KYIV — A group of 10 special operations forces veterans are staging in Poland and preparing to cross into Ukraine, where they plan to take up President Volodymyr Zelensky on his offer to “join the defense of Ukraine, Europe, and the world,” according to a US Army veteran arranging their passage.
The group, composed of six US citizens, three Brits, and a German, are NATO-trained and experienced in close combat and counterterrorism. They want to be among the first to officially join the new International Legion of the Territorial Defense of Ukraine that Zelensky announced Sunday, according to text messages reviewed by BuzzFeed News. Two former American infantry officers are also making plans to come to Ukraine to provide “leadership” for the group, the Army veteran recruiter said.
As intense fighting raged in the Ukrainian capital for the fourth day and Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered nuclear deterrence forces on high alert, Zelensky urged people around the world who can help fight Moscow’s “vile tactics” to enlist in Ukraine’s armed forces.
“This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules, and peaceful coexistence,” Zelensky said in a statement announcing a decree on the creation of the unit. “Anyone who wants to join the defense of Ukraine, Europe, and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals.”
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The news of an official foreign unit was met with excitement by members of the Georgia National Legion, an English-speaking force of volunteers with Western military experience who train Ukrainian troops and sometimes deploy to the front line with the country’s marines.
“This is what we have waited for. It’s very good,” Levan Pipia, a legion soldier and Georgian army veteran of the 2008 war with Russia, told BuzzFeed News on Sunday.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was quick to respond to the news, saying she supports British nationals who might go to Ukraine to fight “for democracy,” the BBC reported. She said Ukraine’s struggle was one for freedom, “not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe.”
Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to Ukraine since Russia’s war against the country began in 2014. While most of them have been Russians and citizens of other former Soviet republics, hundreds have come from the European Union, roughly 40 have arrived from the US, and at least 12 from the UK, according to BuzzFeed News’ reporting and independent research done by experts who track such fighters.
The Western foreigners who have come to Ukraine are a motley crew. There are the idealists who believe their own countries aren’t doing enough to help the Ukrainians secure their freedom. There are the tourists who hop from conflict to conflict seeking adventure, war stories, and money. And then there are the extremists who have seen opportunities to link up with far-right paramilitary groups fighting in Ukraine. Of course, some of the foreigners fit into more than one category.
BuzzFeed News met Aiden Aslin, a 27-year-old British citizen who is serving his fourth year in the Ukrainian marines, at the eastern front line in Pavlopil in January. “I just want to support the Ukrainian state, the people, and help them fight for their sovereignty and independence,” he said.
In the weeks since Aslin’s story was published, dozens of men from the US, the UK, and European Union nations have emailed BuzzFeed News about the story and said they were interested in following in his footsteps.
Some in Ukraine’s military see the foreign fighters as filling the void of official Western military boots on the ground in Ukraine. President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that American forces will not be deployed to the country to fight alongside Ukrainians. The US withdrew military trainers from western Ukraine earlier this month.
In a briefing with reporters Sunday, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba invited foreigners interested in joining the international unit to contact foreign diplomatic missions of Ukraine in their respective countries.
“Now these people have a legal right and legal framework to fight under the chain of command of the armed forces of Ukraine,” he said. “Their access to Ukraine will be facilitated to the maximum extent possible.”
He said that the closure of airports due to Russian missiles presented a logistical challenge and that land crossings from EU countries are now the only way into Ukraine. “But we will help you,” he said.
He added: “Together we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat Putin, too.”