When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the world stood up in solidarity with Ukraine. Ukrainian flags were raised on flagpoles and hung in shop windows. Governments imposed strict sanctions on Russia and welcomed Ukrainian refugees.
Russia vs Ukraine
On February 27, three days into the conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the formation of the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine and called for volunteers. “To all foreigners who want to join the resistance to the Russian invaders and the protection of world security, the leadership of Ukraine offers to come to our state and join the ranks of the Territorial Defense Forces,” he said.
Within three weeks, over 20,000 individuals from 52 countries had applied to join. Cpl. Damien Magrou is a volunteer from Sweden, and he is one of the spokespeople for the International Legion. “The common feeling for everyone who’s come and signed up in the legion is that we had an urge to do something about it,” he explained. “We can’t just watch passively as the bombs are falling on civilian targets in the big cities of Ukraine.”
6,000 of the 20,000 volunteers are Americans, the single largest group by nation. Matthew Parker served in the Army for 22 years. In Iraq, he fought alongside Ukrainians and Georgians who had volunteered in the U.S. Army. (Russia invaded Georgia in 2008).
In reference to his Ukrainian brother-in-arms, Parker said, “…he told me about his home. He told me about his family and how proud they were. I remember him telling me about his little sister…I’d like to think that by going to Ukraine, maybe I protect his mother, or his little sister or his home. Maybe in some small way, I say thank you to him for serving by doing something like this.”
While in Iraq, Parker trained other troops. The Ukrainians, he said, “can place me where they need me…They can put me in combat or they can only leave me as an instructor with the Legion to teach Ukrainians how to use different weapons systems.”
America’s Military Combat Experience
American fighters are especially valued because of their combat experience. Many of the volunteers lack training and experience and arrived in Ukraine unprepared. This is a large reason why last week Ukraine paused recruitment for the International Legion.
The realities of war were made apparent to the volunteers almost immediately. On March 13, Russian cruise missiles descended upon a military base about 30 miles from the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, which was a training hub for foreign fighters. Forty Ukrainians were killed but no foreign soldiers.
In videos posted to their social media accounts, some foreign fighters showed the destruction caused by the attack and said that they had barely escaped. Many members of the International Legion with little or no combat experience returned home after that. It has not been established whether Russia targeted the base because of the presence of foreign fighters.
American soldiers are making contributions that go beyond being effective soldiers and leaders. James Vasquez, an American vet, has been posting videos from his time fighting on the frontlines. His videos have millions of views and have helped to raise almost $50,000 to buy Kevlar helmets, rifle parts, uniforms, and other much-needed equipment.
Although thousands of Americans have volunteered, they are entering a legal gray area when they go to fight in Ukraine. The Neutrality Act of 1794 forbids any American citizen from fighting against any country at peace with the U.S. Some countries, like Austria and South Korea, have suggested that if their citizens go to fight in Ukraine they could be charged with a crime back home. In response, Ukraine has offered citizenship to all foreign volunteers. The U.S. Justice Department has not clarified their policy toward American volunteers.
But to prosecute them would be to prosecute courage and sacrifice in defense of deeply held American values. Our country was founded on the conviction that government ought to reflect the will of the people, and the people of Ukraine are fighting to defend their right to govern themselves. America supports a free Ukraine, and thousands of American vets have gone to the frontlines of the battle to make that ideal a reality.
Image Credit: Photo by Sean Lee on Unsplash