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FOREIGN FIGHTERS VOW TO SUPPORT UKRAINE AGAINST RUSSIAN INVASION
KYIV, Ukraine — At a base on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital city, members of the Georgia National Legion gathered for an afternoon of combat training. The soldiers — five Georgians and one Albanian — snaked through an overgrown, abandoned industrial area. They advanced purposefully, covering each other’s movements. At the appointed moment, they stormed inside the target building while firing a barrage of blanks from their assault rifles and pistols.
It was an impressive display. Especially considering the fact that these soldiers were all volunteers training to defend a country that isn’t their own.
“We are united by our desire to stop Russian aggression,” said Vano Kakviashvili, a 38-year-old Georgian army veteran who currently serves in the Georgia National Legion. “This is our generation’s struggle. We have to fight for Ukraine’s freedom.”
On this day’s drills, the five Georgians are all combat veterans of Russia’s 2008 invasion of their homeland. The lone Albanian, a 24-year-old named Emanuel Bazanji, is a former Albanian army soldier who volunteered to fight for Ukraine because “this is the last frontier for democracy.”
“What unites us is the love for freedom, the love for democracy, and the love to help people,” Bazanji told Coffee or Die Magazine. “We’re not getting paid here, we’re not asking the Ukrainian government for anything, we’re just here to help these guys get a better future. This is what unites us, to see people live happy and free.”
Emanuel Bazanji, a former Albanian army soldier who volunteered for the Georgia National Legion.
Under the command of a former Georgian military officer named Mamuka Mamulashvili, the Georgia National Legion formerly operated as a front-line unit in the early years of the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Now garrisoned on the outskirts of Kyiv, this all-volunteer unit has become a clearinghouse for foreigners in the application pipeline to sign a three-year, active-duty service contract with Ukraine’s regular armed forces.
“Russia should be stopped in Ukraine and Ukraine should get its sovereignty,” Mamulashvili said. “We are fighting for Western democracy, we are fighting for world democracy, in fact. And everybody should understand that it’s a real war, and it’s the real face of Russia that we see today in Ukraine.”
Since the war began in 2014, the Georgia National Legion has enlisted soldiers from 27 countries, including the US, Australia, Germany, Georgia, Mexico, Azerbaijan, the UK, Austria, France, Greece, Japan, Croatia, and Serbia. And now, with Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s borders threatening a full-scale invasion this winter, Mamulashvili said there’s been a spike in the number of foreigners applying to the Georgia National Legion with hopes of serving in Ukraine’s armed forces.
The most recent applicants are from the US, the United Kingdom, Georgia, and Greece, Mamulashvili told Coffee or Die. A bellwether, perhaps, for a potential wave of foreign fighters coming to Ukraine’s defense in the event of a Russian re-invasion.
The Georgia National Legion trains at their base on the outskirts of Kyiv in 2021.
‘WE WILL FIGHT’
In the wake of Ukraine’s 2014 pro-democratic revolution, Russian military forces launched an unconventional military offensive in the eastern Donbas region. Nearly eight years later, the war is ongoing along a static, entrenched front line.
Since the war began, nearly 4,000 foreign fighters have joined Ukraine’s military ranks — both as volunteers for irregular militias and in the regular armed forces — according to a June 2019 study by The Soufan Center, an American defense research firm. With the possibility of a major Russian offensive this winter, many of Ukraine’s foreign soldiers — both veterans and those on active duty — anticipate a surge in foreign volunteers desiring to take up arms in Ukraine’s defense.
“If escalation begins, many will join us from Ukraine alone, not to mention overseas,” said Adam Osmayev, commander of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, a Chechen volunteer battalion that fought in the Donbas alongside Ukrainian forces.
“We will fight on the forefront, anywhere we can, and as hard as we can,” Osmayev, who supported Chechen rebels against Russia during the Second Chechen War, told Coffee or Die. “No matter what Russia does and how much land Ukraine initially loses, eventually Russia will lose, as long as Ukraine does not capitulate.”
Adam Osmayev, commander of the Dzokhar Dudayev Battalion. Photo via Adam Osmayev on Facebook.
“If a major Russian invasion kicks off there will definitely be an influx of foreigners, and I think it will be important for the Ukrainian government to utilize the potential of ex-military who wish to serve and protect Ukraine,” said Aiden Aslin, a 27-year-old British citizen who enlisted in the Ukrainian Marines in 2018 and recently renewed his service contract.
Known by the nom de guerre, “Johnny,” Aslin maintains a popular Instagram account in which he posts updates about his wartime service in the Donbas as well as advice for other foreigners interested in joining Ukraine’s military.
“In the past month there’s definitely been an uptick in people messaging and asking how to join,” Aslin, who is currently deployed to Ukraine’s eastern war zone, told Coffee or Die via text message.
“If Russia invades, I will be back for sure in a few seconds,” said Giuseppe Donini, an Italian who previously fought for Ukraine as a volunteer at the war’s outset. Donini, who is not currently in Ukraine but recently received Ukrainian citizenship, added: “My old dream is to build a recon team made by foreigners — just waiting for the right time, plenty of good guys are interested.”
Members of the Georgia National Legion
When the war in the Donbas began in 2014, many volunteer foreign fighters joined one of a number of Ukrainian irregular militias. Today, however, there is a legal pathway for foreigners to join Ukraine’s regular armed forces.
Ukraine legalized the service of foreigners in the regular armed forces in October 2015. Amid the looming threat of a major Russian offensive this winter, on Dec. 14 Ukraine’s parliament adopted a law simplifying the process for foreigners who served in Ukraine’s armed forces to receive Ukrainian citizenship.
The application process for a foreign citizen to join Ukraine’s armed forces typically takes between two and four months. The application is done in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, and requires medical and psychological evaluations, as well as a criminal background check. In particular, Ukrainian defense officials reject applicants who have associated with any far-right extremist groups or have ties to the Russian government.
Once approved for service, the foreign volunteer must then apply to an individual unit for acceptance — normally, a letter of invitation from a battalion commander is required to formally join a unit. No matter one’s military background, each foreign applicant must complete three months of basic military training before deploying to the war zone.
Although pro-Ukraine foreign fighters have come from 38 countries, the overwhelming majority are Russians — about 3,000, according to The Soufan Center. Other countries with large shares of pro-Ukraine foreign fighters include the post-Soviet countries of Belarus and Georgia, as well as Croatia, a country that fought for its independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
Flags on display at the Georgia National Legion’s base in Kyiv. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
The Russian side of the war has drawn more than 13,300 foreign fighters, of which about 12,000 are Russians. Of the roughly 1,300 non-Russian foreigners who joined the ranks of Moscow’s forces in the Donbas, the highest numbers came from Serbia, Germany, and Belarus.
Foreigners who enlist with Ukraine’s regular armed forces receive temporary residency for the duration of their service contract, which typically lasts three years. Foreigners who join volunteer organizations to contribute to the war effort must obtain temporary residency by other means.
Diverse reasons have inspired foreigners to volunteer for Ukraine’s armed forces. Some simply wanted to defend Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. In other cases, foreigners fought in Ukraine to avenge historical grudges against Russia.
“I came to help Ukraine fight Russian occupation. Ukraine is our ally, and this is another battle of the war that started in Georgia,” said Levan Fifia, 30, a Georgian army veteran of the 2008 war with Russia, as well as multinational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, who is a Georgia National Legion volunteer.
Some foreigners saw the war in Ukraine as a last stand against Russian aggression pushing deeper into Europe. “This conflict should not be disregarded as irrelevant, because Europe should be defended in Ukraine, because the world must show that Russia’s expansion ambitions are not welcome in today’s society,” said Vjekoslav, a 39-year-old Croatian serving in Ukraine’s 1st Separate Marine Battalion, which is currently deployed close to the city of Mariupol in the eastern war zone.
A veteran of the Croatian army who served five years as an infantryman, Vjekoslav enlisted in the Ukrainian armed forces in 2020. As the citizen of a country that has suffered its own war in recent times, Vjekoslav said he found common cause with Ukraine’s fight to shake off decades of Russian overlordship.
“I see this struggle for freedom of the Ukrainian people as ours was in the early 90s,” Vjekoslav said, adding that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is part of a “global problem.”
Describing the current front-line conditions in the Donbas, Vjekoslav said: “The role of the Ukrainian side engaged in the conflict is like ‘night watch’ from Game of Thrones. We stand on the wall, not letting the barbarian hordes get into the country, making sacrifices in our lives so that rest of the people can have normal lives.”
Amina Okuyeva, left, and Adam Osmayev both served in combat against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Photo via Facebook.