Foreign fighters in Ukraine await weapons in chaos of war

They are idealists who abandoned their jobs for the battlefields of Ukraine, looking for a cause or simply to fight. The Ukrainian president’s call for foreign volunteers to join an international brigade to help bolster his country’s defense with a new layer of resistance to Russia’s invasion is for now a ragtag army.

Recruits say they are often waiting for weapons and training, leaving them feeling exposed.

“Pure hell: fire, shouting, panic. And a lot more bombs and missiles.”

That is how Swedish volunteer Jesper Söder described Sunday’s attack on Yavoriv, the military training base in western Ukraine pounded by Russian missiles that killed 35 people, according to Ukrainian authorities. Russia said the death toll was much higher.

Söder said he led a group of foreigners including Scandinavians, British and Americans out of the base and back across the nearby Polish border.

He told The Associated Press by phone from Krakow, Poland, that he said he didn’t know how many foreign volunteers were being trained at the base but estimated they were in the hundreds. Unlike Söder, who fought alongside Kurdish fighters in Syria against Islamic State group militants, many of the volunteers at Yavoriv had no previous military training, he said.

Foreigners — some of whom have never handled a firearm yet but are ready to die — have arrived in Ukraine from other European countries, the United States and elsewhere. They are hoping to get equipped, instructed and made battle-ready.

But some arrive to discover that there are no weapons, protective gear or proper training in a multilingual force short on organization and breeding a sense of chaos.

Threats by Russia to target what it calls foreign “mercenaries,” as it said it did at the Yavoriv base, increase the level of risk.

“It’s chaotic right now. It’s disorganized, and you can get yourself in trouble very quickly if you’re not with a sensible switched-on group of people,” said Matthew Robinson, a British man from the northern England county of Yorkshire who had been living in southern Spain.

Robinson and several other volunteer fighters were interviewed this weekend on the outskirts of Lviv, where foreign fighters  are receiving training and instruction.

A recent arrival, Robinson is remaining cautious as he tries to sort things out. He said that there are “multiple legions, lots of false promises, lots of misinformation.” In addition, there is a “massive language barrier” and “a lot of people here who haven’t fired weapons.”

Russia’s threats to target what it calls “mercenaries” compounds the dangers facing foreign fighters. Russia has claimed it killed 180 “mercenaries” in Sunday’s training base attack, and Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Monday that the Russian forces will show “no mercy for mercenaries wherever they are on the territory of Ukraine.”

The Russian military is tracking foreign fighters’ movements and will strike again, he said.

Söder’s account of the attack on the training base suggested it was not an indiscriminate strike.

Söder said the bombing of the base was different from anything he had experienced.

“They knew exactly what to hit. They knew exactly where our weapons storage was. They knew exactly where the administration building was. They hit the nail on the head with all their missiles,” he told the AP.

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