The foreign volunteers training Ukraine’s new recruits

Kyiv’s forces still plagued by lack of equipment in war with Russia’s vast military

When Russian troops were driven from the suburbs of Kyiv in late March, mass graves, widespread destruction and stories of torture, rape and abduction remained as the legacy of their month-long bid to seize places such as Bucha, Borodyanka and Irpin.

A train linking these commuter towns to the capital restarted services this week over the swiftly rebuilt Irpin bridge, while people cleared rubble and made repairs to their homes, and investigators gathered evidence of alleged Russian war crimes.

Meanwhile, at a shrapnel-scarred sports ground beside a college for tax inspectors in Irpin, locals in mismatched camouflage and with ageing weapons trained to defend their town under the guidance of foreign soldiers who have joined Ukraine’s war effort.

“As the whole world knows, sorrow has come to our land in the shape of Russian occupiers,” says Vitalik Drobotov, a burly property lawyer with a Kalashnikov slung at his side.

"I've lived all my 31 years in Irpin, and though we are civilians and not soldiers, we are patriots of Ukraine and of our town and so we cannot stand aside. In terms of our spirit, we are ready for anything – and now we're learning military skills and tactics to prepare us for whatever is ahead."

At a building beside the running track that carries blast marks from recent fighting, an ex-US serviceman teaches Drobotov and comrades how to storm it and safely extract casualties, in a drill overseen by former British army soldier Matthew Robinson.

He helps manage recruitment of foreign volunteers for the Georgian Legion – which was established in 2014 and now includes nearly 1,000 people from more than 30 countries – and runs its training programmes for the Ukrainian police force, Kyiv’s SBU security service, territorial defence units and ad hoc groups such as this Irpin battalion.

The legion is now doubling the size of its instructor team and plans to expand its training bases beyond the current two in Kyiv and two in Rivne, a city in western Ukraine.

“We have about 25-30 foreign instructors now and the same number again coming in, including British and Americans. We require a minimum of five years of military experience – the calibre of instructors is very high,” says Robinson (39).

“They know they’re coming on an instructor-oriented programme, but they all want combat. I know if I asked any one of them, they’d be ready for that,” he explains.

“And I know that if anything kicked off here again, they’d all happily come back and defend Irpin. You feel that sense of loyalty and commitment to the groups you work with . . . and the Ukrainians have shown such love and hospitality to us – it’s a strong bond.”

Two days after Russia launched an all-out invasion of its neighbour on February 24th, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the creation of an International Legion for "the defence of Ukraine, Europe and the world . . . against the Russian war criminals."

“Every friend of Ukraine who wants to join Ukraine in defending the country, please come over. We will give you weapons . . . Everyone who is defending Ukraine is a hero,” he added.

Ukraine says some 20,000 people answered that call in the following fortnight. Robinson was among them, travelling to Poland from southern Spain, where he says he lives in a motorhome by the beach and spends most of his time doing extreme sports. His first impression of Ukraine's nascent international brigade was sobering.

“I applied from Spain to join the International Legion and they had a big sign at [Krakow] airport, so I got on their bus to Ukraine. On the way, a heavily intoxicated Polish guy pulled out a knife. He thought the bus driver was Russian and was driving us to Russia, so we had to disarm him,” Robinson recalls.

“Plus, people didn’t really have the op sec [operational security]. They had their location services switched on [on their phones] and were taking pictures where they shouldn’t. So it became difficult to be safe.”

On March 13th, up to 30 Russian cruise missiles hit a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border, where International Legion recruits were reportedly being trained. Ukraine said at least 35 people were killed, while Moscow claimed to have eliminated “180 foreign mercenaries”. If Robinson had stayed on the bus with the International Legion, he would probably have been there.

"I spent four years in Iraq, and I know the professional standard required . . . so when we stopped at a hotel on the border, I thought I should gather more intel about who to sign up with. It was then that I decided the Georgian Legion would be best," he says.

After entering Ukraine on March 9th, Robinson quickly realised how far demand for military equipment outstripped supply as the country of 42 million mobilised in its defence.

“Many westerners came with high expectations that they would be fully equipped as soon as they got here. But there was no body armour or weapons and yet they were still sending people to the front. That didn’t sit too well with most of the guys, myself included,” he says.

“I came out to be a frontline fighter. But the mission quickly changed after a month to an instruction-based programme.”

Even as Ukraine’s western allies ramp up supply of artillery, anti-tank rockets and other big-ticket items, many servicemen and volunteer fighters still have to buy much of their own kit or rely on equipment bought with donations and delivered by volunteers.

“We do struggle with basics like body armour, helmets, weapons, ammunition, first aid,” says Robinson. “Logistically speaking, there is a huge challenge.”

Even the Georgian Legion's frontline troops, who operate in squads of about 12 people that conduct special-forces operations, have to raise funds on their Facebook page and cope with a shortage of crucial weapons.

“We need at least four Stingers in each squad and we only have one,” the commander of the Legion, Mamuka Mamulashvili, says of a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rocket that has been highly effective in this and other wars.

“The Russians can call in air strikes in 15 minutes and then we have to stop helicopters.”

It was a challenge that Georgian Legion fighters, most of whom are from the Caucasus state, faced in the first hours of the invasion, when elite Russian paratroopers attacked Hostomel airfield 30km northwest of central Kyiv and just 8km from Irpin.

“Russian helicopters were shooting at us, about 30 of them, for about three hours. And we only had Kalashnikovs and a .50 calibre machine gun,” says Mamulashvili, who has been fighting Russian forces in his homeland and elsewhere since he was a teenager.

Footage showed a swarm of helicopters strafing the strategically vital airfield, in fighting that spread to the town of Hostomel and raged for weeks until Ukrainian troops forced Russian units to retreat through Belarus, abandoning their bid to take Kyiv.

“The Russian guys were not prepared for this war. They thought they would just walk into Kyiv,” says Mamulashvili (44), who founded the Legion in 2014 to fight Moscow-led militia in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where 14,000 people were killed by fighting even before February’s all-out invasion.

He expects his men to receive medals for the Battle for Hostomel, and two US Legionnaires were recently given Ukrainian honours after being injured in combat. “But we’ve had no losses in our ranks since the start of full-scale war,” he adds. “That’s because we choose quality when we recruit.”

Mamulashvili insists the Legion is careful to keep out extremists and he denies Moscow’s claims that his men are responsible for crimes; he says a video in which he seems to suggest that captured enemy troops would be killed was edited in a misleading way.

Robinson, who grew up on a farm in Whitby in North Yorkshire, says helping in the defence of Ukraine is a way to “make up for my time in the Middle East”, where he feels he made “blood money” during a lucrative four-year stint as a US military contractor in Iraq.

"You just felt like you should never have been there . . . they hated you," he says of his time in Mosul, Iraq's second city, from 2007-2011.

“In Ukraine, I’ve felt nothing but love from local people. They fully appreciate you and that’s a big transition from what I experienced in the Middle East . . . Here, they’ll buy you a coffee and a biscuit, and give you a hug and take your picture. It’s incredible.”

Melik Malhasyan, a volunteer defender of Irpin, was also born far from here.

“I’m Armenian, but I’ve lived here for 30 years,” he says during a break in training. “It’s my second motherland. My two sons were born here and go to school here. They are still in Ukraine, but in a safer place with their mother,” the camouflage-clad businessman explains. “When the Russians came to Irpin, they attacked the checkpoint where I was stationed. They fired mortars at us and one man was killed,” recalls Malhasyan (43).

“Our fighting spirit is strong, and we will not surrender Ukraine or Irpin to anyone. We’re ready die if we must, but we have to win – it’s our only option.”

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