In March 2022, in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the New York Times published an article profiling volunteers, their identities concealed, heading to the embattled country to train, provide aid, and even fight in Ukraine’s defense. They had answered the call of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and within weeks tens of thousands of volunteers from across the world had gathered and were being organized into the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine.
But now, a year later, the Gray Lady has looked at the results and highlighted some of the scams, deceptions, and waste committed in the name of the Legion and other Ukraine war aid efforts. Yet the exposé last week by reporters Justin Scheck and Thomas Gibbons-Neff looks only at alleged fraud and financial deception. It does not address other problems surrounding the Legion, including 141 known deaths of people from various nationalities or how involved key individuals were in the actual fighting. Whichever way the war plays out, the citizens of the volunteers’ home countries need to understand the risks their countrymen are taking and the potential for blowback to their homelands because of their actions.
The original Times article began by following “Hector,” a U.S. Marine Corps veteran departing from Tampa with luggage that included “rifle scopes, helmets, and body armor” donated by other veterans. The story also highlighted other volunteers who described their motivation to fight in Ukraine as a combination of wanderlust and seeking purpose in life mixed with a desire to redeem the failures of the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But a discerning reader in 2022 might have noticed a problem last week’s story brought into sharp relief, namely the poor vetting of volunteers at the outset of the war effort. For example, a former U.S. Army captain named David Ribardo touted his fundraising network as a “Tinder for donors and volunteers” that skirted the rules of GoFundMe and other sites by omitting the intention of candidates to journey to Ukraine and fight in the armed conflict.
Another volunteer profiled in the 2022 story, a graduate student named “Chase,” admitted he had previously volunteered for a Kurdish militia in northeastern Syria to fight ISIS in 2019, but he had no military experience and so offered little value in actual combat.
But the follow-up Times story is more critical in tone, spotlighting corruption, incompetence, and rifts within the volunteer community. Here are a few of them:
- Optics and night vision equipment were being sent to Ukraine evidently by evading export controls. It’s unclear whether that gear ended up at the front or on the black market. In another case, money was raised to buy night vision equipment that turned out to be substandard Chinese-manufactured knockoffs.
- Several volunteers turn out to have “stolen valor” résumés, including fabricated military records. James Vasquez, who was profiled in glowing terms at the war’s outset by the New York Post, was never part of the Ukrainian armed forces and only traveled to the country as a civilian. (The Times story neglected to mention the curious case of Daniel Swift, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who deserted in 2019 and was killed in January fighting in Ukraine.)
- Not all foreign volunteers are sincere, and the Legion was recently shaken by the defection of U.S. Army veteran John McIntyre from its ranks to Russia’s.
The internal dissension threatens the effectiveness of the International Legion the most. The unit is most often compared to the International Brigades, antifascist foreigners who fought on behalf of the left-wing Republican government in the Spanish Civil War. The IBs became ineffective when a schism developed among anarchists, Stalinists, and other factions, fostering an atmosphere of fear and distrust and leading to political purges and executions.
Meanwhile, the Times reports that former MSNBC commentator Malcolm Nance is back in the United States raising money for the war effort, but is engaged in a feud with a female spokesperson and other officials of the International Legion. He has sparred with Twitter commentators over accusations of stolen valor—assuming credit for untrue actions in war—after scrutiny of photos of his rifle, combat fatigues, and ghillie suit suggested he was not truly active in any combat capacity. Nance has been put on the defensive over his association with Vasquez, who journalist and volunteer Sarah Ashton-Cirillo has accused of soliciting donations for the war effort while concealing that he is not under contract to fight for Ukraine. Nance’s recent woes are a far cry from his public introduction last April as a Legion volunteer when MSNBC colleague Joy Reid compared him to the black American French Foreign Legion volunteer Eugene Bullard.
Blue and Yellow Tide Coming In
Foreign combat volunteers—or mercenaries, as they might be called—still enjoy a romantic swashbuckling image in Western media, and the fact that they are not regular military personnel also adds to the impression that their involvement in the conflict eliminates any liability on the part of their home nations. But there are risks in allowing individual citizens to enter a war zone as combatants.
Foreign volunteers tend not to have any recourse if they are abused or placed in danger. The leadership of these volunteer units is often haphazard and badly vetted. For example, the Kyiv Independent in February published accusations that Polish volunteer intelligence officers with the IBs had committed numerous acts of misconduct, including brandishing weapons at their subordinates and engaging in looting. The same officers were accused of sending volunteers on suicide missions.
Worse, Russia asserts that foreign volunteers captured in combat are not entitled to receive any of the rights of prisoners of war. Thus, captured foreign volunteers effectively become hostages whose freedom their home countries must then somehow negotiate. It’s a similar story if they’re killed in action. In January, two British volunteers were killed in Donetsk while attempting to evacuate a local elderly woman. A third Brit was killed in unknown circumstances in February.
Other units of the foreign legion are made up of disaffected anti-Putin citizens of Russia or other former Soviet republics, including Chechens, Georgians, and Crimean Tatars. They have at times stated that their goal is not the defense of Ukraine, but rather to liberate their former homelands, which would entail a much wider conflict.
Volunteer combat groups tend to draw political extremists of all stripes who have the opportunity to acquire combat experience and recruit new members, and then return home radicalized. This has occurred with anarcho-communist groups in Syrian Kurdistan, Islamists in numerous warzones like Afghanistan, and white power groups in Ukraine itself. The last scenario was once extensively covered by Western mainstream media, including the Daily Beast in 2014 when it examined Swedish neo-Nazis fighting in the Donbas region for Ukraine.
Recently NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg advised that the West should be prepared to support Ukraine in a long war. So far, the publicly available number of foreign volunteers killed fighting for Ukraine numbers less than 150; however, disclosures of casualty figures on the Ukrainian side remain shrouded in secrecy and controversy—meaning the number could be higher.
Looking forward, will the New York Times continue to report on the self-destructive pasts of volunteers in Ukraine and those who take advantage of them? Or will they revert to their initial reports, which portrayed foreign volunteers as democratic idealists? Honest coverage of the war—if such a thing is possible—will help determine if the conflict is long or stretches out indefinitely.