‘It was a suicide mission’: life on the front lines for foreign fighters in Ukraine

Former British soldier Matthew Robinson - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph
Former British soldier Matthew Robinson - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

When he first headed for Ukraine as a foreign military volunteer, Matt Robinson imagined himself engaging the enemy on the Russian frontlines. Instead, his first taste of combat came not in the trenches of the Donbas, but on a bus driving through Poland.

The transport had been laid on by Ukraine’s International Legion, set up by President Volodymr Zelensky for those who had answered his plea for help against the Russian invasion. Yet it quickly became clear that not everyone abroad was a highly trained ex-Para or Royal Marine.

“One Polish volunteer was heavily intoxicated and suddenly became convinced the bus was actually taking us all to Russia,” recalls Yorkshire-born Robinson, 39. “He was about to pull a knife on the driver. A bunch of us disarmed him, and at that point I decided that joining the International Legion might not be a good idea if someone like him had passed the initial screening.”

It proved a wise call. While Robinson got off the bus to consider his options, the other volunteers travelled on, bound for a training base at Yavoriv in western Ukraine. Two days later, on March 9, that base was hit by 30 Russian cruise missiles in what the Kremlin called a strike on “foreign mercenaries”. At least 35 people were killed, among them reportedly three former British special forces troops.

“With hindsight, it was the right call not to be hasty,” Robinson says.

Robinson with NCO, Michael - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph
Robinson with NCO, Michael - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

Undeterred, he did press on to Kyiv, where he is now operating as a military trainer. Those early close scrapes, though, sum up much of the experience of foreign volunteers in Ukraine so far: comrades of variable quality, a questionable recruitment process – and the realisation that the Kremlin has them very much in its laser-guided sights.

Nonetheless, they have come in droves. According to Ukrainian officials, more than 20,000 have arrived from 52 countries: the US and Canada, South Korea, Brazil and France. Among them are an estimated 50 Britons – including ex-Royal Marine Scott Sibley, 36, of Northumberland, killed a fortnight ago near the southern city of Mykolaiv. He is thought to be the first British volunteer to die in active service, although others have come to grief. Andrew Hill, from Plymouth, who was captured in the same area, was paraded on Russian TV earlier this week, reading a televised confession of “war crimes”. Meanwhile Aiden Aslin, of Newark, and ex-Royal Anglian Shaun Pinner, both captured in Mariupol, have been threatened with the death penalty.

It is a stark reminder that for all the swashbuckling romantic allure, taking up arms for a noble cause can still end horribly. As George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of fighting in the Spanish Civil War, there is no escape from the “essential horror of army life” where “bullets hurt, corpses stink, and men under fire are often so frightened that they wet their trousers”.

Soldiers from the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War - Universal History Archive
Soldiers from the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War - Universal History Archive

It is also proof that even for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ukraine is tough going. Isil and Taliban fighters might well be more committed than the average Russian conscript, but they didn’t have tanks, jets, hypersonic missiles – or any of the rest of Russia’s superpower arsenal.

“We’re the underdogs here and whatever you say about the Russians, they’re a professional army and they’re using a lot of hi-tech [equipment],” says one British ex-Royal Marine fighting around Kyiv. “You’re out there in trenches, being buzzed with camera drones, and the moment they spot you, they send artillery in. I had three very close encounters just in the first couple of weeks. This is a grown-up war – it’s what I came for, but it’s not for everyone.”

Small wonder then, that disillusionment is setting in. Some claim they are being sent on “suicide missions” without adequate weapons or intelligence. Others complain of corrupt Ukrainian commanders who promise frontline action only to fleece them for money, like unsuspecting gap year travellers. Many have struggled to get near a frontline at all.

Take Michael, a former US serviceman with experience in the Middle East as an explosives expert. He volunteered after seeing video footage of a Ukrainian family of four being killed by Russian shelling, and arrived here six weeks ago under no illusions about the dangers. Nor did he expect VIP treatment. He did, however, expect it to be made relatively easy to put his skills to use.

“The first problem is that the Legion asks you to sign a three-year contract,” he says. “We’re happy to fight, but understandably people are nervous about being legally committed for that long.”

People clean the pavement after a military strike in Mykolaiv - Reuters
People clean the pavement after a military strike in Mykolaiv - Reuters

Instead, he and many others are trying to operate independently. Some have developed contacts with individual unit commanders, banding together with other volunteers via WhatsApp groups. Others focus on rescue missions, extracting wounded soldiers from areas under fire. But working outside the existing military system can be dangerous. Recruits risk being sent on ad hoc missions that nobody else will do, bereft of local knowledge that can make the difference between life and death.

“You can end up as cannon fodder if you’ve got the wrong commander, and it’s dangerous to insert yourself into a battlefield without co-ordinating with others – you can get killed by your own side,” Michael says. “There’s corruption, too, with basic equipment going missing. There’ll be weapons with no ammo, or no body armour or medical kit. We’re all keen to fight, but they’re not exactly making it easy for us.”

Another volunteer, a proficient marksman, was asked to lead four Ukrainian volunteers on a mission to take out Russian sniping positions. The volunteers turned out to be local farmers armed with hunting rifles, who had never shot anything more dangerous than foxes.

“It was ridiculous, a suicide mission, so I called it off,” he says.

True, the volunteers – like their Ukrainian counterparts – are a mixed bunch. Some see themselves as principled, 21st century Orwells. Others, especially younger ex-squaddies, admit the motivation is partly just to taste combat, having missed out on Iraq or Afghanistan. Many are fantasists or ‘Call of Duty Warriors’, posing for their Facebook pages. And a few are hoping to sell their stories and become ‘personalities’, emerging perhaps as a new Ant Middleton or Jason Fox. If they come back alive, that is.

All, though, must learn to take the rough with the smooth, says Macer Gifford, a former Tory councillor who spent three years fighting with Kurdish volunteers against Isil in Syria. He is now out in Ukraine himself, running a battlefield first aid training programme that he first pioneered with the Kurds. “Some international volunteers want war ‘à la carte’, whereas in reality, you get force-fed the entire meal, good and bad, as war is like that,” he explains. “But even the most good-willed volunteer may struggle with a three-year contract – six months might be more realistic.”

Longer-serving foreign volunteers, though, say some newcomers are simply too impatient. Mamuka Mamulashvili is commander of the Georgian Legion, another international brigade set up in Ukraine after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Originally staffed by fighters from Georgia – which itself fought a war with Russia in 2008 – it fields around 1,000 fighters, who operate separately from the International Legion.

“I'd guess maybe 70 per cent of people who’ve come out to join the International Legion have already turned back,” Mamulashvili tells me. “They want to get a gun and fight straight away, but they have to realise there are procedures to be done, background checks by Ukrainian intelligence services, and so on, which all take time. It could be faster, maybe, but we’re at war – and besides, this isn’t war tourism.”

The three-year contracts, he insists, were only for Ukrainian nationals – foreigners only had to sign six-month ones that could be terminated in 48 hours. He adds: “You can’t just come here for a few weeks, shoot a few guys and then go home when the shelling starts.”

Nor, he says, is Ukraine a place for people seeking their first combat spurs. “We ourselves only accept people with actual combat experience already, and even then we only take a tiny percentage.”

Briton Kyle Stark, who has volunteered with the Georgian Legion - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph
Briton Kyle Stark, who has volunteered with the Georgian Legion - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

The exception is for training and logistics staff, which is what Robinson now does for the Georgian Legion. He has limited direct combat experience himself, having served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and then as a senior maintenance manager for contracting giant KBR at military bases in Iraq. That does, however, give him warzone logistics and HR expertise – skills otherwise at something of a premium.

Part of his job today includes screening new recruits – and sometimes telling them not to bother. “We had a guy recently who said he was a hunter with some survival skills. I just told him: ‘Do not come here to fight; you’ll be taking a great risk. Do some humanitarian work instead’.”

If that doesn’t put people off, he points out that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is first and foremost an artillery war, meaning that soldiers will spend far more time taking cover in foxholes than shooting at each other. “You’re likely to get hit by shelling long before you’ll ever get the chance to exchange fire with anybody, which is what most people want to do,” he says.

He admits, though, that he too hopes to try proper combat here one day – this time not on a bus. “Ukrainians show us a lot of love, and it makes you want to pick up the rifle and go straight to the frontline. But there’s no hurry. This war won’t be over in 24 hours.”