There are European soldiers fighting amid the rubble of Shyrokyne in Eastern Ukraine. They shoot from half-destroyed hotels and sleep in the basements of war-ravaged homes. Artillery fire colours the hill behind the town black, and darkens the sky with grey smoke. Machine guns sputter day and night, and there is occasionally the crack of a sniper rifle as soldiers dart between abandoned houses, hotels, apartment buildings and trenches.
The pro-Ukrainian Azov Regiment and the group of Europeans fighting with them have clashed almost continuously with separatists in and around the small village of Shyrokne for months, turning this once peaceful place by the Azov Sea into a decimated frontline. The detritus of war litters the streets, as do the relics of the civilian world that once existed here – children's bicycles, beach toys, garden furniture, an old football that a soldier kicks around during a lull in the fighting.
Katty, a paramedic from Right Sector, a pro-Ukrainian paramilitary group also fighting here, says she has tired of the soldiers in her battalion making the same joke: inviting her for a walk and a drink on the village's sandy beach. But in the late evening, during the quiet moments in between artillery barrages, it's not difficult to imagine the world that used to exist in Shyrokyne: lovers walking on the beach, children playing in the streets.
But it's here that the squad of European soldiers fight. On one shoulder, they wear Azov's bright blue and yellow insignia; on the other, they wear their own: "Mors Venit Velociter", or: "Death Comes Quickly".
"I spent all day with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, wondering how I was going to kill myself and how many [separatists] I could take with me," said Chris "Swampy" Garrett, a British citizen and a member of the squad of Europeans fighting in Eastern Ukraine for Azov Regiment.
Garrett had just returned to Kyiv after a failed mission behind enemy lines in the small village of Shyrokyne. His team had been surrounded and cut off from Ukrainian positions before the men fled. He spent over 14 hours trapped behind an enemy advance, fighting in close quarters and sheltering from friendly artillery fire, before sneaking out of the village under the cover of darkness.
For Garrett, who has served in the British army and done humanitarian de-mining work in the Karen State on the Thai/Myanmar border, the decision to join the Azov Battalion was a simple one: "One day they posted up on the [Azov Battalion] Facebook site, asking, 'We need people who have any kind of knowledge with first aid, volunteering, with basic military skills, de-mining, anything. If you have any skills at all, to any level, can you come and help?' So I kind of saw that as my route in, even if I didn't stay with the [Azov] Battalion. [It was] my surest way to get into the country – get into the east and then be able to see the bigger picture from there."
For most of the Europeans here, while getting to the fight was simple, their motivations for joining the war effort are more complex.
"It was just seeing the aggression coming from [Russians and pro-Russian separatists]," Garrett said of his motives. "I mean, you know, obviously coming from a small island [the UK], if someone came and invaded, I would hope that some people would turn up and help to get rid of them. To me, every country – it doesn't matter if it's landlocked – every country is an island in that sense. If someone invades it, obviously you want to get rid of them."
Garrett is not the only member of the group of European soldiers who came to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. But while some came to protect Ukraine, others here came to fight for conservative and nationalist politics in Ukraine's relatively open political space. For Harley, a 42-year-old from France who served in the French navy and later in the private security industry, involvement was two-sided: he came "to help Ukraine against Russia" and wears a "Fuck U Putin" bracelet on his wrist, but joined Azov because its politics were similar to his own: "Azov," he said, propagated a political agenda that "was closer to my idea."
Azov's politics have drawn fire for being far-right to the point of neo-Nazism; "If you want to find Nazis, [Azov] is the place to come," one soldier told me on the way to the frontline. And yet, the political reality of Azov is much more complicated than that. One soldier in the European group told me he estimates that around 20 percent of the battalion could be considered neo-Nazis, while David Eriksson – a 48-year-old Swede who owns real estate and marketing businesses – said: "I think almost 100 percent of foreigners – it used to be maybe 90 percent of foreigners – are not Nazis. They are here to fight."
While the regiment was originally founded as a far-right paramilitary group by Andriy Biletsky, a current member of the Ukrainian parliament and founder of the Social National Assembly and Patriot of Ukraine groups (both also far-right), it has changed over time as this rag-tag paramilitary organisation became a fully mechanised regiment closely affiliated with the Ukrainian government. While some of these Europeans – especially those who joined at the beginning of the conflict – came to fight for a fascist political agenda, many are uncomfortable with the political roots of the group.
As the conflict has evolved, political leanings have been lost in the quagmire of war. Most of these men seem more preoccupied with the fight to defend Europe and the battle against Russia than they are about the sovereignty or political future of Ukraine itself. "[The focus] changed maybe [during] my second tour," said Eriksson. "Now, it's more [about fighting] against Russia than for Ukraine."
Furthermore, for many of these European soldiers, joining the Azov Regiment had nothing to do with politics; it was simply the easiest way to get to the conflict. The regiment actively solicits international recruits through its Facebook page, and English is one of its official languages. Almost all of the Europeans here are former professional soldiers and have served in their respective national armies or in the French Foreign Legion, and are chasing the kind of experiences they've had in conflict elsewhere.
According to "The Greek", a 33-year-old former soldier in the Greek army and French Foreign Legion, the group is primarily composed of "ex-professional soldiers that just liked their job and wanted to do their job... [but] every foreigner here, they're not ordinary representatives of their own societies". They all have a "restless" character and "adventuring spirit", he told me, which draws them to advocate for their politics or practice their trade in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Some of these men even considered joining the separatists before deciding to join the pro-Ukrainian Azov Regiment.
"The Greek" is one of those who came to practice his trade. He decided to fight, not for a specific political agenda, but instead for the act of war itself. "You fight for the war. It's a science; it's an art," he told me at the group's base in Yurivka. "The army itself is a science. This is what matters."
There are very few places left in the world for those with a restless spirit to explore; very few places in which risk – real risk that cannot be mitigated by satellite phones and emergency helicopter rescue, and the stimulation that comes with this uncertainty – can be found. "I like getting shot at," claimed Steve, a former soldier in the Finnish army and the French Foreign Legion.
Life on the frontline is an existence lived on the edge of death; with the proximity of one's own mortality seems to come the climax of many of life's most stimulating experiences – fraternity, adrenaline, adventure, survival, purpose. For those soldiers who have found such feelings in combat before, the chance to become involved in another war is an exciting prospect. While these men "are not ordinary representatives of their own society", they are not so un-ordinary either. They have actualised our own very normal fascination with war, one that most satisfy by joining national militaries – or, more passively, through video games and movies – but which, once experienced in real life, cannot be simulated in a training camp, in the cinema, or on a PlayStation.
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Eriksson originally came for his politics, to fight Russia and defend Europe, but stayed for the friendship and excitement of the front. "It's the friends, you know, coming back to The Greek and other guys I love. I love those guys," he said. "Also, you feel like you're a traitor if you don't take part in the fight. It would be like you're at home, just as The Greek said, 'living my white middle class life', you know? So [it's partly because] I want to do something. But it's also because you get hooked on it – you get hooked on the adrenaline and stuff, and it's a good life."
The ideological motivation to take part in a conflict becomes inseparable from the experience of war itself; the two distinct motivations – ideological activism and the desire to fight – exist together, but are not always developed at the same moment. Some here came with an appreciation for combat and developed their political motivations over time, while others who came to fight for their politics learned to appreciate the experience of war. Those fighting in Shyrokyne are part of volunteer paramilitary groups. These men have chosen to come to the frontline, even as many of their peers stay at home: "People that come here in Shyrokyne, they want fighting," argued Stanislav, a former history teacher in Crimea, now fighting for Azov Battalion.
"I'm sure one day they will try and put us up against the wall – you know, for what we've apparently done here," Garrett said late one night before heading back to the frontline, speaking of his and other foreigners' involvement in a war that doesn't belong to them. But despite their various motivations for coming, and the furrowed brows their presence elicits, these men have come to the frontline for their own reasons and have tried to distance themselves from the controversy surrounding their engagement in this foreign war.
"Looking to the east on this cold crisp morning," Garrett wrote in an Instagram post in January [all sic], "I feel nothing but pain. That those back home sit in their nice comfy homes have nothing better to do than bad mouth the fact that i saw a problem and i am addressing it in a way that I know how. I dont believe that people should agree with how I chose to live my life. I believe that if you dont like it, stay out of it. Forget me, save yourself the time to moan about me. I do what i do because i feel compelled to do it. Is that not the essence of free will, to do what we believe in?
"So today i look to the east of ukraine. Do yourself a favour, look the other way... Through the cold, hunger and sorrow of this place we strive to do what we believe is right. At the same [time], I respect that only I can see my world through my own eyes and base my beliefs accordingly. Thats all... i have to say except love to you all, friend or foe."
See all of VICE News' coverage of the conflict in Ukraine here.