Zelenskiy’s foreign legion: ‘If I don’t do it, who will do it?’

Idealism propels young men from safe countries to fight in defence of Ukraine

Rasmus Lund is willing to die for Ukraine. The strapping Swede is one of 16,000 foreigners who president Vladimir Zelenskiy says have answered his call to fight Russians in Ukraine. For an idealistic young man in search of a cause, the conflict is nearly irresistible.

Hearing Lund's story on the train from Poland to Ukraine, I wondered if I was witnessing the 21st-century version of the International Brigades who fought fascism in 1930s Spain.

Rarely has there been such a clearcut case of victim and aggressor. "It is absolutely outrageous for Russia to take over a sovereign country in this day and age," Lund says with fury. "And they lie to their people about what they are doing. This should not be allowed to happen in 2022."

More than a million refugees have fled Ukraine already. Our train disgorged some 2,000 Ukrainian women, old men and children before a few hundred of us boarded it for the return journey from Poland to Ukraine. As we waited on a railway siding for the Ukrainians to check our passports, another train packed with women and children pulled in beside us. Frightened faces peered through steamed-up windows, hauntingly reminiscent of second World War deportations.


Zelenskiy’s appeal

Lund heard Zelenskiy’s appeal on Saturday, February 26th. He watched eight hours of television news that night, and at 4am last Sunday went to Malmo station to purchase an Eurail Pass for Poland. He nearly went home to tell his parents, but rang them instead. “They were shocked, and insisted on flying to Poland to see me.”

The 25-year-old Swede asks me to modify his name slightly, “because if the Russians capture me, a westerner, I expect they’ll research me on the internet”. He went to the Ukrainian embassy in Warsaw to volunteer for Zelenskiy’s foreign legion. His parents booked him a hotel room. The three sat in a restaurant for hours. “My father and mother cried. I did not. It felt horrible. I had never seen my father cry before.”

Lund’s parents tried every argument. “They said, ‘If you fight you will prolong the war and suffering and death for Ukraine’. They said, ‘You may lose your life and don’t you have things worth living for?’”

He does, Lund answered. “Yes, there is a real chance that I could die or get severely wounded. But if I don’t do it, who will do it? Somebody has to do this.” If he survives, he says, he’ll remember it for the rest of his life.

Lund brings three years' experience with the Swedish military, including six months in Mali, to Zelenskiy's foreign legion. "The best part of my life was being in the army," he says. "That closeness to your comrades, that sense of belonging."

Are fighting and danger a part of the attraction? “It was when I went to Mali, but I don’t know if it is now,” Lund replies. “Because I know how extremely deadly Russian forces can be. In Mali, we were fighting insurgents on the back of pick-up trucks.”

Guerrilla war

The roles will be reversed in Ukraine. “From what I understood, the Ukrainians are just assembling foreign groups and letting them operate autonomously, like resistance cells. I think this is going to be a guerrilla war.”

Mikhail Fomin, a Ukrainian the same age as Lund, listened intently from the seat behind him. Fomin is one of almost 80,000 men said by authorities to have returned over the past week.

Fomin’s parents moved their family to Amsterdam in 2016, “because they saw this coming and they wanted to spare me the war. The moment the war started, I knew I had to come back. I ditched military service in Ukraine for six years, on student deferments. I’m not trained, so I’m useless. I am going back to assuage my guilt. If I get hit by something, at least I will die with a clear conscience.”