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Latin American Foreign Fighters in Ukraine
The Ukrainian-Russian conflict has become the first war to be widely broadcasted on TikTok from its onset, with a steady flow of videos taken on the ground and shared on the application. On one hand, this has provided comparatively greater transparency, but it has also created operational security issues through the disclosure of military positions, which has had disastrous consequences.
A reported case of the latter was the Russian missile attack on the Yavoriv base, a former NATO training site that was used as a staging ground for foreign volunteer fighters, on March 13 in Lviv, 25 kilometers from the Polish border.
"The Legion was wiped out in one fell swoop," said a surviving Ukrainian volunteer fighter and Brazilian shooting instructor Tiago Rossi in an emotional Twitter video taken soon after the strike as he fled to Poland. "I didn't know what a war was."
According to Ukrinform, Ukraine reported 35 deaths and 134 injured. "Unfortunately, we lost more heroes: 35 people were killed in the airstrike on the Peacekeeping and Security Center. Another 134, with injuries of varying degrees, are now in hospitals," the Lviv Regional Military Administration said.
Colonel Fernando Montenegro of the Brazilian Army spoke to CNN about the unprofessional behavior of volunteers like Tiago Rossi, whom he described as "likes hunters" with no military expertise.
According to Montenegro, "fame-seeking" and inexperienced volunteers gave interviews to television stations and YouTube channels and posted on social media, allowing the Russians to trace their whereabouts, including the military base that was later assaulted.
"They published several posts from the base, and when there were as many people as possible gathered, the Russians unleashed missiles, destroying everything. Narcissism is also deadly," said the colonel.
Dozens of foreign fighters from Latin America have joined the International Legion of the Defense of Ukraine. Nationals of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and various Cuban exiles are most involved, accounting for both professional and amateur volunteer soldiers.
At least 50 former Colombian military personnel have gone to fight in Ukraine, according to the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. These come from a pool of highly qualified individuals that have helped Colombia's contractor industry thrive. The first company to launch in Bogota was US Blackwater, which dispatched 7,000 former Colombian military soldiers to Dubai. In addition, due to the 50-year conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Colombian military has acquired specific training in explosives management.
Before leaving for Ukraine, one of them told El Espectador that Ukrainian authorities would have paid his group a salary to fight. Still, they would have had to fund their transportation from Colombia to the Polish border.
According to El Espectador, a smaller group of 15 Colombian ex-military members then went on on an individual and unpaid basis "simply for the pride of defending a country under attack," hoping to be rewarded with a new nationality for themselves and their families.
After the raid on the Yavoriv base, a Peruvian fighter named César Pérez, who was initially thought to be dead, fled to Poland. Outraged, he explained in a video how his base had ceased providing him with ammo and other war-fighting supplies. "At the base, there was a lack of discipline, organization, and logistics. We were not provided with jackets, helmets, or ammunition." As he had stated, "the indignation and despair of President Zelensky who is appealing for foreign soldiers' help" inspired him to join the conflict.
The Ukrainian army has also said that Mexican volunteers have entered the war, and images have been posted showing some of them on the battlefield.
Estimating how many Brazilian volunteers are fighting alongside the Ukrainians is difficult, but the number is unlikely to exceed a dozen. In terms of their arms, weapons analyst War Noir noted that, based on the limited available imagery, Brazilian fighters have seemingly obtained more modern guns as of late, moving from common Kalashnikovs used in early March to weapons such as the CZ-806 BREN-2 automatic rifle that is made in Czechia.
The claims of Brazilian Colonel Montenegro have prompted reactions from some on social media, including Brazilian fighter Leanderson Paulino, who was seen on the ground cleaning weapons and dressed in military fatigues in recent days. Or André Hack, who replied to Montenegro on Instagram, saying, "don't talk about my work if you aren't in my shoes, I know all the security processes, and we haven't breached even one."
Some had previously served in the French Foreign Legion or were cops or firefighters. Alex Silva, for example, has been a shooting and training teacher in the security sector in Ukraine since 2012. He was implicated in a controversial incident in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2020, during rallies against COVID-19 restrictions. He carried an old Ukrainian flag associated with far-right activities in recent years. Silva is also known for being a founding member of the pro-Bolsonaro Ucraniza Brasil extremist group. People looking to support the Ukrainian armed resistance against Russia have joined his Telegram channel, which has over 18,000 members.
This isn't the first time Brazilians have participated in fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces. One past example is Rafael Marques Lusvarghi who fought in the Donbas region alongside pro-Russian rebels between 2014 and 2015. In 2018, he was detained in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, on terrorism allegations. During a prisoner exchange with separatist troops in 2019, he was released by Ukrainian authorities. He returned to Brazil after a stint in Russia, when he was detained in Presidente Prudente, São Paulo, on charges of cocaine trafficking.
In 2017, an Italian member of the Misanthropic Division, a Ukrainian neo-Nazi group, recruited young men in Brazil to fight in the Donbas conflict for ten months against Russians. The group has links to the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian ultranationalist organization that has been integrated into the national guard. They offered money and military training in exchange for their services, and according to Brazilian police, at least six people may have joined the war campaign.
The chaos following the attack on the Yavoriv base disrupted enlistments among foreign volunteers who had contacted specialized WhatsApp and Telegram groups and Ukrainian embassies for days to volunteer at the start of the conflict.
As terrorism analyst Vera Mironova disclosed, many Western foreign fighters have been frustrated since they have been held in the western part of the country, particularly in Lviv, and denied the opportunity to fight on the front lines. The key differentiating factor, according to Mironova, was combat experience.
Due to such concerns and a host of other issues, Ukraine temporarily halted foreign legion recruitment. Even if the decision is reversed in the following weeks, it will likely serve as a disruption or deterrent, particularly for Latinos. Confronted with high travel costs and long travel times, they may be reluctant to leave for fear of Ukraine freezing the process again.
In the long run, there are likely to be difficulties for foreign fighters who remain in the conflict when they decide to leave. Since the UN Security Council enacted resolutions 2178 (2014) and 2396 (2017) restricting foreign fighters' travel, recruitment, and repatriation to contain the Islamic State, states should clarify the legal framework for foreign fighters returning from Ukraine to avoid their legal prosecution and social isolation.
States should also collaborate with international organizations such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to prevent transnational organized crime networks and other bad actors from profiting from the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, which the return of foreign fighters could facilitate.