Igor Gavrylko was at his home in west London when the Russian bombs began to fall on Ukraine. A British citizen originally from Ukraine, he had lived in the UK since 1996, working most recently for Nissan as a forecourt salesperson. He rang his boss. “I knew a Russian invasion was going to happen,” he said. “My Ukrainian grandfather fought against the Red Army and the Nazis in world war two. Now it’s my turn to help.”
Gavrylko set off by car from Ealing and drove across Europe. By the time he arrived in Ukraine his elderly parents had already had a narrow escape. Russian missiles had destroyed the airport in their home town of Ivano-Frankivsk. “My city was bombarded,” he said. Gavrylko arranged for his mother, sister and four-year-old niece to escape to Poland. His 74-year-old father, Bogdan, refused to leave.
Now based in the western city of Lviv, Gavrylko is one of thousands of volunteers from around the world who have come to Ukraine to defend the country from Russian attack. Some have Ukrainian roots. Others are military veterans with no family ties who have decided to fight with Ukraine’s army. According to Gavrylko, “several hundred” Britons have already arrived, including Ben Grant, the son of a Tory MP.
There are volunteers from Canada – which has a large Ukrainian diaspora community – and the US. A group of Canadians were spotted in Lviv’s Freedom Square this week, with a large Canadian flag on the back of their vehicle. They identified a cafe for breakfast using Google, only to discover it was closed. Others come from the Baltic states and Georgia, itself the victim of Russian aggression and a punitive five-day war in 2008.
Collectively, these recruits amount to the most significant international brigade since the Spanish civil war, when volunteers including leftwing intellectuals fought in communist-organised military units between 1936 and 1938 in support of Spain’s popular front government. Gavrylko said he was aware of these historical echoes. Ukraine, in his view, was now fighting Vladimir Putin and a 21st-century version of fascism.
“He wants to rebuild the Soviet Union as part of a Russian empire. It’s no secret,” he said. “Ukraine is in the middle of Europe. The west is pulling one way, Moscow another. Ukraine, the Baltic states, Poland and Moldova are all on Putin’s list.” Asked why Putin had attacked Ukraine now, after 20 years in the Kremlin, he said: “I get the feeling he is very ill.”
All volunteers sign a contract with Kyiv’s pro-western government. They are then assigned to training groups where their professional experience is evaluated. Gavrylko said he was learning combat first aid. He also worked as an interpreter. “My plan is there is no plan,” he said. Would he willing to fight and die for his native country? “Yes. My grandfather spent 10 years in a Soviet camp in Kazakhstan.”
Daniel Kovzhun, a computer engineer in touch with would-be Croatian volunteers, said foreigners made an important contribution to the war effort. “The foreign guys are more capable than civilian Ukrainian volunteers who are joining territorial defence. They already know how to fight.” He added: “They find contacts here very quickly. Some of them are now on the frontline.”
Kovzhun pointed out that western military instructors had been training the Ukrainian army since 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and kickstarted a war in the eastern Donbas region. They included Israelis, Britons and Georgians, he said. Nato refuses to send soldiers to Ukraine. But as Kovzhun noted, many of the volunteers have come from Nato countries to fight Russia.
At least four serving British soldiers have disappeared from their barracks and travelled to Ukraine. On Wednesday the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, told troops that this was illegal. “You cannot just get up and go,” he said. He described the situation on the ground as dangerous. Ignoring official advice could led to prosecution, he said. On Thursday Boris Johnson said absconding UK service personnel would face a court martial on their return, adding: “You should not go to Ukraine.”
According to Reuters, dozens of former soldiers from the British army’s elite Parachute Regiment have reached Ukraine. Hundreds more will soon follow, one ex-soldier predicted. “They’re all highly, highly trained and have seen active service on numerous occasions,” the ex-soldier said. The Ukraine crisis would give them purpose, camaraderie and “a chance to do what they’re good at: fight.”
Other countries have taken a more pragmatic view and have waived legal restrictions. Latvia, long an enemy of Russia, has lifted a 2014 ban on its citizens going off to fight with Kyiv. Germany and Canada have taken similar steps. While most volunteers are from North America and Europe, a few have come from countries such as Colombia, Japan and even Jamaica.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s decision to deliver defensive weapons to Ukraine has made him a popular figure. The next-generation light anti-tank weapon (NLAW) that the UK supplied to Ukraine is now a meme, shared on social media with the union flag and the Beatles, and made into TikTok videos. Since Russia’s invasion it has proved useful on the battlefield. Video shows a missile being fired from the roof of an airport in the city of Mykolaiv. It destroys a Russian tank.
Gavrylko, 49, said Johnson had done “an excellent job. I think he is great. He reacted straight away. Some countries took their time.” He said he was prepared to forgive Downing Street for issuing only a handful of visas so far for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, in contrast to Poland, which has taken in 1 million refugees, and other EU states that have waived visa requirements. “Johnson has promised to rebuild Ukraine after the war,” he said.
The Guardian’s request to interview foreign fighters at one of their training bases outside Lviv was turned down. A message from the local commander read: “It’s impossible now.” Understandably the locations are a military secret. Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, says more than 66,000 Ukrainians have returned home from abroad to fight – the equivalent of 12 brigades.
Such is the demand that the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has launched a website advising would-be volunteers what to do. Those who want to join Ukraine’s international legion are told to report to their nearest Ukrainian embassy for an interview with a defence attache. If successful, they are advised how to get to Ukraine and what to bring: documents, and military kit including body armour and a helmet. More than 16,000 have signed up, the government says.
The website features a quote from Zelenskiy: “Anyone who wants to join the defence of security in Europe and the world can come and stand side by side with the Ukrainians against the invaders of the 21st century.” It says Russia’s military operation is not just against Ukraine but the “start of a war against the entire Europe”. The struggle is for “European freedom and democracy”, it says, using the language of western idealism.
In Lviv, Gavrylko said he did not know when – or if – he would return to London. “I’ve got no idea if I still have a job,” he admitted.
He added: “I’m impressed with the British people’s attitude. Even those miles away from politics understand what is happening here.”