How Germans are volunteering to fight against Russia in Ukraine

Several hundred Germans are believed to have travelled to Ukraine to take up arms against the Russian army. Germany says that their actions are not punishable - but Russia has threatened them with serious consequences.

How Germans are volunteering to fight against Russia in Ukraine
A man crosses the border from Poland into Ukraine carrying military gear. Photo: dpa/AP | Markus Schreiber

The Russian invasion started the day before German national Siegfried planned to leave Ukraine. Explosions woke him up. “It was clear then that the war had started,” he says two weeks later by phone from Kyiv.

Siegfried stayed and joined the Ukrainian volunteer army, the so-called territorial defence. “My motive? I thought it was too cowardly and too stupid to run away from this fight,” he says.

In his early 40s, he is now a platoon leader, Siegfried says. He has around 30 people under his command who are preparing to defend the Ukrainian capital as reinforcements for the armed forces.

As a young man, he did military service with the Bundeswehr’s (German army) paratroopers, trained as a plant technician and worked as a trucker in Canada.  From 2015 on – after the annexation of Crimea and because of the war in the Donbass region – he joined the Ukrainian forces for several years, he says. 

“The only answer that will stop the Russian army from further attacks is a military defeat,” he claims.

READ ALSO: German ex-chancellor Schröder in Moscow for Ukraine peace bid: reports

‘Defend freedom’

According to Ukrainian government sources, Siegfried is one of several hundred German citizens who have stayed or travelled to Ukraine to fight. 

Ukraine’s leadership has called on foreigners to travel to their country to take up arms. While no one knows for sure how many foreign fighters have arrived, claims made in the Ukrainian media suggest numbers up to 20,000 from 52 different countries.

The Ukrainians say that the foreign fighters will be rewarded with citizenship but they do not receive a salary and therefore cannot be considered mercenaries.

Kyiv’s numbers on foreign fighters cannot yet be independently verified. In the case of the Germans, it is impossible to know who is leaving the country in the direction of Ukraine.

German security services only have the movements of recognised right-wing extremists on their radar. According to DPA information, three such departures to the war zone were recorded recently.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said of the foreign fighters: “They are coming to defend freedom, life. For all of us.” 

But Russia has threatened them with criminal charges if captured.

“I would like to officially emphasise that all mercenaries sent by the West to help the nationalist Kyiv regime (…) have no right to the status of prisoners of war,” Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, according to the Interfax news agency. They should “think seven times before leaving.”

Russia would hold them “criminally responsible should they be apprehended,” he added.

What does German law say?

In terms of German law, Ukrainian nationals living in Germany can travel to their homeland without fear of sanction to participate in the defence effort. 

This also applies to dual German-Ukrainian nationals. “It is not to be prohibited under German law. It is possible,” a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry said last week. 

In principle, dual nationals can lose their German citizenship if they voluntarily join the armed forces of their other home country, but not in compulsory military service.

For volunteer fighters who only hold German citizenship, German law also appears to allow them to fight without fear of punishment.

A spokesperson for the Justice Ministry made clear that Germans can fight for a foreign country as long as the military action takes places within the bounds of international law.

“If an act of killing or injury is permitted under international law, then it is not punishable under German criminal law,” the spokeswoman confirmed.

However, what is banned under German law is recruiting Germans to fight for foreign power. That comes with a prison sentence of up to five years.

The Ukrainian embassy in Berlin did not want to comment on the German volunteers heading to fight.

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Scholz rejects ‘slanderous’ criticism of his party’s Russia policy

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday hit back against accusations his centre-left Social Democrats have been too lenient towards Russia, as critics accuse Berlin of dragging its feet on deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Scholz rejects 'slanderous' criticism of his party's Russia policy

Opponents have confronted his Social Democratic Party (SPD) with a “distorted and slanderous depiction” of its Russia policy since the Second World War, Scholz said in an interview with German weekly Spiegel.

“That annoys me,” he said, adding that the SPD was “bound into the Western and transatlantic alliance”.

Germany said Thursday it had reached an agreement with eastern European partners to supply Ukraine with a new batch of heavy weapons “in the next few days”.

READ ALSO: ‘Too little, too late’: Scholz under fire for inaction on Ukraine

Germany has come under fire for refusing to directly send heavy weapons to Ukraine, even as allies such as the United States, Britain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands up their deliveries.

Much of the criticism has been directed at Scholz, who has faced pressure even from his two junior coalition partners to take tougher action.

But the government has said that after decades of chronic underinvestment, the German army, called the Bundeswehr, is simply not in a position to send the weapons Ukraine wants.

The potential to send arms to Ukraine from the stocks of the Bundeswehr had been “largely exhausted”, Scholz said in the interview.

“What is still available will absolutely still be delivered,” Scholz said, naming anti-tank weapons and artillery munitions.

Other senior SPD members have faced mounting scrutiny since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, particularly former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who is a lobbyist for Russian gas and has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

READ ALSO: Scholz ‘irritated’ by Kyiv’s snub to German president

And German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently said his offer to travel to Ukraine in a show of solidarity had been rejected by Kyiv.

Steinmeier, a former SPD foreign minister, for years advocated a policy of detente towards Moscow with a strong focus on commercial ties.