OTTAWA — When Paul Hughes entered Ukraine to help fight the Russians early last month, he expected to be armed and taken to the front lines. But he couldn’t get a gun or ammunition.
The 57-year-old Calgary native, who served with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from 1983 to 1987 during the Cold War, said he was disappointed.
“I think you’d have to find another word than disorganized,” Hughes said in an interview from Lviv, describing Ukraine’s so-called International Territorial Defense Legion.
“I don’t think they were ready for that call to action.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in February called on people around the world to help his country fight the Russians by joining an “international brigade”, and kyiv said around 20,000 foreigners had responded.
But some Canadians who want to collect weapons for Ukraine said they faced unexpected obstacles, with some like Hughes finding a lack of organization while others were turned away before they could get out.
A group of Ukrainian lawmakers visiting Ottawa last week backed the need for more foreign volunteers. Ukrainian MP Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze said the “freedom fighters” are not only welcome, but an “inspiration and encouragement”.
She also qualified the invitation, saying Ukraine wants “everyone who knows how to fight or who knows how to give medical help,” like paramedics.
Bryson Woolsey, a 33-year-old cook from Powell River, British Columbia, said he was turned away due to a lack of combat experience. He was disappointed, especially since he spoke publicly about his desire to help.
“I felt like I let people down,” Woolsey said in Facebook text messages.
“I guess in a way I also felt dishonest. Like I said, I was doing this thing and then I couldn’t. It was hard.
Former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj is among a group of volunteers who have offered to help the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa contact and vet Canadians willing to respond to Zelenskyy’s call to arms.
Despite the “tremendous” response, Wrzesnewskyj says his group’s work is in a “holding pattern” as Ukrainian officials grapple with the sheer volume of applications.
“It is important that those who volunteer have military combat experience,” he said. “These are the types of individuals that are wanted.”
Retired Canadian Major General Denis Thompson said a lot had changed in Ukraine since February, with Ukrainian forces having since blunted the Russian offensive in many areas and beginning to push back.
The call probably came in the early days when people mistakenly thought the Russians were really going to invade the country,” Thompson said.
He said military training and the ability to communicate on the battlefield are key to ensuring volunteers are truly assets rather than liabilities.
It’s unclear how many Canadians went to Ukraine to fight or who they are, but Wrzesnewskyj said none who worked with his group were accepted.
“That said, it seems like a lot of Canadians are heading to them without any verification,” he said. “They do it on their own.”
The Ukrainian Embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Those like Hughes who have arrived in Ukraine have reported difficulties, starting with the lack of weapons.
“What was expected of us? ” he said. “Hand-to-hand trench fighting with the Russians? It doesn’t happen.
Thompson wondered if these problems were related to poor logistics, and to what extent because the Ukrainian government had doubts or wanted to examine the volunteers more carefully first.
“As far as we know, anyone who shows up at your door could just be a psychopath,” he said. “Or it could be a little romantic who really thinks he’s doing the right thing, but frankly he won’t be able to contribute.”
Hughes said he was told he would have to sign a contract saying he couldn’t leave until the end of the war, although he could walk out if he “really wanted to”.
He decided not to join.
While Wrzesnewskyj said others have also raised concerns about contracts, Thompson said such agreements are not unusual, noting that Canadians who volunteered during World War II did so during the whole duration.
The contracts formalize the volunteers’ status in the Ukrainian military, Thompson said, establishing a legal framework for their participation in a conflict increasingly defined by alleged human rights abuses and war crimes.
He cited the example of the French Foreign Legion, which requires an initial five-year contract. It is a military force made up of foreign volunteers between the ages of 17 and 40 of any nationality.
“The famous French Foreign Legion is full of expats, but they all took the oath correctly,” Thompson said. “And they are all considered soldiers of France when they go into the field, so that they are protected.”
Wrzesnewskyj encouraged Canadians to help Ukraine through humanitarian aid and donations, which Hughes and Woolsey did.
Woolsey said he used his media spotlight to collect donations.
Hughes said he started an organization called Helping Ukraine Grassroots Support that offers medical and food supplies across the country.
He’s disappointed not to fight, but said he’s excited to make a real difference on the pitch. He fell in love with the place and plans to stay as long as Ukraine has it.
“Just this weird, twisted, creepy world I find myself in right now,” Hughes said. “I never, not even in my dreams, thought I would experience this. I’ve been here for a month and it feels like I’ve been here for five years. Or a lifetime.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 5, 2022.
Hina Alam and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press