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An Interview with Legionnaires

By: Shannon Taft

My journey through the heart of Ukraine's conflict zones brought me to cities deeply entrenched in the struggle for sovereignty: Toretsk, Slovyansk, Kostyantynivka, Kramatorsk, Lyman, Izyum, and Sivers'k. Travel to Chasiv-Yar and Kup’yans’k was abandoned due to active assaults on those cities by the Russians. The last checkpoint from Kostyantynivka to Chasiv Yar–absent any personnel–reads “Warning! Extreme Checkpoint! Civilians Prohibited!”  The resilience of these communities mirrored their unwavering determination in the face of adversity. However, it was in Slovyansk—a key bastion for the International Legion—that I encountered three remarkable individuals whose stories illuminate the realities of the war. We sat down in an Aroma Kava Cafe in the lobby of the Premium Hotel, and the young men shed light on the challenges and sacrifices inherent in their roles in the larger unit they were serving. The Australian, “Tom”, had been serving for over a year, and the 2 British men, “Dick” and “Harry”, had 6 months and 3 months each in the service of Ukraine as Legionnaires.

“What compelled you to come to Ukraine as foreign fighters? Do you have a sunset date in mind for an end to your volunteer service?”

Harry and Dick answered similarly, describing their zeal to help the Ukrainians in ways other than donating money from their hometowns. They all have prior military experience, and want to use their skills to secure a victory for Ukraine. They have no sunset date in mind–primarily as commitment to the Legion is a minimum of 3 years. However, the option to terminate that contract early is not on their minds. Tom declined to share his personal conviction, but agreed with his comrades in their response. The austere demeanor in his gaze, as well as 12 plus months of commitment so far, spoke for his personal account. Harry, the youngest member of the trio, in terms of service, had an insecure nervousness about him that seemed to come from beyond concerns of speaking to his volunteer experience, but his presence in this conflict easily forgives his trepidation.

“What is the current strength of the International Legion? Approximate guesses suppose 3,000 active members. Has the ‘vetting’ process changed with the Legion, considering the manpower shortage Ukraine is facing now?”

There are about 500 Legion members now, combined, between 2 divisions. Many people leave after completing the 6 week training period because reality clashes with expectations, and they can’t accept that adjustment. Others simply want a “badge of honor” for their social status and claim that during the training period–and return home. The vetting process hasn’t evolved much; there are still 3 tiers of service–”Behind Frontline”, “Dangerous Zone Service”, and “Combat Deployment”. The contract term is a 3 year minimum. If you decide to terminate early while serving in the first 2 tier roles, you are expected to leave the country immediately. If you terminate while on “Combat Deployment”, it is considered desertion, and handled as such in a standard military process if you are caught.

“The issue of posers seems to be a common problem in the volunteering community in Ukraine, apart from the Legion. How has that impacted you and your comrades who have serious commitments? 

It’s an image problem for the International Legion as a whole, since the local fighting forces see the turnover rate of applicants due to misconceptions and self aggrandizing behavior. Tom shared a specific story of a Legion sniper, from the USA, who accompanied them on a mission to rout a small squad of Russians from their mortar position. The other members of their group performed most of the operation, with the sniper as a back-up for cover fire. However, after the completion of the mission, he was promoting his actions as solely critical in the success of their operation–detailing how his sniper role held back advances of the Russian squad. He is no longer in their unit, and has since returned home. Dick shared that they love working with prior US Marines, due to their keen application of teamwork and dedication. Many of the “posers” who think of this conflict from the perspective of a video game are from the USA, and wash out quickly. Their braggadocio evaporates quickly in the face of the war tactics. 

“Tell me about the daily or weekly routine for you on the frontlines, as International Legionnaires?”

The three young men agreed with the old saying, reportedly from the WWI era, that “War is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror." Much of their time is spent digging trenches and erecting defense fortifications against Russian advances. They complete this in between constant shelling and drone assaults. Soldiers are encouraged to keep their body armor on at all times, but can elect to not wear it at their risk. These men choose to remove it while digging 6 feet-deep trenches–to alleviate the physical strain of the task. When incoming mortars and the buzzing of drones is heard overhead, they crouch in covered positions until the threat passes, then return to their task. Tom shared another specific story of the Russians launching 237 mortar attacks in the course of a day on their general position. They were only able to respond with 2 mortar counter-attacks due to shortage of ammunition. When asked about more detail of the drone attacks on their positions, Dick shared how Russians would use unarmed drones as a type of psychological warfare on them–forcing them to find cover from the noise and interrupt their job of making defenses. For these 3 men, personally, and others who chose to remove their body armor to dig trenches, the noise of drones with the possibility of them carrying shrapnel mortars also causes great concern since they would not have time to “suit-up” again. The time between hearing a drone and experiencing its lethal impact is a matter of 10-15 seconds.

“Tell me more about the challenges you face as an International ‘Volunteer’, and how you’re overcoming them.”

The biggest issue for us, individually, is that we never see any of the weapons or equipment donations that get sent to the front. Whether it’s from NGOs, or large political organizations, all of these supplies are sent to the Ukrainian military. The International Legion soldiers have to purchase their own supplies, clothing, and ammunition. We don’t see any of the donations from the West. We also have hardly any intel or data to engage in meaningful operations. We are dropped off at a location, told “the Russians are that way [gesturing off-scene]”, and expected to go find and engage the enemy based on this direction. Tom shared that there is no reliable transportation to their assignments either; they rely on random driver availability to take them to areas of operation. They could be waiting up to 2-3 hours in a specific drop-off point to be transported to their position. When their operation is completed, they usually have the same transportation experience before being able to arrive at their base for rest. Even “on-base," they are attending briefings and training, and not having opportunities for unadulterated respite.  All of these factors contribute to the nervous tension and angst many of the Legionnaires face. The 3 young men unanimously agreed with rumors of Spanish-speaking International military volunteers–specifically of Columbian origin–being referred to as “trench monkeys” and primarily used as “cannon fodder” in the face of Russian assaults. While they refrained from going into much detail further, Dick shared that this was due largely in part to their training and mentality of “guerilla-warfare” from their prior experience in their homeland. They were trained in their prior military life to fire scatter rounds into an engagement, whereas these 3 men “made every bullet count”. This tragic view of their contributions based on nationality and training visibly bothered Tom, Dick, and Harry; however, such wartime infelicities are outside of their control.

“What will the International Legion do if Ukraine and Russia agree on a ceasefire or semblance of a peace agreement in the near future?”

Dick shared they [the Legion] will still remain intact and active in the defense of Ukraine. They will contribute as training partners and supplemental manpower for the country. Their contributions may evolve into more of a rebuilding role, but the need for defense will remain. Their personal 3-year contracts will remain in-force as well. They had no insights on what future roles of the Legion will entail in the event of a cease-fire.

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