Twenty-one Lithuanians joined the war in Eastern Ukraine. While 16 took up arms for Ukraine, five entered the conflict on the Russian side, writes Eglė Murauskaitė, a researcher who tracked foreign fighters in Ukraine.
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Although the Baltic states are prominent supporters of Ukraine, fighters from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania constitute only a modest presence among the 1,500-2,000 foreigners who have arrived from 54 different countries between 2014 and 2018.
Ideological reasons – albeit different ones – seem to have motivated most of the Lithuanian fighters interviewed, as well as Latvians and Estonians who have shared their experiences in the media.
Many were reluctant to enter the conflict zone, but felt unable to stand idly by from the security of their homes as the crisis deepened and they were disappointed with government inaction – they felt someone had to do something to defend the values they believed in.
Many who came to support Ukraine from the Baltics saw this as the final frontier to be defended from Russian expansion – or else their country might be next. Meanwhile, those who came to support Russia saw Ukraine as the final pro-Russian frontier to be defended from NATO’s encroachment.
Ideological motivation was common among the fighters from the Baltics as well as all over Europe.
The odd factor was that quite often young men would come to Ukraine from the same city or country, holding quite similar views – frustrated by the world’s consumerism, the collapse of the ideals of democracy, the indifference of the powerful.
Yet, almost at a random stroke of fate, they would choose to fight on opposite sides of the barricades and would subsequently isolate themselves from different opinions.
The dangers of war and media
The vast majority of foreigners have come to Ukraine inspired by war hero stories – it was either in-depth media coverage profiling the local ‘heroes’ and spotlighting their achievements or regular social media posts by the fighters themselves.
Still, there was a minority of fighters who came to Ukraine driven by a sense of adventure. Some had been battle-hardened and gotten used to the adrenaline rush, making cruising from conflict to conflict their lifestyle.
These rare cases have unfortunately received disproportionate media attention, offering a distorted picture of what taking part in this conflict implies.
Interestingly, while there were no such regular battle cruisers among the Baltic fighters, no small number of men retired from the regular Lithuanian armed forces tried to join the battle for Ukraine and put their skills to use.
Few succeeded, but among those who did, some also reported adventure-seeking as the key factor driving them to take up the dangerous assignments.
In addition, inspired by war stories, swaths of curious inexperienced civilians have attempted to join the fighter ranks, getting in touch with active or returning fighters, as well as with people regularly visiting the battlefield for other reasons, via social media.
Lithuanians (as well as Scandinavians) who regularly deliver aid or who have fought in Ukraine have reported being regularly approached by civilians keen to taste the real battle.
They swiftly turned away most of these adventure seekers, figuring their lack of skill likely made them of limited use in the field, but there were a few who managed to reach the battlefield.
However, they were either promptly injured, or returned home quite soon, having experienced that the reality of prolonged combat was a lot less glorious than glossy magazine pages might suggest.
Baltic fighters in the field
While little is publicly known about those Baltic fighters, who chose to support the side of Russian-led separatists, it is understood that many of them were Russian-speakers who felt culturally closer to the Russian view of the world than to their Baltic environment.
Of the pro-Ukrainian Lithuanians, several came during the late phase of the Maidan and were among the early foreign arrivals, unlike most Europeans who came to fight after the Minsk ceasefire accords had already been signed.
Many Lithuanians had previous combat training, a few also had combat experience and were mostly on armed guard duty – protecting Lithuanian convoys passing through Ukraine or guarding local supply depots.
The interviewed fighters claimed to not have known each other prior to their arrival in Ukraine and many did not even meet in the field – instead, they got in touch after returning home.
Among the few Baltic fighters in Ukraine, Lithuanian presence was the largest. There were also five Latvians and eight Poles known to have come to support Ukraine, while the Russian side was supported by two Estonians, seven Latvians, and 11 Poles.
Interestingly, Poland has officially denied any Polish presence in Ukraine, while nevertheless threatening that Polish fighters, if caught, would be prosecuted.
It is also worth noting that fighters from Belarus constituted one of the most numerous national groups present in Ukraine overall, including a sizable portion of political activists. They took up arms in opposition to both the Lukashenko and Putin regimes, which threatened to persecute them for their views.
Myths and misperceptions
Unfortunately, the extensive and somewhat tendentious media reporting, combined with the wave of Islamic radicalisation and violence rolling over Europe, has given rise to fears in the West that Ukraine might also become a hotbed for the radicals – similar to the tumultuous warzones in the Middle East.
Erroneous comparisons to radicalised foreign fighters returning from Iraq or Syria have given those who fought in Ukraine an image of being a potential risk of violent extremism.
Although in Ukraine the concern is mostly over the rise of radical right rather than Islamic extremism, Russian information campaigns have managed to spin a few effective narratives about the latter as well.
This has been particularly true in Scandinavia and Central Europe, where fears of a rise of neo-Nazism run high and immediately trigger an intense national reaction.
While the presence of the radical right in Ukraine tends to be exaggerated, those with radical views tend to have them even before arriving in the conflict zone and are often already on the radar of law enforcement.
Prosecute, reintegrate, or ignore
This emerging attitude towards foreign fighters is important for the Baltic states to recognise as well – particularly for Lithuania, which is still finding its way in terms of the legal stance towards people who fought abroad.
For instance, Estonia extradited one of its citizens to Ukraine on terrorism charges in 2016. The ethnically Russian man had fought on the pro-Russian side in Ukraine.
In 2019, Latvia sentenced a pro-Russian fighter from Daugavpils, an eastern Latvian city with a large population of ethnic Russians, to five years in prison. The charge was participation in armed conflict outside Latvia.
He had a non-citizen status that is still common among Latvia’s large Russian-speaking minority, which didn’t automatically receive a Latvian passport following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
In Lithuania, there is currently no public record of persons having been put to trial for taking part in the conflict in Ukraine on either the pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian side, although several pro-Russian fighters are under investigation by the authorities.
If Lithuania were to adopt the emerging European practice of treating the pro-Russian fighters similarly to the radicalised European ISIS fighters, the legal implications of law enforcement action and intelligence sharing would likely be significant.
If, on the other hand, the country were to try and establish its own legal – and political – approach, as others in this region have done, it would still require to form a justified and clear position, as opposed to the currently convenient approach of deliberate ambiguity towards the returnees.
Moreover, it is important to recognise that countries prosecuting pro-Russian fighters on terrorism charges – such as the UK – are already starting to face pressure to apply the same standard to fighters who went to support Ukraine, and it is a non-trivial struggle to disprove the appropriateness of legal equivalence here.
The Baltic states ought to be more serious about taking part in the formation of European practices and precedents – both legal and political – of treating foreigners who come to support a guerilla war.
The secondary implications of the Baltic stance are not insignificant. Because resistance plays such a prominent role in the defence contingency planning of all the three Baltic states, awareness of how allied countries are likely to treat their citizens who might decide to support such resistance efforts is of utmost importance.
For instance, if the Baltic security situation should turn dire at some point, leading to prolonged forest-brothers-style guerrilla warfare, and if the legal practice becomes so established that any European individual arriving to support Lithuanian fighters is treated as a terrorist by their home country, this would make such individual fighter support unlikely.
Stigmatisation upon return
Interviews with returning fighters from several European countries, and extensive analysis of the publicly available cases, have shown that while there are some risks associated with foreign fighters returning from Ukraine, fears of radicalisation and terrorism are largely misplaced.
Indeed, such stereotyping, often based on familiar media narratives and playing on historic fears, mostly hurts the non-radical fighters, while the major risk groups can slip through.
Instead, the risks associated with fighters returning from Ukraine mainly lie in stigmatisation upon return, their latent potential to become tools for foreign-directed disruptive action. In 2016, for instance, several pro-Russian fighters in Montenegro collaborated with Russia's GRU agents in an effort to murder the prime minister on election day.
Similarly, the Baltic states could also at some point become the target of potential sleeper agents – people who lead a regular life awaiting foreign orders to take action.
Fighters with contacts to pro-Russian circles could potentially receive instructions and/or financial (or other material) support to, say, intimidate local journalists, amplify certain narratives, or get involved in violent protests.
Another significant risk factor lies in irresponsible media coverage that turns foreign fighters into heroes – which in turn inspires elements in the society prone to self-radicalisation.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the constructive role the Baltics could play in promoting responsible media reporting guidelines as part of the already active efforts on information campaigns.
The internationally recognised familiarity with the conflict in Ukraine would put the Baltic states in a strong position for advocating a better understanding of the fighters’ profiles and motivations, helping the Western partners gain a better understanding of the crux of the problem – thus allowing to direct their law enforcement resources more effectively to address it.
Egle E. Murauskaite is a senior researcher and simulations designer for the ICONS Project with Maryland University. Presently based in Lithuania, she is responsible for high-level political-military crises simulations in Europe, alongside academic research and government consulting projects. Murauskaitė has been working with unconventional security threats for the past 10 years – from gray zone warfare to proliferation of nuclear weapons. She is also a senior non-resident fellow with the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis, where she is currently exploring the issue of foreign fighters in Ukraine. Murauskaitė is a co-author of a monthly podcast NYLA Update, where she explores the long-term geopolitical trends and challenges, and also a regular commentator on security issues in national and international media.
Read her full report on foreign fighters in Ukraine, here.