World

Why Are Ex-British Soldiers Fighting With The Ukrainian Army?

Emile Ghessen's documentary explores why British and American citizens are fighting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

A filmmaker has returned to Ukraine to meet veterans who have taken up arms to fight the country’s pro-Russian separatists (Picture: Ministry of Defence of Ukraine).

What motivates an international volunteer to take up arms in someone else's war?

British soldiers have been fighting for foreign powers for centuries. George Orwell famously turned his experiences in the Spanish Civil War into a best seller, 'Homage To Catalonia'.  

Now former Royal Marine, Emile Ghessen, explores why in his documentary 'War in Ukraine: Robin Hood Complex'.

Mr Ghessen returned to Ukraine to meet veterans of the British and US militaries who have taken up arms to fight the country’s pro-Russian separatists.

“A lot of these guys, they’re looking for a sense of direction,” he told Forces News.

“They’re looking for a purpose and there’s a lot of guys who are former soldiers in the British Army and Americans who go out there because once they transition to civilian street they’re still looking for that urge, that sense of brotherhood, so they go to conflicts like Ukraine.”

Despite having served three tours with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan, some aspects of the war in Ukraine took him by surprise:

“What surprised me the most being out in Ukraine is the fact that it’s still trench warfare.

"It’s the fact that we don’t expect it here in the West and we’re thinking that this year was the 100-year anniversary of end the First World War but that’s still going on in parts of Ukraine, which is only a three-and-a-half-hour flight from London.

“It’s on Europe’s doorstep and it’s a forgotten war really.”

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Soldiers patrol a Ukrainian trench.

The conflict has currently stalled into a stalemate; troops remain sat in their trenches but there is no political will for a large scale attack. Boredom is one consequence.

“I can understand why they’re bored and they’re whistling and they’re shouting and trying to entice the enemy to fire at them,” says Mr Ghessen.

“It’s quite surprising, the fact is to them it’s just a bit of a joke really. By getting people to fire at them, shoot them, they can return a bit of fire and then they can go get their heads down.”

He adds that troops are also not as well equipped as they would be in the British Army:

“The way the Ukrainians fight is very different to British forces for example because they’re not as well trained, they’re not as well equipped.”

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British troops train their Ukrainian counterparts.

Ultimately, however, he thinks the conflict is unlikely to come to an end anytime soon: “Ukrainians can’t be seen to move back because it’s Ukrainian territory.

“At the moment, the separatists can’t push without the support of Russia. And, at the moment, the Russians aren’t really going to support them.

“So it’s a stalemate that I can’t really see the end to at the moment. I think for the next few years there’s going to be a lot of men sat in trenches waiting.”