From Russia with War

A tank outside building rubble

Project Background

Foreign fighters are individuals who choose to participate in armed conflicts occurring outside their countries of residence. The rise of radical Islamist organisations, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which has led to thousands of volunteers travelling to the Middle East from Europe and Asia to join various armed groups, significantly contributing to the strength and resilience of these radical extremist organisations. While some foreign fighters, such as British jihadist Jihadi John became notorious on social media, many more remained in the shadows supplying armed groups with human and material resources, as well as the expertise crucial for the success of such brutal militant organisations as ISIL. Over the last decade, the post-Soviet region has served as a key supplier of foreign fighters for armed conflicts in the Middle East and across the former Soviet Union. The former Soviet Union, which includes Russian Federation, the Caucasus and Central Asian regions, supplied more foreign fighters to the Middle East than any other region of the world, including the Middle East itself. 

Although there has been little research done on foreign fighters in the context of the former Soviet Union, existing scholarly works echo mass media statements and the reports by international organisations in that post-Soviet foreign fighters are viewed as primarily driven by religious and political motivations. Most of these claims are based on the analysis of secondary sources and random interviews with conflict witnesses. No comprehensive fieldwork-based projects were ever conducted to understand what effect do sociocultural traditions, perceived repressions and opportunities have on foreign fighter mobilisation in the former Soviet Union.

Years of preliminary exploratory research and a number of smaller pilot projects have led the research team to believe that post-Soviet foreign fighters mobilise not necessarily due to religious fervour or political ideology, but due to a complex combination of socio-cultural and constructivist causes. During our preliminary research, notions of honour, solidarity, obligation and culturally embedded customary laws, combined with ethnic and religious persecution in home countries, emerge as instrumental in individuals’ choices to participate in armed conflicts abroad.

In order to provide a definitive answer as to which factors can account for the high rates of foreign fighter mobilisation in the post-Soviet region, we propose developing a theory which will seek to demonstrate that individuals choose to become foreign fighters not necessarily due to their religion or political views, but also owing to sociocultural traditions, their perceptions of persecution and opportunities available to disengage from armed groups. To test that theory we will conduct original interview-based fieldwork amongst active, former, and aspiring foreign fighters in Ukraine, Russia’s republic of Dagestan and amongst Chechen Diaspora in Western Europe. To better understand the process of foreign fighter mobilisation and reasons behind it, we will sample widely individuals who chose to become foreign fighters in order to record their opinions and experiences.

Principal investigator:

Dr Huseyn Aliyev

Senior Researchers:

Dr Jean-Francoise Ratelle

Dr Emil A. Souleimanov


Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – Standard Grant V-1

Project dates:

January 2022 – July 2024


Over the last decade the countries which make up the former Soviet Union (fSU - including those in the Russian Federation, the Caucasus and Central Asian regions) have served as a key supplier of foreign fighters for armed conflicts in the Middle East and in other post-Soviet countries. Existing research has suggested that mobilisation of fSU is influenced by religious and political causes. However, these studies have relied on secondary sources and have not investigated the views, motivations or experiences of the actual fighters. This has resulted in case-specific findings that focus primarily on ideology as a cause of mobilisation, which is also the case with literature on foreign fighters from other parts of the world. The overall aim of this study is to investigate the influence of sociocultural, perception-centred and opportunities’-based motivations on the increasing mobilisation of foreign fighters in the context of fSU. This is important because the bulk of previous studies has argued that foreign fighters are driven primarily by religious and political motivations.