What’s going to happen to British volunteers captured while fighting Russian forces? According to Ukrainian analysts, there is intelligence to suggest that Russia is planning to parade them through Red Square. You read that correctly: Putin is planning to march 500 captured soldiers in the annual 9 May victory parades. Wasn’t this kind of thing always going to happen if British volunteers joined the Ukrainian war effort? And should Foreign Secretary Liz Truss really have said that she ‘absolutely’ backed anyone who travelled to the country to fight Russian troops?
Unprepared veterans and untrained civilians really aren’t that much help in the war effort. It’s difficult to co-ordinate in a high stress environment with people who can’t speak Ukrainian and are unfamiliar with the topology of the country. Instead, both the Russians and the Ukrainians see western fighters as a potential source of valuable propaganda. Earlier this month, Shaun Pinner, a former British soldier and volunteer, was captured in Mariupol and paraded on Russian state TV, regurgitating scripted Kremlin lines under duress and begging Boris Johnson to release him. Pinner, 48, appeared alongside Aiden Aslin, who enjoys a significant social media profile. They both showed signs of rough treatment, with Aslin, 28, appearing especially bruised.
The pair were filmed begging to be exchanged for the pro-Kremlin politician Viktor Medvedchuk. Pinner, exhausted, said ‘If Boris Johnson really does care about British citizens like he says he does then he will help.’ He added that he has been ‘treated well’ and ‘fed and watered’. This seems unlikely. Russia describes foreign fighters as ‘terrorists’ and some soldiers have reportedly been executed. It is likely that their media profiles, their British nationalities and the propaganda value they offer are the only things keeping them from being disappeared.
Medvedchuk is a major Putin ally facing treason and terrorism charges while under house arrest in Ukraine. His release would be a major win for Putin, one that would be unachievable without western hostages. Meanwhile, Pinner and Aslin’s families have issued statements urging their return. No wonder, then, that Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis has pleaded with other would-be British partisans not to go, saying these two ‘shouldn’t have been in Ukraine’ in the first place.
It isn’t just the propaganda threat giving defence officials headaches. Pinner and Aslin have been members of the Ukrainian forces for years, but plenty of well-intentioned but unprepared overseas volunteers have blighted the Ukrainian struggle, least of all in their attempts to keep a digital track of their fighting lives. The so-called ‘Reddit battalions’ seem to have done little more than alert Russian intelligence operators to their locations. Tweets went out, missiles came in.
They also distract from what Ukrainians really need. Many of these volunteers give off a lightly narcissistic air: one would be forgiven for thinking their presence in the war-torn country is more about thrill-seeking and amassing a social media profile than the defence of a desperate nation. The Ukrainian government is not crying out for more part-time airsoft champs and social media addicts. They want cutting-edge anti-air, anti-tank and anti-personnel weapons that will allow trained, Ukrainian fighters to co-ordinate attacks on Russian forces.
Britain is leading the way in Europe on this assignment. Thousands of the shoulder-mounted NLAW systems have been received by Ukrainian troops singing the British national anthem and praising the Prime Minister. The taxpayer has funded some £450 million of rockets and javelin missiles, which has now been bolstered by a handful of Stormer anti-aircraft vehicles. The Americans are sending in dozens of artillery pieces and providing training for the systems; other allies are offering top-of-the-line anti-air platforms and even fighter jets.
There is a feeling that Ukraine might just be able to hold its own. This optimistic mood, though uplifting, is set to be tested by the largest ground battle in Europe since 1945. As Russian forces shift their focus to the east, analysts are warning of a period of intense misery. During this next phase of the war, the last thing we need to do is gift the Russians a propaganda victory. Have-a-go heroes don’t offer the Ukrainian military an edge in battle, but they do present the West with a growing set of problems.
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