Foreign soldiers flocked to Ukraine after Russia invaded. Five months on, the fighting is taking a heavy toll.
After an exciting first few months of unexpected success that lifted spirits among Ukrainian Within its ranks, the reality of the deadliest European conflict since World War II took its toll among some of the thousands of foreign fighters who traveled from abroad to fight Russian invaders.
The war has long passed the past Ukraine victory On the outskirts of Kyiv, which still has scars Mass graves And the collapsed buildings to the Russian occupation. Instead, after months of battle, he pays soldiers for ever-increasing gains From the trenches in the grassy plains And the farm fields From the east and south of the country.
It’s now a grueling artillery attack.
Shot after bullet hit near the Ukrainian lines, filling the air with dirt, sand and ash and forcing the soldiers to dig into deep trenches. As Ukrainian forces wait for an opening or calculate the location of a potential target, explosions echo around them with regular strikes — sometimes for 12 hours at a time. The seeming randomness of the strikes increases the feeling among some that survival may be due to mere luck.
Description of an American fighting for Ukraine, who served in the U.S. Army, on combat tours in the Middle East Donbass Ukraine area as “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to hell.”
The Ukrainian armed forces estimate that Russia uses eight times as many artillery munitions every day, firing thousands more shells than the Ukrainians and hampering their efforts.
“We lost three men,” said the soldier, after a fight near Severodonetsk. “My leader was killed there. One of my friends was killed there. When something like this happens, it is hard to imagine the way forward.”
Ukrainian losses were heavy: up to 100 to 200 casualties per day at the worst points of the war, according to Ukraine’s own estimates. Five non-Ukrainian soldiers have said in interviews over the past month that these heavy losses have eroded morale within other ranks and units. Four of the soldiers did not reveal their identity and asked that their names not be used out of fear for their security, so that they could speak freely about their experiences.
“The number of people feeling upset and in low morale has increased, in part because of the way the Russians chose to fight,” said Ripley Rawlings, a retired US Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and author, who supplies foreign fighters in Ukraine through his US-based organization Ripley’s Heroes. United.
“About half of the units we support have been hit horribly recently,” said Rollins, who recently traveled to Ukraine and sends scopes and goggles for trucks and e-bikes to troops there.
Despite the challenges, the fighters who spoke to NBC News remained insistent on their commitment to drive out the Kremlin’s forces. But the soldiers admitted that lack of supplies, delays in receiving weapons promised by the West, and communication frustrations all called into question their morale after months of battle.
Other common complaints included that counterattack strategies were being undermined by older Ukrainian leaders who stuck to Soviet tactics. They also noted poor communication between groups, with one soldier highlighting the lack of a “central unit that includes everyone from its tail and knows where people are.”
The Kremlin claims that there are no longer any foreign fighters in Ukraine and that all those who remain are mercenaries. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian International Corps said its soldiers should follow the same disciplinary rules as other Ukrainian soldiers. They are also paid at the same price: about $ 500 per month, depending on the rank, with the opportunity to receive bonuses.
Damien Magro, a spokesman for the corps, said they owe the same treatment as any Ukrainian soldier if he was captured.
Magrou, a Dutch attorney and Corporal with the Corps, said at a news conference this month that Russian disinformation has negatively affected the group’s recruitment, reputation and fundraising, and told NBC News on Wednesday that due to recent challenges, they are “exploring ways to expand our hiring.” “.
As of now, Legion members are required to have live combat experience and must pass background checks and a psychological exam to join. Magro declined, citing security concerns, to disclose the number of soldiers in the corps or the number of casualties.
“There has been a gradual decline in arrivals over the past few months, which is not surprising given that the interest in the Western media has shifted elsewhere and the more enthusiastic fighters made their decision initially,” Magro said. via WhatsApp.
Magro previously said that over 50 nationalities from every continent are represented in the Corps and that ex-soldiers from the United States and the United Kingdom are the most common. The Center for Transatlantic Dialogue, a Kyiv-based think tank, has estimated that more than 20,000 people have joined the International Corps, although it is unclear how they arrived at that number.
Several soldiers who spoke to NBC News said they initially joined to help train the Ukrainians after seeing early bloody images of the war online and ended up joining the fight. Despite the recent difficulties, they all shared that they are beginning to see promising signs that Ukraine is working to address its weaknesses.
The increased focus on training made previously disorganized Ukrainian volunteer bands turn into effective soldiers, and cycling in front units often helped keep soldiers fresh. Two soldiers said they are seeing greater cooperation between the units, particularly near Russian-controlled Kherson and Ukraine-controlled Mykolaiv – two cities in the south that have been at the center of fighting in the region.
“We are very close, it is as if we can almost see Kherson, so we are taking the necessary steps to make it happen,” said one of the fighters. “We all have these groups that worked together in their own areas, but we’re bringing them together now. It increases our ability on the battlefield on a larger scale. It is, like, very cool.”
This battlefield effectiveness appears to be underpinned by American-made High Mobility Missile Systems, or HIMARS. It took months for the high-powered military equipment promised by Western governments to arrive, but the recent success of the HIMAR systems expanded the range of Ukrainian missiles and allowed them to hit occupied Russian territory.
The Pentagon committed to dispatching four more systems on Tuesday, which will bring the total number in Ukraine to 16.
The American fighter who was in Severodonetsk said he and his unit were trapped in a trench for 14 hours at the front in eastern Ukraine due to constant Russian bombardment, but the next day they were able to see a clear horizon thanks to the long truck mounted on the truck. The range of missile launchers sent by the United States
“Each of these artillery positions was destroyed, and there were no artillery shells all day,” he said. “The Russians restarted it because they seem to have an endless supply of weapons — but those weapons, man, are a game-changer.”
However, no one can ignore recent reports of foreign soldiers being captured, murdered and sentenced to death by Russian agents. From the United States alone, the State Department confirmed the killing of two Americans who traveled to Ukraine to join the country’s defense and the arrest of two Americans – Alexander John Robert Drewic and Andy Tay Ngoc Huynh. Another American fighter is still missing.
A New Zealand citizen fighting on Ukraine’s southern front, who asked to be identified by his alias, Obi Wan, said he and his unit of international soldiers write the names of foreign fighters killed or missing on the side of Javelin missiles before they are shot. Russian tanks and other vehicles.
“We go look for targets or look for an opportunity to see if we can do something to commemorate these poor people,” said the New Zealander, who has served several tours in Iraq. “It just upsets us.”
The State Department said Druik and Huynh were imprisoned by the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, or DPR, a separatist group in Ukraine under the control of Russia. The fighters who spoke to NBC News said they were waiting for Druki and Hene to face the same “show trials” and the Russian “kangaroo court” that sentenced Moroccan Ibrahim Saadoun and British citizens Aiden Aslin and Sean Benner to death by the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The DRC appears to be taking responsibility for captured foreigners, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recently described as a “worrying phenomenon”.
said Jeffrey Edmonds, who served as director of the Russia division of the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
“Given the acute manpower problem that the Russians have, having these guys join in with three, four or five rounds in Iraq would have a tremendous impact. I think Russia is concerned and sees a need to deter them by saying, ‘If you come here, you won’t come here,’ Edmunds said. You are treated according to the standards of the Geneva Convention.”
While the foreign soldiers said they were committed to fighting, everyone openly discussed their intent not to be captured by Russian forces, even saying they’d rather die – although one combatant admitted that such statements could be loud.
One soldier, a US Army veteran, claimed that he kept a small grenade hidden in his person with a string attached to it, and was planning to pull it out if he was in danger of getting caught. Others spoke of running toward Russian soldiers with a knife if they run out of ammunition or said they had an extra bullet in a separate pocket “just in case”.
“I’ve always told my comrades that they don’t get caught fighting because they’re going to do some treacherous things—to you,” said James Vasquez, a former US Army sergeant who fought in Ukraine and is now planning his return to the front. After selling his home in Connecticut. “Maybe that’s especially true for me because my face is right there, but you have to be prepared to get out.”