Democracy defenders and Rambo wannabes: Ukraine's volunteer foreign fighters
The Washington Post January 18, 2023
KHARKIV, Ukraine — A 30-year-old former British military captain faced a personal crossroads several months before Russia invaded Ukraine, as he contemplated a desk job at a security firm and a future spent discussing trifles with his sisters and mother in their hometown in southeastern England.
He was still struggling with the routines of civilian life when the chance to volunteer to defend Ukraine offered an alternate path. Now, after nearly getting killed in an artillery barrage in Bakhmut, the former officer, who is not being identified for safety reasons, said he is "happier than I have ever been."
The Ukrainian fight has given him purpose, and he is thrilled by the danger. "This war has been a terrible, terrible thing for Ukraine," he said in a phone interview last month. "But the last nine months have been the best, most enjoyable of my life. I can't go sit in an office and do PowerPoint for the next 50 years."
"There's a part of me that's doing it for the right reasons, and there's part of me that's doing it for the violence," the British veteran said. "It's kind of a bit of both."
The complex motivations that pulled him to the blood-soaked trenches of Ukraine reflect the experiences of thousands who answered President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's appeal for volunteer fighters after Russia invaded last February. Some went to defend democracy, others to escape their own demons.
An estimated 1,000 to 3,000 such foreign fighters are believed to be active, with most serving in three battalions of the International Legion, according to analysts and academics monitoring them, who stressed that the numbers were rough approximations. The Ukrainian military did not reply to requests for details about the volunteers, or estimates of their numbers.
Compared with the battlefield contributions of hundreds of thousands of regular Ukrainian troops, the impact of the volunteers is relatively small. But the foreign fighters draw outsize attention in the West, especially when killed or captured, and they raise a thicket of uncomfortable legal, moral and political questions for Ukraine and for the volunteers' home governments.
The willingness of tens of thousands to answer Zelenskyy's call speaks to the resonance of Ukraine's cause: a country aspiring to be a free and democratic member of the European Union fighting for survival against a totalitarian regime with a history of violently violating the territorial sovereignty of its neighbors.
But some volunteer fighters are breaking the laws of their home countries to fight in Ukraine, and experts have noted a risk that U.S. volunteers could be violating the Neutrality Act, a law enacted in 1794 that intended to prohibit U.S. citizens from potentially embroiling the country in foreign wars.
Even if legal, the presence of Western fighters in Ukraine cuts against the concerted effort by the Biden administration and its NATO allies to avoid direct involvement in Russia's war. It is also not clear who is responsible for these volunteer soldiers during and after their dangerous combat service.
The choice of many troubled veterans to volunteer in Ukraine also suggests a failure by their own governments to address past trauma and to reintegrate them into civilian life, experts said. Those who are not professional soldiers have posed challenges for Ukraine's military, which has found some fighters to be more cumbersome than helpful.
Ukrainian officials said last spring that 20,000 people from more than 50 different countries had volunteered. But the overwhelming majority appear to have returned home before summer, according to academics studying their involvement and interviews with more than a dozen foreign fighters.
Many seemed more interested in posing for Instagram than committing to the drudgery of trench warfare. Others seemed too eager to live out fantasies from the Call of Duty video game. And some have faced more serious allegations of theft or sexual assault, or were found to be fleeing criminal cases at home.
The realities of the war unnerved many initial volunteers. The intensity of the fighting, and high likelihood of death, stunned even many experienced Western soldiers who found themselves in an artillery war without the air support they relied on in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But for many of the fighters, particularly veterans struggling to integrate back into civilian life, the horrors of bloodshed abroad in Ukraine still proved more attractive than the malaise of peace at home.
Hundreds of these better-trained volunteers are also integrated into smaller units that operate independently of the International Legion. These include groups led by longtime regional opponents of Moscow, such as the Georgian Legion and Chechen battalions, as well as other units led by Westerners, with names like Alpha, Phalanx and the Norman Brigade.
The Quebec-born commander of the volunteer Norman Brigade, who goes by the call sign "Hrulf," said his unit has included fighters from Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Jordan, Egypt and Norway, in addition to the United States, Canada and Britain.
Before the war, Hrulf, whom The Washington Post is identifying only by his call sign for security reasons, thought that "Russians and Ukrainians were one people, like brothers and sisters," he said. Now, he has a Ukrainian wife and a daughter and is fully committed to Kyiv's cause. "There's no turning back," he said.
Joseph Hildebrand, 33, was tilling his family farm in the fields of Saskatchewan, harvesting lentils and durum wheat and tending to his cows, having assured his wife he had made peace with giving up his career in the Canadian military, which included two tours in Afghanistan. In fact, he had not.
"He literally could not handle it," Hildebrand's widow, Carissa, said. "He started talking to his friends who went over and just felt he had to do it. … It just bothered his soul."
Whatever their motivations, the service and sacrifice of foreign fighters is real: Roughly 100 have died and more than 1,000 have been wounded, according to Kacper Rekawek, a researcher at the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo.
Hildebrand was killed in combat in Bakhmut, and it took his family more than five weeks to recover his body. A former Canadian paratrooper and close friend of Hildebrand's said he had been sent on a "suicide mission." The paratrooper, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by the Ukrainian government, voiced frustration that the Ukrainian forces were not better prepared.
"There are really big issues because a lot of these guys are not trained soldiers," the paratrooper said last month as he was leaving Ukraine after four months of fighting. "It's really hard for me to watch. There's a lot of panic. There's a terrible lack of training."
Other volunteers said the criticism of the Ukrainians was unfair.
"My biggest frustration has been with foreign fighters who complain about, 'They're sending us on suicide missions.' Yeah, bro: What do you think war is?" said Jason Mann, 37, an American serving in a group called Phalanx. Mann served in Afghanistan, earned a computer science degree at Columbia University and worked as a software engineer at Google before coming to Ukraine.
Another British volunteer in Ukraine, who was on a break from fighting north of Kramatorsk in the eastern Donetsk region and goes by the call sign "Swampy," said he had a "pretty up-and-down time" after leaving the British military due to a knee injury. But the war in Ukraine has given him direction, he said.
"You know exactly why you're getting up in the morning," said Swampy, who is 38 and is being identified only by his call sign for security reasons.
A 28-year-old American who fought in Ukraine for roughly six months said this was a common sentiment.
"For a lot of guys, there really was the 'Valhalla Mind-set' — of wanting to die a soldier's death while taking out as many Russians as possible," the American said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for his safety. "I don't want to put anybody down, but there was alienation they felt from what was going on in the world, and there wasn't a place, or a system, for them outside of this."
He added: "The kind of people that show up — everybody there was a romantic in some way, and a lot of them had their hearts broken. But all were also idealists who wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves."
With the war now in its 11th month, those volunteers still in Ukraine tend to be highly committed, willing to withstand the winter conditions and to overcome the language barriers and cultural tensions that occasionally flare.
For some, the war in Ukraine presented a rare opportunity to make use of their training.
A 23-year-old former member of the British army's Corps of Royal Engineers spent five years learning about demining and building trenches and bridges but never put that knowledge to use in a way that felt useful, he said. He spent time in Eastern Europe training foreign troops but found it tedious and pointless.
"To be completely honest, my main motivation for coming here really was to shoot at people and get shot up," said the British soldier, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I didn't want to get my pension with never having done anything useful," he said. Now, however, he says he is committed to the Ukrainian cause.
Not all the volunteers lacked options at home. When Russia invaded, Zachary Jaynes, 28, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College and former U.S. Army Ranger, was about to start a meditation retreat in the Himalayan mountains.
His mother had died, his final year of college was spent during COVID lockdowns and, like many Western veterans in Ukraine, he was disillusioned by his time in Afghanistan. He considered a job in consulting, but it did not seem appealing.
"There was this degree of emptiness and existential dread, of trying to move past my military history — and yet I found I also could not get beyond those experiences," Jaynes said in an interview in Kyiv, where he was on a break from fighting in the south.
When the invasion began, it "felt like the breaking point," he said. "I could either ignore what's happening in Ukraine, and ignore this call for help, or I could dive back into the abyss completely to try to find the light."
The Washington Post's Kostiantyn Khudov in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Ievgeniia Sivorka in Dnipro, Ukraine, contributed to this report.