Ukraine’s appeal for volunteers to join its International Legion of the Defense of Ukraine has excited considerable comment, as well as historical comparisons with other mobilizations. Besides the website which provides details about how to sign up, the call for volunteers has also been prominent on the Facebook pages of Ukrainian embassies worldwide, including in Asia.
The reaction on the part of Western governments to this call has been mixed. The United States discourages its citizens from traveling and fighting in Ukraine, while in the United Kingdom, after initially positive comments by the Foreign Secretary, the government has now backtracked, with the possibility that such activity may be subject to investigation and possible prosecution.
Notwithstanding these warnings not to travel, the pattern of mobilization and travel from Western nations is clear. Most credible analyses suggest that hundreds, many of them military veterans, are in the process of making the journey to Ukraine, or have already arrived there.
The mobilization is in some ways reminiscent of the Western volunteers who joined various armed groups in Iraq and Syria, most notably the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) in the conflict against the Islamic State (IS), a phenomenon that I have written about elsewhere. In the present case, most of the media coverage has been of Western volunteers explaining with some eloquence their reasons for wanting to fight, expressing motivations that, mutatis mutandis, are not altogether different from what drove foreigners to join the conflict against IS.
Motivating factors include the images and news of the suffering of children and civilians under the Russian attack, the overarching idea that one cannot stand by and do nothing, the idea of defending democracy, and, especially for volunteers coming from neighboring countries, the sense that their country will be next if Ukraine falls.
With the conflict against IS, the transnational element comprised almost exclusively individuals from the West, plus members of the Kurdish diaspora, with a sprinkling of outliers: a few people from South America, Central Europe, and Australia. There were very few individuals from Asia. The situation, certainly at least when it comes to intentions, may be somewhat different this time.
Asians in Ukraine
The vast majority of Asians and Southeast Asians who were living, working, or studying in Ukraine have now been evacuated, but it appears that of those who elected to stay, a smaller subset have taken up arms. A Malaysian individual who had been living in Ukraine has reportedly joined the Ukrainian territorial defense army. Separately, rather than evacuating an Indian student from Kharkiv has chosen to remain to fight against Russian forces. The latter individual appears to have had a fascination with the military, while the former’s motivations are less clear but seems tied to wanting to resist the invasion lest Russian actions spread further.
From Asia itself, a small number of individuals are already thought to have made the journey to Ukraine. One prominent South Korean YouTuber, who is also a former naval diver, appears to already have arrived in the country. He is one of approximately 100 South Koreans who expressed an interest in taking up arms, despite the government warning against traveling to Ukraine to fight. There have been expressions of interest from dozens of individuals from Japan, some with experience in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and a small number claiming experience with the French Foreign Legion.
In what is likely a response to pressure exerted by some governments, the calls for volunteers by some Ukrainian embassies have been amended or deleted. In the case of Japan, it is now a call for individuals with specialized medical, IT, communications, or firefighting experience. A possible reason is that answering foreign military recruitment could run afoul of Japanese law that criminalizes individuals waging war on a foreign country. There has been similar objections in other countries. For instance, the Indian authorities appear to have forced the deletion of a tweet by the International Legion which appeared to target Indian volunteers.
The overall diplomatic and political reaction from Southeast Asian nations to the Russian invasion has been tepid, with one notable exception – Singapore – which has come out strongly against Russia’s invasion. This is also mirrored in the somewhat lukewarm reaction in terms of grassroots sentiment. These are extremely diverse nations, but broad strands of thinking, derived from an analysis of social media postings and online discussions, may have some bearing on individual decisions.
One is the enormous distance separating the region from Ukraine. While individuals from several Southeast Asian nations have expressed sympathy and solidarity, there is the sense of there being no real connection to distant (and largely Christian) Ukraine. Motivation to fight applies more when it comes to supporting co-religionists, with hundreds of Malaysians and Indonesians traveling to Syria and Iraq to join IS in the period 2014-2018.
The second is that people in some countries are preoccupied with what they see as more pressing issues. The looming May presidential election in the Philippines is one. In Myanmar, which faces a situation amounting to civil war, there has been some sympathy for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression (and indeed a small number of rallies in solidarity with its cause). A contributory factor is Russia’s support for the military junta in Myanmar. But for many, the struggle against the regime that has seized power is clearly a more pressing issue.
The third strand concerns sentiment in Muslim-majority nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Discussions in many quarters exhibit an anti-West, and thence anti-Ukraine, stance, since Ukraine is seen as being pro-Western and has a Jewish president, which is anathema to a segment of Southeast Asian Muslim opinion. In Indonesia in particular, there is strong pro-Putin sentiment within some quarters of public and academic discourse, with the sense that the West also has been highly hypocritical (the Palestine issue comes up often in discussions).
Hardline extremist groups, particularly in Indonesia, would have taken note of IS’ recent guidance that it is forbidden to get involved in what is called a “crusader on crusader” war. But as the situation evolves, the possibility that a small number of motivated individuals from Muslim communities in the region might choose to involve themselves in some way cannot be ruled out, particularly if Ukrainian Muslims are seen to be suffering. The recent call of the Mufti of Ukraine for Muslims everywhere to do what they can to help does not seem to have gained much, if any, traction in Southeast Asia, but worldwide, influential Muslim ideologues have left open the possibility that defending Muslims in Ukraine might be an acceptable reason to join the conflict.
Ways and Means
Some Southeast Asian nations have either prohibited their citizens fighting in Ukraine, or have pointed to existing laws that expressly outlaw them from fighting in foreign lands. This may be on account of the fact that some (at the time of writing, a small number of citizens from Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) have expressed an interest in taking up arms for Ukraine.
When it comes to individuals actually getting to the war zone, the factors at play may have to do less with official positions or general societal sentiment expressed online, and more (as with Western volunteers) with means, will, and motivation.
One country that should be considered here is Thailand. Media reports suggest that a number of individuals, some who are military veterans or have gone through mandatory military conscription, have attempted to register their interest with the Ukrainian embassy in Bangkok. Some of these individuals on social media evince a sense of wanting to help free Ukraine from oppression, and seem willing to die in the cause of supporting democracy. Some of this thinking appears linked to activism on the part of these individuals to protests and activity against the Thai military, which seized power in a 2014 coup. The magnitude of the response, with Thai-language online groups seeing a large number of interested individuals, led to the Russian embassy in Thailand to post a warning that individuals should not join the conflict, and that they would be treated as mercenaries if they did.
Some of these individuals appear to have the will, but not necessarily the means. Some say that financial concerns are holding them back, including the cost of getting to Ukraine. In some cases, motivations are also misplaced. Some interested individuals from Thailand for example appear to have either outsized notions of the pay they would be entitled to, or have wrongly received the impression that they would would receive European Union citizenship in return.
In recent years, a large number of Southeast Asian Muslims have taken up arms and joined IS and other jihadist groups. On the basis of what is presently known, Muslims in Southeast Asia are unlikely to feel the draw of the Ukraine conflict, but two possibilities should be considered here. One is that if the war in Ukraine proves protracted and civilian casualties mount, Southeast Asians might attempt to provide direct aid or be part of humanitarian efforts to Ukraine. This would need to be watched by governments and security agencies, as joining humanitarian NGOs delivering aid was an entry point for many, including Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims, who ended up taking part in the Syrian conflict. The experience had a radicalizing effect on some, prompting them later to join IS or other groups.
The other possibility is that individuals unconnected on any religious or ideological level with Ukraine, but who feel a strong enough impulse to defend Ukrainians, might still attempt to make the journey notwithstanding the logistical and financial obstacles. If they did so, they would probably be acting from deep-seated personal motivations. The sense of wanting to help an oppressed people, even if they are very distant, played a major role in the thinking of one of the very few individuals from Southeast Asia – an ethnic Chinese Singaporean – who in 2015 attempted unsuccessfully to join a Kurdish militia in its fight against IS in 2015. He was motivated not by any direct connection but deeply personal considerations and issues in his life, as well as with a desire to help the Kurds.
In the case of Ukraine, neither of these possibilities should be ruled out.
The author is grateful to experts and researchers in Southeast Asia and beyond, too many to name (and several of whom requested anonymity), for their invaluable guidance and advice.