Encouraging Britons to fight in Ukraine is hypocritical

Posted: March 9, 2022 in Times
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Almost caught up with myself now, this time with a short piece for the Times Red Box which sought to highlight the rather ill-advised comments by the UK Foreign Secretary which seemed to actively encourage people to go and join the fighting in Ukraine. Considering what we have learned about foreign fighting, the legislation that has been passed and the people who have been prosecuted for doing it (not also forgetting the optics of a minister calling for vigilantism), it seemed particularly unfortunate comment to make, and in fact a number of other senior figures have now come out pushing back on the comment. Unfortunately, I keep seeing it being referred to by people who say they want to go and fight so the damage is likely done.

Encouraging Britons to fight in Ukraine is hypocritical

Two foreign fighters from the UK asked to be identified as “Scouser” and “Jacks” pose for a picture as they are ready to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 5, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The foreign secretary’s seeming encouragement for Britons to go and fight alongside the Ukrainian armed forces is a comprehensible impulse given current tensions, but is the wrong message for a government minister to be sending. The commentary creates potential legal problems, risks fostering divisions at home, fans the flames of emotion when calm is needed and is unlikely to materially help the conflict on the ground.

This is not the first time a foreign conflict has generated an emotional call to arms. Famous foreign fighters from the past include authors like George Orwell or Lord Byron.

There were the famous international brigades mobilised to fight the Franco regime in Spain in the pre-war period. There were the international Mujahideen who went to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan. During the civil wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, people mobilised from around the world to help the various governments that emerged.

More recently, however, we associate the phenomenon with those who went to fight in Syria, both alongside and against Islamic State, with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, as well as other factions who were fighting against the cruel Assad regime.

The impulse for most of those who go to fight in these campaigns is the same. A sense of injustice being committed and the world watching as nothing is being done. There are some who are simply drawn to the excitement and violence of conflict, seeking the thrill of fighting and killing. But most are drawn by romantic narratives imagining themselves as latter-day Che Guevaras.

Yet in the UK, the government has chosen to prosecute some of those who have gone to fight alongside these groups. A number of people have been jailed for having fought alongside Isis, other jihadist groups in Syria and even some who joined the Kurdish forces fighting Isis (whom the government was actively supporting).

The act of going to fight itself was not illegal but the decision to join a proscribed terrorist organisation was.

This may feel different to the context in Ukraine, but there are some worrying precedents there as well. An unknown number of British nationals have in fact already been to fight in Ukraine (and may still be). Ever since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas, Ukraine has been a hotspot for radicalised westerners, mostly of an extreme right-wing inclination, seeking to join a battlefield.

In Italy, people have gone to fight on both sides. Some alongside the Russian-backed separatists and others alongside the Ukrainian side. An investigation into one of these networks in 2019 uncovered a cell in northern Italy who had accumulated a vast cache of weapons including an air-to-air missile.

In the UK, Britons linked to the proscribed terrorist group National Action are believed to have gone, while a number of North Americans linked to far-right groups have tried to join the fighting in the Donbas but were turned back by Ukrainian authorities.

Nowadays it is doubtful they would be rejected, but the issues raised by their travel remain. Battle-hardened extreme right-wing group members are clearly worrying people to have running around.

And the bigger narrative issues this raises need consideration. While there is no doubt that going to join Isis is different to going to fight in Ukraine (Isis has openly spoken of attacking the UK), there are some similarities in the motivations that drive individuals.

The danger becomes that a racial analysis is used to distinguish the two. Government is seen as being eager to prosecute people who go to fight Muslim conflicts, but when it comes to European wars, they encourage it. This is hardly going to soothe tensions between communities.

We are in the midst of a major security crisis in Europe whose peak has not yet come. This is exactly the moment emotions need to be calmed rather than inflamed. And it is exactly not the moment to start encouraging activity which until now has been prosecuted and which in other contexts we would never dream of countenancing.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

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