foreign legion.

This would clearly require legislative support, not to mention the determination of the rights and obligations of volunteers without Ukrainian passports. The experience of the French Foreign Legion and its history, first and foremost colonial wars using mercenary forces, seeking a good salary and citizenship, is hardly the one Ukraine can use. The Israeli system whereby all Jews and supporters of Israel are mobilized is more applicable for the current time in Ukraine.

Not all experts agree that Ukraine needs a foreign legion. “Clearly, money should, first and foremost, be invested in Ukrainian soldiers,” Valentyn Badrak, Director of the Research Centre for the Army, Demilitarisation and Disarmament, says. “Running a foreign legion is extremely expensive. This money would be better spent on Ukraine’s own army. Ukrainians are very good fighters, something that all international training and competitions have proved. Ukrainian pilots, marines and paratroopers always score among the best in them.”

Experts who, on the contrary, are lobbying for the creation of a Ukrainian foreign legion, feel that in the current situation Ukraine could use a highly-professional albeit small special force units for specific operations. Units made up of people from Muslim countries could work in Crimea, while volunteers from the Baltic States and Central Europe could serve as strike force in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainians from the diaspora could serve under general conditions in the army, as in Israel.

As far as the structure is concerned, the Ukrainian foreign legion could be made of two battalions (500–600 soldiers), led exclusively by Ukrainian officers, while foreigners who have signed relevant military service contracts with Ukraine would serve as privates and sergeants. The legionnaires must be given a guaranteed social package and a competitive salary, although the most important motivation should be the desire to participate in the protection of Ukraine. The units should be subject to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and their respective commandment. Recruitment must be conducted with a very diligent background check by the Ukrainian Security Service and military counter-intelligence, taking the candidate’s country of origin into account, his motivation to serve in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and his level of military training. Under no circumstances should anarchy, competition with other Armed Forces units or illegal voluntary formations be permitted.

“From the military point of view, such a formation is more of a propaganda move,” says Serhiy, a former Ukrainian Army Colonel who worked as a military expert in many countries. “After all, Ukraine cannot afford such large units. Yet, we must now take every effort to show others that we are Europe’s outpost in the battle against Russian imperialism, like the victory of Kyivan Rus over the new Horde, etc. Accordingly, the existence of a foreign legion as a component of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is a good and necessary step. In addition, such a mechanism always offers the opportunity to get assistance quickly and legally from our foreign partners in NATO. Moreover, during peacetime, such formations can be used in peacekeeping missions abroad, which will increase Ukraine’s influence in the international arena.”

This is Articte sidebar