WARSAW — On March 20, Chris Warren was talking to his mom on the phone and paying the utility bill for his Spokane apartment half a world away when a Ukrainian soldier barged into his Kyiv hotel room.
Get dressed, he told Warren, the Russians are dropping paratroopers into Kyiv.
“We threw on our kit and headed down and the commander who doesn’t speak English was getting the machine guns and snipers to the roof and prepping us to start moving south,” he texted that night.
At the same time, Ukrainian anti-aircraft guns opened fire, lighting up the night sky and sending explosive echoes through the capital city. Warren dressed and raced down to the hotel lobby to join a dozen or so other foreign fighters all waiting nervously.
In the earliest days of the war, Russia had dropped paratroopers into Kyiv, but since Warren arrived in Ukraine on March 6, he’d felt safe in the capital city. Although there was regular bombing and shelling, they weren’t close to where he was staying.
“It feels normal, man,” he said in characteristic nonchalance.
He went out for breakfast sometimes with his fellow fighters, and they watched movies in their hotel room, which had a view of Kyiv’s iconic independence statue.
Warren is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, who was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base and worked at Fairchild’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school. He never had been in combat but worked as a prison guard in the South Carolina and was comfortable in “dynamic situations.” However, an airborne attack was something else, and the tenor of his texts changed that night as he and the other men waited.
“The balls were in the stomach, man,” Warren texted.
Chris Warren arranged patches he received from Ukrainian military units after returning from Ukraine on April 27, 2022. Warren spent nearly two months in Ukraine fighting for the Ukrainian military. (Eli Francovich/The Spokesman-Review)
Warren and another Spokane-area man, Jeremy Smith, were among more than 20,000 foreign fighters from 52 countries who traveled to Ukraine to fight following the Russian invasion in late February. Their motivations were as mixed as their nationalities — a fight against totalitarianism, a dislike of bullies, boredom, a desire for adventure, naïve visions of glory and viral internet fame, money and more — and they were encouraged by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who on Feb. 26 announced the formation of a foreign legion and encouraged “Every friend of Ukraine who wants to join Ukraine in defending the country please come over. We will give you weapons.”
The exact number of foreign fighters isn’t known. The “more than” 20,000 figure was provided in March by the Ukrainian government. A spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Legion wouldn’t comment on current numbers, although he said possibly even more fighters had attached directly to units not officially connected with the legion. In the early days of the war at least, camouflage-wearing men in combat boots were a common sight on commercial planes into Poland.
At the same time, the Russians also are using foreigners. Shortly after Zelenskyy’s announcement, Russian President Vladmir Putin called on foreign fighters to join the war on Russia’s side. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, 16,000 people, mostly from the Middle East, volunteered. Meanwhile, it’s estimated 1,000 members of the Russian Wagner Group, a loose and shadowy affiliation of mercenaries made infamous in Syria and elsewhere, also joined the fight.
And while the number of volunteers is a comment on widespread global interest and concern, it’s also a manifestation of how drastically war has changed, according to war researcher Sean McFate.
McFate is an academic and author focusing on warfare, but he started his career as a paratrooper in the U.S Army’s 82nd Airborne Division; after leaving the U.S. military, he worked as a private military contractor. Now he’s a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C. think tank, and a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He’s written extensively about mercenaries, foreign fighters and how countries, including the United States, are increasingly relying on them to wage modern war.
Wars are no longer fought between standing armies raised and equipped by nation states to fight over land and force a political settlement, he argues. And while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appeared to be a throwback to World War II-style tactics, the Russians’ failure to capture Kyiv shows that modern warfare relies heavily on “nontraditional” methods, methods that lean heavily on foreign and paid fighters.
“Militaries no longer battle other militaries, and nonstate actors now do the fighting and dying; an estimated 90 percent of casualties today are civilian,” McFate writes in his book “The Modern Mercenary.”
And a key component of modern warfare? An ancient profession: hired soldiers.
Like Warren, Jeremy Smith headed to Ukraine hoping to fight Russians. Smith was motivated by a generalized dislike of bullies and some free time. About a year ago, he retired from a 20-year career as a bail bondsman and opened a coffee shop in Odessa, Washington, with his fiancé, Amanda. The two plan to get married in June. He had never been out of the country and, unlike Warren, he’d never served in the military.
“I’m antibully, and I see Russia as being the bully on the block,” he said. “I couldn’t sit around watching stuff on the news and not do anything. And with us having a coffee shop and stuff, I had the means to come over here.”
He’d gone through a police academy in California, worked as a prison guard and spent two decades as a bail bondsman, experience he believed qualified him to volunteer for the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. He and another friend from Washington landed in Poland on March 17 and met up with contacts from the foreign legion in Warsaw. From there, they were taken to Ukraine near Lviv and dropped off in a gymnasium full of refugees. They waited for two days before realizing that the Ukrainian Foreign Legion officials had “forgotten about them,” Smith said.
That’s when they met some Peruvian men who used to work for Blackwater and were in Ukraine “for the money,” Smith said. Blackwater was a U.S.-based private military company that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those guys took them to a Ukrainian school where the Foreign Legion was based. The volunteers were interviewed and placed either into combat or support roles. Smith wanted combat. And that’s what he got. He signed paperwork formally becoming a member of the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.
“Then it was basically a sit-there-and-wait type of thing,” he said. “We sat there eating horrible food. Horrible food. The worst cafeteria food you had and take it down about six pegs.”
One meal? Pasta with some watery sauce and rubbery hotdogs slapped on top. Bad food aside, Smith said he expected more training and organization.
Smith’s story broadly aligns with how a spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Legion described the intake process for foreign fighters. In the early stages of the war, the Ukrainians took all comers, regardless of military experience, said Damien Magrou, a spokesman for the Foreign Legion and a Norwegian lawyer who was living in Kyiv when the war started. That led to a flood of volunteers, many of them highly unqualified. For the past eight weeks, the legion has only accepted volunteers who have previous combat experience, he said.
However, Smith signed his contract before that policy change, and Magrou said volunteers who joined before the new requirement “haven’t been kicked out.”
As a member of the foreign legion, Smith signed a document stating that he’d serve the foreign legion until the “end of martial law” although Magrou said the legion has allowed volunteers to leave whenever they want. Smith would be paid about $1,200 a month for frontline soldiers, just like other Ukrainian soldiers.
After waiting around for several days, Smith was assigned to a unit with other foreign fighters and moved to a base in Lviv, Ukraine — one that had been bombed just days prior by Russia because it was housing foreign fighters and supplies. He was issued a uniform, but he soon became ill.
“Next thing I know I started having chest pains. I started dry heaving,” he recalled. “The Ukrainian medic came to me and said, ‘We can’t do anything for you. You have to go back to Poland.’”
The Ukrainians dropped him off at the Polish border where he waited for eight hours in the cold and rain. By the time he made it back to Warsaw, Smith had tested positive for COVID-19.
Sickness is as much a part of war as bombs and guns, and caring for sick soldiers has, historically, been a primary duty of national armies. During the American Civil War, for example, two-thirds of all deaths were caused by pneumonia, typhoid, dysentery and malaria. While more modern wars feature less death (of all kinds) caring for sick soldiers, whether it’s in Vietnam or Afghanistan, is a full-time job.
And while disease prevention and health care have improved greatly, in 2001 “more than half of outbreaks of international importance occurred in conflict zones,” according to a 2002 article in the medical journal The Lancet. For national armies, medical care is a huge expense. Robert Gates, the former U.S. Defense Secretary, in 2010 said, “Health care costs are eating the Defense Department alive.” Nations have no such obligations to foreign fighters or mercenaries, as highlighted by Smith’s experience. This is yet another benefit of hired fighters, said McFate, the war researcher.
Those benefits have long been recognized and utilized. Known as “mercenaries” by opponents of their use and “private military contractors” by governments who hire them, “many volumes of ink” have been spilled on trying to define what a mercenary is, McFate said.
“Just go with your gut,” he said. “If it’s a foreign fighter participating in foreign wars primarily for money, then they’re a mercenary.”
And while mercenaries have a bad reputation now, McFate said that’s not always been the case.
“They were seen as a bloody trade, but they were honorable,” he said. “The stigma, that they shouldn’t exist, that’s a recent norm.”
Recent, he argues, because of the rise of nation states and their monopoly on violence. Most historians and political scientists say this started in the mid-1600s with the Peace of Westphalia, a treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War and gave individual countries control of their borders and established a norm of non-interference within other countries’ land. This state system temporarily suppressed the prominence of mercenaries, McFate writes in his book “The Modern Mercenary.”
“Under the Westphalian order, states demanded that people be patriots first and everything else second,” he writes.
This was a markedly different approach. In the Middle Ages, for instance “individuals had dueling loyalties to church, kingdom, region, family lineage, ethnic group, monastic order, knightly order, and so forth.”
The consolidation of military power by states led to the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, wars that featured large standing armies fighting for geographic control of resources or land. This ‘conventional’ kind of war is what the United States is built to fight, McFate argues. That’s despite the fact that we haven’t been in that kind of war since World War II.
“Conventional war does not work,” he said.
Instead, modern warfare requires less conventional methods. Tactically that may mean guerrilla-style warfare, cyber-attacks and information warfare.
But it’s also meant more reliance on mercenaries or contracted soldiers, the use of which can be cheaper and provides states with plausible deniability for war crimes or other mistakes. For example, during 20 years in Afghanistan, the U.S. spent $14 trillion, with between one-third and one-half of that money going to contractors, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2021.
“If really bad things happen, you can walk it back and say it wasn’t us,” McFate said. “And this works for us as well.”
McFate points to the Nisour Square massacre in Iraq in 2007 when employees of Blackwater Security Consulting killed 17 civilians and injured 20 more while escorting a U.S. embassy convoy. Russia also has used contract killers to distance themselves from brutality, including the death of hundreds of civilians this year in Mali at the hands of what’s believed to be Wagner mercenaries.
At first Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looked like a throwback to an earlier area with a large standing army invading its neighbor. Comparisons to the buildup to World War II were tossed around. McFate said colleagues who disagree with his theory argued that this proved him wrong.
But then Russia’s attack on Kyiv bogged down and a militarily superior force was stymied by the smaller and less conventional Ukrainian military. Russia turned to its own mercenaries, the Wagner Group, which German intelligence believes was behind the massacres in Bucha.
At the same time, nonstate actors, whether it was oil and gas interests, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations or volunteers, flooded the country.
Ukraine’s continued call for foreign fighters and the professed interest from men and women from around the world has been a propaganda win for the country.
“The whole world today is on Ukraine’s side, not only in words but in deeds,” Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told Ukrainian television in March, pointing to Foreign Legion volunteers as proof.
Proof that could have political ramifications.
“It means that if American citizens are on the ground fighting for Ukraine it means America has more skin in the game,” McFate said. “It’s a propaganda win on many levels.”
And while the two men from Spokane aren’t exactly mercenaries — that is they are ideologically motivated — foreign legions give countries some of the benefits of mercenaries while also allowing them to maintain control.
“This is the thing about a foreign legion, it’s kind of a sweet spot for national armies,” McFate said. “You get the benefits of some of the plausible deniability that modern war requires but you get the accountability and safety and control of a conventional war unit.”
—-After nearly 20 hours of travel, Smith made it back to Warsaw. There he spent two weeks holed up in his hotel room recovering from COVID-19. Once better, he headed back to Ukraine.
“I hope that I can get back to my unit. The new guys that just came in are the kind of guys who will get ya killed,” he texted on April 8. “They do not seem to grasp the concept of what is going on.”
He eventually did make it back to his original unit, and they moved to an industrial complex near Kharkiv. Like much of his experience in Ukraine, the mission wasn’t totally clear and featured plenty of waiting.
Foreign Legion units are all commanded by Ukrainians and the language barrier frustrated communication. For the 30 or so men Smith was with in Kharkiv, most days were spent waiting and wondering what was next. He described the living conditions as atrocious. The factory complex they camped in looked like the set from a Soviet horror movie, an abandoned laboratory in one of the large cement buildings. A machine shop in another. The men didn’t make it any better. Toilets backed up within days, and trash from the soldiers filled the hallways.
“Sanitation was nonexistent,” Smith said. “I’ve never seen a bunch of grown men live so disgustingly.”
They ate porridge three times a day.
Even worse, the Ukrainian commanders’ moods were mercurial. On several occasions, the Ukrainian commander would visit the foreigners and berate them, questioning their motivations and integrity. On April 21, the commander called all the foreigners together.
“He told us in a nutshell that we (Americans) are all drug addicts and drunks,” Smith texted that day. “And that we don’t need to be here.”
The day after that lecture, the complex was bombed. Russian artillery pummeled the complex, setting one building on fire. While running between buildings, Smith had several close calls, but no one was killed.
Following that, the Ukrainian commander ordered them to within five miles of the Russian lines. The mission? To secure a building across a river and within sight of the Russians. Rumors swirled that the building was in fact the hunting lodge of a Ukrainian oligarch who was friends with the Ukrainian commander. It served no tactical purpose, Smith said, and was surrounded by Russians on three sides.
He’d had enough and on April 24, he called it quits and headed to Warsaw. At that time, he estimated five to 10 foreigners were leaving each day.
“I think the Ukrainian army has a big problem with corruption,” he texted April 26 while traveling back to Poland. “They are doing all they can to get a handle on it, but it’s hard.”
Smith’s experience has been echoed by other mercenaries and foreign fighters in Ukraine who report disorganization, a lack of equipment and no clear goal. Others have fled following their first brush with combat, reported the Soufan Center, a nonprofit, global-security research group which published a report on foreign fighters and mercenaries in Ukraine in April.
Some of the foreigners traveling to join the Ukrainian side have had particularly short stints, leaving after just a few days or weeks, in some cases “lacking the training and preparation to handle the hardships that come with fighting in a war,” the report states. “For some, it remains an adventure, an opportunity to snap some ‘selfies’ from a war zone and promote it on social media.”
The report notes that the effectiveness of these foreign fighters is debatable, with the majority of them being kept in western Ukraine, far from the frontlines.
Meanwhile, the United States has continued to discourage Americans from traveling to Ukraine, warning that the U.S. is “not able to evacuate U.S. citizens from Ukraine, including those U.S. citizens who travel to Ukraine to engage in the ongoing war.” Many foreign fighters and mercenaries decline to give their names to journalists fearing some sort of repercussions from the U.S. government. But, according to a State Department statement, fighting in Ukraine “would not in itself prevent a U.S. citizen from returning to the United States.”
And on April 25, 22-year-old Marine veteran Willy Joseph Cancel was killed fighting in Ukraine. Unlike Foreign Legion volunteers, it has been reported by CNN that Cancel was working for an unnamed private military company, which, if true, puts him more in the mercenary camp than the ideological volunteer camp. Cancel is the first American known to have died fighting in Ukraine, although Russia has falsely reported several other deaths. The U.S. State Department doesn’t know how many Americans are in Ukraine and wouldn’t comment on American deaths and how that could impact the politics of the war.
“Russian forces frequently report the false deaths or capture of U.S citizens for propaganda purposes. We urge the public to treat any such stories with caution until verified by the United States government,” according to the statement. “Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment at this time.”
Back in the hotel lobby on March 20, Chris Warren waited nervously with roughly 15 other soldiers. He’d spent more than a month staying in the hotel, which he’d been told was a four-star, although by his estimation it was a “borderline Holiday Inn.” Still, nice for a war.
Unlike Smith, Warren was not part of the Foreign Legion and had attached directly to a military unit after entering Ukraine just days after the war started. He’d reached out to some buddies in the U.S. military who in turn put him in touch with some Ukrainians and a veteran of the French special forces.
He traveled to Kyiv with 150 pounds of medical supplies. Living in the Ukrainian capital, he’d grown accustomed to the sounds of bombs and artillery.
During most of his time in Ukraine, Warren trained Ukrainians, teaching them how to use American-made machine guns or helping them learn the basics of clearing a room. He trained Ukrainian supreme court justices in first aid and taught them how to clean an AK-47. He emphasized that, by American-military standards, he was hardly qualified for this work. But the training he’d gone through in the Air Force was more than most Ukrainians received, even in the military, and he estimates he trained about 300 people while there.
“The shelling is getting pretty normal,” he said one evening. “We just sleep like babies right now.”
Still, he was in a warzone and during late March and early April when it looked as if Russia might fully surround Kyiv, Warren became less cavalier.
“I made the mental decision before I even left, ‘Hey, I might not come back,’” he said in late March.
That evening — March 20 — as he waited to repel Russian soldiers, that possibility seemed more likely.
But then after about 30 minutes poised to fight, their Ukrainian commander told them the aircraft was a drone, not paratroopers. They went back to their rooms and Warren went to sleep, just another night in Ukraine as a foreign fighter.
“It’s been a constant up and down,” Warren said. “They get us all geared up and ready to go, and then all of a sudden it’s not happening.”
If nothing else, that seems to be the common denominator amongst foreign fighters and mercenaries in Ukraine, a frustrating lack of consistency in direction and goals. Like the Spokane doctor who was turned away at a military hospital, Ukraine’s initial call for volunteers and fighters seemed to overwhelm the country’s ability to process and integrate that help.
That’s not to mention that some of the volunteers were little more than grifters who used the war to boost their own social media followings and didn’t bring any discernable skills to the conflict. Warren saw plenty of that and was even stationed with a Canadian who posted frequently to Twitter and garnered a large social media following. The man dramatized his experience, Warren said, and was one of the least effective foreign fighters he met, none of which you’d know by looking at his Twitter.
“They let way too many hens and not enough wolves into the country,” Warren said. “What we’ve heard is they’re trying to filter them out.”
Warren spent plenty of time sitting in a hotel room waiting, but in addition to the training, he got into the field more than many other foreign fighters he met. Notably, he was near Bucha shortly after the Russians withdrew. Although he wasn’t there documenting Russian atrocities, he heard radio chatter about the bodies Ukrainian soldiers were finding and passed several bodies off the side of the road. The thing that struck him the most, he said, was realizing just how small the town of Bucha actually is, a fact that makes the reported number of civilian deaths even more horrendous.
“That’s one thing we saw when we were in Bucha and Brovery, all the Russians, wherever their control posts were, wherever their bunkers were, it was littered with booze,” he said.
Both Warren and Smith are now safely back in the United States and both have conflicted feelings about their time in Ukraine. During interviews in Poland after they returned from Ukraine, they talked about the stark difference between wartime life and normal life. The lights in cafes and restaurants and the sounds of people eating and drinking in Krakow, were particularly jarring after spending two months in a city under siege, Warren said.
“Kinda strange being home,” texted Smith after getting back to Washington. “Was strange to see planes in the sky and not thinking it’s Russian. Waking up at 4 a.m. and not having to go stand guard. Having lights on at night that are not red.”
As for how effective their trips were? Smith said if he’d known what would happen in Ukraine he wouldn’t have gone and said the disorganization of the Ukrainian Foreign Legion neutralized any good he did do.
“There was so much stuff that was just a complete junk show,” he said. “The whole time I’m thinking what the heck am I doing. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
Warren’s experience was, on the whole, more positive even if he also saw the disorganization. He pointed to the Ukrainians he helped train as one of the most useful things he did.
And he urges any military veterans who might be interested in fighting in Ukraine to represent themselves, and their experience, honestly.
“The timing was right for me to come over here and help in any way possible,” Warren said. “And I felt that calling to come here and do that.”