PAVLOPIL, Ukraine — He walked and talked and dressed like a Ukrainian soldier — and according to a contract with its armed forces, he is one. But Private Aiden “Johnny” Aslin is a British citizen with a Midlands accent and no formal orders from his home government to be fighting on the battlefields of the Donbas.
“It was my own decision to come here,” the 27-year-old told BuzzFeed News in this war-ravaged village, just north of the Sea of Azov. As he spoke, explosions from landmines being cleared in a nearby field reverberated. “I just want to support the Ukrainian state, the people, and help them fight for their sovereignty and independence,” he added.
"I just want to...help them fight for their sovereignty and independence."
Aslin, who has served with Ukraine's marines since September 2018 and just extended his contract for a fourth year, is one of the thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to Ukraine since the war began in 2014 to fight for one side or the other. Most of them have been Russians and citizens of other former Soviet republics, and most joined unofficial volunteer units. But 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 like Aslin who believe their own countries aren’t doing enough to help the Ukrainians secure their freedom and want to do what they can to help fight against Russian aggression against its former subject. There are the tourists who hop from conflict to conflict seeking adventure and war stories as much as 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.
The Ukrainian military has made little effort on its own to recruit them, instead letting any interested foreigners simply come or leaving it to word of mouth. (Ukraine did, however, adopt legislation in 2015 allowing foreigners to officially serve in its regular armed forces, and it created a path to citizenship for those who complete a three-year contract.) But as Russia masses more than 100,000 troops around Ukraine in preparation for what President Joe Biden warned Thursday is likely to be a large-scale attack in February, the Ukrainian military has approved limited recruitment and vetting of prospective foreign fighters.
“We have the green light,” Mamuka Mamulashvili, a former Georgian military officer who now commands an English-speaking force of volunteer fighters known as the Georgia National Legion, told BuzzFeed News this week. “We are recruiting professionals.”
More than 300 Western foreigners have passed through the ranks of the Legion since its inception in 2014. Many of them came from NATO countries and with prior military experience. “If they all came at once we’d have a very good battalion,” said Mamulashvili, who fought the Russian army as a teenager in Abkhazia, a separatist Georgian enclave backed by Moscow.
But in recent years, what had been a steady stream of foreigners slowed to a trickle. Many Westerners, Mamulashvili said, were turned off by the idea of joining what had become a war of attrition, a grinding — even boring at times — trench battle reminiscent of the First and Second World Wars dug into a frozen front line.
Now the looming threat of a new assault by Russia has spurred fresh interest. Mamulashvili said he has received more than 30 inquiries “mostly from the US and the UK” and “one from Germany” in the past two weeks alone.
“I am from the United States and wish to do something fulfilling and bigger than myself,” read one message sent this month that was seen by BuzzFeed News.
“How does an American join? I want to fight for whats right im prior service i started taking basic russian classes im in decent shape and i have a good aim and can help train,” another inquiry read.
“I was a combat medic in the us army infantry as well as training in the police academy. I'm a dual US and Ukraine citizen,” yet another interested man wrote.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and General Staff of the Armed Forces declined to comment on their recruiting efforts and the number of foreigners currently enlisted in the country’s armed forces. But a press officer for the Joint Forces Operation, as the military’s operation in eastern Ukraine is known, told BuzzFeed News that two British men, including Aslin, and one American man were serving in the area. The press officer said they were of value to their units due to their previous military experience, even if some of it was not in official military structures, and that their presence helped keep up the morale of their Ukrainian comrades.
In emailed comments, a State Department spokesperson didn’t address the issue of US citizens fighting here but suggested they should heed the department’s advice to leave the country. “We urge US citizens not to travel to Ukraine and have advised US citizens in Ukraine that they should consider departing now,” the official said.
The UK Foreign Office referred questions to the Ministry of Defence, which did not provide comments. In 2017, a British court convicted UK citizen Benjamin Stimson on terrorism charges for fighting on the Russia-backed side of the war.
On Thursday, the US took the next step in diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions, delivering a formal response to Russia's demands that NATO pull back troops from Eastern Europe and ban Ukraine from ever joining the Western military alliance. Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted that Kyiv had seen the Biden administration’s written reply before it was sent over and was happy with it. The Russians, however, have said they are displeased.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Washington “unequivocally rejected the main concerns that were set out by the Russian Federation.”
“Based on this, of course, there are not many reasons for optimism,” he added.
To some in Ukraine’s military, the foreign fighters fill the role of Western boots on the ground that they would like to see here. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden ordered 8,500 troops on heightened alert to deploy to NATO member countries such as Poland and Romania in Eastern Europe. The US has provided more than $2.7 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including lethal aid and training, since 2014. A third delivery of the latest $200 million package arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday. It included about 300 Javelin anti-tank systems and missiles as well as “bunker busters” and smaller ammunition. The UK has also provided significant security assistance, including, in recent days, anti-armor missiles and, since 2015, British personnel to train upwards of 21,000 Ukrainian troops.
But both countries have stopped short of sending troops to fight alongside Ukrainian soldiers, and Biden has said repeatedly amid Russia’s latest buildup that such an option is not on the table.
But among the new prospects who are considering travel to the front on their own is 26-year-old Detroit resident Tychus. He asked that his nickname be used in place of his legal name for security reasons and because he had not yet discussed his idea to come fight in Ukraine with his family.
Tychus claims he is a Marine veteran who served a year in the corps and was medically separated in 2016. While working in a security job and playing online games with Ukrainians in his downtime, he came to learn more about the ongoing war against Russia and its separatist proxies in the Donbas region. Two weeks ago, he reached out to Mamulashvili to ask about joining the Georgian National Legion because he wanted to continue his military service and has grown frustrated by what he believes is a meager US response to the deepening crisis in Ukraine.
“If you look at Ukraine compared to Russia it’s much, much smaller. It’s literally the bigger guy picking on the little guy,” he said. “It’s not about ideology or politics. Don’t call me a soldier of fortune because I’m not. The pay is not what I should be getting. I’m just sick of what’s happening.
“Ukrainians are fighting for what America was fighting for — freedom.”
“Ukrainians are fighting for what America was fighting for — freedom.”
Applications for foreigners to join the official military have taken up to four months to process in the past, but Aslin said it was recently streamlined. On his Instagram account, where he goes by the name CossackGundi (a mashup of the Ukrainian term for the warriors who roamed its steppe lands and a Kurdish term for villager, which he picked up while fighting for two years alongside the Kurds against ISIS in Syria), he regularly shares photos and videos from the front line with his 30,000 followers.
In recent weeks, Aslin said, he’s received hundreds of DMs from people interested in joining him. He is careful not to call what he does recruiting, but he does provide advice on how to follow in his footsteps. His message to prospective fighters is clear: “We take an oath to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”
“Guys need to realize they can’t come out here expecting to be able to push their own agenda,” he said. “The Ukrainian people come first before any personal bullshit.”
Experts have warned that Ukraine has become a destination and training ground for Western far-right paramilitary groups who might want to bring what they’ve learned back home.
Craig Lang, a US Army veteran who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before being dishonorably discharged for going AWOL and allegedly threatening the life of his ex-wife, was a thrill-seeker who sought military adventure on three continents. He came to Ukraine as a volunteer in the far-right paramilitary unit Right Sector but also spent two months in the Ukrainian army. While here, colleagues say, he was radicalized, and US authorities have investigated him for possible war crimes against Ukrainians. When he returned to the US, authorities allege, he and another American man whom he had met in Right Sector shot to death and robbed a Florida couple to fund their next foreign military adventure; the pair wanted to go to Venezuela, where they hoped to link up with rebels fighting to overthrow the country’s socialist government. Lang eventually escaped law enforcement and is now in Kyiv, fighting extradition. He denies the charges against him.
Lang’s story cast a long shadow over Ukraine and the Georgian National Legion, of which he was briefly a member.
“We are very careful about Americans now because of the Craig Lang story,” Mamulashvili said. For two years, his unit declined applicants from the US. But beginning this week, he will reconsider them for the legion. “I only accept them with proof that they have no legal issues in the US,” he claimed.
Many foreigners looking for a war seek out Ukraine for its low barrier to entry. There are few visa restrictions for many Western visitors, who are generally welcomed here. Ukraine is a relatively affordable country that enjoys connections with much of the rest of Europe. And the war zone is accessible by the Intercity “fast train” from Kyiv. Moreover, groups like the Georgian National Legion help pave the way for people to sign official contracts with the Ukrainian military.
BuzzFeed News observed a training at the legion base beside an ice hockey rink on the outskirts of Kyiv this month. The foreign fighters moved swiftly and efficiently through an abandoned building that resembled the battle-ruined infrastructure of some of the Donbas, practicing capturing enemy fighters and killing a sniper positioned in a window.
Emmanuel Bazanji, a former Albanian army soldier who’s now a member of the legion, said he felt at home with the group and was here fighting because he believes Ukraine is a “bulwark” of freedom and democracy against authoritarianism. If Russia were to capture Ukraine, he said, “it won’t stop here.”
Aslin, whose youthful face is hidden behind a full beard, agreed. But the fight for him is also personal. While here, he met a Ukrainian woman, and they’re now engaged. When his contract expires late this spring, he hopes to settle in a nearby city and start a life in Ukraine. And that is what’s motivating him right now as Russia threatens a new invasion.
“I do think that Ukraine, if it does happen, we will give them a good fight,” Aslin said. “We will give them a good bloody nose.”●
Inna Varenytsia contributed reporting.