When Kremlin forces invaded Ukraine in February, many expected a short and overwhelming victory for the aggressors.
Onlookers around the world were appalled as columns of armored vehicles stretching for miles crossed the border, causing strife and havoc. A dark dawn of tyranny loomed in Ukraine, with dire predictions predicting kyiv’s swift fall.
Instead, Russian forces met determined resistance from Ukrainian troops and foreign volunteer fighters who packed their bags and headed into the war zone to fight alongside them.
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One was ‘Matt’ from North West England, who was ‘on the ground’ in Ukraine in early March, no more than a week after the invasion began and only days after the formation of the international legion.
“Matt”, not his real name, told ECHO the motive was simple – “it’s better to fight them now on a different border from ours”, comparing Putin’s attempts to seize territory to Hitler and a sign of more serious ambitions not to stop with Ukraine.
A week of physical training (PT) followed and a few military bases to screen out anyone whose skills were not “up to par”.
Matt’s unit was assigned to the National Guard to carry out reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines near kyiv and to collect information on the positions and movements of Russian artillery before returning to radio silence to avoid the detection in order to relay crucial details to defenders so they can return accurate artillery fire.
Hampered by a lack of equipment – notably a night vision kit – the team had to make round trips of 20 kilometers during the day using what they could, in a logic of “adapting, d ‘to improvise and try to overcome problems’.
He said: “We were working with the Ukrainian artillery in kyiv where we were based. Our job was to scout and penetrate enemy territory.
“We were going to do reconnaissance and see where their artillery was, their priority targets. We were walking back. We couldn’t use any communication. Communications could be traced, including the radio. We had our eyes on the artillery and the artillery was firing back. We were trying to do them (the missions) as quickly as possible during the day.
“We lacked night vision – we were trying to do it all in one day and had to go 20km, 10km into enemy territory and back.”
When asked if they had had any ‘contact’ along the way, Matt said they were vulnerable to artillery and were counting on luck not to be hit as the shells fell a few meters away and sometimes had to defend themselves “in retreat”.
They were almost sitting ducks for BMPs, a type of small Russian infantry vehicle with a mounted gun that looks like a tank, and mobile artillery would come into the woods and fire at his unit.
He said: “We had BMP fire on us and the shells landed five meters from us.”
The Ukrainians he fought alongside impressed him, as he told ECHO: “Well, we had civilians with us and the people who had enlisted, they had enlisted to protect their homeland . These guys were completely amazing. They pushed them away whenever they had the chance.
The Ukrainian people, in turn, were abundant in their gratitude to foreign fighters such as Matt.
He said: “We still had children in Kyiv who had come quite close to the front line to give away cookies – we had mums who just cooked for us with whatever they had. I have children’s notes. Every Ukrainian would come up to you, shake your hand and say “slava Ukraini!”
The “turning point” that stands out for him was the destruction of a huge invasion column north of kyiv.
Ukraine, with foreign fighters such as Matt, was able to fend off Russia until it pulled out and refocused on its efforts in the east.
During the defense of kyiv, he also passed through the now notorious scene of a Russian massacre of Ukrainians in the town of Bucha.
Matt’s unit was then redeployed, but he was unable to discuss details due to the current situation.
He said: ‘What seemed to be the turning point was when we blew up the column, when it was destroyed, that was in the news.
“We can’t say if it was us, everyone was working together. It cut off a lot of supplies. The Russian soldiers had no food.
“They were getting rotten potatoes, the Russian lines were covered in vodka bottles. We were told that the Russians were drunk.
“The turning point was when that column was destroyed and they started to lose morale.”
Instead of taking on what they thought was more like a professional army, it was “more like a bunch of guys who had no idea what they were doing.”
Five hundred supposed Spetsnaz special forces units were also found to be replacements rather than the real deal.
There were still issues to watch out for, including Russian money bribing some Ukrainians to give information, and foreign troops having to keep their language down.
The North West volunteer, who has a military background, said there was no hunger for “glory”, but he was aware of the difference made by himself and other foreign volunteers, observing that when they arrived “the whole map was in the Russian positions – almost everything was red, they were everywhere”, but that changed in the next seven weeks, and “now the map is completely clear, we have patrols which run to the border.
He said, “You know, we got thanked by a boy for saving at least a squadron of guys. We know we made a difference, we definitely made a difference in Kyiv, we can’t get into the other stuff. All the guys definitely made the difference. We didn’t go chasing glory, taking pictures, we only went to help.
Back home, he said, “I think I’m done for now, I’ll help in other ways. The team I was with, we suffered losses. A lot of guys, a lot were from Afghanistan and Iraq and said ‘it’s not like we fought before because you were fighting artillery.
“You can’t shoot, you have to sit and wait and hope it doesn’t fall on your head. I keep in touch with many people in the National Guard. They were adamant, “if you fight with us, you are brothers with us”. Back then, we were watching their backs and they were watching ours. Everyone fought as equals. They appreciated the fact that we were there to defend not our homes but theirs.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s official advice is that the British do not volunteer to fight in Ukraine unless they have military experience.