‘The First Time You Die, You’re Dead’: Reddit Warriors Prepare to Fight IRL in Ukraine

The Redditors of r/VolunteersforUkraine suggest you bring sensible shoes and a spare pair of glasses, and maybe write a will.

Mar 31 2022, 6:50pm

If you’re planning on joining the war in Ukraine as a foreign fighter, you’ll want to invest in really good footwear, specifically, steel-toed leather boots manufactured in Finland — according to Reddit. You’ll probably want to start working out, and make that dentist appointment you’ve been putting off forever. Buy an extra pair of glasses, if you need them. Write your will, and make arrangements for someone to feed your cat. 

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These are examples of seemingly sensible advice doled out by strangers on certain Ukraine subreddits, which have become hubs for aspiring foreign fighters to make what could quite literally be life-or-death decisions. 

The biggest subreddit in this genre, r/VolunteersForUkraine, with nearly 45,000 subscribers, is meant to provide information for all types of volunteer efforts in Ukraine, though many conversations seem to center around Redditors hoping to strap on an AK-47 and see some action. Smaller subreddits are almost exclusively focused on foreign fighter recruitment. 

There’s also an affiliated Facebook group and Discord server, where in between gaming, participants discuss geopolitics and tactical gear, and share updates about members of the group who say they’ve deployed to Ukraine. 

More than 20,000 foreign fighters from 52 countries are thought to have at least attempted to join the battlefield in Ukraine since they were invaded by Russia in February. Those applicants run the gamut from hardened veterans of the U.S. and other militaries, to war tourists with no military expertise at all.

Many on the latter end of the spectrum have arrived in Ukraine and been forced to quickly come to terms with the unglamorous and chaotic realities of war. Some have even abandoned the battlefield prematurely, citing lack of adequate military equipment. 

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Reddit is home to a diverse community of users, who look to the site for a myriad of reasons: news, memes, porn, self-help, niche interests, video gaming, anime. It’s a place where you can engage with different communities, behind the comfort of semi-anonymity and a cartoon avatar, and be whoever you want to be. It’s also a place where users can solicit the most mundane advice from ultra-specific communities, like how to silence a chronically beeping microwave. 

The Ukraine volunteer subreddits are spaces where fantasies of heroic deeds on a battlefield morph quickly into IRL plans to go to war. And much of the tension on those subreddits come from that space between fantasy and reality. 

“Cut the LARP, cut the war adventurism, cut the fear of missing out crap,” one user wrote. “War is hell. Don’t rush over there right now.”

Reddit profiles for many individuals talking about their plans to go to Ukraine indicates that they only joined the social media platform in the last month. One poster, located in Alaska, and contacted by VICE News said he only joined Reddit to get tips and advice about traveling to Ukraine to fight. 

Some users have, at times, accused subreddit moderators of enabling “war tourism” by encouraging anyone, regardless of military experience, to travel to Ukraine.

“Imagine you're playing a multiplayer game for the first time against people who have 1,000 hours in the game, but the first time you die, you're dead,” someone warned. “You wouldn't even have the context to understand what's going on—it would be over before it even happened.” 

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Some, claiming experience in conflict, have tried to give gung-ho users a reality check about what they’re getting themselves into. 

“You are likely more of a liability than anything and would be draining resources,” wrote one user. “What happens when you step on a rusty nail, get lock jaw? What about when you get Cholera which is one of the first things to propagate when masses of people are on the move without proper water and sanitation? What about measles, do you have your shots for that?”

But the relative anonymity of Redditors has also fueled conspiracy theories about possible subtexts behind posts. 

One user speculated that the Ukraine volunteer subreddits were “Russian intelligence ops.” “It’s looking like it's nothing more than a trap to get Western men killed for the purpose of getting NATO directly involved,” they wrote. “Everything you've read & seen is propaganda.”

When critics point out that inexperienced fighters could be a liability in the battlefield, they’ve often been accused of being “Russian shills” on a mission to thwart foreign volunteer efforts. Others giving sensible advice have been accused of gatekeeping. 

“Lately I been seeing many people telling us to don't go there, you won’t do nothing, you will die… Honestly why the fuck don’t [you mind your own business?,” wrote one user. “I know how to operate and maintain a weapon… if I get for any reason killed that’s my problem.” 

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One user, who gave their name to VICE News as “Charlie” and is based in the U.S., joined Reddit in early March with the purpose of recruiting promising fighters and connecting them with the right people. He describes this system as “the pipeline.” 

“I work with a pipeline which helps move men and equipment,” he told VICE News. “The head guys are in the countryside in Ukraine. For now, I’m a pretty low-level messenger-type guy.” 

The goal of the pipeline, according to Charlie and his previous posts on subreddit, is to connect “qualified American volunteers” to a network of English-speaking volunteers in Poland and Ukraine—the end of which is the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, he claimed. He spends his days trawling message boards, including Reddit, and replying directly to individuals who are talking about deploying to Ukraine. He said they conduct a series of interviews done by phone and video, to ensure that they’re sane and of “sound character.” And while there’s a lot of “good guys” out there, said Charlie, the majority have no idea what going to war actually means. 

“A very low percent of the people I find are battle ready,” said Charlie. “I find lots of “keyboard warriors” who make outrageous claims, or have a troubled past, however a quick look-over weeds out the majority of posers or those with lots of bravado, but no experience. Last thing we want is someone with no experience or a wild Rambo making more problems than solutions.”

Tagged:

war, Ukraine, russia, conflict, Reddit, foreign fighters, worldnews

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