• Written by Joshua Holzer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Westminster College
Ukraine's foreign legion may be new, but the idea isn't

After Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine[1] in February 2022, many countries quickly responded by imposing sanctions[2] on Russia and by sending weapons[3] to help Ukraine defend itself.

But so far, the U.S.[4] and its NATO allies[5] have said they will not send troops.

Nonetheless, many non-Ukrainians want to fight for Ukraine for a variety of reasons[6], whether ideological[7], personal[8] or political[9].

To take advantage of that support, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has set up the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine[10] for those who wish to volunteer – including U.S. citizens. While this particular effort may be new, the concept of a foreign legion[11] – a military force comprised of volunteers from foreign countries – is more than 190 years old.

Soldiers carry coffins draped with the French flag
Members of the French Foreign Legion carry the coffins of two of their comrades who were killed in an attack in Afghanistan in 2011. Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images[12]

The French model

The “Légion étrangère[13],” or French Foreign Legion, is perhaps the world’s most famous[14] – and infamous[15] – foreign legion.

When it was created in 1831, its primary role was to fight France’s colonial wars[16]. Since its formation, legionnaires born in more than 140 countries[17] have fought under the French flag in a variety of conflicts[18] throughout Europe, Africa[19], the Americas[20] and Asia[21]. In recent years, the French Foreign Legion has deployed to Afghanistan[22] and the Sahel[23] region of Africa[24].

Given their lineage as an expeditionary[25] force, legionnaires are often among the first French troops sent into a dangerous environment[26]. Yet each year, volunteers still travel to France[27] in hopes of enlisting[28].

For some would-be legionnaires, it’s about joining a particular conflict. For instance, before the U.S. formally entered World War I, many Americans volunteered[29] to become legionnaires to fight alongside the Allies[30]. In many countries, including the U.S., citizens who swear an oath of allegiance to a foreign power risk having their citizenship stripped[31]. The French Foreign Legion sidesteps this by requiring that legionnaires swear allegiance to the Legion itself[32] – not to the country of France.

For others, joining the French Foreign Legion is about starting a new life[33]. A legionnaire can apply to become a French citizen after only three years[34] of service. Additionally, anyone wounded in action is “Français par le sang versé[35],” or “French by spilled blood,” and can immediately apply for French citizenship.

Legionnaires who are retired or on leave from active duty can find lodging and purpose tending to grape fields and making wine[36] at the Legion’s own picturesque Provençal château[37].

There is, however, a dark side[38] to what may look like romantic escapism. For one, the French Foreign Legion has often acted as a vehicle for colonial conquest and occupation. This is famously on full display in “The Battle of Algiers[39],” an evocative film[40] about Algeria’s struggle for independence and France’s efforts to suppress that struggle.

Beyond the dangers of the battlefield[41], legionnaires have also faced sexual violence[42] and other forms of abuse[43] from fellow legionnaires – sometimes dying as a result[44].

The use of foreign fighters elsewhere

Many countries have taken a page from France’s playbook by allowing foreigners to serve in their armed forces. For example, in 1920, Spain founded its own foreign legion[45] to fight in its colonial campaigns, namely the Rif War[46] in Morocco[47].

During the Spanish Civil War[48], there were foreign volunteers on both sides[49]: The battle-hardened Spanish Foreign Legion fought for Francisco Franco[50], while Republican forces opposed to fascism organized the International Brigades[51], which included more than 35,000 volunteers from around the world, including roughly 2,800 from the U.S.[52].

Foreign fighters have played significant roles in many other conflicts. During the American Revolution, several foreign military officers, including Tadeusz Kościuszko[53], Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben[54] and the Marquis de Lafayette[55], made vital contributions to the struggle for independence.

During the Russian Revolution, professional non-Russian troops brought valuable military expertise[56] to the nascent Red Army.

Similarly, during Israel’s War of Independence, World War II veterans[57] proved so indispensable that former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion called them “the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State[58].”

Some countries don’t have a separate foreign legion, but nonetheless allow some foreigners to enlist. For instance, citizens of the European Union can join the Irish Defence Forces[59]. Citizens of the Commonwealth[60], most of which is former parts of the British Empire, can join the British Army[61]. And citizens of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau[62] can join the U.S. military[63], along with foreign nationals who possess a green card[64].

As in France, serving in a foreign military can often help accelerate the naturalization process. Noncitizen U.S. service members, for example, can apply to become a citizen after just one year[65] on the job. It appears that volunteers serving in the Ukrainian military will be eligible for Ukrainian citizenship[66] at some point in the future.

British citizens Aiden Aslin, left, and Shaun Pinner, right, and Moroccan Saaudun Brahim, center, have been sentenced to death by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine for fighting for Ukraine’s military. AP Photo[67]

The risks of war

In June 2022, two U.S. citizens fighting for Ukraine were captured[68] by Russian forces and now face an uncertain future. This came just a few weeks[69] after two Britons and a Moroccan[70] were captured and subsequently sentenced to death.

Despite serving in the Ukrainian military, which under international law should[71] entitle them to prisoner-of-war[72] status, Russia argues that captured foreign fighters are mercenaries[73] rather than soldiers and thus not eligible[74]. It’s worth noting, though, that even Ukrainian prisoners of war don’t seem to be receiving proper treatment[75].

Ironically, Russia has for several years been trying to recruit foreigners into its own military. Back in 2015[76], Russia began allowing noncitizens to join, and it offers citizenship eligibility after five years of service. More recently[77], President Vladimir Putin has been vocal about his support for foreigners volunteering to join the fight against Ukraine[78].

Foreign volunteers on both sides of this conflict could soon be paying the ultimate price[79] – if they haven’t already.


  1. ^ large-scale invasion of Ukraine (
  2. ^ imposing sanctions (
  3. ^ sending weapons (
  4. ^ the U.S. (
  5. ^ its NATO allies (
  6. ^ variety of reasons (
  7. ^ ideological (
  8. ^ personal (
  9. ^ political (
  10. ^ International Legion of Defense of Ukraine (
  11. ^ foreign legion (
  12. ^ Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images (
  13. ^ Légion étrangère (
  14. ^ famous (
  15. ^ infamous (
  16. ^ its primary role was to fight France’s colonial wars (
  17. ^ than 140 countries (
  18. ^ variety of conflicts (
  19. ^ Africa (
  20. ^ Americas (
  21. ^ Asia (
  22. ^ Afghanistan (
  23. ^ Sahel (
  24. ^ region of Africa (
  25. ^ expeditionary (
  26. ^ legionnaires are often among the first French troops sent into a dangerous environment (
  27. ^ France (
  28. ^ enlisting (
  29. ^ many Americans volunteered (
  30. ^ Allies (
  31. ^ citizenship stripped (
  32. ^ legionnaires swear allegiance to the Legion itself (
  33. ^ starting a new life (
  34. ^ three years (
  35. ^ Français par le sang versé (
  36. ^ wine (
  37. ^ picturesque Provençal château (
  38. ^ a dark side (
  39. ^ The Battle of Algiers (
  40. ^ evocative film (
  41. ^ the battlefield (
  42. ^ sexual violence (
  43. ^ other forms of abuse (
  44. ^ dying as a result (
  45. ^ foreign legion (
  46. ^ Rif War (
  47. ^ Morocco (
  48. ^ Spanish Civil War (
  49. ^ both sides (
  50. ^ Francisco Franco (
  51. ^ International Brigades (
  52. ^ more than 35,000 volunteers from around the world, including roughly 2,800 from the U.S. (
  53. ^ Tadeusz Kościuszko (
  54. ^ Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (
  55. ^ Marquis de Lafayette (
  56. ^ professional non-Russian troops brought valuable military expertise (
  57. ^ World War II veterans (
  58. ^ the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State (
  59. ^ Irish Defence Forces (
  60. ^ Commonwealth (
  61. ^ British Army (
  62. ^ Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau (
  63. ^ U.S. military (
  64. ^ green card (
  65. ^ one year (
  66. ^ Ukrainian citizenship (
  67. ^ AP Photo (
  68. ^ two U.S. citizens fighting for Ukraine were captured (
  69. ^ just a few weeks (
  70. ^ two Britons and a Moroccan (
  71. ^ which under international law should (
  72. ^ prisoner-of-war (
  73. ^ mercenaries (
  74. ^ not eligible (
  75. ^ don’t seem to be receiving proper treatment (
  76. ^ Back in 2015 (
  77. ^ More recently (
  78. ^ the fight against Ukraine (
  79. ^ ultimate price (

Authors: Joshua Holzer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Westminster College

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