This story has been updated with additional information from Luke.
PRZEMYŚL, Poland — In the dead of night outside the Polish town of Przemyśl, an ex-British soldier named Luke hopped into a taxi after flying from Birmingham, England, earlier in the day, and made his way to a nearby border checkpoint with one goal in mind: joining the Ukrainian war effort.
“It’s important that we remember the war might be in Ukraine, but tomorrow it might be in Western Europe,” he said to VICE World News as the cab sped to the border, driven by a Ukrainian national who’d been helping fighters to the border the whole day.
“I think there’s obviously a lot of Western bullets going into the war, but there’s probably not enough people to fire the bullets. It’s important everybody does their bit to help, really,” said Luke, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, but showed VICE World News his passport and service record along with photos of himself in uniform. “I’ve been speaking to some contacts and I’m hoping to help use my skill set with air defense.”
Luke, who took a few hours’ flight from England and then a three-hour train ride from Kraków, is an example of just how easy it has been for foreign volunteers to go to the borders of Ukraine and attempt to enter the war as a combatant. He simply walked across a precarious border that has a refugee crisis on the other side.
While many so-called “war tourists” and mercenaries have already found their way to the war in Ukraine—something that began long before the Russian invasion last week—Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s government made the process for foreign fighters to enter the war even easier by lifting temporary-visa requirements for them and opening up an “international legion.”
As NATO member states and other governments have provided weapons to Ukraine, but no troops, the call for volunteer fighters has already attracted veterans from the U.S. and Canada, with more from all over the world expected. After posting several articles looking at the role of foreign fighters in Ukraine, VICE World News has been inundated with dozens of emails from individuals saying they’re interested in going to the conflict.
“I’m a 24-year-old American with some weapons training who is trying to join the Ukrainian effort to defend their country,” said one email sent in late February. “I’m wondering what transportation is available from the Polish border into Ukraine and if Kyiv is still accessible at this stage.”
Another message came from a man who claimed to be a military veteran.
“I wish to join the fight for Ukraine… Ex-British army officer and highly trained machine gunner, experienced in tactics and overseas deployments.”
“Please let me know who to contact.”
- Do you have information about foreign fighters joining the conflict in Ukraine? Ben Makuch can be reached on email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on the Wire app at @ben
Before this iteration of the war, as the eight-year conflict in Donbas continued to percolate, experts worried that Ukraine would become an international war front for far-right foreign fighters. Both the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian National Guard unit with neo-Nazi links under fire for a racist video posted last weekend, and the Right Sector, an ultranationalist militia, had previously taken foreign volunteers, and many of them were linked to the far-right. American terror group The Base had one member join the Ukrainian war effort (and then was subsequently kicked out of the country by Ukrainian authorities).
Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy based in New York City, said the rush of fighters is nothing new.
“Our research has shown that since 2014, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has emerged as a hub in the broader network of transnational white supremacy extremism,” she said, pointing out that in the past far-right volunteers have gone to fight on both sides of the war, “with white supremacists traveling to fight on the pro-Russian side as well.”
Many of the foreign volunteers, like those who have joined the Georgian National Legion, are not linked to any extremist movements. But whether these intended combatants are actually going to fight, or going for the right reasons (one email cited a recent divorce as a cause for joining the war) is another question.
As for Luke, some time after VICE World News saw him disappear toward the Ukrainian border through groups of refugees, he said he’d made his way to a base in Lviv. He said he was asked to sign a “two-year commitment” to the Ukrainian military, which he was unwilling to do, and said he was headed back to the Polish border to help with refugee repatriation. (VICE World News was unable to verify independently that Luke made it to Lviv. Before the war began last week, the Ukrainian military did require a three-year commitment from any foreign fighter wishing to join up. After this story was published, Luke now says that he’s reporting to a new unit and the Ukrainian military has given him a “special dispensation” and a one-month contract because of his “skills pertaining to air defense and medical.” He says he is headed to the east of Ukraine. )
Monday night, before Luke departed, he said his family knew about his plans to go to Ukraine and didn’t try to stop him.
“They're supportive, but think it's a bit crazy,” he said. “It's a crazy situation.”
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