Foreign Fighters From U.S., Other Countries Put Lives on Line for Ukraine

Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24, thousands of foreign volunteers have traveled to Ukraine in search of opportunities to join the fight. While many of these aspiring soldiers appear to have returned home without having made a significant contribution to the war effort, those with the appropriate motivation and military skill sets continue to aid the war effort as instructors, translators, and frontline fighters.

Russian propaganda characterizes such figures as highly paid mercenaries, but the reality on the ground tells a different story.

Jack Hoekstra, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran in his mid-20s, withdrew from the Detroit Police Academy in order to take up the fight for Ukraine.

"I saw a TikTok video of a Russian fighter jet flying over a residential neighborhood and dropping a bomb, and the person taking the video was a mother at home with her child," Hoekstra told Newsweek. "It was so clear which side in this war was right and which side was wrong, and I just felt like I had to do whatever I could to help the right side."

Jack in Ukraine
Jack Hoekstra posing in front of a sunflower field at an undisclosed location in Ukraine. Hoekstra, a US Marine Corps veteran, recently returned to Michigan after working as a volunteer military instructor in Ukraine. Photo Provided

At first, Hoekstra tried to connect up with the newly established Ukrainian Foreign Legion through official diplomatic channels, but finding that bureaucratic route too slow, he bought a plane ticket to Poland. After crossing the border into Ukraine, he joined a group of Western veterans working to train Ukrainian soldiers. He started out on a base in the West of the country before relocating to a site closer to the southern front around Mykoliav.

"We'd be instructing from morning until around 5 p.m., and then I would stay up half the night preparing lesson plans," he said. "This is by far the most meaningful thing I've done in my life."

Hoekstra's efforts were performed voluntarily. Although he recently returned to Michigan to pursue his full-time career, he says he would willingly travel back to Ukraine to continue the work if it were financially possible for him to do so.

"It pisses me off when Russian propaganda calls us 'highly paid mercenaries,'" Hoekstra told Newsweek. "I was a volunteer in Ukraine, and so were all of the guys I was working with"

"If I were rich, then I'd still be over in Ukraine working for free," he added, "but I'm not, and so I have to be back at home worrying about what I'm going to do when I come off of my parents' health insurance next year."

It is not only Americans who are voluntarily taking up the cause of defending Ukraine at significant personal cost.

Alvis, a Latvian citizen in his late 20s, had already been living in Kyiv for three years when the war began. Although Ukraine's imposition of martial law prevented all able-bodied Ukrainian men of military age from leaving the country, Alvis's passport would have allowed him to leave freely. When he chose instead to voluntarily take up the fight against the Russian invasion, his Ukrainian wife filed for divorce.

Alvis in Ukraine
Alvis, a Latvian volunteer, has been fighting in defense of Ukraine since the opening days of the war. Photo Provided

"She wanted me to leave, but I felt that my mission is here," Alvis told Newsweek. "Before the war, I was part of a special training facility for the security industry, and so I already knew how to operate several different weapons systems. I also speak several languages, and given how valuable someone with my skillset was going to be in the current situation, I just understood that I was supposed to be in this location at this time."

After taking up arms to defend Kyiv itself from direct Russian assault in the early days of the invasion, Alvis joined a battalion that put him to work as a translator and instructor. In recent weeks, he has been working with a unit that evacuates both soldiers and civilians from hot spots in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.

"I'm still living on help from volunteers," Alvis said. "According to my contract I'm supposed to be paid a normal salary, but that's not happening."

Despite the financial difficulty of serving, he has no plans to quit.

"I feel that I'm accomplishing something really important," Alvis said. "If I weren't here, a lot of good people would have died."

On the day he spoke to Newsweek in mid-August, Alvis was packing to leave his apartment in Kyiv in order to go on a weeks-long medical mission to the Donbas.

Donbas bombing aftermath
Local residents collect belongings from their destroyed house after a night missile strike in the town of Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region, on August 16, 2022. Similar images of civilian suffering motivated many of the foreign volunteers currently fighting in Ukraine to take up arms against the Russian invasion. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via GETTY IMAGES

Some Western fighters in Ukraine are receiving a regular paycheck, and the compensation is said to be identical to that of Ukrainian soldiers. Like Alvis, international military veterans who are accepted into Ukraine's Foreign Legion sign a contract guaranteeing them a salary frequently cited by foreigners as being approximately $3,000 per month. In the case of Foreign Legion contract soldiers, however, it appears that the payments are actually being made.

"Solo," a U.K. military veteran and current sergeant major in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, told Newsweek that the compensation had come as a pleasant surprise, rather than as a motivating factor for venturing to Ukraine in the first place.

"On the money side of things, I can categorically say that 90 to 95 percent of the guys I've worked with out here came over for free originally," he said. "It wasn't until we were actually in-country that the Ukrainians told us, 'you guys will be getting paid like Ukrainian soldiers.'"

Solo emphasized that the money paid to foreign fighters is in no way extraordinary.

"We're not paid more, we're not paid less," he said. "We are treated as equals."

In Solo's case, at least, the salary represents a pay cut.

"I'd been running my own mobile burger bar back in the U.K. for going on five years, and it had just gotten to the point where I was making a really good living," he said. "Then this war came along, and I just thought, 'I'm trained. I need to go help.' So it's nice that we're getting paid, but I'm making a fraction of what I was making six months ago."

Beyond the lost income from his work in the U.K., coming to Ukraine entailed taking on additional significant personal costs.

"I've spent thousands of my own money getting my own kit, then helping the other guys to do the same," Solo said. "We did a lot of self-financing, especially in the early days of the war."

Despite the sacrifices, Solo said that his motivation for serving in Ukraine has not lessened.

"I decided to come over here after seeing the terror on the children's faces, after seeing the lines of refugees stretching on for miles," he said. "I was watching teenagers and old ladies in car parks making Molotov cocktails and I just thought, 'they should not have to live like that. It should be trained men defending the country.'"

As a result, what began for Solo as a limited commitment has become a life-changing experience.

"I originally came out here for six weeks," he said, "but the longer I've stayed, the more I love this country. The people are amazing."

"We've come here because we want to be here," Solo added. "We're defenders, not aggressors, and that's why we'll win. I'm here until the victory."