Foreign Fighters Are Becoming Battle-Hardened, and Dying, in Ukraine

At the start of the war, many foreign volunteers thought they were "cannon fodder." But nearly six months later, foreign fighters, including many Americans, are seen as key part of the Ukrainian war effort.
Ukrainian soldiers and foreign fighters board a vehicle on the frontline on June 27, 2022 in Mykolaiv, Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers and foreign fighters board a vehicle on the frontline on June 27, 2022 in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

At the outset of the war in Ukraine, foreign fighters flooded into the conflict by the thousands. Many were wannabe soldiers with no combat or military experience, while others were hardened veterans of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But both of these camps encountered vicious fighting like they’d never seen before.

The ranks of the International Legion, set up as an official wing of the Ukrainian military organizing and training waves of foreign fighters, swelled rapidly, but questions quickly arose about its performance—and mismanagement—on the front lines of the war against Russia.

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But now, nearly six months into the war, the foreign fighters who once complained about being used as cannon fodder have solidified a reputation as an important part of the Ukrainian war effort. Some have been killed or captured, including several Americans, while others are making an impact fighting alongside the most elite soldiers in the Ukrainian military.

“Some of these foreign fighters are real heroes,” said a Ukrainian special forces soldier who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity to protect against his identification by Russian intelligence. “Especially if you keep in mind that this is not their country.”

The soldier confirmed that in the special forces branch, several foreigners have fought alongside them, while some have taken on vital roles instructing new recruits and training soldiers. But to him, the quality of those soldiers sometimes depends on their country of origin, with American combat vets, trained at the NATO standard, being among the most valuable.

“It really depends on previous experience and on the country,” he said. “For example, U.S. and U.K. [soldiers] are mostly very effective, but that also varies from age and branch.” According to him, some volunteer soldiers from “other European countries” aren't as well trained, but on the whole these soldiers “fight very well.” One of the biggest contingents of foreign fighters comes from neighboring Belarus—a fiercely pro-Kremlin regime headed by President Alexander Lukashenko. Soldiers from the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion, a Belarusian outfit that has seen heavy fighting and losses in the war, reportedly said they’re fighting for the freedom of Ukraine and their home country. A long list of at least 55 countries have seen their citizens join the fight, including Canada, Finland, Georgia, Sweden, Poland, South Korea, Norway, Spain, and Israel. The Ukrainian government has praised the waves of foreign volunteers, with Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba declaring in February that with the help of foreign fighters, “we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat Putin, too.”

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  • Are you a foreign fighter who joined the Ukrainian war effort or know of someone who is? We’d love to hear from you. Contact Ben Makuch on email at ben.makuch@vice.com or on the Wire app @benmakuch.

Kacper Rękawek, who studies foreign fighters in Ukraine at the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism and is publishing a book on the subject, said Kyiv was transparent very early on about Western vets serving alongside Ukrainian special forces as volunteers and that it was a successful partnership on the battlefield from the beginning.

“One of the very first messages coming from the Ukrainian military in very early days of March was to actually say that there is a team of special forces veterans from Western militaries who have been teamed up with the Ukrainian special forces and they are out in the field and are effectively doing their stuff and helping,” said Rękawek, who explained that previous training missions between NATO militaries and Ukraine helped create an immediate interoperability between those soldiers.

Rękawek said that though “thousands crossed the border” into Ukraine to fight between late February and early March, the number of foreign fighters has since dissipated. Now, it is the battle-hardened, often ex-military types, who remain. 

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“Not everyone got to the front,” said Rękawek. “And the fact that there's less of them [now] also means that it's only the ones who had the perseverance, who had the connections, who had the stamina to go through all the hoops.”

Some Americans with name recognition showed up in Ukraine with some of the country’s most specialized forces.

Mike Dunn, an ex-Marine and prominent figure in the anti-government and pro–Second Amendment Boogaloo movement, said he’s currently fighting with “a special operations group in the Ukrainian army,” first joined the Ukrainian war effort in March, returned to the U.S., then went back to Donbas as the war in eastern Ukraine intensified. Dunn told VICE News in an interview from western Ukraine that he was recently injured in a Russian tank attack on a platoon of international volunteers. It was the same incident during fierce fighting around Severodonetsk in Donbas last month that took the lives of two Americans, one Swede, and a Canadian, one of the worst known casualty events among foreign fighters since the war began.

“It's definitely something I'm not going to forget,” said Dunn, who explained that his unit was attached to the 79th Brigade and was deployed to stem a Russian advance that had broken through their lines. Dunn claimed he has killed a number of Russian soldiers during his service with the Ukrainian military.

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Early on, part of the problem with foreign fighters, some who described untenable fighting conditions, Dunn says, was a lack of understanding about the true scope of the conflict. This was especially prevalent among American volunteers and combat veterans, who assumed the standards of equipment and support would be similar to their previous experiences in well-funded militaries. Instead, what they encountered was the Ukrainian military, an outfit with only a fraction of the Pentagon’s budget.

“I just think that foreign fighters came here and got a war… a type of warfare that they didn't expect,” he said.

“Especially American foreign fighters. It's not Afghanistan. It's not Iraq. You're taking the side of Vietnam versus the U.S. over here. You are the underdog, and with no air superiority or anything. And so they just assume they were being used as cannon fodder. But that's just the way this war is. It's a nightmare.”

The Ukrainian special forces soldier echoed those sentiments but conceded the chaos of the early stages of the invasion was because the Ukrainian military was in partial disarray.  

“Of course, some [foreign fighters] were disappointed with some problems with our management, commanders, and bureaucracy,” he said. “I can understand them. Sometimes,  they don't get necessary weapons or other equipment, sometimes there are some doubts about the missions.”

Yet foreign fighters, especially the Americans and Brits with governments that have become the face of international support for Kyiv, face real dangers if Russian forces capture them and turn them into either propaganda spectacles for the Kremlin or diplomatic bargaining chips. Two Brits, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, along with Moroccan national Brahim Saadoun, were sentenced to the death penalty as “mercenaries” by the Donetsk People’s Republic—an unrecognized Kremlin puppet state in the east of Ukraine—and have become regular fixtures on Russian television. Two former American servicemen, Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, were captured in June and have yet to be released.  

As the war drags on with no sign of a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, Dunn says the devastation he’s witnessed will have a lasting impact on him, even beyond any highs he says he feels from killing Russian soldiers.

“As far as living in war and seeing the devastation and destruction around here and the harmed innocents,” he said, “it's not the time of my life, but it's definitely a time I will not forget.”

Additional reporting by Tess Owen