The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No gun. No helmet. No action: The frustrations of some novice Americans who signed up to fight in Ukraine.

Foreign fighters who came to Ukraine to join a new international legion set up to fight Russian forces, seen in Kyiv on March 13. From left to right: Kelso, from Montana; Mehmet, from Germany; Adam, from a Los Angeles suburb; Driven, from Washington state; Nile and Mike from Sweden. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Before he decided to buy a one-way plane ticket to Ukraine, Adam worked two jobs, as a security guard and as a cashier at a dollar store. He owned guns and fired them at shooting ranges, but the only fighting he had ever done was in mixed martial arts classes.

That didn’t stop the tall, lanky 24-year-old from Thousand Oaks, a Los Angeles suburb, from flying to this war-torn capital earlier this month. He joined a new international legion set up to fight Russian forces about 15 miles outside the city.

Adam, sporting camouflage pants, is unfazed by his inexperience in combat. He will rely, he said, on sheer determination — to save Ukraine and protect American values.

“Democracy and freedom are very important to the whole world,” said Adam, seated in the lobby of a Kyiv hotel, along with other foreigners dressed in their new military camouflage who have joined his unit. “What [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is doing is simply wrong. And Ukraine is the underdog, so they need help.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, thousands of Americans and other foreign nationals have signed up to fight for Ukraine, answering a call to action by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Now, with the conflict in its fourth week, a growing number of foreign volunteers are flowing into the capital, signing contracts and receiving weapons and combat training before getting deployed to one of the numerous front lines of the war.

After she left the military, U.S. Army veteran Anja Osmon went to Iraq to fight against the Islamic State. Now she says she will volunteer in Ukraine. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

They have been compared to the 32,000 foreigners, mostly Americans and Europeans, many of them equally unprepared, who joined the republican forces in Spain’s 1936-39 civil war. That conflict became a losing battle against nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, with the support of Nazi Germany and the fascist Italian government of Benito Mussolini.

In Ukraine’s brutal modern war, though, the romance of adventure and political convictions can quickly vanish as volunteers get pounded by airstrikes, Grad rockets and artillery shells, or engage in urban warfare on the streets of cities.

While some experienced American veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are said to be among the volunteers, many of these would-be fighters, like Adam, are novices at best.

They say they do share a sense of righteous conviction. They’ve seen the images of civilians being killed by Russian bombardments, and like those who went to Spain, they believe they are on the right side of history.

“I’ve got very little military experience, but I am willing to go and fight and die with this guy,” said Brian, a Canadian business analyst, referring to Adam standing nearby, “because my Ukrainian relatives are here.”

“I have been a hunter all my life,” Brian said. “I got assigned to a sniper team here. I am going to kill every ... Russian I can,” he said, using an expletive to describe Russians.

“Never killed a man in my life, but ... I am going to enjoy [it].”

All the foreign volunteers interviewed for this article did not want their last names to be used. Some were concerned about their security, while others wanted to protect their relatives or had not yet told their families they were in Ukraine to fight the Russians.

It remains unclear what added utility the arriving foreign recruits can bring as soldiers, medical aides or logistics personnel on the battlefields.

And the government’s volunteer program, at times, appears to be disorganized, according to interviews with five volunteers and an ethnic Georgian commander who has enlisted Americans and other foreigners into his own paramilitary force in Ukraine. Some would-be fighters are processed in their home nations. Others are landing in the capital without contacts or speaking the language, hoping that someone will get them trained and shipped to the front.

If nothing else, the foreigners may be useful for public relations purposes, demonstrating the global support for Ukraine.

“This is a way of tying in populations from other countries to the Ukrainian war and the outcome of the war,” said Ilmari Kaihko, an associate professor of war studies at the Swedish Defense University who has researched Ukraine’s conflict. “The political might be more important in the long term than the actual military contribution.”

But there is concern that some of these American and other Western volunteers could become liabilities on the battlefield. If Americans get captured by Russian forces, they could become fodder for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, held up as evidence that Ukraine’s resistance is really an American and Western plot. If they get killed, it could bring more pressure on the United States to retaliate.

Adam just wants to get on the battlefield as soon as possible. His first choice, he said, is to be a medic because he took a first aid class in the United States, he said. His second choice?

“A sniper,” he said.

He has no experience at either job.

In the days after the Feb. 24 invasion, Adam said, he couldn’t stop watching the news. As a Jew with dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, he said he saw similarities between the Russian assault on Ukraine and Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. He believed that both Ukraine and Israel were “being attacked unprovoked” and that both nations needed more military help to fight their enemies.

He was working odd jobs and getting a degree in automotive technology at a local community college in the San Fernando Valley. “Not much going on at home,” Adam said.

He said he liked “guns, cars, building stuff, basketball, sports and MMA,” referring to mixed martial arts, the sport where fighters battle inside a cage. At shooting ranges, Adam said, he would “shoot moving targets and practice pulling out my weapon and reloading.”

For months, he was planning to move to Israel and join the Israel Defense Forces, he said. But he decided to make a stop in Ukraine first.

Adam didn’t know much about the country, but he felt he knew Eastern Europe because his family descended from Polish and Lithuanian immigrants. He didn’t tell his parents, his three sisters and brother that he was going to fight the Russians, he said. He told them instead that he was going to help Ukrainian refugees entering Poland.

He didn’t reach out to the Ukrainian Embassy or consulate. Nor did he log into its recruitment website, fightforUA.org, where foreign volunteers are supposed to register and learn about the process of joining Ukraine’s armed forces, Adam said.

“I only found out about fightforUA.org when I was already here,” he said.

He flew to Istanbul and then to Warsaw. He hitched a ride to the border and crossed into Ukraine, passing through the western city of Lviv and finally reaching Kyiv.

As many as 20,000 foreigners have expressed interest in joining the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, as it is officially called, according to the Ukrainian government. That includes an estimated 4,000 Americans, an official with the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington told The Washington Post last week.

They had to sign contracts saying they will fight until the end of the war. Other volunteers said they were told the contracts meant Geneva Convention rules would apply if they get captured or killed, though experts say it’s unclear if they would be treated with full prisoner of war status.

Each volunteer would receive a salary of roughly $3,000 a month, the same as a soldier, said Yaroslav, a Ukrainian military officer and head organizer of the International Legion in western Ukraine who declined to give his last name for security reasons.

There are already concerns about the international legion. Volunteers complain of delays in contracts, extensive paperwork, not getting weapons or training quickly enough, and days of waiting before getting assigned to battlefield units.

“There is a big bureaucracy, even now when there is war, and those guys have to experience that bureaucracy,” said Mamuka Mamulashvili, commander of the Georgian National Legion, a paramilitary force that has been fighting Russian separatists and forces in eastern Ukraine for eight years. “For me, it seems very amateur.”

He said “there is a very big flow” of inexperienced Americans and foreigners wanting to fight in Ukraine. “We cannot just take some guy from Brooklyn who wants to fight on the front line,” he said, adding that anyone with no military experience is turned away from his force.

Yaroslav says they are not disorganized. He said there is a thorough vetting process and only those with battlefield experience are allowed to fight.

“When they don’t have any experience, they aren’t useful here. We tell them they can be volunteers for something else.”

Foreigners can also join other Ukrainian militias that have lower requirements to join and allow volunteers to leave more easily for family or work reasons. All could face risks on the battlefield, and not just from bullets and bombs: A spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Igor Konashenkov, recently described the foreign volunteers as “mercenaries” who, if caught, could be “prosecuted as criminals.”

Legally, Americans can take part in another country’s war. But the Biden administration has urged U.S. military veterans and other Americans not to join the Ukrainian forces and to leave if they are already in the country.

Kelso, another volunteer, didn’t listen. The Montana-born construction worker left his job after seeing on the news “innocent civilians being directly targeted and attacked,” said the tall, slim former U.S. soldier, who was also in Adam’s group of foreign volunteers.

He said he had served in the U.S. Army for four years after high school, but had never seen combat. “This is my first war,” Kelso said.

He registered on the Ukrainian government’s recruitment website and filled out the forms. But he didn’t hear back for days. “I am not going to wait for an email response while there are people dying,” he said.

So, with some money saved, he paid $700 for a one-way flight to Poland. He carried warm clothes, a sleeping bag, medical supplies, family photos and a bulletproof vest a friend had donated. When he arrived at the border, he was connected to people with the international legion, he said.

“I do believe that God is on our side here,” Kelso said. “We are on the side of good. What the Russians brought is pure evil.”

Steps away stood other volunteers, among them a German who said he had served in Afghanistan for 4½ months with the German military, part of the NATO security forces there, and a Scottish grandfather who said he was a British army veteran and that he had fought against the Islamic State in Syria with the YPG, or the People’s Protection Units, a mainly Kurdish militia.

Some have been waiting for nearly 10 days for their contracts and other paperwork to be approved.

Zelensky “said we would be welcome here and we would be armed and ready to go,” said Rob, 61, the grandfather from Edinburgh. “We should be at the front lines. There are young Ukrainians who are at this moment dying. And we are here.”

“I came here to fight for Ukraine,” Rob said.

Adam has not told his mother that he’s part of a fighting unit, despite her concerns about his well-being expressed in messages on WhatsApp.

“I don’t really need her to ruin my mental aspect right now,” Adam said. “I am here on a mission.”

Minutes later came the sound of an air raid siren, from an app on Adam’s phone, and a message came up in Ukrainian. “I can’t read it,” Adam said. “But I know there is a missile somewhere.”

On Saturday, when reached by phone, Adam was angry and emotional. Despite the legion’s assurances of proper vetting, he was now in the northern section of the capital with a territorial defense unit mostly composed of Ukrainian civilians turned militiamen.

Adam still hadn’t received a bulletproof vest, a helmet — or a weapon. And he could hear the sounds of shelling, he said.

“I have been here 15 days now and still nothing is happening,” he said in a phone interview. “I am not putting up with that.”

“They expect me to guard the base with no guns, no armor, no vest, no helmet and no knowledge of the Ukrainian language,” he continued. “It makes absolutely no sense. I am not going to stand around and get hit with a missile with no guns or nothing. If am going to die, I’d rather get to the front line and do that.”

So he was now trying to join another unit closer to the front line.

Adam said he intended to get as close as possible to the city of Irpin on Kyiv’s northern fringes, a volatile battle zone where three journalists were recently killed.

“I got all the way here by myself. I will be just fine,” he said.

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