Foreign fighters answer Zelenskyy’s call to defend Ukraine

About 16,000 foreigners have picked up arms in fight against Russia

Citizens take part in a military exercise for civilians conducted by members of the Georgian National Legion paramilitary volunteer unit amid  the threat of the Russian invasion in Kyiv, Ukraine. Reuters
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Mamuka Mamulashvili has spent most of his life fighting Russian forces. The Georgian commander first took up arms against the Soviets when he was 14, fighting alongside his father in the war in Abkhazia in the early 1990s.

“Me and my father fought all these years together, side-by-side against Russians,” he told The National.

Mr Mamulashvili and his father were captured by Russian soldiers and the teenager spent three months in captivity.

It did little to deter him from future fighting.

Thirty years later, he is leading a ragtag group of volunteer foreign fighters in Ukraine.

The Georgia National Legion, which has been fighting in Ukraine since 2014, is made up primarily of former Georgian soldiers, but Mr Mamulashvili said former servicemen from the UK, US and Canada have joined since Russia first invaded a little over a week ago.

He estimates that 300 fighters have signed up in the past few weeks and he expects that number to swell to a thousand.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised the “international legion” of volunteer soldiers who have come to protect the country from one of the world’s most powerful armies.

Mr Zelenskyy said 16,000 foreigners have joined Ukraine's military ranks.

But experts say the presence of foreign fighters war could draw other countries into the conflict.

“If Americans start dying in large numbers over there, it's going to be difficult for the US to sit by and watch that,” said Claire Finkelstein, faculty director for the Centre for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Especially if we have a hostage situation or a situation where we have [prisoners of war] in some sense that need rescuing because they're being ill-treated.”

Under US Law, Ms Finkelstein said Americans are free to fight in Ukraine on both sides but in other countries, like Canada and the UK, the law is more nuanced. Both have laws aimed at deterring citizens from engaging in foreign wars.

In Ukraine, foreigners are entering a complex and dangerous environment, but Mr Mamulashvili said his men are buoyed by a sense of purpose.

“Today, democracy is defended physically in Ukraine. So everybody who has a conscience and knows what democracy and freedom are, they have to come and help you.”

But just because they are willing to fight doesn't mean they can.

The Georgian National Legion and other battalions are only accepting foreigners with military backgrounds — a crushing development for hundreds like Canadian Bryson Woolsey, who is desperate to help.

The 33-year-old from British Columbia quit his job as a cook to take up arms in Ukraine only to learn from the Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa that he wasn’t eligible.

“I quit the job to go over there and I jumped the gun,” Mr Woolsey said with a chuckle.

But the self-described history buff is undeterred and still searching for ways to help.

“It's kind of, really, the first, I guess, in my lifetime, really big conflict that has brought us to the brink,” he said.

Mr Woolsey said Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine “struck a chord” with him and many others.

“We don't feel like we can sit and watch.”

Mr Woolsey said he wanted to carry on Canada’s strong military history and legacy from the First and Second World Wars.

Determined to help out, he started a GoFundMe page to raise money for various causes in support of Ukraine.

Russia has taken note.

In a press briefing on Thursday, the foreign ministry's spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia is seeing "gangsters using western weapons and not even representing legal military units" on the streets of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s resistance, led by Mr Zelenskyy — who reportedly turned down an offer by the US to leave Ukraine — has won the admiration of many around the world.

Ukrainian president vows to fight on as Russia advances towards Kiev

Ukrainian president vows to fight on as Russia advances towards Kiev

The Ukrainian embassy in the UK quoted Mr Zelenskyy as telling the US government: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Russian forces continue to wage fierce battles in key cities across the country and have taken control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

But Mr Mamulashvili and his foreign troops remain committed to the cause.

“I'm 100 per cent sure that we're going to kick their [expletive],” he said defiantly.

Updated: March 04, 2022, 8:26 PM