Mercenaries and new parents: the Britons caught up in Ukraine crisis

British citizens living in Ukraine are facing increasing uncertainty due to the looming threat of an invasion

Londoner Ben Garratt holds his one-month-old son Raphael in Kiev, Ukraine. Mr Garratt and his wife Alice are awaiting a passport for their baby, born to a surrogate mother in Ukraine, in order to be allowed to bring the baby to Britain. Photo: Ben Garratt/PA
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British soldiers defending Ukrainian army positions from Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region have vowed to stand their ground if President Putin invades.

Johnny Wood and Sean Pinner, both professional contracted soldiers from England, are among the foreign fighters who have come forward to help protect the ex-Soviet nation from Russian aggression.

The pair are stationed in a trench near the town of Pavlopil, less than 50km from the border with Russia, and say Ukraine is more than just a foreign land – it is their adopted home.

Johnny Wood, 28, is on his third rotation, and is engaged to a Ukrainian woman.

Speaking from his frontline position in a snow-blanketed field, Mr Wood called on the UK and other western governments to offer more political and military support to Ukraine.

He dismissed the idea that British soldiers were needed.

“I don’t think we need to send British troops or American troops,” he told Sky News. “I think all the West needs to do is we need to support Ukraine politically, give them as much political support as we’re doing, continue it, even amp it up, and just give them the weapons they need to defend themselves and to defend their country.”

Sean Pinner, who is married to a Ukrainian national, was appointed the commander of his unit just six months after signing up.

The Briton said his family is living 15km from the trench where he fights and he can hear the shelling from his house.

While Ukrainian troops initially expressed some reservations about a British fighter among their ranks, he said he has since won their approval.

“I’ve integrated so they know I’m not just sitting around and going to go home at the end of it,” he said.

While acknowledging he was fighting with the weaker side, admitting the Russians have obvious naval, air and ground superiority, he insisted his side would not give up territory easily.

“But Ukrainians fight so we’ll give them a bloody nose, that’s for sure,” he said.

The pair were part of a unit made up solely of foreign fighters but army chiefs decided to dismantle it and disperse overseas fighters to fight alongside Ukrainians.

The US has put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for possible deployment to Europe in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory.

As fears of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine mount, British citizens living in the unstable country are facing agonising decisions about their futures.

A London couple from Queen’s Park, whose baby was born to a surrogate in Ukraine, are having to endure a “nerve-wracking” wait for a passport.

Ben Garratt and his wife Alice are being kept in limbo until their newborn son, Raphael, gets the appropriate documentation to enable the family to leave.

“We’ve always known that it would be a load of paperwork once he was born, for us to bring him home – but obviously, what was going to be a period of potential boredom, waiting in an apartment in Kiev for two or three months, is now more nerve-wracking,” he told the Press Association.

“Unless we can get a passport for Raphael in the conventional way, or if that becomes impossible, the British Embassy get to the point they can give Raphael an emergency passport, we can’t leave – so it is nerve-wracking.”

Despite the looming threat of a possible invasion, Mr Garratt said life in the Ukrainian capital seems relatively normal.

“It’s really strange… (it’s) like Oxford Street on a Saturday… except for the snow,” he said.

“It looks normal. Looking out the window… it’s buzzing… there’s no evidence of panic buying, there’s no queues anywhere.

“I’ve never been in a country that’s been invaded, I don’t know what that feels like, but it feels bizarre that it could happen (here).”

Jez Myers, a business consultant who has split his time between Manchester and Kiev since 2018, said while he is planning to return to Ukraine in mid-February, the “major concern” for many is the possibility of a cyber attack.

“If a cyber attack happens, you (have) got to be concerned about heating, electricity, and cash,” the 44-year-old said.

“Finding somewhere you can escape to, so: bag packed, clothing, water, chargers, grab your bag and get west… (that is) the mantra that most people are adopting.”

Britain’s Foreign Office said some staff at the British Embassy in Kiev and their families are being withdrawn from the country. Washington has issued a similar order.

But news of the downscaling of embassy staff is “not a concern” for Mr Myers.

“It’s taking precautionary measures… my plan is to return in middle of February as scheduled,” he said.

Sky News reported that 100 US army veterans are en route to the former Soviet nation and will train in the capital Kiev before being despatched to the frontlines of eastern Ukraine.

Updated: January 25, 2022, 12:22 PM