On December 19, in Moscow, the Russian National Defense Council discussed the achievements in the war in Ukraine, which is nearing a second anniversary.
President Vladimir Putin set the tone with a tirade about the West carrying out a “containment strategy against Russia” and not desisting from achieving its “aggressive goals in Ukraine.”
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu then claimed that Russia “liberated a territory five times larger than Donetsk and Luhansk,” and that four new regions voluntarily joined Russia.
Shoigu referred to Ukraine’s eastern regions where Ukrainians fiercely fought Russia and where the Russian troops destroyed and depopulated entire cities before they were able to finally occupy the territory.
Shoigu then bragged about the Sea of Azov becoming fully Russian, which Moscow used to build a new “navy district,” with no mention of Russia’s defeat in the Black Sea.
Ignoring Russian personnel losses, which are estimated to be more than 315,000, Shoigu spoke of the other side’s “colossal” losses. That, he claimed, included thousands of foreign “mercenaries,” hundreds of Americans among them.
“The mercenaries who have been actively recruited since the beginning of the special operation have mostly been liquidated. More than 5,800 militants were eliminated, including... 466 from the United States of America...”
The claim that 466 U.S. “mercenaries” have been killed fighting in Ukraine is false.
U.S. citizens fighting in Ukraine by and large signed up to serve in the International Legion of Ukraine, part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, or regular army units. That means they are not mercenaries under international law, but volunteers.
While no exact death toll is available, media reports suggest Shoigu may have exaggerated the number of Americans who died fighting for Ukraine by tenfold.
The U.S. State Department has not made available a list of U.S. citizen deaths in Ukraine.
“Our ability to verify reports of deaths of U.S. citizens in Ukraine is limited. In addition, not all U.S. citizen deaths may be reported to U.S. authorities. For these reasons, we are unable to provide a definitive number of all U.S. citizens who have been killed,” a State Department spokesperson told Polygraph.info in writing.
But varying media reports suggest dozens, not hundreds, of U.S. citizens have died fighting in Ukraine.
In October, Reuters, citing officials for aid groups Safe Passage 4 Ukraine and the R.T. Weatherman Foundation, said 30 U.S. citizens had died fighting on Ukraine’s behalf.
In a December 18 report, the defense news publication Task & Purpose cited a Russian military blog, “Lost Armour,” which said 45 U.S. citizens had died fighting in Ukraine. “Lost Armour” has compiled a list with names, including media and social media reports corroborating those deaths.
Of those Americans, Task & Purpose verified that more than 30 were the U.S. military veterans.
That tally is not conclusive, and it is also possible that non-veterans may have died in combat.
The process of identifying the deceased, especially when DNA samples are required, can be laborious.
Considering that and other complicating factors, it remains unclear what methodology the Russian Defense Ministry used to conclude 466 Americans had been killed while serving in Ukraine, and it has never provided evidence to support that claim.
It also remains unclear how the deaths of hundreds of Americans fighting in Ukraine could have gone undetected.
Friends and families of U.S. citizens who have died fighting in Ukraine have regularly spoken to local and national media, often in positive terms about the motivations which led the deceased to serve. The State Department has confirmed individual deaths to various media outlets.
In one instance, a funeral held in Ukraine for an American who died fighting there was widely publicized.
Russia’s Defense Ministry does have a track record of exaggerating Ukrainian losses, faking evidence and promoting false narratives about the war, “often to cover up military defeats during the country's “special military operation” in Ukraine,” the Dutch open-source intelligence defense analysis website Oryx wrote.
Likewise, while Russia’s defense ministry falsely portrays foreigners fighting on behalf of Ukraine as mercenaries, they are largely volunteers.
While Ukrainian officials initially said 20,000 people had expressed interested in volunteering for the International Legion of Ukraine, a foreign military unit of the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine formed shortly after Russia invaded in February 2022, reports suggest far fewer actually enlisted.
As previously reported by Polygraph.info, the International Committee of the Red Cross, in its guidance on legal protections for combatants in a war, says a mercenary is "a person who takes a direct part in hostilities motivated essentially by the desire for private gain.”
By comparison, the Red Cross says, "a national of a neutral State who enlists in the armed forces of a party to the conflict is not a mercenary.”
“A member of the armed forces of a belligerent is not a mercenary,” Robert Lawless, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Law at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, wrote in March 2022.
“The Ukrainian government has formally incorporated the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine into its armed forces. Thus, the Legion’s reported 20,000 foreign members—including 3,000 Americans—are not mercenaries,” Lawless wrote in March 2022, citing Article 47(2) of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions.”
Foreign volunteers fighting in Ukraine also receive a salary in line with that of Ukrainian nationals, with anecdotal evidence suggesting many left far more lucrative careers at home to serve in Ukraine.
Russia has also falsely claimed that foreign jihadists fought on behalf of Ukraine.
By contrast, Russia has actively recruited mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, including through the notorious Wagner Group. Wagner fighters have received salaries that were double or more than that of regular Russian soldiers.