Scott Ritter: Ukraine’s Growing Addiction to Foreign Mercenaries
© Sputnik / Alexei DanichevThe Russian Iskander SRBM system being prepped for launch during military exercises. File photo.
© Sputnik / Alexei Danichev/
A Russian missile strike on a popular restaurant in the city of Kramatorsk has set off a wave of discussion over the presence of foreign military personnel in Ukraine.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has described the target as a gathering place for the command and officers of the 56th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade of the Ukrainian army and claims to have killed scores of Ukrainian soldiers—and foreign mercenaries.
While the Ukrainian government has not made any mention of the presence of foreign volunteers/mercenaries at the Del Rio Pizzeria, video from the scene of the attack shows numerous personnel in uniform, many of whom are obviously foreigners, congregated at the scene, providing first aid, and helping rescue victims. The presence of military vehicles near the destroyed restaurant reinforces the Russian contention that there was a congregation of military personnel at the time of the attack. This would appear to lay to rest any question about the legality of the Russian strike—it conformed with the accepted precepts set forth under the laws of war.
The legal status of the foreign personnel working alongside the Ukrainian army is not so certain. The fact that many are dressed in camouflage uniforms and engage in social media activity which advertises the military/paramilitary aspects of the work they are engaged in only reinforces the reality that not only are they legitimate targets under the laws of war, but also the fact that they themselves most likely lack any protections under international humanitarian law when it comes to being treated as lawful combatants.
The lack of legal status, however, does not appear to serve as a deterrent for the scores of foreign soldiers of fortune that had congregated at the Del Rio Pizzeria, or the thousands of others who, like them, had travelled to Ukraine to participate in a war with Russia that is entering its sixteenth month, and which has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom are combatants fighting on the side of Ukraine. The presence of these foreigners in such numbers under such conditions is suggestive of two unescapable realties: that there is a high demand for their services, and that foreign governments are actively facilitating the availability of personnel possessing skill sets attractive to the Ukrainian military.
An examination of the 56th Motorized Infantry Brigade might provide better insight into both the role played by the foreigners that had been congregated in Kramatorsk, and the scope and scale of their involvement. When the Special Military Operation began, the 56th Brigade was stationed in Mariupol, and was in the process of transitioning into a naval infantry (Marine) unit. The brigade was largely destroyed in the subsequent fighting for the city, and the surviving remnants reconstituted using mobilized personnel from the territorial forces. Most recently, the 56th Brigade was operating in the vicinity of the city of Bakhmut, where once again it suffered heavy casualties.
The 56th Brigade was withdrawn to the vicinity of Kramatorsk, where it was scheduled to be reinforced, refitted, and re-trained, before returning to the front lines. The Ukrainian army is currently beset with many problems, among which include a chronic shortage of manpower, and the unavailability of time to adequately train replacements being sent to the frontlines. This is where the foreign fighters enter the mix. Many of the foreigners self-described themselves as being involved in the training of Ukrainian soldiers. As such, it makes sense that they would congregate in the vicinity of Ukrainian forces being prepared for combat duty and, as such, in need of specialized training, including medical and basic weapons handling.
Other foreigners have taken a more hands-on approach, volunteering to serve as combatants with the Ukrainian army. As casualties mount among the Ukrainian soldiers, so, too, does the demand for fighters to replace the fallen, a demand which is becoming more difficult to meet with Ukrainians. As a result, more and more foreigners are being integrated, either as individual replacements or through their incorporation in groups of varying size, into the combat and combat support formations of the Ukrainian army.
29 June, 13:26 GMT
Foreigners have been dying in the service of Ukraine in increasing numbers, an indication of their growing presence on the battlefield. As the presence of foreign mercenaries in Kramatorsk shows, these casualties have not served to deter others from following in their footsteps. As the SMO continues down its bloody path, the demand for qualified personnel to man the Ukrainian army will only increase, which means that the demand for foreign personnel to meet these manning requirements will likewise grow.
While it is difficult to put an exact percentage on the foreign participation in relationship to the strength of the Ukrainian army, it is safe to say that it is steadily growing. As such, it is not a far stretch to conclude that foreign personnel play a vital role in sustaining the ability of the Ukrainian army to continue to wage war against Russia. This large number of foreigners in service to Ukraine cannot happen in a political vacuum, and as such is reflective of the growing willingness of nations supportive of Ukraine’s war effort to tolerate the presence of their citizens at the front lines. However, this presence does not come without risk or cost, as the events in Kramatorsk tragically underscored.
The SMO isn’t going to end anytime soon. And if more foreign soldiers of fortune continue to arrive in Ukraine to fight in this conflict, one thing is for certain: many of them will be going home in a body bag.