Ukraine looking for foreign volunteers with military, medical experience, embassy says

Ukraine's embassy is warning Canadians who want to fight Russia's invasion of the "dangerous" situation on the ground, even as it reaches out to applicants with medical or military experience.

Embassy warns Canadian volunteers that the security climate on the ground is 'dangerous'

Volunteers in the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Force train to use an NLAW anti-tank weapon in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. (Associated Press/Efrem Lukatsky)

Ukraine's embassy is warning Canadians who want to fight Russia's invasion of the "dangerous" situation on the ground, even as it reaches out to applicants with medical or military experience.

"Given hundreds of wounded civilians at the cities besieged by Russian invaders and continuous shelling and bombing of residential areas by Russian jets and artillery, international volunteers with medical and appropriate military records can be the most effective for evacuation of elderly people, women and children," the embassy said in a statement to CBC News.

After Russia invaded last month, Ukraine's President Volodymr Zelensky put out a worldwide call for volunteers to join his country's defence. He created an International Defence Legion, opened up the borders to visa-free entry, set up an application process at embassies and launched a website.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that anyone interested in volunteering should contact Ukraine's embassies and consulates in their home countries.

Within a week, 20,000 people from 52 countries had volunteered to fight in Ukraine, according to Ukraine's foreign ministry. 

Oleskandr Shevchenko, Ukraine's consul general in Toronto, told the National Post last week that hundreds of Canadians got in touch to offer assistance.

Chris Ecklund, a Hamilton businessman and veteran who served in the army in the early 1980s, launched an information portal for Canadians applying to become foreign fighters.

Ukraine's embassy sent him an email last week confirming that it's only accepting applications from people "who have military or medical skills." Ecklund said some applicants have received rejection letters.

"By limiting the people that can sign up to those with a background of military and police, it will significantly lower the training required in theatre," he said. 

Ukraine's embassy is also advising anyone entering the country to understand the risks. 

"...the Embassy advises all the volunteers of the [heightened] risk and dangerous security situation in Ukraine, which should be taken into consideration while making [the] decision to go to the country in war or join the legion," said the embassy in a media statement.

Oleh Hlyniailiuk delivers supplies out of a warehouse near Lviv. (Oleh Hlyniailiuk/Facebook)

Russia has stated that it will treat foreign fighters as mercenaries. That means Russian forces may not extend to captured foreign volunteers the same treatment Ukrainian soldiers are supposed to receive as prisoners of war, said Tyler Wentzell, a doctoral candidate of law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law who studied foreign fighters.

"Anyone who is seeking to go should also go in with their eyes wide open, [knowing] that in the past armed forces who capture foreign fighters have termed those individuals mercenaries and not extended the protections of the Geneva Convention to those people," he said.

A dangerous place for the inexperienced

CBC News spoke to three former foreign fighters who fought ISIS in Syria. They all said that Canadians shouldn't join the fight in Ukraine unless they're former soldiers — because if they don't have the skills, they might be a liability for those around them.

Oleh Hlyniailiuk, a Ukrainian who was living in Vancouver, returned to Ukraine six days ago and applied to join the forces. He said he had a medical examination this week and officials told him he's fit to serve the army but they didn't need him yet.

"It's fair enough,'' said Hlyniailiuk. "They don't need me yet because I don't have any combat experience. I have a masters in history.

"Right now, there's no time for training. So they're first calling people with some experience and in the worst-case scenario will call others."

Wali, a former Canadian Forces sniper, seen here with his rifle in Kandahar in 2009. (CBC News)

Hlyniailiuk said that while he waits to join the forces, he's been working to procure bulletproof vests for soldiers. He said his friend in Vancouver works for a Canadian airline and flew over multiple shipments filled with medical supplies, including blood stoppers, tourniquets and other first aid materials.

On Friday, Defence Minister Anita Anand repeated the government's position on Canadians going to Ukraine to fight — that it's a personal choice. She also warned that the situation on the ground is extremely volatile.

"It is certainly their own individual decision as to whether they wish to do so," said Anand. "My responsibility, our responsibility as the Canadian government, is to make sure everyone knows that the situation in Ukraine is extremely dangerous, extremely concerning and that's the information we are providing."

Some Canadian vets avoiding application process

Some Canadians are avoiding the application process altogether by booking commercial flights to Poland and then crossing the border to volunteer.

A former Canadian Armed Forces sniper who goes by "Wali" said he connected with two other Canadian veterans and former British soldiers in Poland through his own network, and they made their way into Ukraine to fight.

"Time is an issue," Wali told CBC News. "We needed to get as fast as possible to the front. So we don't have time to register the 'clean way.' So we just go to the border, try to meet up with somebody."

He joined the Norman Brigade, a group of former Canadian soldiers he said started as a humanitarian effort to deliver aid in eastern Ukraine. He posted a photo online Friday of his team conducting reconnaissance patrols.

"We are here to help, the way Ukrainians see fit," said Wali.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military involving senior leaders. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/