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UK steps up warning about soldiers and veterans joining fight in Ukraine

Armed forces minister James Heappey said British troops illegally going Awol to joint the fighting could trigger a wider dispute with Russia.

10 March 2022

Russia could use the presence of British troops who have broken the law to fight in Ukraine as an excuse to view the UK as a “belligerent” in the conflict, ministers fear.

A small number of serving British personnel are believed to have gone absent without leave to join the resistance against the Russian invasion, while veterans and Britons without combat experience have also travelled to Ukraine.

Ministry of Defence (MoD) chiefs have banned all service personnel from travelling to Ukraine “until further notice” and warned they will face prosecution if they do.

Russia Ukraine War Day In Photos
The UK has supplied Nlaw anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, but British volunteers have been discouraged from joining the fighting (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Armed forces minister James Heappey said: “It is illegal for British service personnel to first of all go absent without leave in the first place, but to go absent without leave in order to fight in a foreign war is simply unacceptable, and frankly risks the United Kingdom being wrongly claimed by Russia to be a belligerent in this.

“Service people who might think they are doing the right thing should reflect it is 100% not the correct thing to be doing.”

He said he had heard a small number of serving troops – around three or four – had gone to Ukraine.

But he added: “It’s not just the very small number of soldiers who have gone Awol apparently to go fight in Ukraine, I would say to the wider veterans community I know … you accept the unlimited liability in the service of your country to stand up for what’s right in the world, that there’s a thing deep inside you as a soldier that makes you see TV images and makes you want to go and fight for what’s right, but no good comes from British service people or veterans going to Ukraine to be a part of this.”

In recent days ministers and defence chiefs have scrambled to persuade Britons not to travel to join the fighting in Ukraine.

Their interventions follow comments from Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on February 27 saying she would “absolutely” support Britons going to fight “if that’s what they want to do”.

Some veterans have reportedly received cold call approaches from private militia groups inviting them to join the fighting in Ukraine.

The BBC reported the militia groups had been scouring social media to recruit ex-soldiers.

Concern within ministerial ranks about the situation in Ukraine led Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to warn on Wednesday that people travelling to the conflict zone would not be there for “a selfie and six weeks” but would be in the war “for real”.

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