Among the combat forces fighting for Ukraine against Russia are three units distinguished by a particular feature. They are not composed of Ukrainians, but Russian nationals, fighting against their home country’s forces in all-volunteer units with varying degrees of formal ties to Ukraine’s military and intelligence apparatus. Currently, several thousand Russians are estimated to comprise the three units—the Freedom of Russia Legion, the Russian Volunteer Corps, and the Sibir Battalion. “They’re no longer just a ‘group’, now they’re a force,” the chief of Ukrainian military intelligence remarked in a March 2024 interview. “They’re good warriors. . . . We’re going to try and help them as much as we can.”

A closer look into these units reveals their force-multiplier functions, particularly on the digital battlefield. They have even undertaken cross-border raids onto Russian soil. However, these groups are not a panacea to stave off Moscow’s nationalist imperialism nor bridge transatlantic disunity, as they present inherent risks. Thus, Kyiv would be well advised to learn from past cases in which defectors, deserters, and even former prisoners of war were employed on the battlefield—cases like that of the Galvanized Yankees.

Gray to Blue

Though it might seem radical at first glance, the US Army’s recruitment of Confederate prisoners of war did not appear as an unreasonable proposition by the winter of 1863–64, as thousands of Federal troops neared the end of their three-year voluntary enlistment. Widespread conscription laws (and controversial exemptions) sparked riots throughout many northern cities. President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection remained uncertain as his political opposition sought peace with the Confederacy. Combined with prolonged indecision from Lincoln’s War Department, several Federal prison commanders became emboldened to tacitly recruit Confederates troops—pejoratively dubbed “Galvanized Yankees”—into US Army regiments.

The first instance of Confederate prisoners of war joining the Union manifested at Camp Douglas near Chicago in March 1862. There, more than two hundred Irish-born Confederate volunteers, captured weeks earlier at the Battle of Fort Donelson, volunteered for the US Army. The vestigial roots of this and subsequent ad hoc enlistments arose from the often stalled, unsystematic, and chronically troubled prisoner exchanges between Federal and Confederate forces—and the fact that the US government did not recognize the Confederacy. “If there was no Confederate States of America,” historian and novelist Dee Brown postulated, “then a captured Confederate soldier was not committing an act of treason if he took an oath of allegiance to the United States.”

Legal nuances aside, another driver arose from overcrowded Union prisons, partially caused by the influx of rebel deserters. By August 1863, the Union’s commissary-general of prisoners, Colonel William Hoffman—once a prisoner of war himself, exchanged after 555 days of Confederate internment—petitioned Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for a standardized system on the treatment of Confederate deserters. “It would be attended with much inconvenience and expense to hold them as prisoners of war until an inquiry could be made in each case,” Hoffman argued. “To parole them places them in a very doubtful position,” he added, “in which they certainly are not for us and may be against us.” The same month, the Confederacy offered a general pardon to known deserters and those absent without leave. This matter also proved taxing for the Union’s battlefield commanders. One major general reported Confederate deserters concealed in wooded hills “who preferred to live as outlaws rather than risk the chance of being returned to the rebel army,” further arguing that “these men would of necessity become guerrillas and give infinite trouble not only to us, but to the inhabitants of the country.”

Lessons from the Galvanized Yankees

This obscure chapter of American Civil War history offers enduring lessons of how individuals from a warring opponent can fight against their home nation—and what pitfalls to avoid. However, two important issues warrant note.

First, foreign nationals from the country on the opposite side of a conflict—including former enemy combatants—acting as paramilitary legionnaires differs from more traditional category of foreign legionnaires. Today, more than thirty countries include legionnaires within their armed forces, and both side of the war in Ukraine make use of foreign troops. Kyiv claims its International Legion numbers around twenty thousand troops of more than fifty nationalities (though the total number is likely lower). On the other side of the front lines, with promises of high pay and Russian citizenship, Moscow’s leaders have recruited foreign legionnaires from, among other countries, Cuba, Nepal, and Sierra Leone, as well as forcibly impressing migrants from Central Asia and Ukrainians within annexed territories. Second, notwithstanding the passing of time since the American Civil War, some lessons are timeless, especially against the backdrop of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

Lesson 1: Recruiting former enemy combatants requires careful case-by-case security consideration, especially when arming them.

Each of these detained rebels had their motivation for joining the Union side: desperation to avoid imprisonment, disillusionment with the Confederacy’s cause, or simply a determination to survive. As Lincoln’s War Department remained indecisive on the matter and lower-echelon US Army commanders took matters into their own hands, the screening process was initially the discretion of the prison commander or guards. More widespread gray-to-blue conversions arose after the War Department standardized its review criteria and President Lincoln gave his endorsement. Confederates willing to aid the Union war effort, the commissary-general of prisoners instructed, “may be permitted to do so when the examining officer is satisfied of the applicant’s good faith and that the facts of the case are represented.”

Case-by-case depositions generally sought three criteria before agreeing to recruit ex-Confederates for the Union:

First, reliable proof that the applicant escaped from impressed military service. “There are a great many of the rebel prisoners in this prison who are willing and anxious to enlist,” one Illinois prison commander noted to the commissary-general of prisoners. “Many of them have been conscripted in the rebel service and are now anxious to be avenged for the wrongs done them.” Suspicious eyes did not escape such applicants. “Many prisoners of war will doubtless endeavor to claim to be deserters with a view of escaping from confinement,” the commissary-general of prisoners cautioned one Ohio prison commander. “Let it be clearly understood that death is the penalty for the violation of the oath [of allegiance].”

Second, compelling narratives from applicants swept away by vicious influence. Some rebels recounted the allure of secession in 1861, aptly summarized by one US Army captain: “They eagerly embraced a cause promising to disrupt the established commercial and social status of the country, having in any change, hope of possible advantage and fear of nothing worse than their then present position.”

Finally, loyalist acquaintances to attest to the applicant’s character. In some instances, rebels cited preceding generations who resided in northern states before finally settling in what became the Confederacy. Significantly, a high percentage of Galvanized Yankees hailed from the Upper South, where Unionist sentiment thrived strongest.

Lesson 2: Former enemy combatants are not always interchangeable and cannot necessarily perform the same tasks. However, mutually beneficial goals can foster effective partnerships.

The US Army raised six infantry regiments of Galvanized Yankees between January 1864 and May 1865. An estimated five to six thousand Confederates took the oath of allegiance and served under the command of US Army officers. However, this did not fully alleviate concerns of ex-rebels turning against the Union, disintegrating under a new chain of command, or deserting in hopes of earning enlistment signing bounties from other units. “The most determined men against us would be the first to enlist for the sake of money,” General Ulysses S. Grant cautioned War Secretary Edwin Stanton in February 1865.

Uneasy about sending these ex-Confederates back to the front lines—potentially against their former comrades and where they risked death if captured—the Union dispatched these newly minted bluecoats to the Great Plains. Here, their freedom was buffered by a limitless horizon and autonomy was checked by desolation. In the view of some Union commanders, this infusion of manpower could maintain balance in the West while the war in the East wound down. Among other tasks, these soldiers manned desolate frontier outposts, guarded supply wagon convoys, conducted reconnaissance scouting missions, rebuilt stretches of severed telegraph line, and quelled Native American uprisings.

Very significantly, the Galvanized Yankees demonstrated that Northerners and Southerners could peacefully coexist and work together, guarding surveying parties for the Union Pacific Railroad, protecting northwestern commerce and emigration, provisioning frontier garrisons for harsh winters, and restoring mail service from the Missouri River to California. Recruited and marshalled during the struggle between the North and South, the Galvanized Yankees helped keep the East and West together, thus offering a glimpse of a postbellum United States. By November 1866, the last of these ex-Confederates mustered out of service. The desertion rate (~13 percent) among these troops roughly similar to that of other Federal units.

What Does This Mean for the Present-Day Ukrainian Battlefield?

With these lessons in mind, it is clear that Kyiv’s leaders would do well to outline the parameters, set clear expectations, and assign responsibilities for a measured and security-conscious screening and integration framework for Russian nationals seeking to join Ukraine’s war effort. Incidentally, the same is required to manage the integration challenges within Ukraine’s International Legion of foreign volunteers. The scale of the task of screening and integration—and its importance—is a function of the makeup of each of the three paramilitary units in question.

The Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL), formed in March 2022, is, as its website describes, a unit “officially recognized by the Defense Forces of Ukraine” that comprises three types of Russian volunteers: expatriates residing in Ukraine, anti-Kremlin critics who fled the Motherland and journeyed to Ukraine, and former prisoners of war. “If not us, then who?” opined one of the group’s volunteers in a March 2024 interview. “Someone has to do the dirty work.” Among the FRL’s objectives are deposing Russia’s Vladimir Putin, forcing Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, and establishing a free, peaceful, and prosperous Russia. “Our strength lies in repentance and recognition of the evil we are doing.” The FRL’s military infrastructure purportedly includes its own command headquarters, assault troops, artillery, unmanned aerial vehicles, and an active digital footprint and spokesperson.

The Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), formed several months after the FRL in August 2022, is, as its website describes, “a military-political organization” unaffiliated with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, whose ranks also comprise Russian expatriates residing in Ukraine, former military prisoners of war, mercenaries, and barrier troops. “I wanted to make up for my past mistakes,” one former Wagner Group member said in an April 2024 interview. “[Yevgeny Prigozhin] asked us to join the fight and defend our homeland. He said there are Nazis and Americans in Ukraine, that children were being killed.” The RVC’s ideology is, as two Russian journalists wrote in Foreign Affairs, a complicated matter. “It promotes a non-imperialist but an ethnonationalist agenda, opposing Russia’s aggression in Ukraine but favoring a Russian national state on Russian territories that are exclusively populated by ethnic Russians.” As its commander, Denis “White Rex” Kapustin, mused in an April 2024 interview, “We’re the bad guys but fighting really evil guys.”

Finally, the Sibir Battalion—the most recently formed of the three units, emerging in October 2023—is an officially recognized component of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and its ranks do not include former Russian combatants. Rather, it comprises anti-Putin members of ethnic minorities (such as the Buryats, Tuvans, and Yakuts) from Russia’s economically and socially marginalized far east, which also accounts for a disproportionately large number of Russian military draftees. “I am only here because that’s the only option Putin gave us,” remarked one volunteer while another added, “People live unfairly. . . . All the money goes only to Moscow.”

Despite these three units receiving European Parliament commendation, the usage of Russian volunteers presents a two-fold challenge for Kyiv. First, it must account for individuals who view recruitment with Ukraine as a means advance their own nefarious ideologies and agendas, which Putin can leverage for his de-Nazification pretext for war. Political reformation manifestos, in particular, may undercut Ukraine’s larger psychological warfare tenets, anchored upon successful emotional appeals. Second, it must figure out how to establish trust between Ukrainian troops and Russian volunteers, particularly given the historically turbulent disposition of the latter’s behavior. One Ukrainian Armed Forces instructor described the relationship in positive terms: “We are brothers in arms; we go into fighting together. If I had the slightest doubt about them, I couldn’t do that.” And yet Russian volunteers “are being thoroughly watched,” as the Kyiv Independent reported. The balance between trust and security is a difficult one to strike.

Drawing upon the US Army’s approach when deploying the Galvanized Yankees, Ukraine must carefully weigh the risks of the FRL, the RVC, and the Sibir Battalion in combat roles. Unlike Geneva Convention Article 52 and the protections presumed for Ukraine’s foreign legionnaires, the uncertain protections of pro-Ukrainian armed Russian nationals raises questions. Notwithstanding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s guarantees for surrendering Russian troops, Ukraine would do well to explore noncombat roles for FRL, RVC, and Sibir forces. Whereby the Galvanized Yankees were deployed to the vast Great Plains, perhaps the theater of war most commensurate for pro-Ukrainian Russian volunteers is the vast digital battlefield. “Russian volunteer battalions fighting alongside Ukrainians are an aspect of the war which may make little direct difference on the front line,” writes one Chatham House scholar, adding “but it will have a disproportionate impact in terms of information activities, morale and influence on Russia’s population and its leadership.”

Indeed, the pro-Ukrainian Russian volunteers have shaken Moscow’s leadership, as evidenced by their reactions. Parliamentary amendments and legal rulings decree Russians nationals captured fighting for (or attempting to join or collaborate with) pro-Ukrainian paramilitary units (deemed, “terrorist organizations”) face imprisonment—or worse. “We will punish them without any statute of limitations, wherever they may be located,” Putin publicly declared this spring. Citing the Russian Liberation Army—an armed foreign legion of the Third Reich comprising Soviet prisoners of war, deserters, and anticommunist émigrés under the command of former Soviet General Andrey Vlasov—Putin further invokes the memory of the Great Patriotic War, denouncing Russians currently fighting for Ukraine as “Vlasovites.” The Kremlin’s fixation on vengeance in these cases is notorious, exemplified by the February 2024 assassination of Maxim Kuzminov, the twenty-eight-year-old Russian pilot who famously defected in his Mi-8 helicopter in August 2023.

While the meat grinder continues to take its toll, the integration of pro-Ukrainian Russian volunteers will remain a complex and politically sensitive matter, analogous to the Galvanized Yankees. By drawing upon these lessons from history, Ukraine can endeavor to exert more pressure on the demoralized troops within the Russian Army. “We value everyone’s life and call on Russian soldiers and officers to come over to our side,” declared a May 2024 Telegram post by the Sibir Battalion. “Many of your colleagues have already made the right choice. . . . Join us and come over to the side of truth.”

However, when dealing the competing ideologies and worldviews underpinning the Freedom of Russia Legion, the Russian Volunteer Corps, and the Sibir Battalion, one must ask: Whose truth? The military and political advantage offered by these Russian nationals is of little consequence if outweighed by the risks their employment entails.

Kyle Nappi is a national security specialist with experience advising the US Department of Defense and intelligence community. A descendent of Galvanized Yankees, he has interviewed nearly five thousand Allied and Axis combatants from World War II—including many foreign legionnaires on the Eastern Front—to further understand and document the human condition in war and conflict.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Freedom of Russia Legion, via Wikimedia Commons