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Among Ukraine’s Foreign Fighters

A British combat volunteer traveling to fight for the international legion

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A British combat volunteer traveling to fight for the international legion in Ukraine, Przemysl, Poland, March 7, 2022

At a barbecue restaurant in Lviv called Meat and Justice, where Ukrainian and Russian casualties are tallied daily on the front door, I ran into an American named Andrew I’d met online. I had asked him to send me messages as he made his way from Arkansas to fight in the foreign legion of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense force. Now here, in this western Ukrainian city, he was eating ribs alone at a table across the room—I recognized him from the selfies he’d sent me en route. They were usually accompanied by texts like: “I’m a free man. I’m kind of a Viking. I can fight for where I want. What’s more righteous?” 

It was the sixteenth day of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Andrew was about to take an overnight train to Kyiv to see how he could get involved in the fighting, though he had no equipment and little preparation. He shook my hand and asked me to follow his Norse mythology–themed YouTube channel, where he planned to livestream his time at the front. His presence in wartime Lviv was hardly incongruous—many others like him had crossed into Ukraine to take up arms, or at least to try. While Ukrainian civilians learned to use rifles in an old movie theatre, I watched foreigners show up in camo fatigues and snapback hats labeled “Hustler” to enlist in the newly formed international legion. 

When President Zelensky announced this idea, many found the invitation compelling. Fighters soon started to arrive in a steady flow across the Polish border, not just from the US and the UK, but from India, Australia, Japan, Finland, Brazil, Canada, Israel, South Korea, and other countries. Most were funding their own travel, often against the orders of their governments. 

By the time I met Andrew, I’d been talking by phone for hours a day to people like the guys in the camo outfits (most preferred I use only first names for security reasons). I found them on TikTok, my phone blaring videos of their pledges to fight. They were traveling from American cities to enlist in the military for a country many of them had never really thought about. They’d met in online chat threads, where they discussed what it would be like to fight the Russians, swapped tips about how to get into Ukraine, what to pack for the war, and how to fire Stinger missiles. They planned to meet for beers in Warsaw and Krakow. 

“I never understood how people got so moved by the Spanish Civil War, but now I can intuit it,” one said to me. To some, it was a moment of solidarity that conjured the Lincoln Battalion and the international brigades of that conflict, its volunteers drawn in by a clear moral cause. Thousands saw action, notably in the defense of Madrid, though not all who came were well-equipped for the reality of war. (The young Simone Weil left Spain after scalding her foot while cooking with olive oil.) 

Unlike the American ambulance driver in the 1930s who wrote in his diary about joining the “‘here-to-be-revolted-by-the-horror-of-war, later-to-write-a-book’ tradition,” the principal literary outlet now seemed to be Reddit. “Currently in Germany awaiting transport to Ukraine,” one man posted, along with a photo of himself in a cowboy hat and sunglasses, smoking a cigarette. “After being evicted from my apartment, I knew this was the right choice. I may not return but it is what it is.” (“Happy hunting, I hope you become a hero,” a commenter replied.) People like Leon, a personal trainer from Surrey, England, who said he “couldn’t find Ukraine on a map,” corresponded in threads with subject lines like “Are any of you mad lads going to be on my plane?” A  nineteen-year-old Canadian comedian and Black Lives Matter activist traveled to the border to enlist, tweeting “War sucks” instantly upon arrival. A man claiming to be an Operation Iraqi Freedom vet posted: “My goal is rape as many Ukrainian women as possible. I fucking love war.”

Some among this constituency were well-known to domestic extremist monitoring groups. One man I got in contact with, Mike Dunn, a member of the American antigovernment militia group the Boogaloo Boys, had been livestreaming about his plans to travel to Ukraine under the online handle “armed-and-unafraid.”

After a stint in the Marines, Dunn had worked as a prison guard before becoming one of the frontmen of the Boogaloo Boys, appearing at  Second Amendment rallies at the Virginia State Capitol in army fatigues and a Hawaiian shirt with an assault rifle strapped to his chest. “I carry a weapon every day of my life,” he told me. “I’m very knowledgeable with the AK platform. But combat will be a first for me. I’m hungry for some action.” I met him outside the passport office in D.C., recognizing him a block away from the mirrored sunglasses that he wore on top of his baseball cap in his broadcasts. 

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“I want to kill Russians,” he told me, adding that he had fought the police in Newport News, Virginia over gun rights—now he was concerned that the domestic terrorism investigation he’d faced as a result might make it hard to get a passport. He had collected donations to fund his trip under the account “freedombooms,” driven up from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, and already eaten a celebratory last meal at Texas Roadhouse.

On his vest was a patch that read “I don’t believe in anything.” He’d said he would happily die in the streets of America fighting law enforcement, but now he was ready to die in Ukraine. “I know there’s probably like an eighty percent chance I won’t come back.” 

Meanwhile, Jake, a former infantryman from Indianapolis who’d done a tour in Afghanistan (“it sucked”), told me that he’d decided to join the foreign legion while on vacation in Mexico, even though he had never thought about Ukraine before. “I’m a young man going through a divorce, and I was, like, ‘Well, I have no sense of purpose anymore.’ I had left the army, I am losing my family. So I saw this war on TikTok.” 

Jake chatted with a group of guys on the online forum Discord who planned to meet at the airport in Poland, then find their way to Ukraine together. After calling the consulate in Chicago, he sent over his military history and his identification to a Gmail address that had been set up by the international legion (“kinda sketchy”). He didn’t tell his parents, or his employer at a warehouse facility; when he did tell his soon-to-be-ex-wife, she yelled at him and called him an idiot. “They think it’s not my fight, I guess.” 

Jake found a sponsor on a Reddit thread who offered to buy him a plane ticket. “Who knows if I’ll make it all the way there?” he said. “But the fear is the uncertainty of when I come back. Who knows, maybe I’ll like Ukraine? There’s a piece of me that thinks I’ll stay there after. This is a huge world.” 

*

Outside the Ukrainian embassy in Warsaw, its sidewalk piled with yellow and blue flags and bouquets of flowers, three men arrived to join the international legion. A Taiwanese volunteer and a French one left their military packs near the entrance and went for a coffee together. Neither spoke English, nor did they have another language in common. Still, they decided to travel together, along with a man from Iran. Franck, who had been in the French army for eleven years, told me, “I never really gave it up. You are always a soldier in your head. I’m not going to wait around for this to happen in France. I can’t sit this one out.

“Here, there is a true common sense of purpose you can feel,” he added. “I need this.” 

Similar scenes unfolded across the city. At the Belarusian Foundation of Warsaw, enough volunteers—many of them expatriates who’d left the country after the repressions that followed the 2020 protests against President Lukashenko—were showing up each day that they now have their own battalion fighting in Kyiv. I met Pavel, a mixed martial arts fighter who was supervising tactical medical training and in 2016 had volunteered to fight in the war in the Donbas. “Ukraine feels like a second homeland to me now,” he said. “There are the Belarusian people, and then there is Lukashenko. They are two different things. The Belarusian people stand up for their brothers of Ukraine. I understand the same sense of what they feel there right now. We have a vendetta. We want revenge.”

In the building’s lobby, which had been turned into a military preparation area, Pavel outfitted the men who came to volunteer with body armor. His best friend had already lost his foot in the fighting, but was considering how he could get back to the front. 

I’d kept in touch with Dunn as he took a three-leg, fifty-hour trip to Warsaw. He posted a photo of his passport stamp to the song “Keep your rifle by your side” from the soundtrack of a video game. I arranged to meet him at a bar in the city. Dunn arrived with his friend Henry, also a Boogaloo Boy, and Mike, a former British serviceman whom they’d met on Discord and planned to travel to Ukraine with. 

“We have a special alliance between America and England,” Mike said. “We definitely put 1776 behind us.” 

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“It’s not nationalism—it’s solidarity,” said Henry. 

“Well, I’m a bit of a nationalist,” said Dunn. “And the buzz of a two-way raid does get me off a little.” 

Mike said he knew a good number of British ex-servicemen who were war-hungry and saw this as the perfect chance to see action, though he had concerns about impostors. “There are so many of those stolen valor guys out there,” he said. “I do want to come home, though. But it’s that feeling—I couldn’t get it out of my head. I live in a tiny little village. Pig wrestling. That’s it. I want one last hurrah. I want to fight a real enemy with real training.”

I asked if they’d ever felt this sort of borderless military solidarity before. When the Islamic State first hit northern Iraq, Henry said he’d flirted with the idea of joining the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, but then his wife got pregnant. They each said they’d never fight for their own governments on foreign soil again; they’d only want to serve as autonomous volunteers. Henry had worked as a contractor after discharging, protecting oil tankers in Sri Lanka and Yemen. Dunn said he planned to become one, too, ideally for Blackwater, and Ukraine was a step toward that goal. “They’ll want to see I have combat experience,” he explained. 

Back at their motel was a scene that felt like giddy preparation for summer camp abroad. “Do you have a blood patch?” Dunn asked the group as they assembled their gear. Henry showed us the scar from a gunshot wound to the back of his leg, from when he was carjacked leaving work at a factory. Mike tried on Henry’s gas mask. “If they use gas, I’m gone,” said Dunn. “You Americans have so much gear,” said Mike. “I just turn up in a Land Rover and shoot people.” Dunn packed his copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, which includes instructions on how to make improvised explosive devices. 

“Dunn can be a wild card,” Henry told me later. “His training’s been the best in the world, but he’s never been in a fire fight. Seems like we might have to hold him back a bit. He can’t do in Ukraine what he did in America.” 

“We’ll take the join-the-resistance route if we have to, join another militia, if the foreign legion thing doesn’t work out,” said Mike. “We’ve been brainstorming what to do once we get to the border. Maybe hijack or hotwire a car? Even if we have to go through the woods, it’ll be fun. They won’t turn us away.” 

They found they could get an Uber ride to Ukraine. At 1 AM, their driver, a Georgian man in a Prius, pulled up at the motel and honked his horn. “Stop, in the Name of Love” by the Supremes was playing in the empty lobby. The driver told me he’d served in the Georgian army; now he no longer slept at night because he had so many foreigners offering him cash for a ride to Ukraine. The men had him try on the one Kevlar helmet they’d brought with them—Mike’s souvenir from Afghanistan—and the Georgian posed for a photo. 

“Which of you will kill Putin?” he joked as they loaded their gear into the trunk. Henry and Dunn made final calls before going off the grid. Mike insisted that I should not take his photo. “There’s a lot of people who want to get rid of me. And with good reason. I did very bad things in the army.” The Prius took off for the border. 

*

Foreign fighters from Belarus

Abdullah Tevge/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Foreign fighters from Belarus arriving at the train station in Lviv to depart for Kyiv, Ukraine, March 16, 2022


At the border crossing at Medyka, in southeastern Poland, a trickle of people were walking into Ukraine as a miles-long line of refugees waited to get out. Under a tent on the Ukrainian side was a “help desk for foreign soldiers,” where men scanned QR codes with their phones.

After reaching Lviv, I visited the Georgian legion’s new base in nearby Dubliani to meet with Commander Mamuka Mamulashvili. His legion also accepted many other foreign fighters, among them a good number of Americans. I walked through a checkpoint of soldiers strapped with AKs alongside a Georgian fighter. I asked him how it felt to be going to the front on behalf of another country. “It’s like sacrificing yourself for something, but splitting your heart 50/50,” he told me.

Mamulashvili’s Georgian legion first formed in 2014 to fight in Donbas; unlike the international legion, it did not demand that volunteers hand over their passports. “I’m a foreigner myself in this country,” Mamulashvili said. He carried two phones and a pistol, and wore a black jacket that read “Brave Dream, US Army,” a gift from some American recruits. He had fought in the Abkhaz–Georgian conflict, the first Chechen war, and the Russo-Georgian War and had been held prisoner by Abkhaz forces for months. He showed me photos of himself and his father after they were freed from captivity. “Georgians have a lot of experience facing Russian aggression,” he said. 

I asked what he thought of the new international legion. “It’s going to be very chaotic,” he said. “Really, I don’t know how they’re going to do it. Generally, they all come to me, and I keep the ones with proper training. As long as they don’t have extreme views. 

“The nonprofessionals go to the international legion,” he went on. “Unfortunately, it’s very unorganized—they will just receive hundreds of people and have no plans.” He had recently come from the front outside of Kiev. “The Ukrainian military will train them,” but, he said, “they will be the team of amateurs.”

“Is it what Ukraine needs?” I asked.

“Ukraine needs the sky to be closed,” Mamulashvili replied. 

His legion has, for eight years, been doing a version of what the international legion hopes to do now. Mamulashvili groups the mostly professional soldiers who come to him into small squads and dispatches them to fight at the front. The legion currently comprises about half Georgian and half international volunteers. Mamulashvili told me that the American soldiers generally blend in well with his Georgians because most of them have participated in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. “So they’re very similarly experienced. They already know how to work together…. We get effective military units that do a good job on the front lines now. They’re ideologically the same, they just have different nationalities.” 

A war memorial tribute with the photos of two Georgian volunteers

Nicolo Vincenzo Malvestuto/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A war memorial tribute with the photos of two Georgian volunteers killed in the Ukraine, Tbilisi, Georgia, March 18, 2022

Mamulashvili introduced me to a few of his new recruits. Dr. Dre played in the background as I sat in the barracks with an English fighter named Chris Garrett, who goes by the nickname “Swampy.” He first fought in Ukraine from 2014 to 2017, serving on the front in the east. In civilian life, he’s a tree surgeon living on the Isle of Man, with experience clearing land mines in Southeast Asia when he volunteered for the Karen National Defense in Burma. 

“When the war kicked off properly with Russia this time, I had a lot of people come contact me asking, ‘How do I get in?’” he said. “They think they know what they’re getting into…[but] there are people here that just see the war on TV and think, ‘Oh, that looks fun. I get to go and blow a tank up.’ 

“I think they’re going to learn very quickly, and they’re going to learn the hard way that it’s not a game,” he went on. “War is not pleasant. It’s a dirty, smelly, horrendous experience. The likelihood of being killed on the front line is very high, I think.” 

Garrett’s friend Emanual Bazanji, from Albania, showed me a video he’d taken of himself at the airport in Kyiv, just after the war started, filming on his phone as he was under aerial attack. “If I get a GoPro, I’m gonna film some really wild shit,” he said. He’d grown up amid the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and joined the Georgian legion two years ago. His entire family were dead. “I’m alone in this life. It is only me in this world. So I came here to start a new life.” He remembered as a child when Georgian troops were in Albania on peacekeeping missions:

Civil war was in my country. I just have personal examples from my life: people came together to protect the Balkans from the Russians and Serbians that were committing war crimes and genocides. Americans, Brits, Germans, French, everyone from all over the world came there to help, like is happening today. And we won that war only because of it. Now it’s my time to do it.

He offered me a cookie. “So this is my home now. I’m going to be here always. I also came here to live.” 

Dunn, Henry, and Mike had ended up in the same barracks, in a different building. “There are no cliques,” a Canadian man in his mid-twenties, who had enlisted because his ex-wife is Ukrainian, told me. “There are the intellectual Americans, and then there are the hillbilly Americans. But this is a band of brothers.”

*

After dinner at Meat and Justice, the place in Lviv where I’d seen Andrew, I joined a humanitarian volunteer driving a family of refugees to the Polish border, where we were also going to pick up a former Navy SEAL, David, who had arrived from Warsaw just before midnight. During his US military service, he had deployed in the Albania–Yugoslav conflict and other tours in what he referred to as the “‘war on terror’ wars.” Now he works in finance. He carried a military-style pack and covered his face up to his eyes with a blue scarf. 

“I’m not doing this for the glory or the ’gram—Instagram,” he said. “I left a nice life in New York, White Plains. I have a dog and an Audi. But I have a moral obligation to be here.” 

The humanitarian worker had branded his Volvo with a makeshift red cross made of masking tape and put a siren on top, so that he could blow through checkpoints and bypass lines of traffic, his sound system blasting Kanye West’s new album and Eighties hits. David asked if we could stop so he could buy a SIM card for his new burner phone. Once we reached the city center, he thanked us and set off on his own to join the nearly one thousand foreign fighters who were training at a nearby military base. 

Early the next morning, air sirens sounded in Lviv as the base was hit by Russian missiles. The Ring cameras at my Ukrainian host’s picked them up on video, and she showed me in her app where the corner of the sky flashed white for a second above her garage. David went home two days later. 

On my way back across the border, I met two German foreign fighters in their mid-fifties, who were also traveling back to Poland. They’d been at the Yavoriv base earlier the previous morning, when it was bombed. “The international legion is young guys who are hungry for an adventure. They’re cannon fodder,” said one. “They won’t come back from the front lines. They should leave.” He described weapons trainings done with YouTube videos. 

From the Yavoriv base, Franck, the French fighter, left me dozens of voice memos in the middle of the night, describing his military formation and why he knew he belonged in Ukraine. He was leaving for Kyiv the next morning. Dunn was asked to leave the Georgian legion; he hoped to switch to one of the extremist militias. Mike told me he was crossing into Romania, while Henry sent me a message saying he was getting out. He then recorded and posted a video to Twitter that went viral, complaining about how the legion was a “trap” and he hadn’t been given enough ammunition; he hid in the back of an ambulance to get back into Poland. 

I heard from Mamulashvili that he was sending his men to the front. “We are just soldiers, and we are fighting,” he told me. I stayed in touch with many of the fighters I’d met, at least the ones who still felt like telling me their feelings over WhatsApp and Telegram. Several days later, I woke up to a string of texts from one of the Americans I’d met outside the embassy in Warsaw. He wrote in bullet-pointed lists:

• Desertion of foreign legion is very high. Many Ukrainian soldiers, commanders incompetent.
• Russian infantry horrible. 12 Westerners can beat 40 Russians.
• Chechens torture POWs. No mercy to foreign legion. Don’t get captured alive by Chechens.
• Lots of miscommunication with Ukrainians and lots of friendly fire incidents.
• Sometimes your passports will be confiscated.
• Ukrainians may rob you of your western gear and give you a broken rifle and send you to the front.

The messages kept coming. Sometimes they contradicted what he’d said before; I had no way of verifying his updates. “Ukrainians are using outdated tactics to fight Russians,” he wrote. “Their casualty count is much higher than reported. The foreign legion is being sent on suicide missions like attacking 200 Russians with 14 men.” 

I didn’t hear from him again. 


Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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