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American veterans fighting Russia in Ukraine

The United States has the most powerful military in the world, but President Biden has made it clear thus far that his troops would not get involved.

Soldiers of an airborne brigade of the US Army are seen at the Adazi Military Base of the Latvian armed forces in Adazi, Latvia.
Gints IvuskansAFP

NATO's chief made it clear. The European Union allies made it clear. And United States President Joe Biden made it clear. Their troops would not be on the ground or in the air fighting on behalf of Ukraine's efforts to hold onto their sovereignty and force back the Russian invaders. But stories are emerging of support being provided through other means.

How US veterans are aiding Ukraine

A former US military linguist is arming volunteers with Russian phrases like "put your weapon down" before they head to Ukraine to fight. Another US veteran said he was in Ukraine linking volunteers to groups on the ground.

They are among organizers from three US online networks Reuters spoke to this week that are creating underground pipelines of military, medical and other volunteers for Ukraine. The networks are part of organized efforts to mobilize hundreds of North Americans prepared to fight for Ukraine, as well as thousands of other people across the globe.

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“You can learn a few words and phrases that may potentially save your life,” said the former Army linguist, who identified himself as Tex and was compiling terms in Ukrainian and Russian for combat or in the event of capture. The linguist's training group is helping military veterans brush up on skills like first aid or marksmanship. Most instruction is online. Some units do physical training together, he said.

The three groups operate behind layers of security, performing background checks and video interviews over concerns Russian elements are trying to infiltrate and sabotage operations. Members stress they are private individuals who have no links to the US government or US armed services.

"There's been a lot of Russians trying to get in," said an individual representing one of the groups who identified himself as Checker 1 in a Zoom call. "If something like this were to be exposed, it would be rather harmful."

He said his network had partnered with a Kyiv non-governmental organization to get international volunteers into the country.

"We work all over Ukraine," said the US veteran who claimed to be in Ukraine, communicating via the Signal messaging app. An organizer for another group said it was interviewing candidates, forming units and matching them with groups in Ukraine.

Messages from potential volunteers in Liberia, South Africa and the Netherlands came into the network's online group as the organizer chatted.

"There is a trickle of volunteers arriving daily and reaching their desired volunteer locations," said the organizer, who asked not to be named.

Canada and US volunteers en route to Ukraine

Speaking on his Telegram page, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday said 16,000 foreigners have volunteered to fight for Ukraine against Russia's invasion. Ukraine has formed an "international legion" for the foreign force.

Several organizers estimated the number of Canadian and US volunteers heading to Ukraine was still in the dozens rather than hundreds.

Ukrainian forces are seeking international reinforcement after Russian forces on Friday surrounded and bombarded several cities in the second week of an invasion launched by President Vladimir Putin.

Of the more than one dozen potential volunteers Reuters spoke to in the United States and Canada, only a third said they had military, law enforcement, medical or conflict-zone experience. With limited resources, volunteer networks are focused on training and placement of military veterans in combat roles.

As well as the networks, there are a host of individuals paying for air travel or offering advice.

Canadian tech entrepreneur Vish Vadlamani considered fighting then decided he could be more useful sponsoring volunteers and using his software programming skills to help refugees. He said he and associates have raised about $20,000 in unused airline credit to cover airfares for volunteers.

An American has created a 32-page Google document with information ranging from how to enlist in the Ukrainian army to an alphabetical packing list that starts with baby wipes and body armor.

"I do not recommend that anyone who does not speak Ukrainian or Russian and does not have military experience join the Ukrainian military," said the man in a video call, who asked that his name not be used, and identified himself as Kiwi.

The US military reaches far

The US, as the world's most foremost military hegemon, maintains hundreds of military installations worldwide. Many are inside the US, while plenty remain outside its borders in some of the world's most remote places. The formation of the US Space Force during the Trump presidency opens the door for future space military expansion, but for now the nation is happy to be deployed in over 70 countries worldwide.

How many bases does the US have?

According to the US Department of Defence 2015 Base Structure Report, there are nearly 562,000 facilities, which includes single buildings and structures, on over 4,800 sites worldwide. This covers over 24.9 million acres. In terms of actual sites, this meant 513 active installations worldwide. To put this in some sort of context, Britain, France and Russia maintain around 30 bases on foreign soil, combined.

This report was created in the context of needing to cut federal spending, and shutting down a number of these sites to reduce government spending was the hope.

But David Vine, a professor of political anthropology at the American University in Washington, DC, claimed in a 2015 book that this number was much higher, 750. His book, Base Nation: How US military bases abroad harm America and the World, says there are 120 bases in Japan, 119 Germany and 73 in South Korea.

In terms of troop deployments, 173,000 troops were deployed in 159 countries according to US military data from 2020.

What role does NATO play?

The US has been a part of NATO since its creation in 1949. According to Al Jazeera, Europe was home to 60,000 US troops in 2021, though this number has swelled in the first two months of 2022 due to war in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the US has added an extra 14,000 troops to Europe.

Defending the borders of NATO are a key priority with the fighting so close to the alliance. The US maintains bases in many European countries, including as far east as Poland, Estonia and Turkey, the latter of which was a contributing factor to the development of the aforementioned Cuba missile crisis.