Meet the Foreign Fighters Risking Their Lives in Ukraine

OPovilas Limontas waited outside of Vilnius’s Ukrainian Embassy in Vilnius on a cold Thursday morning. Povilas Limontas had a few papers and an old beret in his backpack, proving that he once served as ensign in the Lithuanian army. The wait was about 15 minutes before someone came from the Embassy to open the gate. The 24-year-old Lithuanian bartender was finally able to open the gate half an hour later. He had been waiting for someone from the embassy with a QR Code and directions on how to get there. He had registered for the war against Russian troops, which he was fighting in the bloody conflict with Ukraine. “I have the fitness, the youth, and the training—it would be selfish of me not to use it,” he says. “If rockets are wasted on me instead of some children, I’ll take that deal anytime.”

In the week since President Volodymr Zelensky announced the creation of an ‘International Legion’ to defend Ukraine, 20,000 people from 52 countries have volunteered to fight in Ukraine, the country’s, Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba said on television Sunday night. These numbers don’t include many of the health professionals and volunteers who have mobilized around the world to help Ukraine get medical supplies, military equipment, and other essentials. All of these volunteers were fighting Russian troops by March 7. There is an overall desire to ease the suffering of Ukrainians. The inspiration for those from countries that once were under Soviet occupation such as Limontas is that they believe Ukraine will collapse if it does.

Fearful of escalating the conflict—especially since Putin has threatened to use the nuclear weapons at his disposal—neither NATO as a whole nor any individual country has sent troops to defend Ukraine. But some worry that even volunteers will be seen as a provocatio—a concern only heightened after a recent discovery of purported Russian surveillance of Ukrainian embassy phone lines that volunteers use to register.

Belgium and other countries have attempted to discourage veterans from returning. Others are debating its legality—a debate that was sparked in the U.K., for example, after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss encouraged people to enlist.

Others have encouraged and allowed citizens to volunteer for their country on their own. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen was the first to do so when, on Feb. 27, she noted during a press conference that volunteering was “a choice anyone could make.” That was followed by a more ringing endorsement from the Latvian government the next day. “Our citizens who want to support Ukraine and volunteer to serve there to defend Ukraine’s independence and our common security must be able to do so,” said Latvian MP Juris Rancanis, as he introduced a bill—later approved—that allows Latvians to take up arms for Ukraine.

There is precedent for Ukraine’s International legion. After the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco staged a coup against the democratically elected government of Spain in 1936—and gained support from both Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany in the process—tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world joined the International Brigades to defend the Republic. Not only was the Spanish suffering, which included the mass bombing of civilian areas, what motivated many to enlist, but also ideology. Many volunteers perceived themselves as fighting fascism.

Continue reading: What It’s Like for Ukrainian Journalists Reporting on the War in Their Country

Nearly 100 years later, many who are going to Ukraine now have a humanitarian impulse. A 48-year-old driver told Politico that he had been inspired to register at the Ukrainian embassy in Paris by Zelensky’s call for foreign fighters. “I don’t really have any animosity against the Russians,” he said. “I’m going there to defend human beings, and because I have an 8-year-old child.” Luis Castaño, a 46-year-old repairman who enlisted at the Ukrainian consulate in Barcelona told El País he was going because “You have to take your heart in your hand and help people who need it.” And as he prepared to board the plane for the first leg of the journey to Ukraine, Hector, a former US Marine who served two tours in Iraq, told the New York Times, “Sanctions can help, but sanctions can’t help right now. I can help right now.”

Fightforua provides guidance to people who want to enlist as far as Argentina, Malaysia, or Iraq. The Legion is open to all citizens who have demonstrated experience with the military and law enforcement. They must apply at the Ukrainian Embassy in their home country to be eligible for it. Once they are approved, the volunteers will need to travel to Poland to get their Legion. They will then sign a contract, and they’ll be assigned to a unit. Numerous reports indicate that volunteers are just crossing the Ukrainian border unassisted and hope to get a job.

Continue reading: The Fight to Save Lives in Ukraine’s Largest Children’s Hospital

There are many risks. The U.N. has reported that there have been over 1,000 civilian deaths. However, Ukraine has yet to release the names of the soldiers it has injured or killed. Meanwhile Russia has said that it considers foreign soldiers “mercenaries” who would therefore not be entitled to the protections guaranteed by Geneva Convention for prisoners of war.

There may be dangers even before the potential fighter leaves home. Tom Niclas Tornedal who started a Facebook Group to support Norwegian volunteer soldiers, emergency workers and volunteers, said that when one potential soldier called the Ukrainian embassies in Oslo in order to obtain information about enlisting and was then unnerved by a call from someone from the embassies, apparently asking about his plans. Norwegian police later confirmed that Russians had hacked the Ukrainian embassy’s phones.

“I reported it to establish whether there was some Russian surveillance on incoming calls and communication from volunteers,” says Tornedal, an IT specialist in Tromsø. “It stood out as a possible security risk. It was not necessarily something that could happen inside the Norwegian or European Union borders. But let’s say several members agreed on a destination to assemble for military engagements. It could be quite dangerous.”

The Ukrainian embassy in Norway estimates that 300 Norwegians have already volunteered to fight, while Torndal’s Facebook group counts, he says, around 650 members. According to him, those who decide to go are motivated by the sense of injustice. “The aggression, the murder of innocent people—nobody feels that the Ukrainians have done anything that justifies the invasion.”

All over the world, there are two common motivators: outrage at violence and desire to help. But in some countries—namely those who for reasons of history and geography feel especially vulnerable—those motivations are joined by an additional consideration. At the Ukrainian embassy in Vilnius, defense attaché Serhii Verkhovod, puts it bluntly. “The response is especially high here because the Lithuanian people understand,” he says. “They feel the threat.”

This explanation is what explains the massive national effort to raise money and supplies for Ukraine. Blue Yellow is a small country with only 2.8million inhabitants. The NGO was established by Jonas Ohman (a Swedish expatriate) during the Crimea Invasion to provide Ukrainian military equipment. Ohman and his small team were in the midst of delivering 10,000 helmets and 10,000 bullet proof vests along with 25 jeeps or SUVs to the Ukrainian border on a chaotic night last week.

In large numbers, health care professionals also responded. The Lithuanian Ministry of Health issued a call for volunteers within days. 360 people responded. Now, the ministry plans to send 24 nurses and doctors to Poland to help with the border. “I think people here sense the danger,” says Marius Ciurlionis, a ministry adviser. “And they think, ‘if it happens here, I hope people would come and help us too.”

Continue reading: ‘It’s Our Duty to Help.’ Eastern Europe Opens Its Doors and Hearts to People Fleeing Ukraine

Rokas Tamosauskas was one of those doctors. A Lithuanian anesthesiologist and consultant who works for Cambridge University Hospitals in the U.K., he was on the train to the airport last Friday when he saw the Ministry’s call for medical volunteers on social media. He applied within minutes. “It was quite an easy decision,” he says. “Because I have this deep sense that it is not just Ukraine that is being attacked. It’s Lithuania that is also under attack. It’s Europe that is under attack.”

History, he says, also helps explain why people in the region might feel greater urgency about coming to Ukraine’s aid. “Lithuanians—and Poles and Czechs—perhaps because we have a deeper understanding of who the Russians are and what kind of imperialistic thinking is behind them, we empathize more easily. And we perhaps recognize the danger a tad sooner.”

According to attaché Verkhovod, about 200 Lithuanians have registered to fight at the embassy. Luksu Vyrai is able to help at least some of these people figure out how they can get there. Based in Kaunas, it was— until about two weeks ago—a men’s group that hosted camps for fathers and sons. The Russian invasion changed the focus of the group. The group’s founder, Gintautas Mauricas, served 24 years in the military as a small arms instructor and public affairs officer, among other roles, and he saw a need for an organization that could offer instruction and coordination for those looking to fight in Ukraine.

His motivations may be partly personal. I was paid by taxpayers to learn how to fight,” Mauricas says, “But in 20+ years, I never used those skills. I had a secure environment in Afghanistan: the Special Operations command centre, which was located in the green area. So now, I am paying back the taxes that people paid me.”

But his time spent working at NATO headquarters in Heidelberg, coupled with his keen knowledge of history, have left Mauricas no doubt that Russia and Putin have broader goals—and given him another reason to support the Ukrainian cause. “We hope that with the help of the international community, the Ukrainians will stop him, so we will not have to fight him on our land. We go and fight in Ukraine, because we don’t want the buildings here where our kids live to be destroyed by Russian rockets.”

On Friday morning, Mauricas’ apartment outside Kaunas, which has become Luksu Vyrei’s staging area, was a hive of activity. Outside, a steady stream of donations—plastic jugs of petrol, cases of ready-to-eat meals, baby food to be handed out to refugees with infants—were loaded into a jeep that had also been donated. Some of the 20 Ukrainian men who the group is sending to Ukraine tried out their bulletproof vests and ate poppyseed cakes.

Every person had their own motivation to volunteer. Haroldas Korzonas, 52 years old, said that he felt compelled to volunteer because he was less likely to be hurt than someone younger. Vitalijus (who preferred not to give his last name), 43, had been to Ukraine multiple times since the Crimea invasion of 2014, and confessed with a gentleness belied by a tough-looking exterior that the situation there “hurt his heart.” And 22-year-old Mindaugus Jurkus, who has never seen combat, said that he was motivated in part by a close family friend whom he had admired for his steadfast service to the country. “Now,” he said, “it’s my time to begin to help others.”

They all mentioned their belief that Lithuania would be next if Ukraine falls. Povilas Lombas shared this sentiment. When he first told his friends that he was enlisting, they “called [him] an idiot five times a day,” he says. He felt that he had a moral obligation to do this as an orphan with no close family or partner.

Limontas, after getting the instructions from the embassy went back to Kaunas and worked a shift there before telling his employers that they would send him to the front. They themselves have been active in supporting Ukraine—in fact, they bought a bus and filled it with baby food and diapers to be delivered to the displaced—and were supportive of his decision. “I don’t have any friends who haven’t joined or sacrificed something for the cause,” Limontas says. “We all understand that is the fight we have to win once, because if not, the enemy will fight again and again and again. And then, who will be next?”

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