Americans volunteering in Ukraine find fellowship and frustration amidst the fighting

Ukrainian State Emergency Service via AP

We don’t know exactly how many U.S. citizens are on the ground and serving as volunteers in the Ukrainian military, but as of a couple of weeks ago the Ukrainian government had said they’d heard from at least three thousand Americans who were ready to sign up to fight, and we know that at least some of them have made it to the war-ravaged nation.

The Washington Post published an in-depth piece on a few of those Americans on Sunday, and the narrative that emerged from reporter Sudarsan Raghavan is one of frustration and chaos, with at least one volunteer complaining that he was being asked to defend Kyiv without any arms or ammo.

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.”

One of Adam’s problems is the fact that he doesn’t have any combat experience. While the Ukrainian government didn’t specifically demand experienced fighters when it first announced the formation of the International Legion, the military says it is only looking for those with combat experience.

Another issue? Government bureaucracy crashing into the chaos of modern warfare; including disrupted supply lines and communications issues.

“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.”

While some Americans who made it to Ukraine have vented their frustrations or even fled the country in disillusionment, there are others who believe they’re where they’re supposed to be.

Three U.S. volunteer fighters who have risked their lives alongside Ukrainian soldiers said they had joined the struggle against Russian forces to stop civilians suffering and in the name of freedom.

The group, including a female college student from New York who works at JFK airport, spoke of their narrow escape after they said the vehicle they were travelling in hit a land mine on Sunday on the frontline near the capital Kyiv.

Reuters could not independently verify the identity of the three foreign fighters nor their description of the incident.

A Ukrainian combatant who was with the three at the time was being treated at Brovary Hospital on the outskirts of the capital after suffering serious injuries.

“We thought he was dead, he was slumped over and unresponsive,” Alexis Antilla, who was acting as a combat medic for the team of fighters and was herself injured in the explosion, told Reuters at the hospital.

The Biden administration has warned Americans against traveling to Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion, but that clearly hasn’t dissuaded every interested party from heading overseas. Now that Russia’s initial thrust into Ukraine has devolved into siege warfare with the grim and deadly results captured in a steady stream of videos posted to social media, we may well see faltering interest on the part of foreign fighters. If nothing else, those volunteers will now have a better idea of what exactly they’re signing up for.

For her part, Antilla told Reuters that she was ready to get back to the front as soon as she was able; a sentiment echoed by the two other Americans in her group.

Red Taylor, from Tennessee, said that the Ukrainian with them spoke good English and spotted the landmine but that the group “could not even count a second between the time he said there are landmines everywhere and the ‘boom'”.

Their commander, who only gave his name as Rob and said he was from Connecticut, has been fighting in Ukraine for three weeks.

“I don’t like what they are doing to the civilians and what they are doing to all these people. My boys and me feel the same. There has to be justice in this world for people that want to live free, and that’s what we fight for,” he said.

It’s hard to argue with that logic, even if I wanted to. It does sound like, however, if folks don’t have the experience to be of use on the battlefield, they’d probably be better off volunteering on the humanitarian side of things if they’re intent on serving in some capacity. The will to fight is important, but the skills involved matter too.