Russia Vows Prosecution of Foreign Fighters After 16K Join Ukraine

Russia threatened to bring "criminal" prosecution against any foreigners who travel to Ukraine to fight with the Eastern European nation as Moscow continues to press its internationally condemned invasion of the country.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine entered a second week on Thursday after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale assault on February 24. Ukrainians have fought back hard by all accounts, with thousands of ordinary civilians joining the fight to protect their country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced last Sunday that he was establishing an "international" legion for foreigners to join if they would like to assist the country in its defense against Russia. In a Thursday video address, Zelensky said that 16,000 foreign volunteers were already on their way to fight alongside Ukrainians.

"The first of 16,000 are coming to defend the liberty and life of us and of everyone. I'm sure it will be successful," he said.

In response to the creation of Ukraine's new foreign legion, a spokesperson for the Russian military said that Moscow would not treat these volunteers the same as it would Ukrainian soldiers—threatening them with more severe repercussions if they are captured.

"I wish to make an official statement that none of the mercenaries the West is sending to Ukraine to fight for the nationalist regime in Kyiv can be considered as combatants in accordance with international humanitarian law or enjoy the status of prisoners of war," Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Thursday, Russia's Tass news agency reported.

Konashenkov continued, saying that "at best, they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals." He warned foreign nationals "to think a dozen times before" before traveling to fight alongside Ukrainians.

Russia has faced a substantial international backlash for Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. The United Nations General Assembly passed a widely supported resolution condemning Russia's actions on Wednesday, with 141 of the assembly's 193 members voting in favor. Just four nations—Syria, Belarus (which is supporting Russia militarily), North Korea and Eritrea—voted against the international condemnation. Thirty-five other nations—including China and India—abstained.

Meanwhile, the U.S., European allies, Canada and a number of other nations have implemented severe financial sanctions targeting the Russian economy as well as Putin and other leaders in Moscow. Internally, Putin's war has faced criticism as well—leading Moscow to crackdown on dissent. More than 6,800 anti-war protesters have already been arrested, but even billionaires and other high-profile members of Russian society have criticized the war.

"Russia's Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated," President Joe Biden said Tuesday during his State of the Union address to Congress.

"He thought he could roll into Ukraine, and the world would roll over. Instead, he met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined. He met the Ukrainian people," Biden continued. "From President Zelensky to every Ukrainian, their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, literally inspires the world," the president said.

Ukraine volunteer fighter
A man who said his name is Ian, who is from a town near Liverpool in the U.K. and is 61 years old, prepares to enter Ukraine to join the fight against the Russian army at a border crossing on March 3 at Medyka, Poland. Ukraine's President Zelensky appealed to foreign nationals to join his army in the fight against Russia. Sean Gallup/Getty Images