Tuesday, November 28

‘I don’t like bullies’: British volunteers tell why they’re fighting for Ukraine | Ukraine

The wail of an air-raid siren sends the group of Ukraine’s foreign fighters, including three British citizens, hurrying inside at their training camp in a secret location in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

Within the relative safety of a sturdy building, the 17 men amble around, chatting until the alarm passes and their military exercises can summarize.

Soon, though, there will be no such hiding place. The Britons and their brothers in arms – from countries including the US, Canada, Norway, Italy and France – have completed their five weeks of training and will be sent to the frontline as part of a fighting force known as the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine.

They know full well from those who have already served of the horrors that lie ahead. US officials have spoken of a major fresh assault on the capital, Kyiv, despite claims from the Kremlin that they are withdrawing in the north of the country out of respect for the ongoing peace talks.

“If anyone says they’re not scared they are lying,” says James, 22, from Salford. “But I have come this far, I’m not going to turn back now. I’ve seen too many sad things to turn my back on these people…

“The Russians say they are pulling back, but as you can see the alarm is going off – they’re not pulling back and, even if they are, they’re just going to pull back because they’ve been absolutely hammered, regroup , and attack somewhere else or attack here.”

Since Volodymyr Zelesnskiy, Ukraine’s president, announced the formation of his foreign legion at the start of March, tens of thousands of people from around the world, some with a military background and many without, have arrived in Ukraine in what now amounts to the most significant international brigade since the Spanish civil war.

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The legion last week temporarily stopped recruiting those who lack experience due, in part, to a scarcity of firearms. But there is a sense among the British contingent that are already here that their presence, while not publicly endorsed, is privately accepted in London.

Comments from the foreign secretary Liz Truss at the start of the war in which she said she would “absolutely” back those volunteering to fight only confirmed that feeling, despite her later backtracking.

James says he was stopped at Manchester airport on his way out and told he would be arrested for terrorism on his return should he fight, but he is not concerned. “I’m doing nothing illegal,” he says.

The US commander of British fighters in Kyiv. Photograph: Daniel Boffey/The Observer

“According to my contacts in military intelligence, they are grateful for the veterans signing up,” says Paul, 27, from Greenwich, who served in the Mercian regiment of the British army between 2011 and 2016.

That said, there is nothing gung-ho about the three Britons. There is no bloodlust. “Obviously, the intention is not to kill anyone, no one’s intention is ever to kill anyone,” says Paul. “But the Russians are advancing more than the government is letting on.”

One of three declined to be interviewed. But James and Paul, polite, personable and switched on, were willing to talk about their motivations and background, although their true identities have been disguised.

They both spent time in care as children, they say, and saw something in Ukraine’s desperate against-the-odds plight that would give them purpose. James, who had no military experience before leaving for Ukraine a week after the Russian invasion on 24 February, says he had lost his job working in a warehouse and had spent time on the streets.

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“They needed help, and I was doing nothing back at home. My life was going downhill so I thought I could do something better and help people who needed it. I didn’t think I would get very far because I didn’t have experience but I have done well, and here I am.”

After spending his savings on flights, James arrived in the Polish city of Przemyśl near the Ukraine border before hitchhiking to a refugee camp. From there, he jumped in a car with some Ukrainian expats coming back to fight, and arrived across the border in the western city of Lviv, where he signed up.

He was initially in the hands of former US special forces personnel who gave him some basic training before he joined the current unit. It has been a hard five weeks. “It’s all alien to me,” he says. “It’s new. But it is basically common sense. Once you get the hang of it, most things now just become natural to me. I hope that I remember that in combat”

He adds: “I told my mum and dad I was coming here but I didn’t tell anyone else. Mum and Dad agree with it now because they’re proud of me. They know what’s going on. Obviously they don’t want me to be here. They want me to come home.”

James believes he might rebuild his life in the Ukraine. “I want to get citizenship and join their paratroopers,” he says.

His commanding officer, Bruce, 38, from Wisconsin, says he believes the young Briton is ready for battle. A Ukrainian soldier, Vitaly Bilyak, 26, says there were already British fighters on the frontline, where they had proven their worth.

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Paul had thought his experience in the British armed forces could be useful. He quit his job as cabin crew for the airline easyJet and came over initially to help a humanitarian organization extract people from the conflict hotspots around Kyiv.

He is now training up Ukrainian soldiers, who he admits can be “trigger happy”. But they are in need. He will join the fight. And it is a cause he can believe in. “I don’t like bullies,” he says.


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