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When Putsch Comes to Shove: Part II

Why do states recruit foreign fighters?


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

In late October, the Associated Press reported that the Russian military has actively recruited former Afghan special forces to fight in Ukraine. The numbers involved are, at most, a few thousand, and in a war where tens of thousands have already died, it’s at most a modest boost to one front. Instead, it highlights the modern iteration of an old phenomenon: foreign fighters, trained in one military, brought in by another state to augment their existing combat strength.

In “Leaning on Legionnaires,” Elizabeth M.F. Grasmeder examines this kind of foreign fighter in a modern context, especially as it complements and complicates understandings of mass citizen mobilization that became the norm of industrialized warfare ever since the French Revolution.

“Legionnaires,” Grasmeder defines, “are uniformed personnel who serve in a state’s armed forces, but who — at the time of their service — are neither citizens of that state nor, in the days of empire, subjects of the government in whose military they serve.”

Leaning on foreign fighters gives a country the capacity to fight its wars without threatening internal political balance.

For her study, Grasmeder looks at how militaries from 1815 to 2020 incorporated these kinds of foreign combatants. They are distinct from allied militaries, which operate under at least one parallel chain of command. They are also unlike private contractors or mercenaries, which sit outside the rules and bounds of a formal military structure. Instead, Grasmeder looks at how these foreign legionnaires are added to the formal military of a country, and the kind of needs that might drive such action.

“By answering the military’s need for sheer numbers, legionnaires can help states sidestep some of the long-term economic or political ramifications associated with imposing or expanding a citizen draft. In other cases, legionnaires provide an expedited source of battle-tested or skilled soldiers,” writes Grasmeder.

Countries at war may seek to increase the number of people under arms for various reasons. This could include fearing battlefield defeat, pressing an advantage, or worrying about a new threat. How a country chooses to do so is balanced against other concerns, like depleting the country’s labor force or antagonizing the citizenry to the point of resistance.

“With suspicions about potential citizen-recruits, governments must consider whether new enlistees could be unenthusiastic and poorly execute their military duties, thereby diminishing military effectiveness. Governments may even fear that citizen-recruits could present tangible dangers, such as by seeking to mount insider attacks or by acquiring training for later use against the regime,” writes Grasmeder.

If the government’s claim to popular legitimacy is thin, citizen-soldiers can be seen as a risk, potentially even a coup risk. Leaning on foreign fighters, instead, gives a country the capacity to fight its wars without threatening internal political balance.

“When states find themselves simultaneously threatened externally and constrained domestically, they are likely to enlist legionnaires as a tool to balance between these political and security pressures,” concludes Grasmeder. “In cases where the state’s very existence is in jeopardy, its demand for troops becomes inelastic, and governments recruit legionnaires as a part of a strategy to maximize the manpower they can field for national defense.”

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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