I know I watched too much Ertugrul during the pandemic (and now the sequel, Osman) so the fight for Justice is foremost in my mind. Today, when I went upstairs to put on my shoes and socks I flipped on MSNBC. I watched for less than 5 minutes. I broke down crying 3 times. I've always thought that if I was alive in the mid-1930s I would have volunteered for the International Brigades fighting against fascism in Spain. Over 40,000 foreigners from 50 countries fought the fascists, including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
I was first alienated from U.S. foreign policy because of the America's alliance with and support for Francisco Franco in the 1960s. The Russians were on the right side during the Spanish Civil War but as soon as Putin had his troops invade Ukraine-- where my grandfather was born-- I started writing that Ukraine would be the Spanish Civil War of this generation. And sure enough, foreign fighters have started trickling in to join forces with Ukrainians on the ground and those returning home to fight for their nation-- between 15 and 20,000 already. At the invitation of the Ukrainian government, people from all over the world are signing up. I'm 74, but I feel vigorous and have been thinking that I might as well go over there and die for a cause than sit around waiting for cancer or heart disease to end my life. Let night I dreamed about blowing up Russian tanks with Javelin missiles. Roland, who's always up for an adventure, especially overseas, not only said he wouldn't go but said he would have me committed to an insane asylum if I tried.
Andrew Marshall is covering the Ukrainian foreign legion for Reuters. "Some foreign fighters arriving in Ukraine say they are attracted by the cause: to halt what they view as an unprovoked attack in a once-in-a-generation showdown between the forces of democracy and dictatorship. For others, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Ukraine war also offers a chance to use fighting skills they felt their own governments no longer appreciated." He interviewed 20 of them in Lviv. "[A]longside battle-hardened veterans of war," he wrote, "people are arriving with little or no combat experience, offering limited value in a war zone under constant, terrifying shelling by the Russian military. One man who identified himself as British military veteran referred to these recruits as 'bullet-catchers.'" I guess that would be me.
A senior Ukrainian official in Lviv involved in processing newly-arrived foreign volunteers, Roman Shepelyak, said the system to receive, train and deploy foreign fighters was still in its infancy, and that the process would get smoother in the coming days. Ukraine's defence ministry declined to comment.
...Among those who have arrived to fight for Ukraine are dozens of former soldiers from the British Army's elite Parachute Regiment, according to an ex-soldier from the regiment. Hundreds more would soon follow, he said. Reuters was unable to corroborate those numbers.
Often referred to as the Paras, the regiment has in recent years served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "They're all highly, highly trained, and have seen active service on numerous occasions," the ex-soldier from the regiment said. The Ukraine crisis will give them purpose, camaraderie and "a chance to do what they're good at: fight."
Michael Ferkol said there were many people with Ukrainian ancestry in his hometown, Chicago. He wanted to go to Kyiv, the capital, "and help out."
"I'm a little nervous, to be honest," he said, making his way through crowds of refugees at Lviv train station on Saturday, hoping to board a train to the frontline. "But at the same time, it's not about me. It's about the people that are suffering."
For some, travelling to Ukraine, even from far-away countries, was the easy part. Those who hadn't brought body armour, helmets and other equipment with them were struggling to source them in Ukraine, according to several fighters Reuters spoke to.
Some veterans were sharing information on equipment and logistics through invite-only Facebook or WhatsApp groups with names like "Have Gun Will Travel." These groups contain appeals for equipment, such as body armour and night-vision goggles, or for foreign veterans who are snipers or who can train Ukrainian soldiers in how to use sophisticated weapons that Western countries are sending.
With a vast mobilisation of Ukrainian men underway, the country has plenty of volunteer fighters. But there is a shortage of specialists who know how to use Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles, which professional soldiers train for months to use properly.
Even those with combat experience might struggle in Ukraine's war zones, warned a former British soldier, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Kruger. He said he had served in Afghanistan and trained other soldiers.
"If you're out here as a war tourist, this is not the place for you," he said. "The realities of war, if you head out to the front, are going to be pretty overwhelming."
Many of those arriving in Lviv end up at the semi-fortified offices of the Lviv regional administration, where their paperwork is checked by Shepelyak. He heads the region's department for international technical assistance and cooperation. He acknowledged the system for processing those offering to fight was still in its infancy.
On Friday, when Reuters visited, six foreigners appeared at Shepelyak's office, including a Polish military veteran called Michal, and a giant, heavily-tattooed Dutchman called Bert. Both men declined to give their full names.
More foreigners were arriving every day, Shepelyak told Reuters. "If they have such a desire and persuasion to serve a foreign country, it matters. They are important."
Shepelyak said he vetted their paperwork, but not their combat experience, which was evaluated at a military base outside Lviv where they were sent next. He added that those recruited into the Ukrainian army would be paid in line with other soldiers.
Other foreign fighters told Reuters they were bypassing the formal processes and heading straight for the eastern front, hoping to get weapons and orders from the Ukrainian military upon their arrival.
The logistical issues have prompted some fighters to delay their arrival.
Anthony Capone, a wealthy healthcare entrepreneur in New York City, said he is providing funding for hundreds of ex-soldiers and paramedics who want to go to Ukraine. But he said he had delayed their departure "to give the Ukrainian army another week to improve their enlistment process for those entering the volunteer corps."
So far, according to Capone, only a "small number" had arrived in neighbouring Poland. Capone had posted on LinkedIn his message offering funding, thinking that 10 or 15 people would reply. "Right now, I'm at about 1,000," he said.
Capone added he was only funding ex-soldiers whose military credentials he could verify, or paramedics who currently worked in an emergency trauma setting.
About 60% of those who had been in touch were American and 30% European, with the remainder hailing from at least 25 countries as far-flung as Colombia, Japan and Jamaica, Capone said.
Most were ex-soldiers; the rest were emergency medics or critical care nurses. They're willing to "defend a country they've never visited," said Capone, a specialist in computational learning theory.
The U.S. government has discouraged citizens from travelling to Ukraine to combat Russian forces. Some countries have issued stronger warnings, including Britain. Others, such as Canada or Germany, have cleared the way for their citizens to get involved.
In central Lviv on Thursday, a burly, Russian-speaking Canadian, who identified himself only as Sig, heaved bags of equipment into the back of a minivan he had bought in Poland and driven to Lviv.
He wore a flak jacket bristling with medical tools, and said he usually worked as a civilian paramedic.
Another of Sig's four-strong team was an American who said he was born in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and had fought Russians "for generations."
In Sig's bags were hundreds of kilograms of equipment, including medical supplies and military rations known as MREs, or meals ready to eat. Sig said his team planned to help train Ukrainian volunteers in Lviv for a day, before heading straight for the front.
"I have a connection in Kyiv who will help us out," he said.
Standing outside the ticket hall of Lviv station on Sunday were a group of British men in military uniform, waiting for a train to Kyiv. They were in high spirits, often exchanging fist-bumps and handshakes with Ukrainian refugees who thanked them for fighting for their country.
They were led by Ben Grant, a strapping Englishman from Essex, who said he had served in Britain's Royal Marines and had just completed a stint as a security advisor in Iraq. He was unclear whether his men would be deployed independently or as part of a Ukrainian unit.
Of the Ukrainian soldiers, Grant added: "They seem strong-- really strong. I'm more than happy to fight next to them."
The Punchbowl crew noted in their morning e-mail today that Americans want to "whack" Russia. Quinnipiac released a poll yesterday that said 71% of respondents said they would support a ban on Russian oil even if it meant higher gas prices and 56% said that Biden's actions to sanction Russia have not been tough enough. Zelensky's 66% approval rating is higher than Biden's-- or any other American politician's. And 60% think that Putin is mentally unstable.
Soon after, Biden announced he is banning Russian oil imports. Largely applauded across the political spectrum-- although, have no doubt, the Republicans will campaign against him for higher gas prices-- it was a bold move. Wisconsin Senate candidate Tom Nelson was instantly out of the gate thanking Biden. His statement this morning went further-- and in the right direction: "After calling on the Biden Administration to ban the importation of Russian oil over the weekend, I am delighted to hear that they will be doing just that this morning. As I stated previously, this is a matter of national and global security, and the President and Democratic leaders are leading and showing Russia there are consequences for their actions. I also fully support this administration’s efforts to investigate Big Oil’s price gouging of Americans that is causing us real pain at the pump and are a direct result of the illegal Russian invasion and the greed of Big Oil now making record profits."
Not everyone on the left feels the same way I do. Someone tagged me on Twitter today: "No War But Class Way." I'm not going to comment on that right now... but I'm working on it.