Western Combatants Flee Ukraine After Russian Strike Kills Dozens: A Different Kind of War to Iraq or Afghanistan

Following a March 13 Russian missile strike on a military facility at Yavoriv in western Ukraine, which reportedly killed several dozen Western combatants, Western volunteer fighters have reportedly begun to flee the country when faced with a much more intense kind of warfare than expected. After the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine on February 24 it was widely reported that citizens of Western countries were volunteering in their thousands to join the war, a large proportion of them with combat experience. While their motivation appeared predominantly ideological they were dismissed in Russian media as mercenaries. Swedish volunteer Jesper Soder described the Russian missile strike as “Pure hell – fire, shouting, panic. And a lot more bombs and missiles,”  stating that he had quickly led Western combatants including Scandinavians, British and Americans out of Ukraine across the Polish border. “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 stated regarding the precision of the Russian attack.

A U.S. Army veteran who also survived the Russian missile strike on Yavoriv and subsequently left the country stated: “I survived because the missiles struck the hard structures instead of the tents where I was,” adding that over two thirds of Western volunteers decided to leave immediately. Regarding the calibre of the Western volunteers he stated: “Some were professional soldiers and are still competent. Others are drunks, people with the most marginal military experience, and people who really should not have come at all.” Other survivors advised potential future volunteers that the “situation is absolutely f***ed,” stressing: “Go ahead and join the legion, by all means, but be very aware of how bad Kyiv is going to get and be aware that Russians have warplanes and you will have next to nothing. Be very acceptant of the possibility of death. Those of us who left, including SF (special forces) operators from multiple countries, are simply risk mitigating. No one wants to die in an unfair fight, and after getting absolutely f***ing pummelled by massive cruise missiles today – yeah I kind of want people to think twice before turning their life upside down to go and volunteer.” Regarding the state of Ukrainian forces, he stated: “They’re sending untrained guys to the front with little ammo and s**t AKs and they’re getting killed … The guys who are there now will all be going to Kyiv and many will die, the legion is totally outgunned and has a few crazy Ukrainian leaders.”

The Russian Defence Ministry has warned that ‘Western mercenaries’ in Ukraine would not be treated as prisoners of war, and strongly advised them against joining the conflict. The most notable reported death of a Western combatant was a veteran of the NATO war in Afghanistan from the Royal Canadian Infantry’s 22nd Regiment, the sniper known in Arabic as Wali - or ‘the Guardian,’ who reportedly died within days of entering Ukraine. Having served from 2009 to 2011, and subsequently volunteered with Kurdish militias to fight the Islamic State terror group, ’the Guardian’ gained the title of NATO’s deadliest sniper with some reports indicating he held a record of 40 kills in a day. The circumstances of his death remain unknown. ‘The Guardian's' case reflects a wider phenomenon - namely that while Western personnel have considerable experience operating in low intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with limited firepower beyond firearms, even limited involvement in Ukraine represents an entirely different kind of warfare for which even veterans with considerable experience in counterinsurgency wars are far from prepared. 

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