Kevin, a stocky American in his early 30s, climbs over the charred rubble of a former sauna and shines the light from his iPhone through the dust.
“We’re not going to go any further, because this wire is intentionally tied off to something and then buried right here,” he warns. “A lot of the Russians came back through some of these places and re-mined them, put [in] booby traps.”
Kevin is part of a group of elite foreign special forces veterans, primarily American and British, who have enlisted to help the Ukrainian cause.
He says that back in March, the group spent four days in the health spa – they called it “the house from hell” – often just 50 meters from Russian troops. It was, he says, the furthest-forward Ukrainian-held position in Irpin, a suburb on the outskirts of Kyiv, as Russian forces tried to push on through to seize the capital.
The once-affluent suburb is now synonymous with alleged Russian war crimes – a pilgrimage site for visiting dignitaries who’ve beaten a path to its shell-scarred streets. Kevin says he and his men were among the first to witness attacks on Ukrainian civilians here.
Despite a former career as a top-level US counter-terrorism operative, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kevin says it is here in Ukraine that he has faced the most intense fighting of his life.
He says he and his new comrades-in-arms have implemented many of the guerrilla tactics that were used against the American military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are the insurgents now.
“Everything is much more decentralized,” he explains. “Small group tactics is definitely a huge advantage here.”
We are not using Kevin’s full name because of the nature of his work in Ukraine.
“Being on this side now, and hearing their conversations on their radio – and them knowing, okay, they’re out there somewhere, we don’t know where or who it is – there’s definitely an advantage to that,” he says.
‘Real combat experience’
Like many military veterans, Kevin says he had felt adrift since originally leaving the battlefield several years ago. He had a full-time job in the US, but quit when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put out a call for experienced foreign fighters at the beginning of the war. He arrived in western Ukraine, was driven to Kyiv, and was on the frontlines of the battle for the capital within a matter of hours.
He joined Ukraine’s International Legion, launched by the government in the first days of the war. The government pays him and his colleagues a modest salary of between $2,000 and $3,000 a month, though Kevin says they have spent far more than that buying equipment. The International Legion even got its own website, instructing would-be foreign recruits on everything from how to contact the Ukrainian embassy to what to pack.
In those first weeks, the government struggled to weed out the pretenders and war tourists who were out of their depth. By March 6, they had received more than 20,000 applications, according to the foreign minister.
The number of foreign fighters now in Ukraine is a state secret, but a spokesperson for the International Legion told CNN that the “symbiosis” means Ukraine’s “chances of winning are greatly increased.”
“The best of the best join the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Colonel Anton Myronovych told CNN. “These are foreigners with real combat experience, these are foreign citizens who know what war is, know how to handle weapons, know how to destroy the enemy.”
For the first time in his life, Kevin was defending against invasion by a better-equipped enemy. He, not the enemy, was the one who had to worry about airstrikes. There was no master plan, no air support – and there would be no evacuation in case of disaster.
“It was like a movie,” he says. “It was insanity from the start. We started taking indirect fire driving in – small arms fire driving in. And I was in a pickup truck, just driving down the street.”
“There’s tanks, and above us there’s helicopters. And you can hear the Russian jets flying by. And out in the open fields the Russians were dropping troops off in helicopters. And so you’re like: ‘Woah, wow!’ It’s a lot.”
Kevin and his colleagues were on the receiving end of artillery fire. During battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, these foreign soldiers were calling in the air strikes and artillery bombardments. They’d never known was it was like on the receiving end.
Kevin says that, faced with the reality of battle, many foreign fighters decided to leave. “That’s when they say, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me.’ The first time that round comes in within 20 meters is the first time you’re like, ‘Oh, sh*t,’” he said.
Day after day, Kevin and his buddies concluded that they, too, had had enough. Then the next day came, bringing with it new orders and new missions, and they found themselves staying on. Eventually, he says, they wound up at the sauna and gym complex where they holed up for four days, even as the building slowly disintegrated under Russian shelling.
“We call it the house of horrors, because it was literally a nightmare in there,” he says. “This was four really miserable days of really little sleep, really heavy artillery, really heavy infantry presence from the Russians. No matter how many people that we removed from their side, they just kept coming.”
He and the other foreigners on his team were “shocked,” he says. “But the Ukrainian military was … calm, cool, collected. As they say, like, ‘This is normal, don’t worry about it.’”
He is in awe of the Ukrainian soldiers’ efforts.
“They are masters of terrain denial,” he says. “They know every inch of the area. They know the little alleyway that we can wait. They know how to get there. They know this is where we can hide. They know which building to go to. And they’ll tell you before we get there, hey, five houses over has a real nice basement. That’s where we should go.”
‘Everything was on fire’
Kevin walks through what remains of the building, which was ravaged by fire. In the gym, barbells have warped under the extreme heat. Rubber has melted off weight plates.
“This was a chair,” he says, pointing to a metal frame. “We were being artilleried so heavy that we put this chair here so that we could jump out this window if we had to in a hurry.”
When a sheet of loose corrugated roofing slams in the wind outside, he jumps.
At one point during the standoff, he says, Russian troops were so close that, lying on the floor in the pitch-black night, he could hear glass crunching under the enemy’s feet.
And yet, he is sure he made the right decision to come to Ukraine.
“It became more and more self-evident for us that this was the right thing,” he says. “Everything was on fire. The artillery was nonstop. We’d already seen civilians just outright murdered.”
He agrees that there was moral ambiguity to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.