Lviv, Ukraine (AP) – They are idealists who left their jobs on the battlefields of Ukraine, in search of a cause or simply to fight.
Ukraine’s president’s call for foreign volunteers to join an international battalion to help bolster his country’s defense with a new layer of resistance to Russian invasion is currently a emaciated army.
Recruits say they often wait for weapons and training, which makes them feel exposed.
“Pure Hell: Fire, screaming, panic. Lots of bombs and missiles.”
This is how Swedish volunteer Jesper Soder described Sunday’s attack on Yavoriv, a military training base in western Ukraine that was hit by Russian missiles that killed 35 people, according to Ukrainian authorities. Russia said the death toll was much higher.
Sodder said he led a group of foreigners, including Scandinavians, British and Americans, out of the base and back across the nearby Polish border.
He told the Associated Press by phone from Krakow, Poland, that he said he didn’t know how many foreign volunteers were being trained at the base, but he estimated they numbered in the hundreds. Unlike Soder, who fought alongside Kurdish fighters in Syria against Islamic State militants, many of Yavoriv’s volunteers had no prior military training, he said.
Foreigners – some of whom have not yet handled a firearm but are ready to die – have arrived in Ukraine from other European countries, the United States and elsewhere. They hope to get the equipment, instructions, and prepare for battle.
But some arrive to discover that there are no weapons, protective gear, or adequate training in a multilingual force that lacks organization and fuels a sense of chaos.
Threats from Russia to target what it calls foreign “mercenaries”, it said at the Yavoriv base, increase the level of danger.
“It’s chaotic now. It’s disorganized, and you can get yourself in trouble very quickly if you’re not with a reasonable group of people,” said Matthew Robinson, a British man from Yorkshire in northern England who lived in southern Spain.
Robinson and many other volunteer fighters were interviewed this weekend in the outskirts of Lviv, where foreign fighters receive training and education.
Having recently arrived, Robinson remains cautious as he tries to sort things out. He said there were “multiple legions, too many false promises, and too much misinformation”. In addition, there is a “tremendous language barrier” and “a lot of people here haven’t shot.”
Russia’s threats to target what it calls “mercenaries” multiply the dangers faced by foreign fighters. Russia claimed to have killed 180 “mercenaries” in Sunday’s attack on the training base, and Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Monday that Russian forces “will not show any mercy to mercenaries wherever they are on the territory of Ukraine.”
He said that the Russian army is following the movements of foreign fighters and will strike again.
Sodder’s account of the attack on the training base indicated that it was not a random strike.
Soder said the bombing of the base was unlike anything he had experienced.
“They knew exactly what to hit. They knew exactly where our weapons were stored. They knew exactly where the administration building was. They hit the nail in the head with all their missiles.”
Jericho Sky, 26, a Montana native who served in the US Army Military Police, was relieved to have settled in Kyiv, the capital, far from the attack in the West, as he was waiting for guns at a makeshift base. He is alive hope that weapons will soon be distributed, and believes that the Ukrainians are doing their best in a difficult situation.
“We are very upset that we are in the middle of a combat zone with small arms fire on the road, bombs are being dropped almost every day and we have not received our weapons yet just because of bureaucracy and paperwork,” he said.
Sky spoke on a phone call from Paris from what he described as a temporary gathering center for foreign fighters in Kyiv, which he arrived at last week, making his way there the day after arriving in Ukraine.
“This is my first war,” said Skye. He said he came to Ukraine to “help with protection,” not “provide logistics,” motivated by images of targeting innocent civilians. He added that when he “didn’t see any other country that would be able to bolster Ukrainian forces, I felt a moral obligation to join the fight.”
NATO countries have ruled out the direct combat and air defense claimed by Ukraine, as leaders have said could lead to a third world war.
“They are just against the entire Russian army,” said Sky, referring to Moscow’s invitation to war-torn mercenaries from Syria to bolster its ranks.
“It’s a little disorganized. It’s nobody’s fault.” He said, “They weren’t really expecting to be invaded, to be thrown into a war.”
But death is not on the radar. “I am fully aware of the situation,” but added, “I will do everything in my power to go home.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the creation of the Foreign Defense Corps in late February, seemingly surprising everyone, including the embassies tasked with lending a helping hand.
It was not clear how many people from around the world joined the Ukraine International Brigade. Zelensky once said that there are 16,000. The number, which is now outdated, cannot be confirmed, but based on interviews conducted in Ukraine and in some European capitals, various volunteer war efforts are forming.
Sky said that volunteers from all over the world were with him in Kyiv, but did not give a number, describing this information as “sensitive information”.
Tristan Lombardo, a 22-year-old from Evansville, Illinois, was on his way to the battlefields of Ukraine.
“I feel like this is the right thing to do, and this is the best way to get your passion in life,” he said in an interview Monday at the Polish border.
“If this is a passion, it is a passion that I would die for,” Lombardo said, adding that he was nervous but not afraid.
There was clear evidence that at least some Ukrainian embassies were overwhelmed by foreigners’ enthusiasm for the Ukraine cause. In Paris, Ukrainian volunteers, including students, stood on the sidewalk to advise potential fighters arriving from Bordeaux, Rouen and elsewhere in France to submit an electronic form.
A “relatively successful” 27-year-old New York state businessman and former Israeli army paratrooper told the Associated Press on the Polish border that he spoke directly with Ukrainian military officials. They were overwhelmed, he said, especially by those who had no previous training.
He identified himself only as Alexander, saying that he did not tell his parents of his plans to fight but scored because, as a former paratrooper, he felt “absolutely responsible” to help the people of Ukraine. He said his “seriousness” was to see rabbis being drafted into the army and given AK-47s.
Saving democracy is among the most important motives potential foreign fighters often point to, and some of them are there. But saving Ukraine also became an attractive cause for the far right, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, providing an opportunity to fight back.
The prestigious SITE Intelligence Group says recruiting chats on the encrypted Telegram messaging app are run by the Azov Regiment, popular with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and American neo-Nazis are recruiting for Azov. The Azov Regiment originated as a far-right paramilitary unit and is now a subset of the Ukrainian army, according to SITE Intelligence.
A Chicago police officer who quits his job to join Zelensky’s defense brigade has lofty motives for what he sees as a noble cause. Harrison Josephovich, who spent five years in the US Army, sees himself, first, as a “facilitator.”
There are war crimes being committed here and refugees fleeing by the millions. “I know that I am needed here now more than the Chicago Police Department,” he said in an interview on the outskirts of Lviv. He admitted that his family “thought I was a little crazy”.
His team Yankee Ukraine, on Facebook, seeks to get Americans into Ukraine safely. While 90% of respondents have military training, “we’re not turning off anyone at the moment,” he said, including mechanics or doctors with the required skills.
However, British citizen Matthew Robinson stressed caution for foreigners eager to assist in the war effort on the ground.
“If anyone is thinking of coming here, organize yourself into groups and set yourself some limits” and ask for information before arriving, Robinson said. “Because you can join a great corps and get sent to the front lines very quickly,” he said.
“Even though you have the best intentions to help people, you can basically be cannon fodder,” he added.
Eileen Ganley reported from Paris. Karl Ritter in Berlin, Jan M Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Adam Pemble in Przemysl, Poland contributed to this report.
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