Ukraine Passes Law to Let Foreigners Serve in Armed Forces

Ukraine's parliament approved a bill on Tuesday morning to allow foreign nationals to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces, Kiev-based news agency UNIAN reports.

229 lawmakers voted in favour of the draft amendments which will allow foreign nationals and stateless persons to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces on a contractual basis. In accordance with the new law foreigners and stateless persons who put themselves forward to join the Ukrainian armed forces will officially commit to follow the constitution of Ukraine and conscientiously carry out the duties of a military serviceman.

The amendments also include an increase the punishment for funding mercenaries with the intended goal of using them in armed conflicts. Since the start of the conflict in the east numerous "volunteer battalions," often funded by wealthy individuals, have joined both the Ukrainian and separatist side. The government has moved to regulate the battalions fighting for Kiev with the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) asking in April that all volunteer units join the ranks of state regulated authorities or surrender their weapons and leave the conflict zone immediately.

While many volunteer groups have joined the command of the Ministry of Defence or Interior Ministry while others have disbanded, Kiev's move to standardise all of its defence forces has encountered difficulties on more than one occasion. In April, Al-Jazeera reported reported that some battalions were under control by the government in name only and still sometimes acted as private militias for individuals funding them.

One of the tenser examples of this was in March when armed men allegedly linked to powerful oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who is widely credited as having funded several battalions, arrived at the offices of Ukrtransnafta, the state pipeline company, following a parliamentary ruling which reduced the businessman's influence in the company. He was sacked from his official position as governor shortly after, but his influence prompted media speculation that the rift between the oligarch and the President Petro Poroshenko's government could cause a serious power struggle. During the summer paramilitary group Right Sector was also involved in a shootout with Ukrainian authorities in western Ukraine.

The new law will make recruitment, funding, material backing or training of mercenaries who seek to take part in violent actions, including taking part in armed conflicts and undermining the legal authorities as an offence punishable by five to 10 years in prison.

According to the law, mercenaries who fight in armed conflict will also face the same punishment. Officials who are found guilty of using their position of responsibility to back such activities could face a sentence of up to 12 years. This can be increased to 15 if these activities have caused the death of a person.

One of the MPs who drafted the law, Dmitry Tymchuk, told news site Ukrainskaya Pravda that he believed the law would allow for the formation of several combat-capable battalion groups of foreign nationals and give foreign fighters willing to help Ukraine's efforts in the east a legal way to do so.

Russia's parliament has received news of Ukraine's new law coldly, with lawmaker Leonid Slutsky claiming it could further escalate the conflict, state news agency Itar-Tass reported.

The number of violent clashes in eastern Ukraine have dropped in recent weeks, but Russian-backed forces still hold large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. On Tuesday Ukraine's command center in charge of military activities in the east (ATO) reported that there had been no ceasefire violations in the last day.