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What's motivating the foreigners who have gone to Ukraine to fight against Russia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. State Department says it is, quote, "aware of unconfirmed reports of two U.S. citizens captured in Ukraine." It would be the first time Americans have been captured by Russian soldiers during this war. They are believed to be among the thousands of foreigners who have joined the fight in Ukraine. It is risky, dangerous, and the State Department encourages Americans not to travel there. Earlier this month, two British men also captured by Russians were charged as mercenaries and sentenced to death.

These men all have their own stories, their own reasons for going and their own experiences once they are in Ukraine. That includes a group of Americans and Brits who have formed a unit that is fighting in the east. NPR's Ryan Lucas has their story.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: In a video taken late last month in eastern Ukraine, a group of soldiers creeps through the woods and comes to the edge of a clearing. A Russian armored vehicle is rumbling about a hundred yards away. One of the soldiers kneels. He puts an anti-tank weapon to his shoulder and fires. The Russian vehicle explodes.

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LUCAS: The men in the video are a small group of Americans and Brits who came to Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion. During a recent break in Kyiv for some rest, four men from that team agreed to talk to me about their experience. Some of them are comfortable using their first names. Others spoke on the condition that NPR doesn't disclose their identities. We meet on a sunny afternoon in a hip outdoor cafe in central Kyiv.

PRINCESS: Where would you like to start?

LUCAS: That's the group's commander. Like most men on their team, he's a military veteran; in his case, a 30-year-old former captain in the British army. He's got a shock of short, blonde hair. And his callsign, he says half-joking, is Princess.

He says he was relaxing on a beach in the Middle East when the war started. And like many people, he didn't think it would last long. But after Ukraine held on for a few days, he decided to come help.

PRINCESS: You know, I was shaking - my hands were shaking when I made the decision. And I was on, you know, Day 2 or 3, Day 3 of the war. But I couldn't sit back drinking margaritas on the beach when I knew that I could have some sort of effect here, even if it had just been the humanitarian aid or just training the locals. I didn't expect to be doing what I am doing now.

LUCAS: The other Brit at the table, a former Royal Marine commando, followed a similar path. After the war started, he quit his job as a security contractor in Iraq and flew back to England. He packed a bag, caught a flight to Poland and then crossed the border into Ukraine on foot. And the early days, he says, were chaotic and included a run-in with Ukraine's intelligence service, the SBU.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We had a few problems, so the SBU kicked our door down a couple of times thinking we were spies; you know, put weapons to our heads and very quickly realized we're their friends. And they were sweet after that.

LUCAS: The Brits at the table are chatty, the Americans less so. One of them is a former Navy SEAL who listens closely but doesn't say much. The other is a 22-year-old from Tampa, Fla. His name is Ed.

ED: Former airborne Ranger, 375. I got out in October, you know, went to college, got a job, got my dream car...

LUCAS: Which is?

ED: Dodge Challenger. Anyways, yeah, I had a really good life, you know, GI Bill paying for my school, had a awesome girlfriend I was with for like four years, you know.

LUCAS: But after the war started, he dropped it all. He sold his car, bought a plane ticket - two in fact, he says, because his family canceled the first one along with his credit cards - and flew to Ukraine.

And all of them are happy to be here. They feel a sense of purpose. But the decision to come to Ukraine hasn't set well with their families back home. Here's Princess.

PRINCESS: So initially, when I said I was coming over here, my mom was, like, holding on to my arms, screaming, crying, you can't go, you can't go. I had to persuade her that I was doing humanitarian aid job because that's what I was coming to do.

LUCAS: But once he took up arms, he says he had to cut contact with her. He's in a group chat with other family members who keep her informed. But he says he can't deal directly with her constant worrying. It's a similar situation for Ed.

ED: Yeah, really, it's the same. They're completely against it. But, I mean, I don't really care for their opinions. Like, there's a million people out here getting killed and stuff. I think that's more important. And then for them to be against me leaving, I think that's selfish. But yeah, I haven't spoken to my family since I left. And I really don't care. I think what I'm doing here is more important.

LUCAS: Their motivations to come to Ukraine vary. They mention being outraged by the brutality of Russian forces. This is also an opportunity to use the skills they learned in the military. And under the surface, perhaps there's also an attraction to the violence of war.

These men are among the thousands of foreigners who flocked to the country to fight. But unlike Ukrainian soldiers, the foreigners still have a lot of freedom to pick whom they team up with and where they fight. And that's important, these men say, because most of the foreigners who came here had no military background, no experience and no idea what they were getting into. Here's Ed again.

ED: So I joined the Foreign Legion. I was there for about a week, realized it was a joke, bunch of Call of Duty players there, you know? Yeah, I didn't want to work with them. They're a liability. They're going to get me killed.

LUCAS: Like the others, Ed says he spent weeks wandering the country trying to find a group of guys he felt comfortable working with.

ED: Eventually, I found them, and that's the best thing that's happened.

LUCAS: This group coalesced in Kyiv, where one of them had established a good relationship with a Ukrainian commander. Now this team has a core group of around 10 guys, although that number varies as some people return home and new people join them. The Ukrainian military provides their weapons and ammunition, and they each get a monthly salary. The last one came to around $1,400.

PRINCESS: We pretty much get weapons and ammo and everything else we do by ourselves. We're accommodating ourselves. We're paying for our own food. We're buying our own vehicles.

LUCAS: That's Princess again.

PRINCESS: I managed to raise some money from some friends that's paid for a vehicle. It's paid for GPSs, sat phone, radios.

LUCAS: It's all a work in progress. He says they're spending much of their time in Kyiv now trying to raise money and wrangle donations to help pay for new equipment and supplies. While these men have military backgrounds training, not all of them had seen combat before, including Princess.

PRINCESS: It was a shock to the system. You know, I came out here having done my whole life being in a military pod (ph) brat army family, then joining the army. Yeah, that was all I ever wanted to do. And then when I went on my first mission, I went from being a talkative, confident person to really being really quiet. And everyone was like, are you OK? I was like, oh, yeah.

LUCAS: The combat they've seen, they say, has been intense. And they've taken casualties.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Chief, Banjo's (ph) hit in the leg. Come on. Stay down. Come on. We're getting - come on. Get out. We're going to get shot. Come on.

LUCAS: During a firefight in the east, an explosion tore through the left leg of one former British soldier on the team. The others had to lug him miles through the woods under fire to get him to a fallback point and medical help. He survived, even managed to keep the leg. And the team recently visited him at a military hospital in Kyiv. They got him out of the woods with the help of Ukrainian soldiers. And the Ukrainians, these men say, are brave, fearless, even.

But the relationship between the Ukrainians and foreign fighters has at times been strained. For one, Ukrainians didn't trust the foreigners at first. And many foreigners have been limited to manning observation posts or holding cleared villages, not actually fighting. And Princess says that wariness on the part of the Ukrainians was not without reason.

PRINCESS: When the Legion was created, it got a very bad reputation because all of a sudden you had thousands of morons, Walter Mittys, inexperienced airsofters who thought they knew it all coming in and trying to tell everyone that they were amazing, and the Ukrainians saw straight through it.

LUCAS: The Ukrainian military, though, has issues of its own, these men say.

PRINCESS: These men say the Ukrainians don't really do a lot of planning in their process. They're sort of like, oh, here's a thing, go and do that - which generally doesn't work very well.

LUCAS: The Ukrainians' command and control, they say, is spotty at best, and they're beset with basic battlefield communication problems, as in there's often no way for Ukrainian units to talk to each other or coordinate with artillery. In one recent operation, in the middle of a firefight, a Ukrainian wanted them to rush forward with him to retrieve his men somewhere in the woods. He wanted their help because he had no way to communicate with his own men other than talking to them in person.

PRINCESS: There's so many different units within there. We didn't have any comms of any other unit. And we had the drama of, on the way out, being fired at by another Ukrainian unit because, you know, the blue-on-blues that happen out here - all the time, basically.

LUCAS: Blue-on-blue is military lingo for friendly fire. Despite the many challenges, the working relationship seems to be improving, at least for this team, which is good, they say, because this war is unlike anything these men, even those with combat experience, have ever seen. For one, they've always been on the side with superior force - the bigger guns, the better technology, air power.

PRINCESS: We're on the flip side now. We're the ones facing the attack helicopters, the jets, the tanks without that support ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And we've had all of them chasing us after a contest.

LUCAS: That's the former Royal Marine jumping in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Having jets fly over, firing missiles into the woods, or attack helicopters out and tanks, it's like, OK, fine - as well as drones tracking where you're trying to exfil through, you know? And it's - that's the crazy bit because with all that stuff, you're completely powerless.

LUCAS: And that points to perhaps the biggest difference between this war and previous ones - the outsized use of drones by both sides.

PRINCESS: This type of warfare has not been seen before. The drone game - I know the drones are used a lot by ISIS in the Middle East, but here, it's completely changed the game of warfare.

LUCAS: From the outside, he says, this looks like a conventional war because of all the artillery and tanks. But he says you can't combat those in conventional ways anymore because now drones are always on the lookout in the skies above, ready to direct fire.

PRINCESS: A group of tanks will have a small drone. One will go up. We'll try and find you. And when that drone comes back down, the second tank will send their drone up. So it's constant surveillance, overhead drones.

LUCAS: All of this has made one thing clear. Working in small groups that are highly mobile is the best and safest way to fight, at least for now.

PRINCESS: Like, we've been here for three months now. We need to adapt to how this war is going. And even how the war is going now, three months in, compared to how it was going two months ago is also a very different thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So we're prepared to carry on being flexible because we know it will change again, won't it? Every mission, we learn something incredibly new.

LUCAS: One reason the war keeps changing is the influx of new weapons, heavier ones provided to Ukraine by the U.S. and other Western allies. Just in the past few weeks, for example, American howitzers, M777s, have popped up on the front lines, and that is shaking up how the two sides are fighting.

PRINCESS: Before, when we'd go out, the Russians had their drones up. And their artillery was pretty free to strike us when they wanted. Now, there's the counter batteries that are out here. The M777s are out here. The Ukrainian artillery have got a much better fight in them now.

LUCAS: Now, he says, the Ukrainian and Russian artillery are in a cat-and-mouse game chasing each other, which has opened things up a bit for the foot soldiers like them. That, at least, is the state of the war now as the team prepares to head back to the battlefields out east. A couple of the guys are rotating out for a longer break or to return home to move stuff into storage. New guys are joining the team to take their place, to play their small part in a war in constant flux.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Kyiv.

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SHAPIRO: There are new details today about the billion dollars in military aid that President Biden announced for Ukraine earlier this week. The latest package is expected to include more howitzer and artillery rounds, as well as two ground-based anti-ship missile launchers. Ukrainian officials have been demanding even more aid from the West, saying if they want to launch a successful counter offensive in the east, they will need enough heavy weapons to match the Russians. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.