‘Death is a real possibility,’ Canadian says of life in Ukraine defence legion

'I was born in Ukraine. So, this is my home in a way, and I felt that I wanted to defend it'

By Hina Alam and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

On the evening before Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine, Igor Volzhanin met up with a friend at a coffee shop at the centre of Kyiv.

“We stayed there until about midnight just talking,” the Canadian recalled in an interview from Ukraine. “Just talking about how, you know, jokingly, what would we do if the war had started. There was deep anxiety, but I don’t think either one of us really expected for it to happen the next morning.”

On Feb. 25, Volzhanin’s holiday in Ukraine was supposed to continue with a Louis C.K. comedy show, and the following day he was to board a plane to France for a skiing trip. But his plans quickly changed.

Russian forces began their assault on Feb. 24. A few days later, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a call that was heard around the world when he asked people from across the globe to help his country fight Russia.

Volzhanin doesn’t have military experience, but he signed up for the so-called International Legion of Defense of Ukraine anyway. He said he was the second of the estimated 20,000 people from 52 countries who have since volunteered to fight.

“I felt it was the right thing to do,” he said. “When the war started, there was an option to leave the country. There was a car waiting for me, essentially. And I felt … I was born in Ukraine. So, this is my home in a way, and I felt that I wanted to defend it.”

Canadians make up one of the largest groups of volunteers in the international legion, next to those from the United States and Britain, according to a spokesman. The organization is growing and seeking more members with combat experience, even as the Canadian government and other Western powers warn their citizens not to go fight in Ukraine.

But it’s not just experience that the legion is seeking, Volzhanin said. It’s motivation too.

“You’re the underdog, you are receiving shelling, and the war is much more intense,” he said. “Death is a real possibility here.”

Volzhanin, a 34-year-old former tech entrepreneur who grew up in Mississauga, Ont., was dressed in a camouflage T-shirt on a recent Saturday, and around 7 a.m. local time, he was already hours into his day. When he’s outside, he said he wears about 12 kilograms of body armour, which he described as “quite light.” 

He is involved with the assessment of candidates for the legion, logistics and other duties as needed, he said.

He likened the legion to a “startup” — in a “positive sense” — in which he began at the ground level to get things up and running.

If he applied to be part of the legion now, he wouldn’t be accepted given his lack of military experience, he added. 

Former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj is part of a group of volunteers who offered to help the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa contact and vet Canadians wanting to answer Zelenskyy’s call to arms.

Wrzesnewskyj said about 1,500 Canadians have applied to join the international legion. But while interviews with prospective candidates started about a week ago after a temporary hold, Wrzesnewskyj said none have yet been deployed.

“They’re just being careful to make sure that they have the right people,” he said. “That’s been stressed over and over that these need to be people that really have combat experience, and that a proper interview and vetting process takes place.”

The majority of the Canadians who have applied do not have combat experience, and will not be accepted, Wrzesnewskyj added.

Volzhanin said he was “extremely” nervous when he first signed up.

“I was scared because I never served in the military,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect at the time in February. There were so many images and stories of people just being given the gun and sent to the front. I didn’t know what to expect.”

Now that it’s been about six weeks since he signed up, he understands that “nobody in the military is interested in sending untrained soldiers to the front,” and he’s a lot more calm and comfortable.

Some Canadians have decided to sidestep the formal application process and head to Ukraine on their own to fight. Wrzesnewskyj said there were previous reports of Canadians being wounded or killed in combat. 

“None of those actually ended up, from what I know, to be correct,” he said. “And hopefully that will continue being the case. But (for) those that will eventually be heading in, that is a real possibility.”

Exactly when Canadians will start to be deployed remains a mystery, but Wrzesnewskyj said volunteers are still needed even as the conflict shifts from an all-out invasion of Ukraine to a war for the country’s eastern and southern territory.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.

The legion has attracted veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the Balkan Wars, and people who fought drug cartels in South America, Volzhanin said. Unlike those conflicts, those in Ukraine can’t count on air superiority and other advantages.

Those who join the legion have to sign a contract that says they’ll stay until martial law is lifted. But there have been a few whose circumstances have changed and were allowed to leave, Volzhanin said.

“No one keeps them in the legion against their will or desire.”

But what he tells people is that Ukraine is at war and is a country with precious few resources to spare for those who have a sudden change of heart. 

“So, if you are already kind of thinking ‘well, maybe I’ll do this for a limited period of time,’ think about how many resources the country will put into you and whether or not you’ll be able to contribute back at least the same or more,” he said.

“And if you know you’re coming in for a week or two, then it’s just not worth it.”

The conflict has made him put things into perspective, and Volzhanin said he has wondered how it would affect him in the future.

On the morning of the invasion, he said he was at a grocery store where he saw a few people wearing designer clothing and carrying brand-name accessories. Since that moment, he said he has questioned whether he could pick up the threads of that old life and go back to the way things were.

“I just remember thinking how they lost all meaning. How not just out of place, but just how meaningless those things became in the span of eight hours,” Volzhanin said.

“And that’s true of a lot in the world. I’m looking at the news and people’s lives and kind of thinking well, but it’s not war. It’s not death.”

The thing that has surprised him most, Volzhanin said was how quickly the assault began.

“It makes you realize how thin the line really is between normalcy and war,” he said.

“The night before, you could just be walking down the street and there’s people, there’s cafés, bars, all open, people enjoying, and then literally eight hours later, you could find yourself in the war zone. There’s something that you thought was stable, something that has been built over the years, could just be all destroyed. In an instant.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2022.

Feature image via The Canadian Press

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