A recently jobless police officer from North Carolina. A Marine Corps veteran from Maryland. A paramedic from Washington State. Thousands of Americans have volunteered to fight the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All say they are ready to die to defend a country that’s not the United States.
Americans make up about 20 percent of the estimated 20,000 applicants to take up arms since president Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a public appeal for foreigners to help defend his country just weeks ago. Thousands more are struggling to negotiate the logistical hurdles to joining the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, which has been taking international fighters since Russia breached Ukraine’s borders in 2014.
But would-be volunteers are finding that the route from their U.S. hometowns to the war-scarred neighborhoods of Mariupol or Kyiv is complicated by bad information, confusing laws, language barriers, equipment issues and more.
Heeding the call
While the United States hasn’t seen its citizens signing up for foreign wars in these numbers since perhaps the Spanish Civil War, the practice has remained in other parts of the world, even for internal conflicts.
“Volunteering for other people’s wars is far more common than you might expect,” said David Malet, a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, who has been researching foreign fighters since 2005. “We can find foreign fighters in more than 25 percent of the civil wars over the last 200 years.”
The Ukrainian military has tried to make it simple to volunteer for its international legion. A Google form takes a volunteer’s name, email address, and some rudimentary information on their military and combat experience.
But volunteers complain of weeks without responses, endlessly ringing phones and confusing instructions. Some opt to just fly to Europe to figure things out when they get there.
“I am trying to figure out how to bring my rifle and sidearm with me”
In groups on Reddit, Facebook and Discord, American would-be volunteers strategize on the issues they face before leaving: updating or obtaining passports, locating and choosing gear, and determining whether they have sufficient combat experience.
“And is it true they have no weapons for the Legion and are also signing jackholes up with no military experience? I really don’t want to run around with idealist [civilians] who have absolutely no clue what they are getting into while also not having a rifle,” asked a person claiming to be an experienced Marine veteran on Facebook, frustrated with the lack of reliable information.
“I am trying to figure out how to bring my rifle and sidearm with me due to the extra capability it provides me. Mostly looking at flying into Warsaw and taking the train to Ukraine. Please advise,” posted one person claiming to be a specialist in unconventional warfare who had been accepted by the Ukrainian international legion.
Many ask questions about obtaining or renewing a passport, suggesting that for many would-be volunteers, going to Ukraine might be their first international trip for quite some time, or perhaps ever. “It makes me think I won’t make it in time,” wrote one Reddit user lamenting the long wait to receive his passport. “And I couldn’t help cause I was a tad late on scoring a booklet to allow me to leave the US That’d kill me tbh.”
The problems facing many American volunteers on the other side of the Atlantic are even more challenging, particularly their lack of Ukrainian or Russian language skills. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans speak either Russian or Ukrainian, according to U.S. census data. The languages can sound almost indistinguishable to an unfamiliar ear.
To overcome this, potential volunteers online swap links to free Ukrainian language courses on Duolingo and Spotify. And Ukrainian authorities try to help, too: Defense officials there say they try to place English-speaking legion troops in units with other English speakers.
“No money … no experience … no research … no passport … But PUT ME IN COACH”
The official International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine website says foreign citizens can join “if you have combat experience, or want to gain it standing with the brave defenders of Ukraine.”
An International Legion spokesperson clarified that position recently. “We don’t need any more people without military experience. What we need are experienced, seasoned fighters,” said Damien Magrou, spokesperson for the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, in a March 15 interview with CTV.
“The others don’t know what they are getting themselves into — and when they find out, they want to go home,” one Ukrainian general said recently. “We need specialized skills — especially snipers.”
A stickied post on the subreddit r/VolunteersForUkraine, which has 43,000 members, has advice for the “no money … no experience … no research … no passport … But PUT ME IN COACH” types:
“You are likely more of a liability than anything and would be draining resources. If you haven’t lived or survived a conflict / post disaster zone then you are a liability.” In the forum, users debate an appropriate level of experience, from “I’ve gone to the range a few times” to seasoned veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is probably a really good thing for the volunteers, because a number have reported that they are being thrown into front-line combat with minimal preparation,” said David Malet, “And this is something that happens to foreign fighters throughout history: Local commanders send the ones without needed skills out as cannon fodder.” The International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine did not respond to requests for comment.
Volunteers with verifiable skills can receive help in their journey. Last month, technology executive Anthony Capone offered to pay travel and equipment costs for medics and those with combat experience, through an effort he’s set up called Ukrainian Democracy LLC. He says the group has received over 1,000 applicants so far. Its website requests volunteers upload paperwork confirming they are licensed EMTs or paramedics, or were discharged from the military.
Upon arriving in Ukraine, the International Legion requires volunteers to sign a contract vowing to fight as long as martial law is declared in the country, which by Ukrainian law can last only as long as the conflict, according to an International Legion spokesperson.
Fighters are not supposed to leave before then, but the legion is accommodating some who need to leave for personal reasons. Social media posts that have gone viral claim the legion confiscates passports of foreign fighters, though a legion spokesperson has said that is not true.
The grim realities of war can arrive without warning. On March 13, a Russian missile strike destroyed the Yavoriv military training base, killing dozens. The base served as a training ground and gathering point for foreign volunteers, and may have hosted as many as 1,000. Many volunteers left following the strike, an Army veteran told Task & Purpose.
Volunteers have complained about long waits to get weapons, insufficient or no body armor, or helmets and mountains of paperwork. Frustration is clear in online organizing groups as people try to determine the Transportation Security Administration rules around body armor, scopes and other items that may be export-controlled.
“If they are veterans and have something lined up before coming to Ukraine, they will get a spot and will fight rather soon. If not, then it’s a bit of a chaotic lottery and not everyone will be happy,” said Kacper Rekawek, a fellow at the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, who has spent years researching volunteers and extremism in Ukraine.
Another uncomfortable facet of fighting in Ukraine can be the company. The presence of a previously overt neo-Nazi militia defending Ukraine in the conflict has attracted and recruited far-right fighters from around the world, but experts say those fighters are less prevalent now than in years past, when the militia, known as the Azov Battalion, was folded into the Ukrainian military.
Atop the physical risks of participating in a war, there is legal risk that accompanies joining another country’s military. United States citizens may be able to join Ukraine’s force without losing their passport, but it’s less clear for others.
A South Korean Navy veteran and YouTube star may lose his passport after traveling to Ukraine to fight without his country’s permission, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, and he may even face criminal charges.
British volunteers may be breaking an 1870 law saying it is illegal to enlist in a foreign army at war with a country at peace with the U.K., although it seems repercussions for British volunteers are unlikely. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss surprised many on Feb. 27, when she encouraged Britons to join the fight, although she later said there were “better ways” to support Ukraine, like donating money.
Technically speaking, it’s not illegal for Americans to join another country’s war unless they’re fighting against the United States, as Joshua Keating has reported. But the White House has advised American citizens against it.
“We’ve been very clear for some time, of course, in calling on Americans who may be — may have been resident in Ukraine to leave, and making clear to Americans who may be thinking of traveling there not to go,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters when asked about Americans interested in fighting for Ukraine. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.
“We still do not believe that Ukraine is a safe place for Americans to go,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told a press briefing March 7. “We urge them not to go. And if any are still there, we urge them to leave.”
Perhaps the greatest potential risk from volunteer fighters in Ukraine is the opportunity they provide to expand the scope of the war. An American getting killed by Russian forces could provide Russia with fodder for propaganda. As a worst case, it could potentially draw the United States deeper into the conflict.
For its part, Russia has warned foreign fighters won’t get the same treatment as captured Ukrainian soldiers.
“I wish to make an official statement that none of the mercenaries the West is sending to Ukraine to fight for the nationalist regime in Kyiv can be considered as combatants in accordance with international humanitarian law or enjoy the status of prisoners of war,” Russian Defense Ministry Representative Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said on March 4, according to the Russian state-owned media outlet TASS. “At best, they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals. We are urging all foreign citizens who may have plans to go and fight for Kyiv’s nationalist regime to think a dozen times before getting on the way.”
The Russian army has has relied on foreign fighters to assist its operation. Two weeks into the Russian invasion, Russia’s defense minister announced that 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East were ready to fight in the Donbas. Mercenaries associated with Wagner Group, a private army that has faced accusations of war crimes in Syria and Libya, also appear to be present and fighting in the country.
On Monday, Konashenkov warned there could be more attacks on facilities known to house foreign fighters: “We know all locations of foreign mercenaries in Ukraine. More surgical strikes will continue to be delivered against them, like the one carried out on March 13, against the training centers in Starichi and at the Yavorovsky proving ground. Let me warn once again that the mercenaries will see no mercy wherever they may be in Ukraine’s territory.”
Joshua Keating contributed to this report.