With Ukraine's International Legion, On The Front Lines Of The Counteroffensive
What draws foreigners to fight in Ukraine? Is it bravery, gall, money — or something else? On the ground with the International Legion, Patryk Szymański investigates for Gazeta Wyborcza.
KYIV — Today, the International Legion selects soldiers more carefully than ever before. To get into the unit, it is not enough just to show up in Ukraine and hope to get into the action.
“If something spills out, hold it," Antoni said, opening his bag and handing me a gun. “Your elbow must be straight; you look into the sight and look for the red dot. This is how you take out the magazine. This is how you insert the next one. You have to push it with your hand. There is no safety — this weapon is always cocked."
I looked at the steppes stretching to the horizon, the towns visible in the distance and the single-lane route stretching in a straight line from Zhytomyr to Kyiv, which is paralyzed by air raid sirens several times a day. I looked at the gun in my hand, then at the Polish soldier next to me. What am I even doing here?
Lee didn't hesitate for a moment. He set out from Liverpool, landed in Poland, then crossed into Ukraine by land. As millions fled from danger, he walked towards it.
He arrived in Kyiv in March, two months before I did. The northern half of the city was still under siege, and massacres were ongoing in Bucha and Hostomel. The rest of the world wouldn’t hear about them for another few weeks.
Lee ended up in a field tent somewhere on the southern outskirts of the city. Few people spoke English, but there were many Cubans and Colombians. Each tent had 10 bunks, and a unit was formed when all of them were occupied. Each unit was assigned a Ukrainian who spoke at least one foreign language as a commander.
More than 20,000 signups
The International Territorial Defense Legion of Ukraine emerged only three days after the Russian aggression began, on the direct orders of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In under two weeks, over 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries signed up to join the unit. Today, the number of soldiers fighting in the Legion is kept secret, for the security of its members. There is a $25,000 reward on their heads, and online, Russians exchange photos and information about the identity of the legionnaires.
The website of the Russian Ministry of Defense contains a list of foreigners killed in Ukraine, along with their names, if available, and dates of death.
“In England, they quickly let us fight, even though an old piece of legislation from 1870 is still in force, which officially prohibits joining someone else's army," said Lee.
“When I arrived home on leave, from Ukraine to England, nothing happened; no one prevented me from entering the border, no one asked me about anything," he continued. “My son is also a soldier, currently serving in the UK army. Once they asked him about this situation, he explained, and that’s it," he said. "They know who I am and what I do. No one complains."
Most countries turn a blind eye to citizens joining up
A similar law banning fighting in another country’s army exists in most countries, but since the war in Ukraine began, many of them introduced acts allowing or at least easing the process of entering the Legion.
For example, a Polish citizen who intends to enlist in a foreign military organization must obtain permission directly from the Minister of National Defense. But the law does not keep up with the changes in the world. So far, just 18 volunteers have received permission, while all the others (their number is unknown) are officially treated as criminals in Poland and, at least on paper, face up to 5 years in prison.
As in England, however, there is tacit permission, and they face no consequences.
Lee belonged to the Legion for several months, fighting on the front lines and doing several missions behind enemy lines as a commando. When he left the unit, he was one of the first foreigners to be directly incorporated into the Ukrainian Armed Forces, where he now serves as a special units instructor.
“When I was first leaving England, I made my peace with everyone. I didn’t think that I would be here very long; I thought that coming here was a death sentence," Lee said.
But in the war, violence is only self-defense — it has nothing to do with bravery.
“I recorded ‘death messages,' a short video for my family, for my son. My sister and father told me that I’m an idiot. My mother passed away a few years ago. My son understood it well; he’s a soldier himself. He told me ‘Dad, I know you. Do this. If you don’t do this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’ He lived with me, not with his mother, so my decision also impacted him, because I had to sacrifice not only my home, but his as well.”
The creation of a unit including foreigners is not without precedent — the most famous of which is the French Foreign Legion, which is composed almost entirely of foreign volunteers, or the Russian mercenary unit Wagner. But there are several aspects which are unique to the Ukrainian Legion.
The Ukrainian and American flags fly over the grave of Chris Campbell, an American fighter in the 3rd Battalion of International Legion of Ukraine, killed in combat with Russian forces.
Dominika Zarzycka/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire
"When It Hits, It Hits"
Yet another rocket alarm had just fallen sent, the fifth of the day — and definitely the last, because midnight was approaching. On our hotel TV, a news channel hummed in the background. After a few days, we paid no mind to the alarm sirens. “When it hits, it hits," said Antoni.
His job was recruiting foreigners to the International Legion, and he had already brought more than 100 of them to fight.
One letter he received read:
“Hail to the Heroes,
I’d like to be recruited for your unit.
I don’t have any military experience or experience with military gear. I am 39 years old and an office worker in a multinational corporation. I know that you need specialists, and not novices. But if I can somehow help you, then I kindly ask you to provide me with information about the recruitment process. I hope that the Ukrainian embassies are strongly engaged in the headhunting process across all countries, and among the best military specialists. God, Honor, Country.
Not an act of bravery
“Stupid, crazy, unbalanced — apparently — but brave? No. There is nothing brave in a person fighting in the war," Lee said, trying to answer my question about what pushed him to go fight in a war abroad. “It wasn’t anything heroic. All of this romantic nonsense is fiction; there is only bloody violence," he said.
“For over 10 years, I dealt with it in the police, although it was different there," he continued. "There, I saw normal people, husbands and wives, parents and children, doing horrible things to each other. But in the war, violence is only self-defense — it has nothing to do with bravery. When you have to run across the battlefield because someone is shooting at you, you don’t do it because you’re brave. You do it because you don’t want to get killed."
I met Lee through a Ukrainian commando, on the anniversary of the war’s outbreak. The Englishman is an inconspicuous man with glasses and a slight beard. He does not reserve anonymity and has no concerns about his safety. He smoked an e-cigarette during the length of our conversation, and smiled the entire time.
For Lee, coming to fight on the front lines was more out of instinct than his own perceived bravery. “My arrival in Ukraine was not an act of bravery. This was a moral imperative," he said. “It seemed natural to me that I have to come. When I’m hungry, I eat, when I’m thirsty, I have a drink, and when I see that something bad is happening in Ukraine and that I could somehow help — I did that."
Lee served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a soldier, and later served in the anti-terrorism unit of the police for 10 years.
In a few days, he and his unit will go to the front, although he does not know exactly when and where. The trip itself doesn't stress Lee out, but the packing drives him crazy.
“See all this junk? How am I supposed to take all of it?” he asked. On the floor, in a cramped room with a bunk and a small washbasin, there are clothes for various weather conditions, various types of camouflage and several weapons, including a Kalashnikov covered in Hello Kitty stickers.
Behind The Enemy
The rocking of the boat was soothing. This is not the first, and probably would not be the last of Lee’s missions.
It’s the middle of the night in enemy territory, as we land on a rocky beach, without night vision, without flashlights. The order was clear: no light. The Russians capture most saboteurs at night, which is when they are on high alert.
Five long, hellish days. The Ukrainian resistance movement provided shelter, but few people spoke English. All this time, the commandos provided the command with data on the location of Russian artillery positions that were shelling Mykolaiv.
They checked the coordinates on Google Maps and sent text messages to commanders, who gave the order to fire. They left behind tons of destroyed Russian equipment.
After five days, the long-awaited message comes — the soldiers can return. The exit happens at night, with the soldiers swimming out and shining their flashlights into the horizon to signal boats. These methods have been used since the times of the Second World War.
“Come in, brother, good work!” Lee heard.
Waves were lapping at the side of the boat. Its rocking was no longer calming.
In the middle of the night, in the middle of the Black Sea, everyone was tired and angry. The boat was half-filled with water. After five days in enemy territory, under constant threat, people’s nerves were beginning to fray.
The waves grew, and every now and then they hit the dinghy and passengers. Where is the next boat? Minutes of hope turned into hours of anticipation. It's here!
The soldiers were too weak and cold to get on board by themselves, so others had to climb down and carry them one-by-one. Wrapped in blankets, the newly-arrived soldiers served their returning brothers coffee. They sat facing each other, silently clutching hot mugs. They looked up. Smiles flashed across their faces.
Soldiers from Ukraine's International Legion after the flooding in Kherson, Ukraine on June 8, 2023.
Daniel Carde/ZUMA Press Wire
The 1000-Dollar Salary
Recently, the International Legion has been the subject of controversy. In March of this year, The New York Times published the findings of an undercover report, which revealed the last names of volunteers who provided false identities or who used the Legion to embezzle money, by, for instance, creating fake charity collections.
One of the most absurd examples of this was the American Ben Lackey, who posed as a US Marine and was also as the deputy manager at the LongHorn Steakhouse restaurant. The Pentagon denied that the American had any military experience, and the restaurant stated that he was just a waiter there, rather than a manager.
Mercenaries do not come here for money
Lackey admitted to lying about this, and said that if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been accepted into the Legion. His LinkedIn profile still has the falsified information on it, including from the restaurant, and describes his role in Ukraine as “medical director."
Today, to serve in the International Legion, potential recruits must apply at the embassy, and only people with solid, proven military experience are accepted.
National volunteer units are also being established, which no longer belong to the Legion structures and are directly subordinated to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Among them is the Polish Volunteer Legion.
“Aside from me, there are two instructors from Sweden," Lee said of his current unit. "They speak better English than me, because I’m from Manchester. We have Ukrainian translators, but many Ukrainians speak fluent English, so we make do. I myself don’t speak Ukrainian. I know a few words, but when I try to say them, my soldiers make fun of me."
The International Legion is financed by the Ukrainian government. Soldiers in the legion earn the equivalent of $1,000 USD per month, with a salary paid in Ukrainian hryvnias. For time spent on the front, members of the Legion are paid three times more.
In the event of a soldier's death, a funeral allowance is paid to the victim's family. In Ukraine itself, $1,000 is a good salary (the national average in 2022 is about $470), but it is not a tempting amount for residents of Western Europe or the USA.
Mercenaries do not come here for money, which speaks to the unique phenomenon taking place in Ukraine, which can only be compared to the volunteer units created in the 1930s in Spain to fight the fascist troops of General Franco. Volunteers in Ukraine sign up for various ideological reasons, and almost never for money.
One British soldier said that he came to Ukraine because he “has demons” from Afghanistan, and wanted to deal with them. “Others came because they believed that they could offer their skills to the Ukrainian cause. Still others were truly psychopaths. That’s what it was like in the beginning; later, we got rid of them," he said.
“Now, the people here are more or less like me. I know another guy from the UK, who joined not too long ago. He’s a regular soldier, not an instructor, a really nice boy. We have a Canadian who is half-Ukrainian. There are also others who came to fight because they have roots here. They want to help as best as they can," he said.
Soldiers resign from the Legion for various reasons. Some were not trained well enough, while others were discouraged by the outdated approach to military command. Some Ukrainian leaders hold onto Soviet methods from World War II, when battles were won by throwing people at the enemy, wave after wave, regardless of losses of life.
Modern combat methods, including NATO's, are completely different. They involve carrying out specific missions, and the life and health of the individual comes first. As a member of the Legion, Lee performed a number of sabotage missions behind enemy lines.
“My former unit, ‘The Black Team,' continues to take on these missions," he said. "One of my friends was hit by a grenade launcher. His name is Michael Ronan; they call him Preacher. The grenade hit him from the side, went right through him and stuck out the other side. The charge didn't explode, the guy was extremely lucky”.
Many among the first wave of volunteers have since resigned after seeing that in war, people really die. The Black Team unit, however, did not fall apart, and none of its soldiers have left because of fear.
New York Times reporters claim that there are currently only about 1,500 soldiers in the Legion, although there is no official data on this. Many Legionnaires who reveal their identity and can be followed on social media have left Ukraine already.
Fitness to Serve
“No, sir," he said. “I don’t have any military experience."
“Have you at least ever been in a fight?” I asked.
“Once," he responded. "When I was living in a dorm, a few boys broke into my room at night and started suffocating me with a pillow. I thought I would die. They held it to me for a few minutes, but they eventually let go."
“And do you think you’re fit to be a soldier?”
“I’m a weapons engineer. I have plans to build three missiles and two mines,” explains Mukesh. "I would like to build such devices for the needs of the Ukrainian army, because I want peace to reign in the world. I don't want to kill anyone. My rockets can explode, but they can also be filled with gas and then incapacitate the enemy. I have plans and appropriate education. I will send you my certificates. Please show them to anyone. I want to enlist.”
Mukesh sent me a certificate which he said proved his skills as a weapons engineer. It was a diploma of completion of an online course on the basics of chemical analysis from the Udemy platform, bought for $12.17 USD.
"You Won't Be Able To"
Lee’s father is originally from a mountain town in Northern England. He was never in the army. During his leave, Lee visited his father and showed him videos from the front for the first time in his life. Not much is visible in the short video, which is a recording of the fighting near Severodonetsk, but shots and explosions can be heard, and the atmosphere of action and danger is apparent.
“What is this?” Lee’s father asked.
“It’s me, dad. And my unit. We’re fighting."
“Who are you fighting against?”
“What are you doing there?”
“Shooting at the Russians, Dad."
“What do you mean, shooting at the Russians?”
“I’m a soldier. In the Ukrainian army. I shoot at the Russians. I kill them."
Lee noticed the change in his father's face. He has been a military man since the age of 16, and he has participated in other wars and police operations. His father knew all about it — but it was the recording of the fighting on the front in Ukraine that shocked him. From that moment on, Lee has not told his father about any of his military activities.
"You can't do it," his father said. "You'll end up in tears." Lee's father did not spare his son bitter words in his youth, and did not show him support.
Today, they do not talk often — just a short phone call once every few weeks to confirm that everything is okay.
“I joined the army so young to prove him wrong. Today, he doesn't humiliate me like he used to. He even supports me, tells me to come back from Ukraine, that he loves me and everything, he wants me to be safe. I don't need to prove anything to him anymore," said Lee.
Thirty-three years later, Lee said goodbye to his own 19-year-old son at the Manchester railway station. He was a soldier, too. They both had tears in their eyes. They embraced in the middle of the platform, surrounded by crowds of people.
“And that's what takes the biggest balls," Lee tells me. “For two grown men to show each other their feelings."
Brothers in arms
After returning to Poland, I hear about the subsequent bombardments of Kyiv. I get a message from Antoni: "Look where they got to." His recording showed a rocket hitting a bridge, where, just a few weeks ago, we had taken a photo together.
“Remember this, we’re brothers in arms!”
A few days pass; then, another text message: "Look what they got." In a photo, I see a collapsed building near the street where we parked our car. Next to it was our hotel, its windows shattered. "When it hits, it hits," Antoni used to say.
What draws men to war? The desire to belong, to build a legendary brotherhood with comrades in arms — or the need to prove oneself and another's worth, test self-confidence and patriotism, earn money or even just curiosity, as in my case.
When I was leaving Ukraine, I said goodbye to Antoni in Lviv. The soldier took a small knife on a chain from his neck and a military cap.
“Here. It’s a present for coming here," he said. He gave me the knife, put the chain around my neck, and gave me a high five. “Remember this, we’re brothers in arms!”
A Facebook post celebrating the anniversary of Lee's stay in Ukraine is full of praise and words of support.
“Only here can I prove that I am actually a soldier. That I am a warrior. Here, it's man-against-man. Not tank-to-tank, not artillery-to-artillery. Of course, these things are there too, but there is more close-quarters combat in a small space. I know I'm in the right place," he said.
Lee does not intend to return to England after the war. He sees his future entirely in Ukraine, and wants to get married and live there permanently.
“My sister told me she hadn't seen me this happy in over 20 years. I had to go to war for her to see something like that in me. I feel like I'm back home. In the barracks, there is mold on the walls, there is no heating, no showers, no hot water. I live worse than some homeless people. But I feel at home. Really."
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