Ukraine’s embassy in Washington, DC is taking on an unexpected role as a recruitment centre for Americans who want to join the fight against Russia’s invasion.
Diplomats working out of the embassy, in a townhouse in the Georgetown section of the United States capital city, are fielding thousands of offers from volunteers seeking to fight for Ukraine, even as they work on the far more pressing matter of securing weapons to defend against an increasingly brutal Russian onslaught.
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“They really feel that this war is unfair, unprovoked,” said Ukraine military attaché Major General Borys Kremenetskyi. “They feel that they have to go and help.”
US volunteers represent just a small subset of foreigners seeking to fight for Ukraine, who in turn comprise just a tiny fraction of the international assistance that has flowed into the country. Still, it is a reflection of the passion, supercharged in an era of social media, that the attack and the mounting civilian casualties have stirred.
“This is not mercenaries who are coming to earn money,” Kremenetskyi said. “This is people of goodwill who are coming to assist Ukraine to fight for freedom.”
The US government discourages Americans from going to fight in Ukraine, which raises legal and national security issues.
Since the February 24 invasion, the embassy in Washington has heard from at least 6,000 people inquiring about volunteering for service, the “vast majority” of them American citizens, said Kremenetskyi, who oversees the screening of potential US recruits.
Half the potential volunteers were quickly rejected and did not even make it to a Zoom interview, the general said. They lacked the required military experience, had a criminal background or weren’t suitable for other reasons such as age, including a 16-year-old boy and a 73-year-old man.
Some who expressed interest were rejected because the embassy said it could not do adequate vetting. The general did not disclose the methods used to screen people.
Kremenetskyi, who spoke to The Associated Press just after returning from the Pentagon for discussions on the military hardware his country needs for its defence, said he appreciates the support from both the US government and the public.
“Russians can be stopped only with hard fists and weapons,” he said.
So far, about 100 US citizens have made the cut. They include veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with combat experience, including some helicopter pilots, the attaché said.
They must make their own way to Poland, where they are to cross at a specified point, with their own protective gear but without a weapon, which they will get after they arrive. They will be required to sign a contract to serve, without pay, in the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government says about 20,000 foreigners from various nations have already joined.
Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a former Liberal lawmaker in Canada who is helping to facilitate recruitment there, said about 1,000 Canadians have applied to fight for Ukraine, the vast majority of whom do not have any ties to the country.
“The volunteers, a very large proportion are ex-military, these are people that made that tough decision that they would enter the military to stand up for the values that we subscribe to,” Wrzesnewskyj said. “And when they see what is happening in Ukraine they can’t stand aside.”
It is not clear how many US citizens seeking to fight have reached Ukraine, a journey the US Department of State has urged people not to make.
“We’ve been very clear for some time, of course, in calling on Americans who may have been resident in Ukraine to leave and making clear to Americans who may be thinking of travelling there, not to go,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters recently.
Under some circumstances, Americans could face criminal penalties, or even risk losing their citizenship, by taking part in an overseas conflict, according to a senior US law enforcement official.
US authorities worry about what could happen if an American is killed or captured – or is recruited while over there to work for a foreign intelligence service upon their return home, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.
The official and independent security experts say some of the potential foreign fighters may be white supremacists, who are believed to be fighting on both sides of the conflict. They could become more radicalised and gain military training in Ukraine, thereby posing an increased danger when they return home.
“These are men who want adventure, a sense of significance and are harking back to World War II rhetoric,” said Anne Speckhard, who has extensively studied foreigners who fought in Syria and elsewhere as director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.