LVIV, Ukraine — “Jesus, what a fucked up country,” John said in exasperation at the vagaries of the Polish rail system. John was one of the latest recruits for Ukrainian President Zelensky’s Foreign Legion, bound for the Ukrainian city of Lviv where his recruiter had told him to report. A rail-thin, 20-something from Mobile, Alabama, John had tried the U.S. Army but left halfway through his enlistment due to “medical problems,” he told me. I wondered if his medical problems had resolved sufficiently for him to be fighting the Russians but said nothing. Sporting woodland camouflage, a scraggly goatee, and thick glasses of the style made famous by Jeffrey Dahmer, John seemed to me to be an unlikely candidate. He soon confirmed that impression.
“I wanted to fight, see,” he explained, “But my mom said that I wouldn’t be any good at that. So I figured, they are going to need someone to show them the way.”
The Way – it turned out – was not the Way to expel the Russians, but a different kind of Way. John was here to enlist in the Ukrainian Army as a chaplain. I tried to be encouraging but couldn’t deflect an image of John delivering eulogies in broad Alabaman to uncomprehending Ukrainian soldiers as they headed up the line. Sorry about the no-fly zone thing President Zelensky, but we can save the Ukrainian people in other ways.
John, incidentally, was one of the first prospective Legion recruits whom I met, but by all accounts, his story was not unusual. The initial crop of applicants has been a mixed bag – with a swarm of Fantasists for every one candidate with experience in combat. And even combat experience means little in this war – because trading shots with the Taliban or al Qaeda is quite different from crouching in a freezing foxhole being pummeled by artillery fire.
Recruits for the Ukrainian Foreign Legion are invited to apply via the Ukrainian embassy in their country of residence. After a cursory initial interview, they are told to head for Ukraine via Warsaw and overland to Lviv in western Ukraine. The route is so well known that it is heavily monitored by the Russians, according to a Ukrainian special forces officer I spoke with. He was worried that they would soon begin targeting recruits before they reached their destination. After Lviv, the recruits are sent to a camp near the Polish border for selection and training. Selection apparently follows no discernable process other than separating those that don’t have military experience from those that do. The former are put through a 4-week training course — the latter are given a weapon and sent to the front in ad-hoc units with a Ukrainian officer. Some candidates are inexplicably rejected while others – regarded as being eminently unsuitable by their peers, are retained. In any case, the process has some fatal flaws – no one becomes a competent soldier in just 4 weeks, and even experienced soldiers require assimilation training. Every war has its own dynamics which can be equally lethal to veterans and beginners if not properly understood.
In their first trial by fire earlier this month, the volunteers were put into a hasty defense north of Kyiv, as the Russians began their onslaught on the towns lying north of the city. After the initial volley of Ukrainian anti-tank missiles had stopped the attackers in their tracks, enemy soldiers spilled out of their armored fighting vehicles about a quarter-mile in front of the volunteers, and into a withering storm of fire that halted the assault. “Shoot the ones in black uniforms,” a Ukrainian platoon commander is said to have told his foreign charges. “They are Belarusians.” Ukrainians are particularly incensed (but not surprised) at the perfidious complicity of Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko in taking his stance as a sycophantic second to President Vladimir Putin. Sadly, as with Putin, it is Lukashenko’s soldiers who are paying the price.
Although the Legionnaires helped to halt the attack, their performance that day was uneven — an observation that led the Ukrainians to discharge the surviving members of the initial intake, without any ceremony or official notification. Worse was to come. An unknown number of new recruits were training at a camp near the border when, a strike by Tupolev bombers, carrying Kh 101 cruise missiles, destroyed the camp. The death toll is not yet clear, but Ukrainian officers have told me that it will likely be more than 100.
With most of its initial intake now discharged, and many from subsequent intakes killed or wounded, the plan to stand up the Ukrainian Foreign Legion program is one part of the Ukrainian war effort that is definitely not going well.
“We should only take experienced combat veterans — that is the lesson that we are learning,” a Ukrainian general told Task & Purpose on condition of anonymity. “The others don’t know what they are getting themselves into – and when they find out, they want to go home. We need specialized skills – especially snipers.”
Since the well-publicized death of several senior Russian officers, snipers have become in this conflict what fighter pilots were to Britain in 1940. But snipers won’t win the war for Ukraine. “They need to know how to plan,” said one U.S. official here in the country, with long experience of working with the Ukrainian military. “So far they have been in the defense, but if they want to win ground back, they are going to have to come up with a good combined arms plan. That’s not a collective skill that comes after a couple of classes – and the Ukrainians lack experience in doing this sort of thing.” Fortunately, so do the Russians.
John was having none of this. “Yeah, well they gonna need someone to administer to them,” he insisted, before shouting again in frustration at the Poles. “Can’t wait to get out of this shitty country.” I wanted to remind him that the place where he was going was considerably shittier but thought it churlish to do so.
Andrew Milburn retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 2019 after a 31-year career as an infantry and special operations officer. His last position in uniform was Deputy Commander of Special Operations Central (SOCCENT), and prior to that commanding officer of the Marine Raider Regiment and Combined Special Operations Task Force – Iraq. Since retiring, he has written a critically acclaimed memoir, When the Tempest Gathers, and has had articles published in a number of national publications. He is currently on assignment for Task & Purpose in Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter at @andymilburn8.