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From battle-hardened veterans to farm workers and students, thousands of overseas volunteers have heeded the call of Ukraine’s leadership to join a foreign legion of fighters to confront the Russian advance across the country.
Some have applied at national embassies, while many have taken planes, trains and vans to the Polish-Ukrainian border and put their faith in border guards to direct them to units for weapons and training. Some have service in their country’s military — others admit to never having held a gun.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly called for outsiders to come to his country’s defence since the start of invasion on February 24. The country launched a website on March 5 with a seven-step guide to recruit experienced former soldiers and medics to the cause.
The 7-Step Guide
The website says volunteers can apply to fight in Ukraine by heading to their embassies — providing the details of missions in 54 countries — or they can apply by phone or email.
Officials at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington DC said they had received about 6,000 inquiries since February 24, most of them from Americans. Half were immediately rejected as unsuitable. Britons who initially turned up at an embassy in London were met by a single guard and a laminated guide on the best way to apply.
The online guide says documents are required that confirm a record of military service, before an interview with a defence official. Some volunteers said they had been approved without having completed any military service.
Those who are successful submit an application for a “voluntary contract-based military service” in the armed forces of Ukraine, seen as legal insurance in case of capture so that they are treated as a prisoner of war. Russia has said it considers foreign fighters as mercenaries who would not be entitled to the protections guaranteed by the Geneva Convention for Prisoners of War.
Next, the volunteers must prepare their kit and travel to Ukraine, before reaching a “collection point” to sign the contract. “And engage the Russian occupiers together with fighters from all over the world and Ukrainian soldiers,” it concludes.
The Ukrainian government says about 20,000 foreigners from various nations have already joined, despite mixed responses from governments about whether their citizens should heed the call.
“This is not mercenaries who are coming to earn money,” said Ukraine’s military attaché, Maj Gen Borys Kremenetskyi, in Washington DC. “This is people of goodwill who are coming to assist Ukraine to fight for freedom.”
He said that of the 6,000 who applied through his embassy about 100 made the initial cut, including veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with combat experience.
Following protests from her colleagues after she initially backed volunteers travelling to fight, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has backtracked and withdrawn her support.
“I have been very clear that the travel advice from the United Kingdom is not to go to Ukraine,” she said on Wednesday. Her cabinet colleague, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, a former serviceman, said that Ukraine had been clear about the seriousness of the undertaking. “You are not in it for a selfie and six weeks, you are in it for real,” he said.
The Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, also warned against Britons without specialist skills from travelling to his country because it might divert from the war effort. He told MPs this week that they could not be stopped.
Former servicemen said volunteers had to be realistic about what they could achieve if they travelled to a war zone for the first time.
“It’s going to be a honking hard time if you go out there,” said Phil Campion, a former British soldier and TV personality, in a video blog. “Just identify why you want to go.”