As the conflict in Ukraine begins to attract both volunteers and mercenaries to enlist on both sides, our Foreign Editor examines their motives, likely impact, and dangers they pose

It goes by the tradename ‘Silent Professionals.’ It was there on this website for defence and private security jobs that last week you would have found an advertisement inviting applications from candidates to become “extraction and protective agents.”

“Only highly experienced candidates who possess at least 5+ years of military experience in this region of Europe will be considered for this role,” the advertisement advised.

‘This region of Europe,’ to which the job description refers is of course Ukraine, where the Russian invasion has triggered activity by global private military contractors and mobilised an army of international volunteers to help battle Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces.

‘Silent Professionals,’ is far from unique, being one of a plethora of websites and online platforms these past weeks springing into action or existence to facilitate the recruitment and mobilisation of international volunteers and mercenaries to operate in a military capacity in Ukraine.

With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky having publicly urged foreigners to “fight side-by-side with Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals” an “international legion” has been formed and foreign fighters have started trickling in to join forces with Ukrainians on the ground and those returning home to fight for their nation.

“This will be the key evidence of your support for our country,” insisted Zelensky, announcing the establishment of the international legion.

Not to be outdone, President Putin has likewise called for foreign volunteers to join the Russian side in the fight against Ukrainian forces, adding a whole new and some say dangerous dimension to this war.

Ukraine’s international legion has already drawn comparisons of course with the international brigades of the Spanish Civil War, when left wing volunteers fought in mainly communist organised military units between 1936 and 1938 against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco in support of Spain’s popular front government.

But there have more recent examples of foreign fighters deploying in wars around the world these past decades. Overseas volunteers have found their way to conflicts as far afield as Bosnia and Chechnya.

But by far the most recent mass wave involved jihadis that went to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and above all Syria where between 2011 and 2016, the Islamic State group (IS) recruited nearly 40,000 people who travelled from more than 110 countries to join the war there.

The war in Ukraine though is undoubtedly a very different kind of conflict to that in Syria even if as BBC correspondent Quentin Somerville rightly observed, Moscow’s operations to date have come straight out of the “Russia attack playbook, perfected in Syria.”

For many making their way to join the ranks of Ukraine’s fighters there is no doubt in their own minds that what they are witnessing is a clear victim state and a villain state scenario.

To that extent their motives have parallels with those who enlisted in the international brigades in Spain in the 1930’s, who likewise moved by the suffering of the Spanish people, including the ‘blitkrieg’ style indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, saw themselves as defending democracy against authoritarianism. For volunteers like them this is a matter of the Ukrainian nation state’s survival pure and simple.

This is especially true of Ukrainians themselves from the country’s diaspora, who by far make up the majority of those arriving at recruitment centres. It would not be the first time that Ukraine has relied on unconventional recruits to bolster its armed forces. Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas region, non-government battalions of volunteers, and now the Territorial Defence have stepped up to defend Ukraine.

According to Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, more than 66,000 Ukrainians have already returned home from abroad to fight, the equivalent of 12 brigades.

But what of those foreign nationals who are making their way to Ukraine to join their ranks? Already set up is the Fightforua website that provides guidance for those who wish to enlist from all over the world.

Volunteers are requested to have proven experience in the military or law enforcement and are required to apply for the Legion at the Ukrainian embassy in their country of residence. The must also be responsible for making their own way to the Poland- Ukraine border although some reports indicate that there are those volunteers who are simply crossing the Ukrainian border individually and turning up at military installations.

Roman Shepelyak, a senior Ukrainian official in the western city of Lviv involved in processing newly arrived foreign volunteers, told Reuter news agency that the system to receive, train and deploy foreign fighters was still in its infancy, and that the process would get smoother in the coming days.

Military analysts say it’s important here also to make a clear distinction between the kind of recruits joining up to fight for Ukraine and that terminology in this instance matters.

“First of all, they're foreign volunteers because they’re joining a state. It's a state mobilisation. A foreign fighter is someone who joins an insurgency, a rebellion and non-state actors,” explained Kacper Rekawek, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX), speaking recently to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

According to the Ukrainian government, more than 16,000 foreigners volunteered to fight in the first week of the conflict. Just a few days later Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba put the number closer to 20,000, with fighters reportedly arriving from 52 countries, including the US, UK, Canada, Finland, Georgia, Sweden, Czech Republic, France, Belgium, and Belarus.

Seen from Ukraine’s perspective and President Zelensky’s desire to ‘internationalise’ the war, the symbolic value of having a foreign presence in the shape of the ‘legion’ within his country’s defenders is obvious. As The Economist magazine observed a few days ago “words of solidarity and weapons from abroad are good for soldiers’ morale. The sight of gun-toting foreigners alongside them in battle is even better.”

But desirous as it is for Ukraine to bolster troop numbers on the ground, there is a crucial distinction too between volunteers drawn through ideological conviction and those mobilised by private security contractors.

The word ‘volunteer’ as opposed to ‘mercenary’ might seem only semantics to some but both terms are laden with political implications. In general, private war is a bad idea and time and again in recent decades it has brought the risks of foreign fighters into sharp focus.

The Ukrainian government has been at pains to point out that volunteers will go through a vetting process for extremism and terrorist links. Once in Ukrainian territory they will fall under the direction of the Kyiv authorities and will sign a contract to join the international legion.

But many overseas governments worry that even volunteers will be seen as a provocation by Moscow, a concern only heightened after a recent discovery of purported Russian surveillance of Ukrainian embassy phone lines that volunteers use to register.

Then there is the thorny issue of private military contractors. According to the London-based news outlet Middle East Eye (MEE) there are already several such groups with “significant war experience” among those seeking to deploy alongside the Ukrainian volunteer ranks.

Contractors that spoke with MEE said that there had been “a sharp increase in Ukraine-related private military job postings.

“Many private companies based in the US and Europe run job advertisements for Ukraine with at least $1,000-2,000 daily payments and extra earnings,” one contractor told MEE.

But alongside battle-hardened veterans of war, reports also indicate that people are arriving with little or no combat experience, offering limited value in a war zone under constant, terrifying shelling by the Russian military. One man who identified himself to Reuters news agency as a British military veteran, referred to these recruits as “bullet-catchers.”

Even those with combat experience might struggle in Ukraine's war zones, warned another former British soldier, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Kruger. He said he had served in Afghanistan and trained other soldiers.

“If you're out here as a war tourist, this is not the place for you,” Reuters cited him as saying. “The realities of war, if you head out to the front, are going to be pretty overwhelming.”

Many observers note that noble as the desire to help Ukraine might be, recent history shows evidence that the support of volunteers could also lead to a host of unintended consequences and in some cases do more harm than good.

Writing in the online news magazine Politico recently, Colin Clarke and Naureen C.Fink of the global security think- tank the Soufan Centre, warned of just a few of the risks for the fighters and their home countries.

The first of these is that the types of volunteers coming will vary widely, and with the potential for different kinds of fallout among these comes is the possible manipulation by “bad actors to send violent extremists into the battlefield.”

Then there is the extent to which foreign volunteers can generally increase the duration and lethality of conflicts as “the more external actors become involved in a conflict, the longer and bloodier conflicts can become.”

Foreigners too “can hijack the initial cause, imposing more transnationally-focused objectives onto a conflict that was heretofore local,” say the Soufan analysts. They also warn of the danger of combat creating more battle-hardened people.

“While most won’t cause any trouble upon returning home, there will be an array of likely needs for foreign fighters, including rehabilitation and reintegration initiatives, with support provided for mental health challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder” and “some people may hold grievances toward their own governments if they feel not enough was done to help Ukraine.”

One question too on the minds of many is whether it is in fact legal for foreign volunteers to join the war. Over the past few days, some European and Baltic countries, such as Lithuania and Latvia have passed emergency legal measures allowing individuals to join the war.

What’s especially troubling is that there seems little consistency on this issue. For example, while for German nationals who want to travel to Ukraine and join the war effort, there are, in principle, no legal obstacles to prevent them from doing that, in the UK the position is somewhat more muddied.

Foreign Minister Liz Truss might have recently said that “people can make their own decision" on whether to go to Ukraine to fight, but no sooner had she done so than ex-Attorney-General Dominic Grieve pointed out that it is illegal for British citizens under the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870. Not that this will likely stop British volunteers from going to Ukraine as evidence to date indicates. For the moment, many questions remain over the motives of volunteers and the impact they might have on the battlefield and the wider political arena.

“For outside powers, their nationals are now part of the war. Even if their home governments disavow the fighters, countries like Russia are likely to see this as part of a secret (or not-so-secret) way to support Moscow’s enemies,” warns Daniel L. Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“Indeed, Russia has good reason to be suspicious, as it has done the same thing with its “volunteers” in the past. In addition, some citizens may be captured, seek rescue, or otherwise create complications for their home countries,” adds Byman.

And speaking of Russia’s own “volunteers” evidence already indicates that members of the shadowy Wagner private security group have been deployed inside Ukraine alongside Chechen fighters.

For the Wagner group this is nothing new having been “unofficially” at the Kremlin’s disposal in other parts of the world from Syria and Libya to the Central African Republic (CAR) and Venezuela.

As Sorcha MacLeod, who heads the UN's working group on the use of mercenaries, recently commented, when seen from a legal perspective at least, Wagner does not exist. It remains a network of private security companies and groups rather than a single entity.

The group is believed to be funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close links to Putin, though he has always denied any connection with Wagner. Denial or not almost certainly the Wagner group is already in Ukraine just as it seems Syrian fighters might well find themselves on the country frontlines at the behest of Moscow.

If as many predict, Russia’s war in Ukraine becomes a long, protracted battle of attrition then on both sides it will continue to act as a magnet for ‘volunteers,’ ‘mercenaries’ and ‘private security contractors. With that will come no shortage of additional dangers to an already perilous situation.