Thousands of foreigners are fighting for Ukraine as part of the official International Legion, the Armed Forces of Ukraine told LIGA.net in a statement. But there are those who do not want – or cannot – join the Legion’s ranks.
Andrew, an American, admits that he has heard many contradictory facts about the International Legion and so preferred the Ukrainian unit.
Anastasia Leonova, a Russian, served as a volunteer paramedic for thirteen months and is now ready to continue fighting only if she signs a contract.
"I don’t want to be treated differently because I’m a foreigner," says Andrew. "The only difference is that we speak a different language."
LIGA.net found out what difficulties foreigners face in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, what their rights are – and what they miss the most.
"I saw photos from the Kyiv region where Russians were shooting cats and dogs for no reason," says Andrew (name changed), a 39-year-old American.
Just as Russia’s full-scale invasion started, he knew it was wrong. He spent two months saving money and deciding whether to leave – and it was Russians’ treatment of animals that pushed Andrew to make up his mind and come to Ukraine.
"It's not that I don't care about people, but animals don't have political alliances," he explains.
Andrew arrived in Ukraine in May 2022. He asks not to reveal where he was born but says he grew up on a typical American farm with horses and cows.
At 17, Andrew joined the US Army and was later deployed to Friedberg, Germany, as a 120mm mortar gunner. In 2007, he worked as a security officer at a military base in Qatar and later chose a civilian profession – trucking in the United States.
After arriving in Kyiv, Andrew got through his friends to the Right Sector, a volunteer corps founded back in 2014, as there were Ukrainians there who spoke English well.
With the outbreak of full-scale war, the corps was legalised as a separate military unit within the Armed Forces of Ukraine, so Andrew managed to complete the paperwork and was enlisted in an artillery company.
Andrew explains why he did not join the official International Legion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
"I heard a lot of stories from other foreigners that many members of the Legion came for the sake of military tourism. Some of them lied about their experience and now try to command more experienced [foreigners].
"I wanted to stay as far away from the Legion as possible."
Olena (name changed), a volunteer, has helped many foreigners with enlistment and believes the main problem of the Foreign Legion is lack of systematisation and accounting.
"It's not clear where you are going and who will be your commander," she explains.
"We had a story where a couple of foreign guys waited and joined [the Foreign Legion], but were injured in the Kupiansk sector [in the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine].
According to Olena, the unit of wounded foreigners was positioned as a reconnaissance group, but "at some point they were told to go into direct infantry combat".
"Imagine a foreigner trying to join the Foreign Legion and seeing an ordinary instructor come and tell them that he is a 'Navy SEAL’, ‘paratrooper', or else."
The Armed Forces of Ukraine deny the volunteer’s claims. Back in March 2022, Anton Myronovych, a spokesman for the National Army Academy, told LIGA.net that the main requirement for joining the Legion is experience in combat, with all candidates thoroughly vetted.
Olena is understandably emotional – she’s engaged to Andrew.
"I can’t wait to get married," Andrew says, excitedly. "My life is here in Ukraine right now. We have a house near Kyiv. It’s a beautiful village, I love it here. I don’t like cities because I grew up on a farm."
Andrew left the Right Sector in November 2022, when it was disbanded and transformed into the 67th mechanised brigade of the Armed Forces. The American is currently trying to transfer to another unit in southern Ukraine.
"He and another group of foreigners were told to go to Kharkiv. They stayed there for two weeks, waiting for their documents to be processed, but it turned out that there was no direct request to transfer their personal files," says Olena.
The military is trying to figure it out, she adds, adding there is speculation that his personal file has either been lost or never been created.
Anastasia Leonova, a paramedic and a volunteer in the Ukrainian Armed Forces with the call sign 'Rusalka', is in a legal limbo as well.
Ms Leonova left Russia in 2015 and was a tactical medicine instructor at the bases of the Right Sector and Azov.
In 2016, she was arrested in connection to the case of Oleg Muzhchyl, accused of preparing terrorist attacks and killed in custody. But later, she was released from the detention centre due to lack of evidence.
"For the seventh year, we have been proving that we are not terrorists," Ms Leonova tells LIGA.net. "I have not left Ukraine since 2015."
Leonova decided to stay at home for the first few days of the invasion, because "people were shot down at checkpoints not only for having a Russian passport." Then her military friends invited her to give a tactical medicine lesson and eventually made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: staying as a medic in their unit.
Last April, the unit was merged into the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
"At first, the command understood my situation and helped me in every way possible," Ms Leonova recalls, "but now the command has changed, and it is in this unit that I will not continue to serve."
She served as a volunteer for thirteen months without receiving any payments.
"I went through all the circles of hell at the military enlistment office, psychological tests. My medical examination lasted four days."
Ms Leonova has now been offered to be transferred to a mobile battlegroup, but this time she wants to make it official with a contract.
"After thirteen months of no sleep and life-threatening work, I have nothing. A contract is my only opportunity to get Ukrainian citizenship," she admits.
The moment a contract is signed, a foreigner is entitled to all the rights and guarantees provided for the Ukrainian military, the only difference being lack of state secrets privilege, Mariia Zviahintseiva, a lawyer at the Legal Hundred, an association helping Ukrainian military and veterans, tells LIGA.net.
If a foreigner is killed, their family members have the right to receive the same assistance – UAH 15 million (USD 406,560) as the Ukrainian ones, the only restriction being when relatives are citizens of Russia or Belarus or live in those countries.
Another caveat is that the account for payments must be opened in Ukraine, says Oleksandr Shaguri, a spokesman for the coordination department for military service by foreigners in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Mr Shaguri is an officer of the International Legion.
Ms Zviahintseva believes this restriction makes sense.
"This is due to the aggression carried out by Russia, Belarus, and its citizens, and Ukraine does not have any other mechanisms for verifying the relatives of the deceased who permanently reside in these countries."
Unlike Ukrainians, foreigners have the right to terminate their contracts, as well as to sign them for a shorter period of time, such as one year.
What foreigners – in particular Belarusians – mainly call for is change the legislation to make it faster to obtain Ukrainian citizenship, Ms Shaguri says. However, official service in the Ukrainian Armed Forces itself helps in obtaining citizenship, he adds.
A contract with the Armed Forces is one of the grounds for acquiring Ukrainian citizenship, as evidenced by the relevant law.
In general, foreigners’ complaints are similar to those of Ukrainians – in particular delays in the payment of salaries. Some are specific, such as the issues of citizenship and the legality of staying in Ukraine, Ms Zviahintseva explains.
Her organisation, the Legal Hundred, is one of the few that provides legal aid to foreign soldiers in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
"Foreigners are more interested in informational and explanatory work. After all, if they have signed a contract, it means that they are legally staying in Ukraine," the lawyer adds.
The Armed Forces call on the public to launch more information campaigns so that foreigners are better aware of their rights, responsibilities, and bonuses.
"When a person is on the frontline, they don't have time to study the law," says Mr Shaguri.
Olena, the volunteer, confirms the problem.
"There is a lot written about the status of foreigners in Ukraine, but very little is clear. It would be appropriate to create, if not a hotline, then at least a chatbot with instructions."
Mr Shaguri assures his department provides all possible assistance to foreigners.
"However, you have to understand that we are still the military and cannot help with domestic issues such as divorce or adoption."
However, foreigners can contact the Armed Forces of Ukraine via email if necessary: [email protected].
A trivial, but important problem for foreigners in Ukraine is the language issue. According to the defence ministry’s roadmap, by 2025, non-commissioned officers and officers of the Armed Forces should be able to speak English at the second (functional) level of language competence according to NATO standards.
It is because of the language barrier that there are cases where some foreigners – including Andrew – are denied entry to Ukrainian units where they would like to serve, Olena explains.
"I don't want to be treated differently because I'm a foreigner," Andrew admits to LIGA.net.
"The only thing that makes us different is that we speak a different language. Maybe there are a few other little things, like my love for McDonald's. Just joking."
The article was prepared in partnership with Freedom House Ukraine within the framework of the Civilian Oversight of Security Agencies in Ukraine project.