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“Hey Putin, NATO’s already here!” Foreign fighters arrive to battle Russian invaders in Ukraine

Ukraine foreign fighters
Foreign fighters in Ukraine: Jasper from Sweden, Ricardo from Italy, Petteri from Finland, Adam from USA. Photo collage: Olena Maksymenko, Novynarnia
“Hey Putin, NATO’s already here!” Foreign fighters arrive to battle Russian invaders in Ukraine
Article by: Olena Maksymenko
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Thousands of foreign fighters have streamed into Ukraine to battle the Russian invasion. A photojournalist talks to four of them about their motivation and how their respective countries view Ukraine.

On March 6, the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security announced that about 20,000 foreign volunteers from different countries were ready to fight for Ukraine. To date, there are probably more, and more are arriving.

As evening falls, a small group of foreign volunteers gathers for dinner in a small hotel on the outskirts of Lviv. All of them arrived in Ukraine as part of the International Legion of Territorial Defense, ready to take up arms and fight alongside their Ukrainian brothers. They will soon leave for Kyiv. All have combat experience, but with different levels of training, background and motivation. They are here for one purpose and one purpose only – to fight for Ukraine.

The large gate opens slowly, and we make our way towards the cozy-looking. Hutsul-style hotel. Pani Oksana bustles around the kitchen preparing dinner for her foreign guests. A pot of thick tomato soup is bubbling on the stove; the smell of homemade cakes baking in the oven fills the kitchen; a mountain of pancakes lies on a large plate. And of course, coffee is brewing nearby.

Russia uses the same terrorist tactics as ISIS

Jasper is from Sweden. This is his first time in Ukraine. He enlisted as a foreign fighter in order to help Ukraine fight the madman Putin and his soldiers.

foreign volunteers
Photo: Olena Maksymenko

Jasper has three years of experience serving as an officer in an anti-terrorist unit and one year in intelligence. He fought against ISIS both in Syria and Iraq.

“Just imagine, the ISIS flag could well replace the Russian flag in this war. They’re doing exactly the same thing! Bombing, killing civilians. This is what terrorists do! It’s a fact. Putin sponsors terrorism,” underlines Jasper.

The Swedish fighter explains that he came to Ukraine to help save lives, fight for the people and their country. Ukrainians are fighting for everyone in this world and what is happening here, in the heart of Europe, is absolutely incomprehensible and unexpected. He maintains that we must all fight back, save Ukrainian civilians and stand by Ukraine.

Jasper admits that it was not an easy decision as back home he has a good job and a family.

“But does that mean I should let people die? Because I’ve decided not to do anything? How can I look at myself in the mirror? How can I come to terms with inaction?! I’m not that kind of person.”

The Swedish volunteer fighter admits that the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 did not affect him much, but maintains that the situation is different now.

“Yes, people always die in war. But usually they’re fighters, soldiers. But here, even civilians who are trying to flee the fighting are being killed! They’re killed on the spot! Because the Russians don’t care. They want to sow fear in the population and destroy Ukraine. They act the same way as those ISIS terrorists. They use the same methods. The only thing left is to cut off people’s head! But, if Kadyrov’s soldiers get involved, they’ll probably carry out such barbaric acts. So, I’m fighting for all of you!”

Jasper met up with some other volunteers in Poland and they crossed into Ukraine together. He hopes they will stay together as a group, but that depends on someone else’s decision.

“They’re good guys! Always smiling and cheerful. I’ve seen so many people pretending to be volunteer fighters. But these guys are different! I’ll miss them. Hopefully, we’ll meet again.”

In the end, he admits that he doesn’t enjoy fighting, but there are causes that cannot be justified or ignored.

He goes on to explain that there is a lot of support for Ukraine in Sweden. Furthermore, he never refuses interviews as the political community and the media play a significant role in this war in Ukraine.

“They all say ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ Some politicians tell me to ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ Of course, everyone supports Ukraine. Our media cover the events every day. Swedes really want to help! Sweden sent money and 5,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. And we’ll send more!”

Jasper maintains that he is in Ukraine so that he can tell the Swedish people what he is actually doing, and they, in turn, can influence the politicians.

“Journalists need to talk about what’s happening, what they see. This is so important for Ukraine! Therefore, I appeal to everyone: please write about what you see! Because your words help ordinary people to see the truth!

It’s important for journalists to spread the truth so that other countries keep sending weapons and support. That’s why I never refuse an interview. Because I’ve seen how it works, and it could change the outcome of the war.”

We go out for a smoke. Jasper’s phone rings. His seven-year-old son does not know that his father has gone to war. Jasper leaves the balcony to talk to his son. At this point, he reminds us of a Ukrainian soldier who hides his true location and feelings from his family.

Once an Azov warrior – always an Azov warrior

Ricardo is from Italy and Petteri from Finland. Their English is not as good as Jasper’s, but they have another advantage. Both have fought in Ukraine before, as part of the Azov Battalion in the early years of the ongoing war. They take turns showing photos and videos from Shyrokyne, sharing memories and emotions from eight years ago. For example, how they went swimming in the Azov Sea during enemy shelling.

foreign volunteers
Ricardo from Italy. Photo: Olena Maksymenko

Ricardo is from the distant island of Sardinia. He says it was his duty to return to Ukraine.

“I’m here to help the Ukrainian people. I’m a NATO soldier. If Ukraine cannot join NATO now, NATO soldiers can come and help out in the same way.”

The Italian fighter joined the Azov Battalion in 2014, and stayed to fight until late 2015.

“I used to be a fighter in the French Foreign Legion, I speak French well. I also served in the Italian army for one year. Then, I joined Azov. I have combat experience in Ukraine. But, this is a real war! Not a frozen war. It’s happening everywhere – on the ground, in the air, helicopters, planes…”

He admits that his family is not very happy about his decision. Not for ideological reasons, but for security reasons. Part of his old Azov team is currently in Kyiv, the others are in or near Mariupol.

Ricardo boasts that today his Azov friends destroyed over 40 tanks and concedes that Ukraine has a very strong army.

For Petteri, the Russo-Ukrainian war is a continuation of the battles fought by his grandfather. A native of Karelia, he fought in Finland’s Winter War. He was wounded, survived, but lost his home.

foreign volunteers
Petteri from Finland. Photo: Oksana Maksymenko

“I’m here to help the Ukrainian people. I was in Ukraine in 2015-2017. I fought against the Russians. I’m very angry about what they’re doing to civilians. So, that’s why I decided to return to Ukraine,” he explains tersely.

Petteri does not want to talk about his participation in other military campaigns, but hopes that Finland will take back Karelia.

“We’ll help you out!” chime in the Ukrainians guests sitting nearby.

“One day, we’ll get our Karelia back. It’s a difficult question, because if we take Karelia now, we’ll have to rebuild everything. However, I don’t know how the people of Karelia feel about this. For me, the civilian population always comes first.”

My ancestors would be proud of me

Adam is from the United States. Los Angeles, California is his home. He seems to be the youngest and least experienced of this group. He is only 24, but very motivated and ready to fight for his beliefs.

foreign volunteers
Photo: Oksana Maksymenko

“I’m here to join the Territorial Defense Forces in Kyiv. Why? Because I want to defend freedom and democracy. I’m a civilian. I work as a mechanic and study at the same time. I have no combat experience, but I attended a military college in California. We did a lot of military training, but without weapons,” he says.

In truth, Adam very much hopes that this military experience will help him to defend Ukraine’s capital. For both Petteri and Adam, this war echoes the history of their family.

“My great-great-grandmother was in Auschwitz. She died there… You know, the Americans helped liberate the Jews. It’s not quite the same here, but I think my ancestors would be proud of what I’m doing now.

My friends and family support me, but they’re not very happy I’m here. Of course, they’re all worried. Everyone supports Ukraine in America, everyone! Even the younger generation. I don’t know a single person who isn’t rooting for Ukraine,” says Adam emotionally.

Putin’s chances are zero!

“Doc”, a Ukrainian war veteran and a territorial defense fighter, is responsible for coordinating the arrival and further deployments of foreign volunteers.

foreign volunteers
Photo: Olena Maksymenko

“We have a very large number of veterans, people who have gone through hell in eastern Ukraine over these past eight years. They’re well trained and very experienced. They help out a lot… and we can see with our own eyes how territorial defense units are being formed. It’s a unique phenomenon, absolutely unique! Ukraine is a fortress!

Our veterans are passionate and enthusiastic. There are thousands of them! And not just in Kyiv! They’re literally in every village, in every town! I think Putin’s chances are zero. Of course, he can burn us and everything else, and he may be able to destroy some parts of our country it. But, he’ll never be able to conquer all of Ukraine, that’s for sure,” says “Doc” firmly.

Smiling firmly, he underlines that his men are all ready to fight to the end and that it is absolutely out of the question to collaborate with the enemy.

“In fact, I believe more and more people realize that this is an important historical moment. Everyone is aware of today’s suffering and challenges, and the suffering our ancestors were forced to endure…”

Integrating NATO through the International Legion

The International Legion initiative was launched in conjunction with the Ministry of Defense, the General Staff, the Territorial Defense Forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

foreign volunteers
Ad for the International Legion of Territorial Defense

Intermittently, “Doc” gets up and cuts off our interview to answer calls or messages from other foreign volunteers who report that they are waiting in Poland. His main task is to recruit professionals:

“The International Legion is composed of special units that perform specific operations. These highly qualified people must work directly with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, be ready to perform special tasks in the most difficult conditions and hot spots. This includes Kyiv, Mariupol and other cities, of course.”

“Doc” underlines that there is absolute support from the state, and the Legion is a legal entity operating within Ukraine. Foreigners who sign contracts with the Armed Forces will receive a salary.

“I think this is just the beginning. Of course, I don’t know everything. At the moment, it’s a volunteer initiative and has nothing to do with money. Of course, we have to buy food, gas and pay for our lodgings. In this group, we all chipped in for the gas. I don’t know what will happen next. Maybe I’ll get some help from my friends in the West. But, there’s no state funding, no sponsors or international grants yet. Maybe soon. That would be great!”

At the moment, the fighters are getting to know each other, and coordinating their work. All the volunteer fighter groups will work independently. Some men prefer to work anonymously or use a pseudonym.

“Doc” understands that there will be a lot of speculation, skepticism and hostility towards this initiative. But, besides the defense factor, there is another good reason to support the International legion.

“In Ukraine, we constantly ask the world why we’re not members of NATO. And rightly so. It’s an international and military-political union that guarantees the security of its members.

I don’t know why or how we fail to meet their criteria, or whether it’s just stubborn opposition from influential states like France and Germany.

But, we see what’s happening before our very eyes. We’re becoming part of NATO through this legion. We now have citizens of other NATO member states in our units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I understand how important this is. It’s a kind of interpersonal integration, when a Swede, a Finn, an Italian and a Ukrainian fight shoulder to shoulder, side by side, in one unit.

Yes, indeed, NATO is right here! In fact Putin can shove his demands regarding NATO up his hairy ass!”

Ukraine is the capital of the best people

Technically speaking, language may cause problems for the fighters. After all, the soldiers need to coordinate with other units, and not all Ukrainian soldiers speak English. Moreover, some of the foreign fighters have a poor knowledge of English.

How to join Ukraine’s Foreign Legion of Territorial Defense

According to Ricardo, in 2014 their group included a French-speaking fighter who facilitated communication between him and Ukrainians.

“Actually, this is a questions for our military specialists. If they’re satisfied with the work performed by foreign-speaking specialists, I’m sure they’ll find a common language. Ideally, they should work in small groups in order to be effective, 7-8 people.

Imagine an ideal group with a copter, communications equipment, a thermal imager and weapons, fully trained and able to work. They can inflict a lot of damage… and that’s what they plan to do.” explains “Doc”.

“Doc” smiles and confirms that two days ago one of their centers received over 250 applications. Only 75 fighters were selected.

“The numbers are growing. I can’t tell you how many of them are serving now. It’s confidential. But, you can see the dynamics for yourself,” states the veteran.

He looks down, reads another text message from an American Air Force veteran asking to speak to someone from the military department. “Doc” says that there is no end to these messages.

“It’s non-stop. And, that’s great! Because we see that these people are useful, sincere, and ready to fight! This is a natural thing that happens during war. People who cannot live with such blatant injustice enlist in international brigades. This is the case in all wars.

No one can halt such a strong movement. One of these days, the world will come to understand that Putin must be stopped! And that our International Legion can play an important role in our victory.

Our foreign fighters have friends back home, and those have friends, and so on. It’s known as the six handshake rule.”

Sweden is a small country with a population of 8 million, and Jasper has become a national hero! He is constantly in the news and has become a popular star.

And this means that the Swedes know what Ukraine stands for and what Russia is doing. Helping us and understanding this war will lead many European countries to change their world view and look at Ukraine with open eyes. It is estimated that 20-30,000 foreign legionnaires will arrive in Ukraine. Thus, in a space of a few weeks or months, Ukraine will be transformed into a multinational country.

Someone once said that Ukraine is the capital of the best people. Truer words have never been spoken!

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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