US citizens seek to join foreign fighters in Ukraine

Diplomats working at the embassy in a townhouse in Georgetown are receiving thousands of offers from volunteers seeking to fight for Ukraine, even as they work on the much more pressing issue of securing weapons to defend against increasingly brutal violence. Russian assault.

“They really feel that this war is unjust, unprovoked,” said Ukraine’s military attache, Major General Borys Kremenetskyi. “They feel they have to go help.”

American volunteers represent only a small subset of foreigners seeking to fight for Ukraine, who in turn represent only a tiny fraction of the international aid that has flowed into the country. Yet it is a reflection of the passion, supercharged in the age of social media, that the attack and mounting civilian casualties have sparked.

“These are not mercenaries who come to make money,” Kremenetskyi said. “These are people of good will who come to help Ukraine fight for freedom.”

The US government discourages Americans from going to fight in Ukraine, which raises legal and national security issues.

Since the Feb. 24 invasion, the embassy in Washington has heard from at least 6,000 people inquiring about volunteering for the service, the “vast majority” of them U.S. citizens, said Kremenetskyi, who oversees the selection of potential American recruits.

Half of the potential volunteers were quickly rejected and didn’t even make it to the Zoom interview, the general said. They did not have the required military experience, had a criminal history or were unsuitable for other reasons such as age, including a 16-year-old boy and a 73-year-old man.

Some who expressed interest were turned down because the embassy said it couldn’t do a proper check. The general did not reveal the methods used to screen people.

Kremenetskyi, who spoke to The Associated Press shortly after returning from the Pentagon for discussions on the military hardware his country needs for its defense, said he appreciated the support from the US government and the public.

“The Russians can only be stopped with hard fists and weapons,” he said.

So far, around 100 US citizens have made the cut. They include veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with combat experience, including helicopter pilots, the attaché said.

They must make their own way to Poland, where they must cross at a specific point, with their own protective equipment but without a weapon, which they will obtain upon arrival. They will be required to sign a contract to serve, without pay, in the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government says around 20,000 foreigners from various nations have already joined.

Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a former Liberal lawmaker in Canada who helps facilitate recruiting there, said about 1,000 Canadians have applied to fight for Ukraine, the vast majority of whom have no connection to the country.

“The volunteers, a very large proportion are ex-military, these are people who made the difficult decision to join the military to defend the values ​​we subscribe to,” Wrzesnewskyj said. “And when they see what’s happening in Ukraine, they can’t stay away.”

It’s unclear how many US citizens seeking to fight actually reached Ukraine, a trip the State Department has urged people not to make.

“We’ve been very clear for some time, of course, calling on Americans who may be residing in Ukraine to leave, and making it clear to Americans who may be considering going there not to go.” , said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. recently told reporters.

US citizens are not required to register overseas. The State Department said it was uncertain how many people have entered Ukraine since the Russian invasion.

Under certain circumstances, Americans could face criminal penalties, or even risk losing their citizenship, for taking part in a conflict abroad, according to a senior federal law enforcement official.

But legal issues are just one of many concerns for US officials, who worry about what might happen if an American is killed or captured or recruited there to work for a foreign intelligence service upon returning home. , said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security issues.

Official and independent security experts say some of the potential foreign fighters could be white supremacists, fighting on both sides of the conflict. They could become further radicalized and undergo military training in Ukraine, which would pose an increased danger when they return home.

“These are men who want adventure, a sense of significance and who go back to the rhetoric of World War II,” said Anne Speckhard, who has extensively studied foreigners who fought in Syria and elsewhere. as Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. .

Ukraine could circumvent some of the potential legal problems by only facilitating recruitment from abroad and ordering volunteers to sign their contracts and receive a weapon once they arrive in the country. Also, by assigning them to Territorial Defense Forces, and not frontline units, it reduces the chances of direct combat with the Russians, although they are by no means eliminated.

The general acknowledges the possibility that any foreigner captured could be used for propaganda purposes. But he didn’t dwell on the issue, instead focusing on his country’s need to defend itself against Russia.

“We are fighting for our existence,” he said. “We are fighting for our families, for our land. And we are not going to give up. »

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Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

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