Is Ukraine's international legion a mercenary army?

The international legion is a troop created by order of President Volodymyr Zelensky to help defend Ukraine against Russian invasion. It is formed by international fighters, such as the Brazilians Douglas Búrigo and Thalita do Valle – killed in a missile attack on the last day 30 in the city of Kharkiv.

Thalita, 39 years old, she was a model, actress, animal activist, rescuer and sniper, according to a report by journalist Herculano Barreto, from UOL. She had already been involved in the Kurdish conflict in Iraq and traveled to Ukraine to fight the Russians.

But the military base where she was staying in Kharkiv was hit by missiles. Búrigo, who served in the Brazilian Armed Forces, died trying to save her. Volunteers with profiles similar to theirs have arrived in the thousands in Ukraine using their own resources since the beginning of the war. I spoke with many of them during my coverage of the conflict in the country.

In general, they said they were motivated by the defense of liberal democracies against autocracy or by the desire to save innocent lives. They were British, German, French, Portuguese, Polish, among many nationalities. Eastern European volunteers usually claimed to fight out of anti-Russian sentiment – generated by the Soviet invasions of European countries in the 20th century and the current war crimes committed by Moscow’s troops in Ukraine.

Others simply claimed to be attracted by the adventure, by the possibility of killing Russians or by the monthly payment of 3,500 euros for those who go to the front.

This less noble motivation has motivated Moscow and part of the public opinion to classify the Ukrainian legionaries as mercenaries. In March, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the international legion was made up of around 20 1,000 fighters, but there are no independently verified figures. It is undeniable that there are many, as it is easy to recognize them walking through the streets of any city in Ukraine. They wear the uniform of the Ukrainian army (sometimes bearing the flags of their countries) and speak in English or French.

But what is the difference between a legionnaire and a mercenary?

In practice, from the point of view of International Humanitarian Law, the difference between the combatant and the mercenary is that the latter, in the event of capture or surrender, will not obtain the privilege of immunity provided for in the Prisoner of War Statute, according to Carlos Frederico Cinelli, author of the book “International Humanitarian Law – Ethics and Legitimacy in the Use of Force in Armed Conflicts” (Editora Juruá).

That is, although the captured mercenary has the right to “treatment prisoner of war” (water, food, non-exposure, respect for his physical integrity), he will not obtain “prisoner-of-war status”, and may be put on trial for having acted in combat as a mercenary.

“When a regular combatant is captured, he is sent to a prison camp those of war to await the end of the conflict or an exchange of prisoners, and must be repatriated as soon as possible. Even if he has killed enemy fighters, if he has done so respecting the laws and customs of war, he goes home without any kind of trial,” Cinelli told a conference for journalists at the Brazilian Peace Operations Joint Center, last Thursday (7).

The mercenary does not enjoy the status of recognized combatant. He can be tried under the laws of the country that captured him and criminally liable for his actions in the context of the war.

To be recognized as a legitimate combatant, the participant in the conflict does not need to be a career soldier. nor have nationality of the country that is at war. But you need to meet some requirements: be properly identified on the battlefield (with uniform, armband, symbol of the belligerent army), be subordinate to a hierarchical command structure, use your weapon openly (that is, without keeping it hidden to pass by civilian) and respect the laws and customs of war.

Currently, the volunteers of the International Legion of Ukraine have the prerequisites for recognition as legitimate combatants. They wear Ukrainian uniforms and badges, report to commanders reporting to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and, upon being incorporated, sign a contract, undergo a training period and receive Ukrainian documents indicating their incorporation into the national army.

On paper, they receive payments in amounts equal to those paid to the Ukrainian military. Mercenaries are often characterized by receiving payments higher than the pay of regular military personnel. In practice, the legionnaire’s salary varies according to the time he spends on the front lines.

Like Ukrainian legionaries, volunteers from Chechnya, Dagestan and the Yakut ethnic group , who are also on the battlefield, but fighting for Russia, say they meet the prerequisites that make them equivalent to fighters in national armies.

But if all these volunteer fighters are “legal”, who then are the feared mercenaries?

In practice, no one wants to assume this status. In theory, they are combatants who fight in war solely for the purpose of obtaining money, personal advantage or loot. In general, they do not formally answer to the central command of the warring countries.

At the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February of this year, many volunteers of the Ukrainian legion fell into the category of mercenaries – fighting at the side of the regular forces, but without any kind of documentation or formal link with the Ministry of Defence. They only received weapons, ammunition and started fighting immediately.

But, throughout the conflict, these people were identified by the Ministry of Defense and sent to undergo a screening process in training bases located close to the Polish border.

What changed for them with this process was losing the freedom to leave the country whenever they wanted (a benefit enjoyed by foreigners in Ukraine). This is because they became part of the national armed forces. Many of them, who had traveled to the country motivated by a thirst for adventure or quick profits, refused to sign the contract in the screening process and were sent back to their countries.

Another aspect commonly associated to the concept of mercenary is the abusive use of violence. For international humanitarian law, the greatest good is not human life (which can be taken in the context of war), but the dignity of the participants in the conflict. In other words, International Humanitarian Law assumes that it is not always possible to avoid wars and tries to create rules to avoid unnecessary suffering.

Thus, as mercenaries do not respond to a chain of command (with hierarchy and discipline characteristic of a professional army), are usually associated with torture and abusive use of force against enemies – and also with the use of violence against non-combatants and civilians.

gray zone. When reporting from Bucha and Irpin (cities close to the capital Kyiv, which were taken by the Russians at the beginning of the conflict), I heard reports from residents claiming that the Chechens and Yakuts, who are fighting alongside the Russians, would have fired indiscriminately at Ukrainian civilians, sometimes executing them in front of their families.

I also heard reports from Ukrainian legionaries who said they tortured and killed captured Russian soldiers.

In other words, reality of the battlefield may differ from the cold letter of the Law. Allied to this is the variety of legal criteria of the Geneva Conventions used to designate mercenaries.

All this makes it difficult to classify who is a mercenary and who is a regular combatant in a national army. . This creates a fertile field for countries at war to use the participation of foreigners in propaganda actions and in the so-called information war.

To further complicate the interpretation of the scenario, they are present on the battlefield. members of the so-called Private Military Companies, or PMCs, for their acronym in English. The reader may have already heard of the Wagner Group, formed by former Russian soldiers who worked in Africa and the Middle East. The very mention of the group is used as a propaganda piece by Russia to try to terrorize Ukrainian fighters.

Ukraine itself also hires Private Military Companies (which are not legionaries). But we will not go into the merits of whether these companies, both Russian and Ukrainian, use mercenaries or not. This is a never-ending legal debate.

Russia frequently announces the presence of Chechen volunteer fighters and Yakuts in its ranks in Ukraine. As in the case of the Wagner Group, the objective is to bring fear to the enemy’s ranks.

Unlike the Russian military, Chechens and Yakuts do not share elements of cultural identity and blood ties with the Ukrainians, as there is great miscegenation between Russians and Ukrainians. Because of this, these volunteers would be able to act without moral restraint, committing atrocities against the soldiers and the civilian population of Ukraine. This is the current discourse.

But, if on the one hand the Kremlin publicizes and values ​​the presence of these combatants in the battle, on the other hand, it accuses Zelensky of hiring mercenaries to formalize the existence of the international legion.

Ukraine, in turn, advertises the legion as a way of showing spontaneous international support for the Ukrainian cause.

However, the military relevance of both Chechens and of legionaries on the battlefield is questionable.

The presence of Chechen troops in Ukraine is, above all, a gesture of support by leader Ramzan Kadyrov to the government of Vladimir Putin. This means, between the lines, that for now the Russian president will not need to worry about a possible new uprising in Chechnya, as Kadyrov’s political power is strong enough to prevent it.

There is anti-Kadyrov Chechen fighters also fighting on the side of Ukraine, but Chechnya is not the topic of today’s column.

Many Ukrainian fighters say in their war reports that they have encountered the Chechens (pro -Russia) on the battlefield, but it is not possible to know how much of this is true. For now, the only thing that is known is that Kadyrov and his supporters have been recording neat videos in the rear of the fighting, claiming that they will advance to Berlin.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Separatist Republic of Donetsk ( also allied to the Russians) have criticized the (pro-Russia) Chechens, saying they are poorly equipped and not capable of fighting.

The very relevance of the Ukrainian international legion is also questionable. On the one hand, the legionaries actively participated in the beginning of the war, destroying numerous Russian tank columns in ambushes near the capital Kyiv.

On the other hand, international volunteers have limited access to weapons and equipment. I witnessed many of them buying communication radios, boots, weapon accessories and equipment that are not supplied by the Ukrainian government from civilian stores.

Members of some legion units also stated that they have been sent to suicide missions, which Ukrainian national troops avoid doing. Other than that, there are unconfirmed reports of corruption and diversion of weapons sent by Western powers by alleged corrupt legionaries.

The most persistent reader, who has reached this point in the text, must be asking me: after all, is the international legion a mercenary army or not?

There is no purely legal answer to the question. That is, they are in the so-called gray zone, so common in wars. According to the information coming from the battlefield, there is no clear rule. While some legionaries are executed by the Russians on the battlefield, others have been treated under the Prisoner of War Statute.

To the reader who remains dissatisfied with the answer, I remind you that at this very moment there are tens of thousands of people fighting on Ukrainian battlefields. It is a conflict of unprecedented dimensions in this century. Rules and definitions sometimes do not apply as we would like in this context type.

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