Fighting Abroad: Canadian Soldiers in Ukraine

by Laura Modoveanu

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entering its third calendar year, there seems to be no sign of a resolution coming anytime soon. Some have decided to take matters into their own hands and offer support by enlisting as soldiers to fight for the Ukrainian side. Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, said in 2022 that over 20,000 people from 52 countries volunteered to join Ukraine’s International Defence Legion (Burke, 2022). This article looks at the stories of three Canadian veterans who have joined the conflict.

Some volunteers, like “Wali”, who has been identified by a nickname, bypassed the application process altogether. He told CBC News “We needed to get as fast as possible to the front. So we don’t have time to register the ‘clean way.’ So we just go to the border, try to meet up with somebody.” (Burke, 2022). Wali is a former sniper for the Royal 22e Regiment regiment and served in Afghanistan, which is where he earned his nickname (Brewster, 2022). He says that he crossed the border from Poland to Ukraine with three other veterans where they were met with a positive response from Ukrainians. They are now working on properly joining the fight through official channels. However, foreign fighters are being asked to sign three-year contracts which are important for ensuring legal protection (Brewster, 2022). For example, being protected by humanitarian law in the event of being captured. The transition from civilian life to seeing the conflict first-hand has been difficult, though the “hardest part” is being away from his family (Brewster, 2022). Wali also runs a humanitarian organization called the Norman Group that has volunteered to send aid to eastern Ukraine. He sums up his reasons for enlisting by simply saying, “I don’t think the Ukrainians deserve what’s going on” (Brewster, 2022).

JT, also a retired soldier, moved out of his Ottawa home, telling CBC, “I can’t sit back and watch it anymore. I have to do something” (Tunney, 2022). He explains that he joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1994 and that his experiences in Bosnia, Macedonia, Afghanistan, and more built his skills in combat engineering (Tunney, 2022). He aims to help with training but is open to help wherever he is needed and stay on to help with rebuilding. JT is especially focused on the burden the conflict is placing on younger soldiers and civilians who are “suddenly having to step up and do things that are normally repugnant to the average person” and are undergoing very traumatic conditions (Tunney, 2022). His actions go against Global Affairs Canada, which issued a travel advisory on February 1, 2022. The main danger is the lack of consular services and that the Canadian government may be unable to help citizens who are injured or captured in the conflict (Tunney, 2022). Nevertheless, JT understands that while he is only one person, “every drop fills a bucket…and ultimately, this is a fire that we need to put out.” (Tunney, 2022). He also admits that he is “prepared for whatever comes” and has “made peace with everything” in the event that he should not return home. He concludes, “But I guarantee that I’ll be pushing as hard as I can to the end if that is what happens.” (Tunney, 2022).

Dave Smith resigned from his job as a major in the Canadian armed forces to fight in Ukraine(Shannon,2024). His family was understanding, “I actually never had to explain it to them. My brother, when I told him — I was on a phone call with him and my sister — and he said something to the effect of ‘I can’t believe you’re not there already’” (Shannon, 2024). Unlike the previous examples, Smith joined a Belarussian unit that is not part of the International Legion, stating “They’re all kind of ideologically aligned with how serious I took the war. So I joined their unit” (Shannon, 2024). Though he is being paid and the Kremlin calls soldiers in his position “mercenaries”, Smith assures that he is not in it for the money; many do not “understand how ideologically motivated the foreign fighters in Ukraine are.” (Shannon, 2024). Partaking in trench warfare, the cold and snow are manageable but Smith finds his largest barrier is not language. It’s mud: “The mud in Ukraine defies physics. It gets everywhere. It’s on everything” (Shannon, 2024). On a more somber note, he recalls attending seven or eight funerals of his fellow soldiers and is now on break (Shannon, 2024). He quit the armed forces to spend time with his family but plans on rejoining later in the year. Smith calls on Western governments and the need for increased involvement, “They’re behaving quite cowardly – and they need to recognize that they need to fight, to defend themselves, if they don’t want to be defeated by people like Putin” (MacKinnon, 2023).

Overall, one might wonder what would urge these veterans to travel across the world and offer their services knowing that they are placing themselves in a potentially dangerous situation. As well as why this phenomenon is being seen for this specific conflict but not others. Also, the ability to “take a break” from the conflict is an interesting notion. Those living in the conflict zone have no such ability. With November 2023 being “the deadliest month so far for Canadians fighting in Ukraine, with three volunteers killed in action, adding to the six previously killed over the first 20 months of the war”, it is certainly a delicate environment (MacKinnon, 2023). However, these volunteer fighters are putting themselves in a dangerous situation of their own volition to fight for liberty and justice.

Works Cited

Brewster, M. (2022, March 5). Under a foreign flag: Canadian veterans explain why they’re fighting for Ukraine | CBC news. CBCnews.

Burke, A. (2022, March 11). Ukraine looking for foreign volunteers with military, medical experience, Embassy says | CBC News. CBCnews. 0

MacKinnon, M. (2023, December 18). Canadian fighters in Ukraine feel effects of West’s waning interest first-hand. The Globe and Mail. -volunteers-as-world-interest/

Shannon, R. (2024, January 6). Canadian soldier explains why he’s returning to Ukraine’s eastern trenches. Global News. /

Tunney, J. (2022, June 14). “Can’t sit back and watch”: Former Canadian soldier joins fight in Ukraine | CBC news. CBCnews.

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