Mar 11th 2022 BY ALEXANDER CLAPP
Fighters with Ukraine’s foreign legion are being asked to sign indefinite contracts. Some have refused
Jake Priday wanted to do his bit. His Ukrainian adventure lasted nine hours
On February 26th Volodymyr Zelenksy, Ukraine’s president, went on television and asked foreign volunteers to take up arms in his country’s defence. Jake Priday, a 25-year-old British teacher from Cardiff in Wales, responded to the call. Priday had spent six years in the British army, doing tours of duty with the Royal Engineers in Estonia, Kenya and, most recently, Iraqi Kurdistan, where he helped train local militias in 2017.
After he dislocated his knee the following year, he left the armed forces. Back home, he began teaching skills he’d learned as a soldier – making tourniquets and treating wounds – at a vocational school in Cardiff.
Most of his students were young men in their late teens, who “had dropped out of university and were looking for some way to improve their lives”.
Priday is 6’3” and powerfully built with green eyes and a crew-cut. Zelensky’s plea caught his attention: here was a chance to instruct people who now needed his first-aid skills more than ever. He had been following the Russian troop manoeuvres on the Ukrainian border for months. “Whenever you see me on my phone, I’m not on social media,” he said. “I’m scrolling through the news. My partner hates it. I’m always asking her, ‘Have you seen this? Have you seen this?’” Priday didn’t think that Putin’s build-up of troops was a bluff. “It didn’t make sense if it was all a ploy,” he said. “It’s too expensive to keep that much equipment there for so long.” So when Russia finally invaded Ukraine on February 24th, Priday was already mentally prepared for his next move.
A few days later Priday informed his school that he was taking three weeks off and told his fiancée he was heading to Ukraine: “She was sad, but she understood what it was that I needed to do.” Social-media posts suggested that anyone interested in helping the war effort should contact the Ukrainian embassy in their home country. His goal, Priday told diplomats in London, was to give Ukrainians basic medical training, focusing his efforts on “as many women, children and disabled people as possible”.
“I have no interest in being a hero or dying,” he told the embassy staff.
“My heart goes out to the people. And I want to help.” On March 2nd he left for Krakow in Poland on a one-way ticket.
“I have no interest in being a hero or dying”
The Ukrainian embassy told him to contact a volunteer in Poland called Staz, who said Priday should go to the Cicada Hotel in a Polish border village called Korczowa. “No one is ever going to help everyone,” Priday remembers thinking as he travelled to Ukraine. “But if you can do a little bit, even just for a little bit of time, you need to find it in you to try.” In the end, his foray into Ukraine lasted just nine hours.
At approximately 1am on March 3rd, Priday and 15 other volunteers crammed into a white van with civilian licence plates, bound for western Ukraine. A yellow van followed with another 15.
A Bulgarian in a black hoodie, who’d drunk a number of Tyskie beers while waiting at the Cicada, sat next to Priday for the hour-long drive. He worked as a nightclub bouncer in London and, moments after he entered the van, confessed to being a neo-Nazi. “My plan is to kill as many Russians as I can,” he explained on repeat.
The two vans were waved through each of the six checkpoints they passed. The volunteers were dropped off at a Ukrainian army base, a collection of yellow buildings with red tiled roofs, just before 3am. They were led inside one of the buildings to a room with no heating and 25 beds without sheets. The Ukrainians checked everyone’s passports and turned away one prospective volunteer, a Russian who worked in Dublin. He was told, according to Priday, that there was “no way” he could sign up.
Priday was woken around 8am by a Ukrainian soldier banging a drum. In a canteen the new arrivals were served a breakfast of noodles and a “weird-tasting juice that smelled like gasoline”.
Priday expected staff to assess the skills of the foreigners and attempt to slot them into suitable roles – many volunteers had no military experience. He thought he might be sent to a refugee camp to help the wounded and teach basic first aid.
Instead, the co-ordinators explained that volunteers were expected to fight on the frontline. “You were told that you would go where you are most needed,” Priday said. They would get three to five days’ training.
Staff informed them that the first two days would be devoted to rudimentary map-reading and medical skills; on the third day weapons would be handed out and volunteers would practise firing them on a range; then all of them – regardless of their prior experience – would be dispatched to the front. A Belarusian anarchist who had been through the training confirmed the abbreviated nature of it. He said he was told that new recruits were destined for Kyiv.
The foreign legion does now appear to be adapting. Online application forms for new recruits ask for candidates with “military/combat/medical experience”. 1843 magazine has heard reports that a new commander has been appointed. Veterans are now being winnowed out from those who have never seen combat – the latter now receive three weeks of training.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s ministry of defence said that “we are focused on trained people. Untrained people are not going to be sent to the front”.
Priday was surprised by the naivety of those eager to fight.
Some volunteers likened the Ukrainian struggle to that of the Kurds in Iraq against Islamic State, but he knew how the Russians were a different kind of enemy. “This is nothing like fighting terrorists,” Priday tried to explain to other recruits.
“You’re fighting a real country, with a real army, with a real navy, with special forces and heavy weaponry and superb tactical capabilities. And it’s all being conducted by a crazy man.”
As he said to his fellow volunteers, no one seemed to have thought through what would happen if a foreigner like Priday – a nato veteran – were to be captured by the Russians. “Prisoners like me would be a gold mine for Russian propaganda,” Priday said.
“You’re fighting a real country, with a real army and heavy weaponry – all conducted by a crazy man”
The most troubling turn of events came just after breakfast. The volunteers lined up and were told that it was time to sign a contract: this stipulated that their pay would be 7,000 hryvnia a month ($230 at the time) and that they would have to remain in the Ukrainian foreign legion for the duration of the war.
The contract put them under the same obligations as all Ukrainian men: under martial law, declared by Zelensky on February 24th, no man aged between 18 and 60 is allowed to leave the country.
“If you’ve got any commitments at home, you’re going to lose them,” Priday told me. People might lose their jobs or even their houses, if they fall behind on rent or mortgage payments: “7,000 hyrvnia a month is not sustainable”.
Two other sources confirmed to 1843 magazine that the contract binds volunteers to serve for an indefinite length of time. (By way of comparison, the French Foreign Legion requires people to sign up for five years in the first instance.) None of the volunteers 1843 spoke to had been told about the terms of contract before they made the crossing into Ukraine.
A source in the Ukrainian ministry of defence also told 1843 magazine that the contract was for an unlimited period. He said that, in practice, those who no longer wished to fight could apply for a discharge and were unlikely to be refused.
Between 20 and 30 volunteers have already been allowed to leave after signing on. The ministry of defence spokesman denied that the contract requires volunteers to sign on indefinitely but refused to share a copy with 1843 magazine.
The terms of the contract are clearly giving some people pause. A number of would-be volunteers in Lviv in western Ukraine, interviewed by 1843 magazine, said they would like to help the war effort but are wary of signing the document. They are now looking for other ways to offer assistance.
Priday implored the other volunteers not to sign. “I was trying to explain to them what martial law really means – and that it’s up to Ukraine to decide when it ends. It can be extended and extended. But no one at the base was explaining this to the volunteers. They just kept reiterating that you were getting paid for your services.”
“To me it’s deceiving,” Priday said. “They’re selling you a dream – You can help the Ukrainian people! – but then they’re throwing you into the worst place possible in a war zone.” Priday refused to sign and said he was immediately asked to leave the barracks. He was still able to convince nearly 20 aspiring volunteers not to sign the contract, he claims.
One foreigner who did sign was a 21-year old from Britain with no military experience. He told Priday he’d been working dead-end jobs for years and his frustration had mounted and mounted. He flew to Poland without telling his housemates or his parents: no one in Britain knew that he had gone. Priday felt like the man was signing his “death warrant”. (The man has subsequently returned from Ukraine.)
Less than ten hours after he’d entered Ukraine, Priday left the camp and hitchhiked back to the border. The last thing he saw in the barracks was a group of young men in the bathroom lining up to shave: members of the foreign legion are prohibited from having beards.
Volunteers are still flocking to fight. A blazing red neon sign slung across the roof of the Cicada Hotel announces that it is open 24 hours a day. The gravel car park has become a staging ground for chancers, mercenaries, volunteers, drifters, missionaries, legionnaires, spies and swindlers who, at any hour of the day, are looking for some form of transport – buses, vans, cars – to whisk them across the border. Eighteen-wheelers are parked next to Volkswagens with diplomatic plates and Red Cross vehicles loaded with medical supplies.
A green van, a former food truck that still bears the words “DELICIOUS FOOD” in faded Cyrillic characters, has been renovated to become a troop carrier. A sign reading “FOREIGN LEGION” is taped to the windshield. Volunteers sleep inside cars, engines running to keep the occupants warm.
Priday felt like the man was signing his “death warrant”
The interior of the Cicada is a cross between an Austro-Hungarian hunting lodge and a Wild West saloon. Half-a-dozen Slavic languages echo beneath its slanted wood-beam ceiling.
Army backpacks line a wall; body armour, helmets and sleeping bags crowd the hallway from the bar to the dining area, where men chain-drink instant coffee and beer, and cut into pork schnitzels. They huddle over their phones, examining maps and news stories.
On any given night you can meet French foreign legionnaires, Baltic ex-servicemen and American gun-nuts raised on “Rambo” and “Top Gun” hankering for a shot at their old Cold War foe. A bulked-up former pilot from Louisiana who did four tours in Afghanistan he sold his pick-up truck to fund his trip to Ukraine.
“I’m just here to shoot,” he said with a grin.
There are Balkan fighters in cargo pants; German hipsters-turned-gonzo humanitarians; Ukrainian military attachés with black pistols holstered into their jeans; Mormons from Utah; and a middle-aged Norwegian woman determined to ease the burden on Ukrainian mothers and take up a Kalashnikov in the spirit of solidarity.
A Lithuanian volunteer seasoned in anti-tank warfare wears a sweatshirt that reads, in blue-and-yellow letters “Русский военный корабль, иди нахуй” (“Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself”), the response of the Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea when a Russian naval vessel ordered them, hours into the invasion, to lay down their arms.
The Lithuanian’s friends had given him the sweatshirt as a going-away present. He took out his phone and scrolled to a photo of a tattoo of a crusader on horseback that he recently had emblazoned across his chest. “I worry that if Putin conquers Ukraine, he will turn to Lithuania next,” he told me. “So I’m here fighting for my own country as much as I am for Ukraine.”■
Alexander Clapp is a journalist based in Athens. He is reporting from Ukraine’s western border for 1843 magazine. You can read his previous dispatch here. Additional reporting from Wendell Steavenson in Lviv
PHOTOGRAPHS: AYMAN OGHANNA