In the beginning there was a call for help and the impression of superiority: in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on foreign soldiers to help his country defend against Putin’s troops. Many observers agreed that the invaders would force the allegedly completely inferior Ukrainian army to capitulate within a few weeks.
So the country could use all the help it gets. As the New York Times reports, citing Zelensky’s adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, an estimated 1,000 foreign soldiers took part in the fighting on the Ukrainian side in the first four months of the war. Hundreds or maybe thousands more would have helped in the war without shooting, for example by treating wounded soldiers.
The numbers are questionable. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, for example, spoke at the very beginning of the war, six days after the start of the invasion, of “more than 1,000 people” who had come to Ukraine from “16 countries around the world”.
No one knows the exact details, as there is no central office in Ukraine for the administration of the volunteers. And the start was correspondingly chaotic. Many of the volunteers flew to Poland and from there traveled by train or bus to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. They wanted to find their way to the front, but there were no official contacts.
Some were eventually referred to the official recruitment offices and were therefore able to join the Ukrainian combat units, while others left frustrated.
Some of the foreign soldiers brought their military equipment to Ukraine, but no combat experience. But even those who were veterans from the USA or the UK and who had fought in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not prepared for what was to happen in the fight against the Russian troops.
Matthew Robinson from the UK had worked for the US military in Iraq. In Ukraine, he helped train Ukrainian soldiers across the country and was also deployed to the front lines in the east. Here the fighters are almost constantly exposed to the attacks of the Russian artillery, so they are fired at by large-caliber guns and rocket weapons. Many of the soldiers may only know these attacks from video games, which includes the veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Unless you fought in World War II, where else do you want that experience?” Matthew Robinson told the New York Times.
Another difference to the other modern wars is the lack of air support. In the Ukraine, the soldiers in the fight against the Russian troops are largely on their own, without a large military apparatus in the background that can intervene from the air if desired – and unfortunately without a regular supply of food, writes the US newspaper.
“It’s much more intense than Afghanistan,” former US paratrooper Brian describes his experience in the war against the invaders from Russia to the newspaper. “This is fight, fight.”
The war may shock the foreign aid workers, but their integration into the Ukrainian army seems to be better organized now than it was at the beginning. The most prominent group of foreign soldiers, the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, was created directly by the Ukrainian government.
According to their spokesman, Damien Magrou, this force consists largely of American and British soldiers. In the meantime, only soldiers with war experience would be accepted, and the applicants would also be checked for their psychological suitability and should not have represented any extremist views.
Each of them would then sign a contract with the Ukrainian army and be assigned to units composed of foreign non-commissioned officers and Ukrainian officers. The foreign soldiers get the same pay as their Ukrainian comrades.
Not all helpers are the same – this experience does not only refer to the experience of foreign soldiers coming to Ukraine. The soldiers also clearly differ from each other in their views. The New York Times spoke of two front-line recruits who reported on their meeting with American and Scandinavian members of the Aryan Brotherhood in Ukraine.
The Aryan Brotherhood is a racist and neo-Nazi American gang and its members apparently headed to the battlefield here.
French soldier Wilfried Blériot, a fallen member of the International Legion for the Defense, was photographed wearing a symbol and shirt of the Misanthropic Division – a neo-Nazi network based in Ukraine. Allegedly, however, he did not know what the Misanthropic Division stood for.
How big is the influence that foreign soldiers actually have on the course of the war? Can they become a crucial factor in Ukraine’s defense, like the West’s relentless demands for arms supplies and economic sanctions against Russia by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?
And is it more about helping in the battles or is it more of a PR effort, about promoting further arms support for Ukraine in the sometimes very professionally shot videos that the International Legion distributes?
There is no answer to that yet. In any case, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s adviser Oleksiy Arestovych recently praised the foreign soldiers who fought in the city of Sievarodonetsk in Luhansk. At the end of June, the Ukrainian army withdrew from the previously heavily contested city in eastern Ukraine. But the “motivation, professionalism and their preparation for urban warfare” of the foreign fighters played an important role in holding back the Russian troops for so long.
It is also unclear how many foreign soldiers have died in Ukraine so far. The information is limited to individual cases that have become known. Among them is Björn C. from Brandenburg, whose death was announced in early June. At least four American soldiers are said to have died. On June 9, Russia sentenced three captured foreign soldiers to death.