In International, National Security

Just about every time Western media interview a Western soldier who has fought in the Ukraine war, we hear accounts of the war that diverge radically from the narrative peddled by Western leaders and pro-NATO think tanks. Their narrative is that Ukraine is winning a war being fought for democracy and freedom, and that those who stand with the Ukrainian state are the good guys, while those who oppose it are the bad guys.

That narrative simply cannot be reconciled with accounts from the battlefield.

A case in point is “Trapped in the Trenches of Ukraine”, published by The New Yorker on December 26, 2022. The article was authored by war correspondent Luke Mogelson, who interviewed numerous members of Ukraine’s International Legion.

One of his sources was a Canadian Army veteran who survived a Russian missile attack on the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security in Yavoriv, Ukraine, a town that sits 10 miles from the Polish border. According to that army veteran, the March 3, 2022 attack resulted in a “bloodbath”, but he claimed that only Ukrainians — and no foreigners — died in the attack. The Canadian veteran said that many of the foreigners who were at the base fled Ukraine after the attack. He felt that this was for the best, because a number of these volunteers were “shit”: “gun nuts,” “right-wing bikers,” “ex-cops who are three hundred pounds.” A “chaotic” lack of discipline, he added, had been exacerbated by “a fair amount of cocaine.”

Mogelson explains:

Many foreigners, no matter how seasoned or élite, were unprepared for the reality of combat in Ukraine: the front line, which extends for roughly seven hundred miles, features relentless, industrial-scale violence of a type unknown in Europe since the Second World War. The ordeal of weathering modern artillery for extended durations is distinct from anything that Western soldiers faced in Iraq or Afghanistan (where they enjoyed a monopoly on such firepower).

According to Mogelson, “the Ukrainian military has been extraordinarily opaque about how it is executing the war, and journalistic embeds are almost nonexistent.” Mogelson nonetheless managed to obtain permission from the G.U.R., the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s intelligence directorate, to accompany American and other foreign soldiers for two weeks in the Donetsk region.

The foreign soldiers were attached to a unit led by Ukrainian soldiers from the 72nd Mechanized Brigade. That Brigade had previously served in Bakhmut, where “an enormous number of soldiers had died, and even more had been wounded. The trauma of Bakhmut,” wrote Mogelson, “had unnerved many of the survivors, and they now seemed wary of outsiders.” He continues:

Many of the professional soldiers in the 72nd had been killed or injured in Bakhmut. Conscripts had replenished the ranks. Some had attended a three-week basic infantry course in the U.K., with instructors from across Europe, but most had received only minimal training before being given Kalashnikovs and dispatched to the front.

“Turtle”, one of the foreign soldiers from the unit in which Mogelson was embedded, told Mogelson of a recent mission in Pavlika. Although Turtle and his team-members had briefed the 72nd on their route for the mission, a Ukrainian unit opened fire on the team as they approached. The team shot back. “We won, they didn’t,” Turtle told Mogelson.

The team then continued on its mission and stumbled upon a large grouping of Russian soldiers. A fierce firefight ensued, in which one U.S. soldier was killed and three others wounded. Numerous Russians were also killed. One of the wounded Americans was bleeding profusely and screaming for help, but Russian mortars prevented his rescue. He died.

The “debacle” had “further strained the team’s rapport with the 72nd.” Turtle confessed to Mogelson that “some people don’t like us in this area anymore”. Mogelson continues:

The leeriness was mutual. Members of the brigade’s reconnaissance company—with which the team was supposed to coordinate—had followed the foreigners partway through the tree line, and had agreed to provide additional backup if anything went wrong. Yet none of the Ukrainians had joined the battle with the Russians. (One of them later told me that their radio had malfunctioned and they had not heard the team’s call for help.)

Eventually, Mogelson accompanied the unit on a dangerous, front-line mission. During the mission, Mogelson and the soldiers were forced to take shelter in the ruins of a house as Russian artillery rained down on them. Remarkably, none of them was killed.

After narrowly escaping with their lives, the soldiers reflected upon their brush with death and their reasons for coming to Ukraine:

[Turtle] once told me that many volunteers who quit the Legion did so because they hadn’t been honest with themselves about their reasons for coming to Ukraine. “Because when you get here your reason will be tested,” Turtle said. “And if it’s something weak, something that’s not real, you’re going to find out.” He was dubious of foreigners who claimed to want to help Ukraine. Turtle wanted to help, too, of course, but that impulse was not enough; it might get you to the front, but it wouldn’t keep you there.

I asked what was keeping him there.

“In the end, it’s just that I love this shit,” he said. “And maybe I can’t escape that—maybe that’s the way it’s always gonna be.”

What kind of a human being ‘loves’ war?

A recent interview by British YouTuber Nikolas Lloyd sheds an even harsher light on the sordid reality of this war and the foreigners serving in it. Lloyd conducted a three-part interview of a British soldier who had just concluded seven months of service in Ukraine’s International Legion. (All three parts of the interview are embedded below.)

In the interview, the soldier identifies himself as “Joseph MacDonald”. MacDonald begins the interview by explaining that he travelled to Poland from the U.K. shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in late February of last year. From Warsaw, he was bused across the Ukraine-Poland border, along with other volunteers, to the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security. MacDonald arrived at the Center shortly before the Russian missile strike of March 3, 2022. He estimates that over 100 Ukrainian officer recruits were killed in that strike. Unlike Mogelson, who reports that no foreigners died in the attack, MacDonald asserts that “a few” recruits for the International Legion were in fact killed.[1]

MacDonald blames the foreigners’ deaths on poor security measures:

If you are going to hide a bunch of chaps who are foreign and who have come to fight for your country, don’t put them at the ‘International Cooperation Centre’, that’s all I’ve got to say. If you were playing pin-the-missile-on-the-donkey, and I was Vladimir Putin, it would be a good bet, right next to the Polish border, called the ‘International Cooperation Centre’, large base, definitely capable of dealing with all of these people coming in, let’s blow that one up, eh?[2]

MacDonald reveals that, in the aftermath of the strike, “there was an awful lot of looting going on. Like a lot of looting”.[3] He explains:

A lot of people who came to volunteer for the Ukrainians were also kleptomaniacs or just total [indiscernible] who’d gone there with the intention of plunder… That is a problem that the Legion kept having for several months…. It was a no-vetting, sign-up-we’ll-take-anyone free-for-all at the start, and it drew in a lot of undesirable types.

MacDonald then refers to the infamous Georgian Legion, some of whose members were at the International Cooperation Center at the time of the Russian missile strike. (Members of the Georgian Legion are suspected of having executed a dozen Russian soldiers after they had surrendered.) According to MacDonald, in the aftermath of Russia’s strike on the International Cooperation Center, he and a British fellow soldier came across Georgian Legion members who were looting an armoury. The looters reacted menacingly when the other British soldier tried meekly to stop their looting. MacDonald describes the Georgian Legion as “not the most uniform and regimented group of guys”, “quite ‘piratey’” and a “pack of hyenas on a carcass”.[4]

MacDonald confirms that, after the missile strike, a “great desertion” happened: 600-700 of the 1,000 or so foreign volunteers left the International Legion. Some left Ukraine altogether, but others went to other Ukrainian militias, believing or hoping that, in those militias, they would find opportunities to shoot Russians with impunity, which MacDonald describes as “sweet spots”. But the reality, according to MacDonald, is that “there is no sweet spot like that – if you are fighting the Russians, you are getting horribly shelled…. No one gets the Call of Duty experience. The artillery strike is on all the time.”

At one point, MacDonald comments on the Canadian soldiers with whom he served. He commends the “really great guys from First Nations and the French side”, but then adds “sadly, the rest of them proved a bit on the cowardly side. That’s the only way to say it.” According to MacDonald, these soldiers – even those who had served up to ten years in the Canadian military – could not endure shelling that was of medium intensity (let alone high-intensity shelling). He observes that a soldier who served in Afghanistan “didn’t like it when the enemy had bigger guns than him, so he went home.” MacDonald refers to these soldiers as “goldilocks soldiers”.[5]

While praising U.S. soldiers from U.S. special forces, MacDonald asserts that many of the U.S. soldiers he encountered were “spoiled”, adding “it’s very easy to be the best army in the world when you can get an F-16 to go and blow up a mortar team on a hillside… I haven’t seen a fighter plane this whole bloody war. They’re all over Kyiv, keeping the President safe.”[6] Artillery, mortars, tanks and rockets do “all the killing on the battleground… Your rifle, if that accounts for 1% of the dead in this war, I’d be surprised.”[7]

MacDonald comments extensively on the three Ukrainian commanders under whom he served. MacDonald found the first of them to be “excellent”, but that commander’s replacement was “very obtuse” and “inept”: he “seemed to think that picking a nice house for him and all his drivers to stay in was much more important than picking a house where you had radio comms to your actually deployed units in the field.”[8]

While posted in a trench in Ukraine, MacDonald contracted lime disease. “They weren’t feeding us very well at the time”, he states. “Pretty much everyone had Covid or some kind of common or garden flu.” After finding a large tick in his nose, MacDonald became very ill. He went to a hospital in the central Ukrainian city of Rivna. There, the doctor who treated him “was not to Western standards” and “looked like he smoked about 80 a day and had a bottle of vodka every night” while “using some very 1950s implements”. Ultimately, MacDonald found it necessary to return to the U.K. to receive proper medical treatment.[9]

At one point, MacDonald’s company was transferred from one city to another. His company’s convoy included two trucks containing advanced military rifles, machine guns and javelins — “a whole company’s worth of Western weapons”. According to MacDonald, the two trucks “just disappeared” as the convoy was in transit.[10]

After explaining that foreign volunteers were treated much more favourably by Ukrainian commanders than Ukrainian rank-and-file soldiers were treated, MacDonald describes a Russian strike on a Ukrainian military base. He explains that, whereas the soldiers of the International Legion were permitted to spread out their tents so as to reduce the risk of mass casualties in a missile attack, Ukrainian soldiers at a nearby military base were forced to keep their tents close to each other. The Russians dropped a thermobaric bomb on the tents at that base and killed about 135 Ukrainian soldiers. They apparently were all young officer recruits.

Several important themes emerge from these accounts, and they are themes that I have commented upon previously (see, for example, here and here).

First, this war is unlike any war that NATO has fought in at least fifty years. It is happening on a massive, industrial scale and is being waged by NATO and its proxy against a peer enemy, whereas NATO’s typical wars are fought against enemies that are vastly outmatched. As Stalin observed, artillery is the “God of war”, and Russians have plenty of it. By most accounts, their firepower is vastly superior to that of Ukraine and is inflicting horrific casualties on Ukraine’s military, many of whose conscripts have not been adequately trained.

Second, many of the foreigners who have gone to Ukraine are there for ignoble reasons. They certainly are not the sort of persons whom Western militaries should be arming.

Third, Ukraine is a deeply corrupt country. Inevitably, much of Western weaponry transferred to Ukraine will end up in the hands of criminals, as Interpol’s chief has warned. Flooding Ukrainian society with deadly weapons imperils the long-term stability of Europe and is a recipe for disaster.

Thus far, Western states have expended well in excess of US$125 billion on sustaining this war. Hundreds of thousands of persons have been killed or wounded. The Ukrainian economy lies in smoking ruins and would collapse without massive Western financial aid. Russia is in the process of destroying the Ukrainian energy grid as Ukrainians head into the heart of winter. Worst of all, with every act of escalation, the risk of a nuclear holocaust increases.

The humane and sensible thing to do is to seek a negotiated resolution of this war. The worst thing we can do is escalate it.

When, if ever, will Western governments come to their senses?


[Nikolas Lloyd interview of Joseph MacDonald]

Part 1:


Part 2:


Part 3:

[1] Part 1, starting at 12:33.

[2] Part 1, starting at 11:26.

[3] Part 1, starting at 15:58.

[4] Part 1, starting at 13:28.

[5] Part 1, starting at 27:38.

[6] Part 1, starting at 30:25.

[7] Part 1, starting at 33:47.

[8] Part 1, starting at 51:18.

[9] Part 1, starting at 47:47.

[10] Part 1, starting at 44:53.

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