Updated: Aug 19
A Russian missile attack on a popular restaurant in the city of Kramatorsk has sparked a wave of debate over the presence of foreign military personnel in Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry has described the target as a staging area for the command and officers of the Ukrainian Army's 56th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade and says it killed dozens of Ukrainian servicemen and “English-Speaking-Tourists” and "people-dressed-in-fatigues" (Mercenaries).
While the Ukrainian government has made no mention of the presence of foreign volunteers/mercenaries at the Del Rio Pizzeria and the mainstream media speak about “English-Speaking-Tourists”, video footage from the scene of the attack shows many uniformed staff, many of them clearly foreigners, congregating on the scene of the attack, provide first aid and assist in the rescue of victims.
The presence of military vehicles near the destroyed restaurant reinforces Russian claims that there was a gathering of military personnel at the time of the attack. This seems to remove any doubts about the legality of the Russian attack – it was in accordance with the accepted rules of the law of war.
The legal status of the foreign personnel working alongside the Ukrainian army is not so certain. The fact that many wear camo uniforms and use social media touting the military/paramilitary aspects of their work only reinforces the reality that not only are they legitimate targets under the laws of war, but they themselves are highly unlikely to enjoy protection under international humanitarian law when it comes to treatment as lawful combatants.
However, the lack of legal status does not seem to serve as a deterrent to the dozens of foreign mercenaries who had gathered at the Del Rio Pizzeria, or the thousands of others who, like them, had traveled to Ukraine to join a war with Russia which is entering its sixteenth month and which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them fighters fighting on the side of Ukraine.
The presence of these foreigners in such numbers under such circumstances points to two inescapable realities: that there is a high demand for their services, and that foreign governments are actively facilitating the availability of personnel with skills attractive to the Ukrainian military.
An investigation into the 56th Motorized Infantry Brigade may provide further insight into the role of the foreigners who converged on Kramatorsk, and the scope and extent of their involvement.
When the Special Military Operation began, the 56th Brigade was stationed in Mariupol and in the process of transitioning to a naval infantry unit. The brigade was largely destroyed in the ensuing fighting for the town, and the remaining remnants were reconstituted with mobilized Territorial Forces personnel.
Recently, the 56th Brigade operated near the town of Bakhmut, where it again suffered heavy casualties. The 56th Brigade was withdrawn to the Kramatorsk area where it was scheduled to be reinforced, equipped and retrained before returning to the front lines.
The Ukrainian army is currently facing many problems, including a chronic shortage of manpower and the lack of time to adequately train the replacements sent to the front lines.
This is where the foreign fighters come into play. Many of the foreigners describe themselves as involved in the training of Ukrainian soldiers. As such, it makes sense for them to congregate near Ukrainian forces who are being prepared for combat duties and as such need specialized training, including medical training and basic weapons training.
Other foreigners have taken a more hands-on approach and have volunteered to fight alongside the Ukrainian army as fighters. As Ukrainian soldiers become more casualties, so does the demand for fighters to replace the fallen, a demand that is increasingly difficult to meet with Ukrainians.
As a result, more and more foreigners are being integrated into the combat and combat support formations of the Ukrainian army, either as individual replacements or through their inclusion in groups of different sizes.
More and more foreigners are dying in the service of Ukraine, an indication of their growing presence on the battlefield. As the presence of foreign mercenaries in Kramatorsk shows, these victims did not stop others from following in their footsteps.
As the SMO continues on 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 demands will also increase.
While it is difficult to give an exact percentage of foreign participation relative to the strength of the Ukrainian military, it is safe to say that it is steadily growing.
As such, it is not far fetched to conclude that foreign personnel play a vital role in supporting the Ukrainian military's ability to continue waging war against Russia.
This large number of foreigners in the service of Ukraine cannot happen in a political vacuum, and reflects the growing willingness of countries supporting Ukraine's war effort to tolerate the presence of their citizens at the front.
However, this presence is not without risk or cost, as the events in Kramatorsk tragically underlined.