LVIV, Ukraine — The old Ukrainian railcar, on a train running to and from the city of Lviv, had hard navy-blue seats in rows of eight. Hiding underneath many of them were jars and plastic water bottles filled with urine—the previous inhabitants of the train into Poland, refugees desperately fleeing the war, had been stuck inside for countless hours. One of the railcars had a single, tiny toilet lodged beside the train driver’s cart, and it reeked of human waste.
Sitting above some of those jars was a Swedish man who did not want to be identified. He had short, slicked-back hair and designer sunglasses. He reached into his duffle bag, which he said he’d brought with him from a vacation in Spain. He pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, uncapped it, and took a liberal swig.
“For freedom!” he said, toasting with a grin.
The Swede was one of several men from abroad on the train departing from Przemyśl, Poland, who were, they hoped, on the path to becoming foreign fighters in Ukraine. A Moldovan and an Israeli sat together behind the Swede, listening to music and calling people to tell them they were off to war, while a tall Norwegian man with a goatee and a potbelly wearing military fatigues patrolled up and down the car. A Polish construction worker named Pawel, who had no military experience at all, sat on the train stoically waiting for the final stop.
The Swede said he was going to fight for Ukraine and “didn’t want to hurt anyone,” but made an exception for Russians. He had never been to Poland before, let alone Ukraine, and said he hadn’t really shot anything in his life beyond hunting rifles. He didn’t speak to any Ukrainian embassy before he set off on his journey, as the government advises all foreign fighters to do before they sign up to the International Legion. He just showed up on the train and sat on it until it reached Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine.
When the train halted at a passport office in Ukraine, armed soldiers came aboard to check documents. Many of the foreign men were asked if they intended to join the foreign legion President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had announced days earlier. When the soldiers and passport control officials arrived at the Swede, they carefully explained: “Go to this link and press on it. It will tell you to join foreign legion with English speakers.”
The Swede nodded and said he had the help of a Ukrainian man sitting next to him whom he’d just met, and that man would direct him to whatever sign-up center he needed to find upon arrival in Lviv.
Much has been made of the 20,000 foreign fighters from 52 countries who have applied to join the fight in Ukraine since the outbreak of war. Canadians, Americans, Brits, Nigerians, members of the ever-present Georgian National Legion, and more are all making their way to the worst conflict in Europe in decades. Some media have described throngs of far-right fighters from across the world seeing the war as their neo-Nazi jihad of sorts; others have painted it as a destination for veterans of the War on Terror looking to fight in a just war; and some have celebrated their arrival as a moment of international unity against tyranny.
In reality, the foreign fighters are many things: idealists, misguided tourists, well-intentioned veterans, mercenaries (on the Russian side), frequent war volunteers, and, in some cases, right-wing ultras. What many of them who have flocked to the war-torn nation aren’t is what Ukraine needs in the immediate: experienced war fighters. How many of them actually end up fighting or contributing in some capacity to an increasingly embattled country remains an open question. (There are already stories of foreign volunteers leaving after showing up in Lviv, or walking across the Polish border after a Russian attack on a base.)
On the country’s official website for joining the International Legion, it specifies that Ukraine wants foreigners with combat experience or those who “want to gain it standing with brave Ukrainian defenders.” The Ukrainian military did disseminate a photo purportedly showing the first foreign volunteers in action, hailing from the U.S., Sweden, India, Mexico, and Lithuania, among other countries.
“Join the Legion and help us defend Ukraine, Europe, and the whole world!” urged the official site.
Several of the would-be foreign fighters VICE News encountered in and around Lviv, in hotel lobbies or waiting inside cafes with their camo rucksacks in plain sight, didn’t seem to understand exactly how to reach the Ukrainian military in order to properly begin the formal process of joining up, nor did they realize how long of a commitment they were expected to make.
Ryan (who did not want to disclose his last name) came from Spain and showed up in Lviv after going to a base in nearby Yavoriv, close to the Polish border (Russia would bomb the same base days later, claiming to kill 180 people, while Ukraine said the number of dead was 35), but said he declined signing up because the enlistment was for until the war ended.
“The main problem is that loads of people went to the main foreign volunteer center, but the contract was for until the war ended,” he said. “And lots of people, when they saw the contract, said, ‘I cannot do this, I have a family, I have a job, so maybe I could stay one month, two months instead?’”
Other foreigners VICE News spoke to similarly scoffed at the length of the contract and left the base in Yavoriv for something involving less commitment. For some, that has meant joining humanitarian aid convoys ferrying people and goods to safety; for others, trying to join ultranationalist militias like Right Sector or other fighting units they think won’t require longer-term commitments.
Ryan, for his part, had no interest in a yearslong enlistment.
“Maybe if I could find a contract for a [few months],” he said with a shrug. He added he might try to find one of those militias instead, or another legion that would take him for less time.
- Do you have tips about the conflict in Ukraine? Ben Makuch can be reached on email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on the Wire app at @benmakuch
Foreign volunteers have been pouring in to support the Ukrainian government since after the Maidan revolution in 2014. At that time, the country had a neglected military with low troop numbers, and was suffering attacks in Donbas by Russian-backed separatists after the Kremlin annexed Crimea. Needing a fighting force, the government turned to anyone, including foreigners, to help the cause.
After Russia invaded on Feb. 24, President Zelenskyy announced the creation of the foreign legion and a loosening of visa restrictions for travelers coming to fight. Some countries, for example, the U.S., allow citizens to join other official militaries; countries like the U.K. and Canada have harsher restrictions on citizens joining but have nevertheless allowed their people to do so.
Kacper Rękawek, a postdoc fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, has documented and analyzed the movement of foreign fighters in Ukraine for years and says the numbers of total foreign fighters that actually make it to the country and fight isn’t quite clear.
“There might be a lot of smoke, but there is still relatively little fire, and we still hear those crazy numbers,” said Rekawek, referring to Ukrainian government numbers about thousands of foreign fighter applicants. “Everyone's talking about going. Hardly anybody makes it there.”
But he said for those who did show up in the country, the situation wasn’t exactly as they had hoped, and they weren’t simply given a rifle and sent to a front line.
“No, it's not what they expected,” said Rekawek. “They're not assigned where they thought they would be.”
Rekawek also said the idea that neo-Nazi fighters are heading to Ukraine to create their own international front in hopes of a future world insurgency seems overstated. That isn’t yet the reality, but legitimate security concerns do persist about far-right travelers from the West seeking combat experience in Ukraine. While neo-Nazi communities have talked a big game online about going to join the Azov Battalion, another ultranationalist fighting entity and an official part of the Ukrainian National Guard, those same individuals are known for internet hype and lack of follow-through.
Vlad Kovalchuk, who says he is the coordinator for international volunteers with National Corps (the political wing of Azov Battalion), told VICE News that the group—which is celebrated by American extremists—had received only 20 foreign fighters as of last week.
“Personally, I have already helped 20 volunteers to get to Ukraine. Some of them are already in Kyiv,” said Kovalchuk. He claimed, though, that Azov only took people with military experience because the unit didn't want to give “meat” to Russian firepower.
According to him, the recruits thus far include an American who previously fought with the French Foreign Legion, a Swede, and a Spanish man.
“They are important because they have very valuable experience, which we can use in order to fight Russia,” said Kovalchuk. “So it is really useful because usually they are from NATO countries. They have experience, from European armies, from the American Army, and their experience is really very valuable for us.”
Some American vets have gone to Ukraine on their own dime to teach volunteers their tradecraft for free, while at least one unit of combat veterans and foreigners has been fighting alongside Ukrainian special forces. But it can be safely assumed that the majority of foreigners haven’t come to the country with battle experience. For example, VICE News encountered former American and British servicemen who’d served in the armed forces but had no combat experience, and were looking to join up with the International Legion. The biggest contingent of foreign fighters is known to have come from other former Soviet states, with Belarussians accounting for a large part: A unit of volunteers from that country has already been active in Odesa.
But some Western volunteers seem to be more fickle in their devotion to the cause. One Swedish ex-politician posted an impassioned tweet about volunteering and fighting only for him to abandon the conflict days later. In this early part of the war, that archetype of a foreign volunteer arriving in-country and then soon realizing they weren’t cut out for the long-term commitment to service appears to be quite common.
In the train, it was hard to tell the difference between people living out fantasies of being George Orwell in the time of the Spanish Civil War, off to fight the fascists, and people who could provide useful experience to the Ukrainian people. It wasn’t clear there was much of a difference to tell.
Near the end of the almost eight-hour journey, the Swede continued to swig his whiskey. For others, including the Ukrainians who were on the train to reunite and aid family sheltering all over the country, the war was not an adventure but simply a horror.