Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s extraordinary appeal for international volunteers to join the fight against the Russian invasion has generated thousands of expressions of interest from would-be foreign fighters, according to the Ukrainian government.
On Sunday, Zelenskyy announced the establishment of an international legion for volunteers and encouraged people to join it. "This will be the key evidence of your support for our country,” he said.
Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy minister of defence, said on Monday that her ministry had received “thousands” of requests from prospective international volunteers.
Meanwhile, the head of a volunteer unit that will be receiving many of the foreign arrivals in Ukraine told VICE World News that about 400 international volunteers had signed up since Zelenskyy’s call for support on Sunday.
Mamuka Mamulashvili is the leader of the Georgian National Legion, a volunteer unit formed by mostly Georgian soldiers that has attracted foreign fighters to Ukraine, including from many Western countries, since it was formed when war broke out in the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014.
He told VICE World News that Zelenskyy’s call for foreigners to come and join the ranks of a newly-formed “International Brigade” of Ukraine’s armed forces had led to a surge of volunteers signing up to join the fight. Among those who had signed up since Zelenskyy’s appeal were an estimated 70 from the UK and 50 from the US, he said.
In the prior three weeks of escalating aggression from Russia, about 200 foreign fighters had joined up, he said.
“They want to fight for freedom and they want to fight for democratic values,” he said.
“It is not about anger. It is a normal human… act to help people that are being killed in the street, women and children.”
Among the Westerners preparing to take up arms to defend Ukraine is Mark Ayres, a British ex-serviceman who previously spent three years volunteering for various Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq, fighting enemies including the Islamic State group and Iranian-backed militias.
Ayres, who previously served four years with the Royal Green Jackets, two of those in Northern Ireland, told VICE World News that the situation in Ukraine was “pretty black and white.”
“This invasion of Ukraine is very similar to the Nazis in World War II. Our government can't intervene militarily, but I have previous military experience and have been in combat.”
He said it was a similar situation to that which had driven him to volunteer to fight the Islamic State.
“Daesh (ISIS) were committing the worst atrocities imaginable, and again our governments were doing nothing at the time,” he said. “So, being ex-forces I thought I would go and volunteer.”
The devastating footage of the Russian assault had done nothing to dissuade him from going, he said.
“I’m actually looking forward to it. Here I'm just some old git living in a rented room getting older. There I will be a soldier fighting for a people to be free,” he said, adding that he had been inspired by the resistance put up by Ukrainians.
“I think the whole world has seen how the Ukrainians have fought one of the most powerful militaries in the world, with honour, spirit and balls,” he said. “Not just the military but the civilians and the spirit of the nation is amazing to see on our TV screens.”
READ: War tourists and mercenaries join ranks of foreign fighters in Ukraine
While foreign volunteers have played a part in the Ukraine conflict since it began in 2014, and foreigners have been able to sign three-year contracts as volunteers in the Ukrainian armed forces since 2016, Zelenskyy’s plea for international support, as his country fights a devastating invasion, has generated unprecedented interest from supporters around the world.
“This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules, and peaceful coexistence,” Zelenskyy said in a statement Sunday, which instructed potential volunteers to contact the defence attache of the Ukrainian embassies in their own countries.
“Anyone who wants to join the defence of Ukraine, Europe, and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals.
On Reddit forums, users have spoken of their plans to sell their belongings and travel to join the fight, and one publication has even published an article explaining step-by-step how to sign up. BuzzFeed News reported on Sunday that a group of 10 Western special forces veterans – from the US, UK and Germany – were already in Poland and planning to cross into Ukraine.
The unusual plea for support has also created a question for Western governments over whether to allow their citizens to take up arms for another country. Countries including Canada, Denmark and Norway have indicated that volunteers will be allowed to join the fight. Slovakia’s prosecutor general has noted that it’s a crime for citizens to fight for a foreign army, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned his citizens not to go join the fight.
In the UK, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s comments on Sunday that she would “absolutely” support people volunteering to go and join Ukraine’s fight appeared to conflict with advice on her own department’s website, which states that people who travel to Ukraine to fight or help those in the conflict could be prosecuted, and drew criticism from with her own party that such a move would be illegal.
Ayres, the British volunteer planning to join the fight in Ukraine, said he was arrested every time he returned from his stints in the Middle East, although charges were always dropped.
“Each time I was questioned, my house was searched, electronics seized,” he said. “I understood the reasons. They had to make sure no war crimes were committed and other offences.”
READ: Why Putin trotted out a Nazi smear to try to justify invading Ukraine
Many of the foreign fighters headed for Ukraine will have interactions with the Georgian National Legion, the unit’s founder, Mamulashvili, told VICE World News.
The Georgian National Legion has previously operated as a frontline unit in the fighting in Donbas, but in recent years has acted as a waystation for foreign fighters from 27 countries coming to join the fight in Ukraine - providing them accommodation, food and training on their base while they went through the process to sign three-year contracts with the Ukrainian armed forces.
Mamulashvili said his unit would play this role for the new wave of foreign volunteers signing up to defend Ukraine, “because we were already organised in that direction and we were doing this through eight years of war.”
He said he had been personally speaking to those signing up, checking that they had legitimate military experience and were not right-wing extremists. “We do not tolerate it in the Georgian Legion,” he said.
In recent years Ukrainian authorities have been stepping up efforts to screen those coming to take up arms, amid concerns about right-wing extremists being drawn to the conflict, following major embarrassments. Chief among them was former US soldier Craig Lang, who was attached to the Georgian National Legion for a short time after serving with the far-right unit Right Sector. He has been charged with killing a Florida couple during a visit home in 2018, and is reportedly being investigated by the US Department of Justice for war crimes in Donbas, according to BuzzFeed News.
In another case, Ryan Burchfield, a US Marine-dropout and ex-member of the US neo-Nazi group The Base was deported by Ukrainian intelligence agents in late 2020.
Incidents like these have been seized upon by Russia, as they bolster a longstanding Kremlin smear that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis, which President Vladimir Putin trotted our again in his attempts to justify the invasion.
Kacper Rękawek, a researcher on foreign fighters in Ukraine and author of the forthcoming book “Brown-Red Cocktail: Extremist Foreign Fighters in Ukraine”, said that most media coverage on foreign volunteers fighting for the Ukraine had focused on groups like Azov and Right Sector, due to the far-right ideology prevalent within those groups.
Rękawek said that the media focus on extremist elements in the conflict has meant that the Georgian National Legion has received less attention than far-right units like Azov and Right Sector – but pointed out that it had been a major part of the foreign fighter landscape in Ukraine. The group probably had more Westerners pass through it than any other volunteer unit, he said.
“That’s because they speak English, and they’re open - you can Facebook them, they haven't been banned from Facebook or places like that because they’re not nationalists,” he said. “It developed into a one stop shop for foreign volunteers coming to fight.”
As for Ayres, the British volunteer planning to join the fight in Ukraine, he said he anticipated the conflict he would face would be on “a much larger scale” than anything he had encountered in the Middle East. But he was undaunted by the challenge.
“I will stay as long as it takes,” he said.