On his Ukrainian navy identification, Robert Semrau seems to be older and greyer than the final time he served in a military, greater than a dozen years in the past. However even at age 49, this Canadian with a set jaw and steely gaze was able to struggle.
That, in the long run, was all that mattered to the Ukrainian navy intelligence officers charged with screening foreigners seeking to enlist within the Worldwide Legion for the Defence of Ukraine, an assortment of fighters from across the globe serving to to withstand the Russian invasion. Mr. Semrau’s controversial background – he was dishonourably discharged from the Canadian navy for capturing and killing an injured Taliban fighter in Afghanistan in 2008 – apparently didn’t matter to the Ukrainians again in June when Mr. Semrau enlisted.
Mr. Semrau’s navy identification reveals he joined the a part of the Worldwide Legion commanded by Ukraine’s navy intelligence service, the GUR. Two different Legion models, the first and third Battalions, are connected to Ukraine’s common armed forces. Every has about 500 fighters, in keeping with Ukrainian media.
Present and former members of the Worldwide Legion who spoke to The Globe and Mail say Mr. Semrau, who left the Legion final month shortly after The Globe started asking questions on his presence in Ukraine, is consultant of what’s informally referred to right here as “The Zoo” – a motley assortment of journey seekers, criminals, and con artists who’ve come to Ukraine in search of glory, reinvention, and redemption.
Mr. Semrau’s backstory is exclusive, however not totally outstanding within the ranks of the Legionnaires. Among the many others recognized to have joined the struggle for Ukraine are Rhee Keun, a 38-year-old South Korean special-forces veteran with a big YouTube following, in addition to a conviction for sexual assault again residence, and Tristan Nettles, a 34-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran infamous in Thailand for utilizing his girlfriend to unwittingly transport medicine after which leaving her to face a lifetime jail sentence.
A number of international fighters espouse far-right beliefs on their social media accounts. One tattoo-covered Canadian fighter, who met with The Globe, drunkenly gave a number of fascist salutes in the course of a Kyiv pub whereas speaking loudly about his hatred for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
One other Canadian who travelled to Ukraine was retired lieutenant-general Trevor Cadieu, who was heading in the right direction to take over as the highest normal within the Canadian military final yr earlier than allegations of sexual misconduct courting again to 1994 emerged. He was charged in June with two counts of sexual assault.
Legion sources say Mr. Cadieu – whom Russian propaganda channels claimed was enjoying a task directing the extended Ukrainian defence of the Azovstal metal manufacturing unit within the metropolis of Mariupol – was by no means a member of any of its three battalions. A diplomatic supply advised The Globe that Mr. Cadieu, who has denied the allegations towards him, has now returned to Canada.
Mr. Semrau didn’t reply to messages requesting an interview, although a member of the Legion stated Mr. Semrau advised others that he had acquired them.
Mr. Cadieu additionally declined to be interviewed. “I respectfully desire to not remark presently on assist to Ukraine,” he wrote in reply to a LinkedIn message.
Lots of the Westerners serving within the Worldwide Legion view themselves as descendants of the international volunteers George Orwell described preventing in Spain’s Nineteen Thirties civil conflict: “A skinny line of struggling and sometimes ill-armed human beings standing between barbarism and at the very least comparative decency.”
In actuality, the Legion is extra beneficial to Ukraine for the media consideration it brings – serving to to deepen the connections between Ukraine and the West – than the largely supporting position they’ve performed on the battlefield so far.
Legionnaires stated the first and third battalions had been usually assigned to carry a quiet a part of the entrance line, releasing up Ukrainian troops to struggle elsewhere. International fighters connected to the GUR, in the meantime, had been utilized in riskier missions, reminiscent of getting into lately liberated cities and villages, in search of remaining pockets of Russian resistance.
Those that come from afar to struggle for Ukraine are sometimes working from one thing some place else.
“Ninety per cent of the Legion has served properly, served faithfully. They took enemy hearth for months, and now they’re on the offensive,” stated one American member of the Legion’s special-forces battalion, which participated within the current Ukrainian counteroffensive that drove Russian troops out of the jap Kharkiv area. “However then you’ve gotten that 10 per cent of criminals and crazies who ought to by no means have been right here. Individuals like Robert [Semrau] who wish to set up their honour.”
Others have a harsher evaluation of the Legion as a complete. “Truthfully, I’d ship most of them residence,” stated one other American fighter who’s of Jap European descent and, not like many of the international fighters, speaks Ukrainian. After initially becoming a member of the Legion in the beginning of the conflict, he give up and joined a daily Ukrainian navy unit.
The Globe isn’t naming the Legion members who agreed to be interviewed as a result of they’re forbidden by their commanders from chatting with media. Some would face authorized bother of their residence international locations if it was revealed that they had been preventing in Ukraine. Canada has barred members of the navy and civil service from collaborating within the battle.
Although they’re described in Russian state media as “mercenaries,” Legion members are paid the identical salaries as their counterparts within the common Ukrainian military – just below $900 per thirty days, plus fight bonuses for frontline obligation that may double or triple that revenue. The models are commanded by Ukrainians, and the very best rank any international fighter can maintain is lieutenant.
Previous to February’s launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, fighters from Chechnya and Georgia – two different elements of the previous Soviet Union which have struggled to say their independence from Moscow – had shaped battalions to assist Ukraine within the conflict for the southeastern Donbas area, which started in 2014.
However it was solely after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a Feb. 27 name for foreigners to “come and struggle aspect by aspect with the Ukrainians towards the Russian conflict criminals” that Western fighters started arriving en masse.
Echoing those that fought towards fascism throughout the Spanish Civil Warfare, or those that extra lately travelled to Iraq and Syria to hitch the battle towards the so-called Islamic State, the fighters The Globe met in Ukraine see themselves as preventing on the entrance line of a good-versus-evil wrestle. The query, in quite a lot of instances, is whether or not they’re serving to or hurting their chosen trigger.
“Individuals assume they will help as a result of they had been within the navy, or actually good at Name of Responsibility,” the American fighter of Jap European descent stated, referring to a well-liked combat-themed online game. “However you possibly can’t do a lot when you can’t converse the language, don’t know the tradition. I’m fairly assured that folks died or had been captured due to stupidity, as a result of they received separated from their models and couldn’t ask the locals which approach had been the Russians, and which approach had been the Ukrainians.”
Some Legion members and ex-Legion members are recognized to be in monetary misery, making them potential targets for Russian intelligence operations. In April, somebody leaked the complete checklist of Worldwide Legion members, together with the names, birthdates and passport numbers of 33 Canadian residents, ranging in age from 19 to 64. The checklist was later printed by a Russian pro-war Telegram channel.
The one Canadian recognized to have been killed to date within the struggle for Ukraine, 31-year-old Émile-Antoine Roy-Sirois, was not among the many 33 names on the checklist. Nor had been any of the Canadian fighters The Globe has met in Ukraine.
One American fighter, who glided by the nom-de-guerre Benjamin Velcro, is reviled by his former comrades for giving interviews, after quitting the Legion and leaving Ukraine, to pro-Russian media retailers that echoed Kremlin propaganda about Ukraine.
Even the general public face of the Legion – a younger lady who goes by the Starvation Video games-inspired code title Mockingjay – has a clumsy previous. Australian media acknowledged the Legion’s press officer because the Hungarian-born Emese Fajk, a 30-year-old that Australia’s tabloids had dubbed an “worldwide conwoman.” Ms. Fajk shot to fame in Australia two years in the past by submitting the very best bid on a actuality TV present referred to as The Block, which sees contestants compete towards one another to renovate after which public sale off their houses, with the winner being whoever can draw the largest supply for his or her renovated residence.
Ms. Fajk, who described herself on the present as a cybersecurity knowledgeable and claimed to have carried out consulting work for Apple and the United Nations, by no means paid the profitable US$4.3-million bid. She allegedly submitted faux banking screenshots to the present’s producers to persuade them the cash was en route, nevertheless it by no means arrived.
In a letter addressed to Lieutenant-Colonel Igor Zinin, the commanding officer of the first Battalion of the Worldwide Legion, a dissident member of the Legion stated the presence of Ms. Fajk, amongst others, was “a severe and vital threat to the nationwide safety of Ukraine” since they might probably be compromised by Russian intelligence.
In an interview, Ms. Fajk referred to as her misadventure on Australian TV “an artificially created scandal” and stated she did certainly have the cash and that she solely did not switch the money as a result of the present’s producers gave her the fee data after the deadline had handed.
Ms. Fajk acknowledged that the Legion had bother screening the primary volunteers who arrived after Mr. Zelensky’s name for assist, however stated newer arrivals had been now being correctly vetted. “For those who begin going round any nation’s common military – identical to with all residents – one can find individuals who come from tough backgrounds, let’s name it that. And in any military, one can find individuals who have the views that you just don’t essentially agree with. You can see the individuals who could also have a felony background that someway they hid or slipped by. There is no such thing as a military the place everyone seems to be joyful, everyone seems to be regular and everyone seems to be, you realize, mannequin residents.”
Different intrigues swirl round Ukraine’s international fighters. A number of Canadians who got here to Ukraine stated they tried in useless to make contact with the Canadian Ukrainian Brigade, a unit that was launched with nice fanfare early within the conflict, and which continues to gather donations on-line regardless of no evident presence on the bottom. The identical was stated concerning the Norman Brigade, a Canadian-led unit which raises cash on Twitter and Fb promoting war-versus-Russia merchandise. Each models had been described by Canadians preventing in Ukraine as “city legends.”
Nevertheless, the commander of the Norman Brigade – a Canadian navy veteran from Quebec who goes by the nom-de-guerre Hrulf – advised The Globe that his unit nonetheless existed and was within the technique of being folded into the common Ukrainian military. Hrulf stated the Norman Brigade plans to relaunch with stricter requirements, together with two months of coaching as a unit, in an effort to beat the truth that lots of the international fighters who got here to Ukraine had spectacular particular person abilities, however no expertise preventing collectively.
Vera Mironova, a Ukraine-based knowledgeable on international fighters within the Center East and elsewhere, stated the primary days and weeks after Mr. Zelensky decreed the formation of the Legion had been “chaos” that allowed an array of individuals to come back into Ukraine with none systemic examination of who they had been, and whether or not they can be property or liabilities to Ukraine’s conflict effort. “We’ve excellent fighters who truthfully got here to defend Ukraine. However the issue is that a number of them are right here for God-knows-what private causes. And the screening mechanism shouldn’t be working, at finest – really, it’s non-existent,” Ms. Mironova stated. “It’s too late to truly repair it on the border, as a result of everybody who wished already entered. So proper now, safety is busy working round submit facto, making an attempt to determine who these individuals are and what they’re right here for.”
She stated that lots of those that arrived to struggle in Ukraine had come immediately from the final “fight-for-freedom” trigger célèbre, the Kurdish YPG militia that fought in Northern Syria towards each the Turkish navy and the remnants of the so-called Islamic State in recent times. There have been sufficient YPG veterans in Kyiv this summer time that they held a reunion celebration, Ms. Mironova stated. Individually, Ukrainian safety sources are involved concerning the intentions of a bunch of Chechen jihadists – commanded by Abdul Hakim al-Shishani – who lately arrived in Ukraine after years of preventing in Syria towards the Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad. In Syria, the Chechen fighters had been allied with the extremist al-Nusra Entrance.
It was amid the early chaos that controversial characters like Mr. Semrau and Mr. Cadieu arrived. One Canadian member of the Worldwide Legion stated that whereas he by no means encountered Mr. Semrau within the subject, he would have been uncomfortable serving alongside him. “I don’t assume anyone needs the PR related to him,” stated the Canadian fighter, who’s from Alberta. “What he’s convicted of is conduct that no soldier needs to be part of.”
The Albertan stated his personal unit consisted of courageous fighters that he believed had helped tilt the course of the conflict. A sniper, he took half within the current counteroffensive that liberated the Kharkiv area after greater than six months of Russian occupation. At the very least one member of the Legion, Irishman Rory Mason was killed in early October within the Kharkiv space, one in all at the very least 32 foreigners who’ve died preventing for Ukraine.
The Albertan, who had a post-military profession as a non-public safety contractor within the Center East and North Africa, stated the preventing in Ukraine was utterly totally different from something he or most different international fighters had skilled.
His position at instances has been “simply actually looking human beings” – creeping up on unsuspecting Russian troops and in search of an officer to kill. “It was very, very sombre … it made me actually consider World Warfare Two, when the enemy was that shut, and your snipers had been the one factor that might attain out and contact them.”
Veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the place Western armies spent most of their time suppressing insurgencies – have discovered that these experiences don’t translate to a battle dominated by long-range artillery and rocket hearth. “We’re on a really totally different finish of the conflict than we had been within the Center East. We don’t have air assist right here. We don’t have direct hearth assist. If I wish to name in artillery right here, I’m speaking like in six to 12 hours I’d get some artillery assist.”
Jay T. Foules is a veteran of Afghanistan and the Balkan wars who travelled to Ukraine in March to see if his abilities as a fight engineer had been wanted. The 50-year-old Ottawa resident was practically killed in June when the car he was driving backed over an anti-tank mine within the southern Zaporizhzhia area.
Regardless of accidents, together with a damaged neck, the lack of a lot of his left arm, and listening to issues, Mr. Foules stated he has no regrets about going to Ukraine. He says he met some weird characters among the many foreigners there, reminiscent of one who arrived on the coaching base carrying a Name of Responsibility skeleton masks, as if the online game was his inspiration for becoming a member of the conflict towards Russia.
However Mr. Foules stated the lads in his unit, which included Mr. Nettles, the drug trafficker, had been motivated to attempt to assist any approach they might after seeing tv photographs of the conflict. “We simply couldn’t watch these households and peaceable residents get torn aside.”
Others admit that they got here to Ukraine anticipating that they’d die hundreds of kilometres from their residence. They’re in search of redemption, even when it’s their closing act.
One 26-year-old Ontario resident – who has already been wounded as soon as on this conflict – stated he had been deserted in a parking zone by his father as a toddler. As a youngster, he says he offered cocaine to assist his mom pay payments. Now he’s in Ukraine, hoping to impress his estranged ex-wife and children, even when it’s the very last thing he does.
“I do know the chance. I do know that I may die tomorrow. I simply wish to take advantage of out of my life,” he stated in an interview in Kyiv earlier than deploying to the entrance once more after time away to get better from his damage. “If I may be right here and I can cease just a few Russian troopers from raping or pillaging a village, from doing one thing dangerous in direction of Ukrainian residents? Why would I not try this? Even when it takes my life.”