“Everyone’s a Little Problematic in Ukraine’s International Legion”

Lindsey Snell and Cory Popp

“Benjamin Velcro” in Ukraine

“Benjamin Velcro” is former US serviceman and volunteer with the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, the official unit of foreign volunteers under the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In early August, Russian media widely shared voice recordings in which Velcro recounted the torture and murder of a Russian prisoner of war.

“I don’t know where the fuck he was from, somewhere in Central Asia or Central Russia. He was about 18. We were told to take no prisoners. Because we had been told we were just mercenaries and we’d be executed by Russia. So we don’t give a fuck, man. We slit his fucking achilles and made him swim across the Severodonetsk River, to see if he could swim across the river without achilles tendons. He drowned…or he was shot, I don’t know. We were all kinda taking practice shots at him.”

According to Velcro, the horrific war crime he detailed didn’t actually happen. “I had just come back from the front. I was drunk. And I just decided to troll this Russian guy I met in Thailand years ago by telling him this story. Next thing I knew, that shit just blew up on Russian media.”

Velcro, who speaks Russian fluently, was already in Ukraine when the war started in February. His fiancée, a woman from Mariupol, had just left him. “I wanted to do something good,” he said. “So I organized my own primitive humanitarian missions, bringing bags of medical supplies across the border to Ukraine and giving them to different volunteer groups. But I wanted to do more. I was in the US military, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’d already lived in Ukraine before, so this wasn’t a war tourism gig for me.” Velcro joined a small volunteer combat unit in Ukraine before joining the International Legion as a drone pilot.

The International Legion

“I’d have to categorize the people in the International Legion by ethnic groups,” he said. “The Polish people who come, they see this as an extension of the defense of their own country. They see Ukraine as their backyard. And probably 3000-something Euros a month is a good salary for them. So, you add those factors up, and you have a lot of Polish people.

“The other Europeans, in general, are a mixed bag. You have some people who miss military service. You have a lot of people who are just lost, they fucked up a lot in their lives, and they see joining the International Legion as a way to redeem themselves.

“And then there are the people from Latin America. They’re motivated by money. From a Colombian’s perspective…they’re pretty well-known for being mercenaries abroad. They’re making way more money fighting for Ukraine than they could dream of making in their own country.”

“Everyone’s a little problematic in the Legion,” Velcro continued. “I think the First Battalion of the International Legion is a total shitshow. The best example is Craig Lang. Craig Lang is wanted for double murder in the US, and he’s in First Battalion. That guy should not be in the Legion.”

Craig Lang, a 32-year-old US Army veteran, first went to Ukraine in 2015. He joined the Right Sector and Azov Battalion, two far-right militias who openly espouse a neo-Nazi ideology. After returning to the US, Lang allegedly murdered Danny and Deana Lorenzo in Florida in 2018. He then fled to Ukraine. In addition to facing murder charges, Lang is being investigated by the US Department of Justice for war crimes he allegedly committed in Donbas. He is currently a member of the International Legion.

“Another point of corruption is the spokesperson for the International Legion,” Velcro said. “She is a fraud. She goes by ‘Mockingjay.’ She was outed for all kinds of fraud in other countries. She isn’t who she pretends to be.”

Emese Fajk, 30, used forged bank slips to win a reality TV show auction in Australia in 2020. She fled to Maidera Island, where she met and dated a wealthy cryptocurrency trader, Steve Silva. She again forged bank slips to defraud her landlord in Madeira of rent she owed and stole electronics from Silva. She later surfaced in Ukraine, where she is the press officer of the International Legion.

“And weapons go missing,” Velcro said. “Two MP5s went missing from the International Legion. The idea of weapons going missing…in the US military, if a private drops a rifle during a training exercise, and for some reason, stumbles back to his formation without it, the whole base would be locked down until the rifle was found. And two MP5s just…drifting off. Lord knows how many RPGs, grenades, and AKs are just out there floating around. I feel like Ukraine is going to be a major hub for weapons trafficking, if it wasn’t already.”

The Far-Right

“I met some people from Right Sector,” Velcro said. “I mean, how can a group called Right Sector deny its political leanings? At a minimum, I think they were all very Banderist-type Ukrainians.” On its official website and social media accounts, the Right Sector, a political party with an armed wing that formed in 2013, has railed against immigrants, the LGBT community, and Muslims. Their soldiers often wear patches bearing Nazi insignia. To them, as to all of Ukraine’s far-right militias, Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera is a Ukrainian national hero.

“In reality, military circles generally bring in kind of right wing people,” Velcro mused. “Even in the US, there are some crazy motherfuckers. I mean, those Capitol Hill riots, a lot of those dudes are military veterans. It was pretty inevitable. You open up the doors to foreign fighters in a conflict and people with political ideologies wanting training are going to want to come and get more of that.

‘And the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, there were definitely some people with hard right wing views filtering in, and not enough action was being taken to like curb this shit. We had one dude in our unit that would just put this stuff, like, Misanthropic Division shit all over his fucking gear and he opened up his phone and you saw like, White Lives Matter.”

The Realities of War

“There are a lot of foreign volunteers here who have issues,” Velcro said. “I mean, there has to be something wrong with you to want to stay here after experiencing Russian shelling. It’s one thing to come here and think you’re going to get into some movie-style shootout with the Russians. The reality of what happens is there’s extensive trading of artillery fire. Infantrymen really don’t do much except get killed or hold ground.

“The comforts that you had as a Western soldier don’t exist here. I remember the first time I got shelled, like really fucking shelled. We were in the middle of a field in the Donbas and there was no communications.  It was dark, and we had no night vision goggles. We were told to dig if we expected to live, and that there’s going to be an armored assault coming through, and that the Ukrainian soldiers had abandoned their post for some reason. I said to myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life, man? Why am I in this situation? This is absolute insanity.’ But then I fucking just leaned into it.”

Velcro does not think Ukraine currently has a realistic chance to win the war. “Russia probably has a lot more weapons than Ukraine can handle and sustain,” he reasoned. “We all know that Russia is not feeling the pinch, economically-speaking. The middle-class, urbanite people are not feeling the pinch…yet. People who say otherwise are delusional. You have to consider that there’s a 10% inflation rate…something like 20% in France. A lot of people are going to stop wanting to fund this war.”

Weapons supply issues have hit all segments of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, including the International Legion. “There’s total grift and corruption going on everywhere,” Velcro said. “Some of the volunteer groups are now weapons trafficking. I went into the supply room and I asked my team leader for uniforms for my soldiers. And he said, ‘We don’t have any uniforms.’

“And I said, ‘Man, it’s going to get cold here. If you guys don’t have regular uniforms to supply these foreign fighters now, what’s going to happen when it’s freezing out?’ The network of volunteers is burning out. You can’t sustain a war crowd-funding it forever.

“We’re driving around in unarmored technicals on the frontline. At one point, the Legion even asked me to pay to help repair a vehicle, and I did. I went up to an ABC News crew who had driven up to us in an armored vehicle, and I said, ‘So, you guys get legit armored vehicles? I wish we had those.’ The ABC cocksuckers just gave me a smirky look.

“Reading the comments on Reddit, and all that kind of delusional bullshit, where people write, ‘Oh, well, they get all these javelins.’ No, man, those javelins are gone. 70% of them were fired off in the beginning of the war. The US sent out a huge stockpile of them right before the war, and the US has a 36 month wait period for one javelin to come into the line. So there won’t be javelins, or nice anti-tank guided missile systems anymore.”

Ukraine’s War Crimes

Velcro’s experiences with the International Legion in Ukraine support a recently-published Amnesty International report alleging that Ukrainian Armed Forces have been stationing soldiers and operating military equipment in civilian areas. “Whenever I hear like a story about Russians hitting a school, I just kind of shrug,” he said. “Because I was garrisoned inside a school at one point. The school didn’t have kids in it, so it’s not like they were endangering children. But, you know, all it takes is for Ukraine to say, ‘Ah! They hit a school!’ And that kind of just cumulates into a fucking easy media narrative on their their part.

“And everyone knows that since 2014, Ukraine has been forced to fight a war in which it didn’t have guided weapons. And even with guided weapons, we can talk about mistakes that the U.S. made in Afghanistan recently, for that matter. But I mean, of course, Ukraine probably shelled civilian areas. This sort of collateral damage is inevitable.”

Burn out

Velcro has now left the International Legion and Ukraine. “I’m just too burnt out. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t scope through a myriad of foreign government entities to find a legit unit that’s well-supplied and has people who are committed…I’m just burnt out.”

“I Have a Chance to Kill Some Russians.” Interviews with Foreign Volunteers in Ukraine