The gray asphalt road that leads to Ukraine’s Shehyni border crossing with Poland has for the past week seen 30-mile tailbacks as people try to flee the country, often saying tearful goodbyes to the family members and friends staying behind to fight the Russian invasion.
Wednesday brought a different sight: groups of young men, laden with heavy bags and military kit, entered Ukraine from Poland as they answered President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for “citizens of the world” to fight “Russian war criminals.”
Among them, New York resident Vasyk Didyk, a 26-year-old carpenter wearing a fluorescent Carhartt beanie who is originally from Ukraine.
“This is our motherland,” he told CNN in Shehyni. “We couldn’t stay in our comfortable lives in America and watch what is happening here.”
Didyk, accompanied by his friend Igor Harmaii, had spent 24 hours traveling from New York to Poland before crossing back into his homeland carrying a canvas backpack and pulling a suitcase on wheels.
He has no military training and came despite his parents, who do not live in Ukraine, weeping on the phone when they heard he was joining the fight.
“I haven’t been back to Ukraine in four years – but it wasn’t even a choice,” he said. “I had to come and help my country.”
The world has watched in horror since Russia invaded Ukraine late last week, triggering what could be the largest land war in Europe since World War II. And Zelensky’s defiance has not only united Western opposition to Russia, but also inspired foreign volunteers and Ukrainians abroad to fight for the cause.
“This is not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Zelensky said on Sunday. “This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules, and peaceful coexistence.”
Ukrainian embassies have been helping recruit foreign fighters, while at least one senior politician from a Western government that has previously prosecuted those who joined foreign wars indicated support for citizens taking up arms in Ukraine.
“If people want to support that struggle, I will support them doing that,” UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told the BBC on Sunday.
Asked by CNN whether it consented to French foreign fighters in Ukraine, the French government said: “Ukraine is a war zone, classified as a red zone in the travel advice, updated on a permanent basis and available under the following link (Travel advice). As a result, we formally advise against any travel to Ukraine.”
The question was not directly answered by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press briefing on Wednesday.
When asked about American foreign fighters he said the US has been “clear for some time” in telling “Americans who may be thinking of traveling there not to go.”
If Americans want to help Ukraine, “there are many ways to do that, including by supporting and helping the many NGOs that are working to provide humanitarian assistance; providing resources themselves to groups that are trying to help Ukraine by being advocates for Ukraine,” he said.
On Thursday, Zelensky said the first of 16,000 foreign fighters were making their way to Ukraine “to protect freedom and life for us, and for all,” he said. CNN has not been able to confirm those numbers.
“An attack on Europe”
In the English city of Milton Keynes, more than 1,200 miles west from Shehyni, British builder Jake Dale said the call for foreigners to join Ukraine’s International Legion inspired him to book a flight to Poland on Friday. He aims to cross into Ukraine by Saturday afternoon.
“As soon as I heard his [Zelensky’s] call – it made me think he needs help,” the 29-year-old said from his home he shares with his girlfriend and two children. “I think it is a worthy cause to risk my life, and my girlfriend feels the same. Obviously, she gets upset, as anyone would, but she supports it as she can see I want to help.”
Back in 2015, Dale wanted to join a Kurdish militia group, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which was leading the fight against ISIS in Syria, but decided against it due to warnings by the British government.
This time, he is not worried about the potential legal trouble he could face on his return from Ukraine. “I’m willing to deal with it,” he said after the British government distanced itself from Truss’s comments.
During a trip to Poland, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK was not “actively” supporting volunteers going to fight. “I can understand why people feel as they do, but we have laws in our country about international conflicts and how they must be conducted,” Johnson told reporters.
Dale is heading to Ukraine with Peter Hurst, a 36-year-old former infantry soldier with the British Army, who did a tour of Afghanistan before leaving the military in 2011.
The father of five, who lives in the northern English town of Pontefract, spoke to CNN on a video call while he picked out kit from an army supplies store in a nearby town. He said wanted to fight to protect democratic values and freedoms.
“It feels like an attack on Europe. If you don’t help stop war there [in Ukraine], it will probably spread,” he said.
Both Hurst and Dale met this week on a Facebook group – created to help supply British medical and military aid to Ukraine. They have been working with a liaison – whose name is listed on an information pack sent by the Ukrainian embassy – who will provide them with body armor and vests in Poland.
Dale has spent £300 ($400) buying kit and plane tickets and worries about the financial impact of him not working. “It will be a strain on my family when I leave,” he said. “But I am sure we will be fine.”
Not everyone is supportive of the idea of foreign fighters in Ukraine.
US-based extremist tracking organization SITE Intelligence Group has warned of the involvement of outfits such as Azov, a paramilitary group whose logo is the Wolfsangel, a symbol appropriated by Nazi Germany.
“Following Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, far-right communities online have rallied to the side of groups like Azov, both in terms of fundraising and stating their intent to fight alongside them,” a SITE report says.
The British government has told those without military training to avoid the fight.