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Mercenaries and Volunteers

The Peace of Westphalia Google alert brought my attention to a surprisingly thoughtful article on the subject of mercenaries, something that is highly relevant to the Thirty Years’ War and the Congress of Westphalia. The article groups the two categories in the title of this post, mercenaries and volunteers, under the general header of “foreign fighters.” The first thing to note is that they are present on both sides. We call the ones fighting for Russia “mercenaries” and those fighting for Ukraine “volunteers,” with clear moral overtones, but the line between them is unclear: those volunteering to fight for Ukraine are still paid for their services, and Ukraine is unlikely to reject volunteers from unsavoury sources. (The article claims that members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, considered a terrorist organization, have volunteered for Ukraine, although it doesn’t specify if they have actually joined.) On the other hand, Chechnya is technically a member of the Russian Federation, so if it sends a body of soldiers to the war, they can’t be truly considered “foreign” even if they are distinct from the Russian army.

The article notes some dangers associated with using foreign fighters. For one thing, these bodies are obvious places for terrorist organizations to send their members to gain real-world fighting experience and exposure to military technology and techniques. Then, too, when the war is over, the soldiers will be out of a job but possessed of a new skill in inflicting violence. They hardly pose a threat to Russia or Ukraine in the numbers they are likely to be present, but, if they return to less stable political environments such as the Middle East, they could cause unrest or be co-opted by local warlords to perpetuate civil wars.

Probably because of these dangers, the use of mercenaries is prohibited in international law by the U.N. Mercenary Convention, which was approved by the General Assembly in 2001. The article also cites UN Security Council Resolution 2178 of September 2014, which specifically refers to terrorist organizations but is (according to the article) widely understood to apply to mercenaries in general.

I agree that mercenaries seem fundamentally problematic. Besides the chance that they will cause problems after the war, they are less likely to show restraint during a war as long as they are fighting in independent units. They will always be tempted to look for material gain, and the contracting country does not have much incentive to keep a close watch on their behaviour. Moreover, they can introduce a whole new level of cultural difference between the combatants. Russians and Ukrainians may not be the same people, but their languages are very similar (and to some extent mutually intelligible) and they do have a shared history and faith. There have been reports that Russians are unwilling to kill Ukrainians, and one presumes that they would not do so wantonly. Fighters from the Middle East, speaking unrelated languages and with a different faith, may not have the same feelings.

On the other hand, I do not think it would be an easy moral decision to prohibit Ukraine from accepting volunteers. In a war where they are outnumbered and unjustly attacked, it doesn’t seem right to deny them assistance from people who are willing to risk their lives in the defense of another country. But any rule, to be fair, must apply equally to both sides. If we allow only the side that we agree with to do something, we are essentially saying that we have no general rule but that the winner will enforce whatever rules he can. Morally, Ukraine may be in the right, but no country fights a war thinking they are morally wrong (or at least willing to admit as much); and if we could decide the matter beforehand, in a court, we would have no need for a war. Although I can come up with some general principles distinguishing volunteers from mercenaries, I don’t see any bright line separating them, and I don’t see why participants wouldn’t bend any rules we could come up with anyway. For example, the U.N. Mercenary Convention prohibits soldiers who have “not been sent by a State which is not a party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.” That seems clear enough, but I can’t imagine Putin would have trouble getting Assad to rubber-stamp the use of Syrian troops against Ukraine; and if they aren’t formally part of the Syrian army, who’s to say? If Assad says they’re in the army, they are.

(To be continued with a further discussion of mercenaries in the Thirty Years’ War.)

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