By Tara John, AnneClaire Stapleton and Joseph Ataman, CNN
The gray asphalt road that leads to Ukraine’s Shehyni border crossing with Poland has for the past week seen 30-mile tailbacks as people try to flee the country, often saying tearful goodbyes to the family members and friends staying behind to fight the Russian invasion.
Wednesday brought a different sight: groups of young men, laden with heavy bags and military kit, entered Ukraine from Poland as they answered President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for “citizens of the world” to fight “Russian war criminals.”
Among them, New York resident Vasyk Didyk, a 26-year-old carpenter wearing a fluorescent Carhartt beanie who is originally from Ukraine.
“This is our motherland,” he told CNN in Shehyni. “We couldn’t stay in our comfortable lives in America and watch what is happening here.”
Didyk, accompanied by his friend Igor Harmaii, had spent 24 hours traveling from New York to Poland before crossing back into his homeland carrying a canvas backpack and pulling a suitcase on wheels.
He has no military training and came despite his parents, who do not live in Ukraine, weeping on the phone when they heard he was joining the fight.
“I haven’t been back to Ukraine in four years — but it wasn’t even a choice,” he said. “I had to come and help my country.”
The world has watched in horror since Russia invaded Ukraine late last week, triggering what could be the largest land war in Europe since World War II. And Zelensky’s defiance has not only united Western opposition to Russia, but also inspired foreign volunteers and Ukrainians abroad to fight for the cause.
“This is not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Zelensky said on Sunday. “This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules, and peaceful coexistence.”
Ukrainian embassies have been helping recruit foreign fighters, while at least one senior politician from a Western government that has previously prosecuted those who joined foreign wars indicated support for citizens taking up arms in Ukraine.
“If people want to support that struggle, I will support them doing that,” UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told the BBC on Sunday.
Asked by CNN whether it consented to French foreign fighters in Ukraine, the French government said: “Ukraine is a war zone, classified as a red zone in the travel advice, updated on a permanent basis and available under the following link (Travel advice). As a result, we formally advise against any travel to Ukraine.”
The question was not directly answered by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press briefing on Wednesday.
When asked about American foreign fighters he said the US has been “clear for some time” in telling “Americans who may be thinking of traveling there not to go.”
If Americans want to help Ukraine, “there are many ways to do that, including by supporting and helping the many NGOs that are working to provide humanitarian assistance; providing resources themselves to groups that are trying to help Ukraine by being advocates for Ukraine,” he said.
On Thursday, Zelensky said the first of 16,000 foreign fighters were making their way to Ukraine “to protect freedom and life for us, and for all,” he said. CNN has not been able to confirm those numbers.
“An attack on Europe”
In the English city of Milton Keynes, more than 1,200 miles west from Shehyni, British builder Jake Dale said the call for foreigners to join Ukraine’s International Legion inspired him to book a flight to Poland on Friday. He aims to cross into Ukraine by Saturday afternoon.
“As soon as I heard his [Zelensky’s] call — it made me think he needs help,” the 29-year-old said from his home he shares with his girlfriend and two children. “I think it is a worthy cause to risk my life, and my girlfriend feels the same. Obviously, she gets upset, as anyone would, but she supports it as she can see I want to help.”
Back in 2015, Dale wanted to join a Kurdish militia group, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which was leading the fight against ISIS in Syria, but decided against it due to warnings by the British government.
This time, he is not worried about the potential legal trouble he could face on his return from Ukraine. “I’m willing to deal with it,” he said after the British government distanced itself from Truss’s comments.
During a trip to Poland, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK was not “actively” supporting volunteers going to fight. “I can understand why people feel as they do, but we have laws in our country about international conflicts and how they must be conducted,” Johnson told reporters.
Dale is heading to Ukraine with Peter Hurst, a 36-year-old former infantry soldier with the British Army, who did a tour of Afghanistan before leaving the military in 2011.
The father of five, who lives in the northern English town of Pontefract, spoke to CNN on a video call while he picked out kit from an army supplies store in a nearby town. He said wanted to fight to protect democratic values and freedoms.
“It feels like an attack on Europe. If you don’t help stop war there [in Ukraine], it will probably spread,” he said.
Both Hurst and Dale met this week on a Facebook group — created to help supply British medical and military aid to Ukraine. They have been working with a liaison — whose name is listed on an information pack sent by the Ukrainian embassy — who will provide them with body armor and vests in Poland.
Dale has spent £300 ($400) buying kit and plane tickets and worries about the financial impact of him not working. “It will be a strain on my family when I leave,” he said. “But I am sure we will be fine.”
Not everyone is supportive of the idea of foreign fighters in Ukraine.
US-based extremist tracking organization SITE Intelligence Group has warned of the involvement of outfits such as Azov, a paramilitary group whose logo is the Wolfsangel, a symbol appropriated by Nazi Germany.
“Following Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, far-right communities online have rallied to the side of groups like Azov, both in terms of fundraising and stating their intent to fight alongside them,” a SITE report says.
The British government has told those without military training to avoid the fight.
On the Facebook group Hurst and Dale met on, one user warns: “That is absolutely no place to be for someone with no weapon handling skills and doesn’t speak the language. Apart from being a danger to others it’s not fair on the lads themselves.”
Dale says he is aware of such warnings but insists his skills as a qualified mechanic could be useful.
“People can say it is wrong to go in without a military background, but I believe by fighting alongside Ukrainians, I am answering their call for help,” he said. “Putin’s regime is ruthless — it is not just Ukraine we are protecting.”
“As long as we have to”
Ukrainian citizen Valery, who asked for his last name not to be published, lives in eastern France, but felt compelled to return to visit his elderly parents as Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s border.
The February 24 invasion began soon after he arrived in Kyiv, where it was heralded with pre-dawn warning sirens.
“I woke up around five o’clock in the morning with the very strange sound,” he said. “I thought I was still dreaming. I couldn’t believe my ears. But the sound was so persistent I couldn’t fall asleep any further.”
Valery said his mind then turned to one thing: “How useful can I be to my country? The first thought was to join the army and check how useful I can be.”
After enlisting at a conscription center, the 45-year-old said he “felt this sense of nausea” when he received his weapon, realizing normality had been shattered. “Kyiv has been a very peaceful town since 1943,” he said.
Valery is serving with five others in a military unit. “Many of them have families, have children. Nonetheless, they joined,” he said, adding that morale is high within the forces. “There is a lot of determination to defeat the enemy.”
All foreign fighters share that determination — but the people crossing into Ukraine vary wildly in terms of their organization and experience.
CNN spoke to a group of six volunteers, made up of Americans and one Briton, with military equipment in a packed train station in Pzsemysl, Poland. “If more people would have joined the fight in 1936 we wouldn’t be dealing with fascism now,” the British man said. Most said they are veterans; one said he is not and has never fought in a war.
None speaks Ukrainian, Russian or Polish, and they did not have a translator or a plan to get to the conflict.
“We’ve tried to get in touch with (the) embassy but (traffic) crashed all the websites,” one said. “There’s women and children dying indiscriminately and you know — we gotta be here,” said another.
Elsewhere, CNN spoke with a band of Brits and Canadians who had met each other in a Polish airport, all determined to cross the border and join the Ukrainians in battle.
Wali, who is French Canadian, said he had served as a sniper in Afghanistan and volunteered previously to fight against ISIS in 2015. He added that he has contacts in Ukraine who can supply him with weapons. “My friend … called me and said, OK, we really need you,” he said.
Back at the border crossing in Shehyni, New Yorkers Didyk and Harmaii wrangle with their canvas backpacks and wheeled suitcases.
When asked how long they plan on staying in Ukraine, they both pause and say almost at the same time: “As long as we have to.”
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CNN’s Tara John reported and wrote from London, while CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton reported from Shehyni, Ukraine, and Joseph Ataman and Camille Knight reported from Paris, France. CNN’s Sara Sidner, Anna-Maja Rappard and Rob Picheta contributed reporting.