When Phil, a 35-year-old former officer in the British Army, heard Ukraine’s call for foreign fighters to help defend the country from the Russian invasion, he felt he had to join the fight.
But after a fact-finding trip into Ukraine to get a better handle on the situation, he’s had second thoughts.
“There’s no point wasting my life for nothing,” he told VICE World News. “If I think I can go and support in a way that’s going to contribute to the security of Ukraine and the safety of Europe, then I will. But I don’t want to go on a suicide mission.”
For a certain type of thrill-seeking idealist, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s appeal last month for foreign volunteers to join a newly formed international legion to fight the Russian invasion was an irresistible proposition.
To those appalled by the footage of the Russian assault, Zelenskyy’s call resonated as an opportunity to play a heroic role on the right side of history. Within 10 days, about 20,000 people from more than 50 countries –ranging from hardened veterans to people with no military training – had asked to join.
But a month on, there’s growing evidence that the reality of life as a foreign volunteer in Ukraine isn’t squaring with the romantic fantasy. Many foreign fighters, disenchanted with what they encountered, have already gone home early, with gripes ranging from a lack of adequate equipment and poor organisation, to the calibre of fellow foreign recruits.
One group of volunteers fled across the Polish border after a Russian missile attack on Yavoriv military base, where international recruits were receiving training, last month.
Canada’s Globe and Mail recently spoke to fighters who had abandoned the battle amid concerns over the lack of equipment, and being required to sign indefinite contracts, and were now doing humanitarian relief work in the country instead. A recent report in Belgium’s Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper claimed that more than half of the country’s foreign fighters in Ukraine had already returned home. “I didn't feel like serving as foreign cannon fodder,” one returnee told the outlet.
Meanwhile, some prospective volunteers, like Phil, are also cooling on the idea. After his recent trip with two fellow British veterans to Lviv and nearby Yavoriv, where they met with Ukrainian military officers to discuss potentially enlisting in the international legion, Phil and his associates decided not to enlist, at least for now.
“My kneejerk reaction was, ‘I have to do this, I have to go and fight.’ I couldn’t sit by and watch someone else do something I think is the right thing to do,” he said.
“But having been out there to see what the situation is, my views have been tempered to, ‘I need to help.’”
Phil, who did not want his last name used, said he believed his skills, as a former army captain with extensive frontline combat experience, meant he would add more value training international volunteers in Ukraine, “rather than being another grunt with a gun.”
But he had been told by Ukrainian officers during his visit that they currently had enough people filling training roles. And, as the Russian offensive had made much slower progress than was feared in the early days of the invasion, Ukraine did not yet seem to have an acute need for foreign manpower, he said.
“I am still prepared to go and do what needs to be done,” he said, adding that he intended to focus on coordinating donations of supplies to help Ukrainians. “But I don’t want to get in the way, I don't want to be cannon fodder, or even worse, sarin gas fodder.”
Phil’s comments come as a string of foreign volunteers back away from the fighting in Ukraine. VICE World News recently spoke to two foreign volunteers – one American and one Polish, both veterans of tours in Afghanistan – who had left Ukraine after enduring harrowing experiences on the battlefield, and surviving the devastating Russian missile attack on the Yavoriv base.
The soldiers said they were under-equipped and outmatched by the superior Russian firepower, and complained about the calibre of some of their fellow foreign recruits, suspecting that they were abusing drugs.
“You’ve got to realise that there isn't a war that has been fought like this in a long time,” Hieu Le, a 30-year-old American legionnaire, told VICE World News. “What's different with the US military and all the other NATO militaries—they're spoiled. When it comes to fighting a war, they have air support, medivac, logistics, all kinds of different levels of intelligence, and support. Here in Ukraine, we had none of that.”
Phil, the UK veteran who has decided against enlisting in the legion for now, said those complaints were reflected in the concerns held by prospective recruits. A major concern among potential volunteers was whether they would be given adequate equipment, while many were also deterred by reports that they would need to sign contracts committing them to the fight indefinitely.
Russia’s vow to treat foreign fighters in Ukraine as illegal combatants, without any legal protections as prisoners of war, is also a worry. Moscow has said it considers foreign volunteers to be illegal mercenaries, meaning it will not protect them from reprisals, torture, or other degrading treatment if they are wounded or captured, as they are obliged to under international law.
“The reality is you’re probably never going to get anyone in that scenario,” said Phil. “I don’t anticipate Russians taking prisoners of war… The reality is you’re probably going to get a bullet in your head either way, whether you’re Ukrainian, British, Georgian, American - they're not going to hang around to ask questions.”
Phil said another major concern was that Russia could potentially try to exploit the presence of military veterans from NATO countries, like himself, and falsely claim that they were active-duty soldiers from Western armies who were infiltrating the conflict, as a pretext to expanding or escalating the war.
He also had reservations about the bravado he had detected among other prospective recruits, suggesting that many seemed to see the mission as a one-way trip. On online message boards where people discussed deploying to Ukraine, there was a lot of “really worrying macho talk of ‘Valhalla’,” he said, while on his trip to Ukraine he encountered a fellow veteran, an amputee who had lost part of their leg in battle, but was nevertheless determined to join the fighting in Ukraine.
“I don’t want to fight on the side of someone who’s there to die,” he said. “I want to fight on the side of someone who has a reason to go home.”
Kacper Rękawek, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, who tracked the flow of foreign fighters into Ukraine since 2014, told VICE World News that the recent spate of reports of foreign volunteers leaving the conflict was to be expected.
“It’s the simple logic of any foreign volunteer deployment in a war that they find out that might not be for them, that this is different from what they thought it would be,” he said.
“We saw lots of bizarre stories of people coming in, we’re now seeing lots of bizarre stories of people coming out.”
Many foreign fighters arrived expecting to be handed a weapon and sent straight to the frontlines, but the reality was usually different. Rękawek said that the foreign volunteers – who didn’t speak the language and were unfamiliar with the conditions on the ground – needed extra support to be useful, and local conscripts were a bigger focus for the Ukrainian military.
“You don’t know the language, the local reality, you have to be attached to someone who speaks your language, or English at least,” he said. According to one report, Ukrainian military officials are rethinking their approach to foreign recruitment, after an initial group of foreign volunteers performed poorly in battle, and are focusing on recruiting highly skilled veterans instead.
Some foreign fighters are clearly making it to the frontline and finding the action they have been chasing. James Vasquez, a US army veteran and building contractor from Connecticut, has tweeted video from the battlefield showing his unit engaging in fierce fighting with Russian troops – along with fundraising appeals to help better equip Ukrainian forces.
Rękawek said that while some, like Vasquez, had made it into battle, many others would not and become frustrated.
“It takes a lot of time, patience, perseverance, luck, and guts from a given foreigner to eventually cut through all this and eventually get there and fight on the frontlines.”
As for Phil, while he remains open to the idea of going to Ukraine to work as a military trainer if the need arises, his focus now is to try to organise large-scale donations of supplies for the Ukrainian military.
“I will almost certainly be back in Poland next month, but I don’t anticipate necessarily crossing into Ukraine once again,” he said.