KYIV, Ukraine — They rushed to Ukraine by the thousands, many of them Americans who promised to bring military experience, money or supplies to the battleground of a righteous war. Hometown newspapers hailed their commitment, and donors backed them with millions of dollars.
Now, after a year of combat, many of these homespun groups of volunteers are fighting with themselves and undermining the war effort. Some have wasted money or stolen valor. Others have cloaked themselves in charity while also trying to profit off the war, records show.
One retired Marine lieutenant colonel from Virginia is the focus of a U.S. federal investigation into the potentially illegal export of military technology. A former Army soldier arrived in Ukraine only to turn traitor and defect to Russia. A Connecticut man who lied about his military service has posted live updates from the battlefield — including his exact location — and boasted about his easy access to American weaponry. A former construction worker is hatching a plan to use fake passports to smuggle in fighters from Pakistan and Iran.
And in one of the more curious entanglements, one of the largest volunteer groups is embroiled in a power struggle involving an Ohio man who falsely claimed to have been both a U.S. Marine and a LongHorn Steakhouse assistant manager. The dispute also involves a years-old incident on Australian reality TV.
Such characters have a place in Ukraine’s defense because of the arms-length role the United States has taken: The Biden administration sends weapons and money but not professional troops. That means people who would not be allowed anywhere near the battlefield in a U.S.-led war are active on the Ukrainian front — often with unchecked access to weapons and military equipment.
Many of the volunteers who hurried to Ukraine did so selflessly and acted with heroism. Some have lost their lives. Foreigners have rescued civilians, aided the wounded and fought ferociously alongside Ukrainians. Others raised money for crucial supplies.
But in Europe’s largest land war since 1945, the do-it-yourself approach does not discriminate between trained volunteers and those who lack the skills or discipline to assist effectively.
The New York Times reviewed more than 100 pages of documents from inside volunteer groups and interviewed more than 30 volunteers, fighters, fundraisers, donors, and U.S. and Ukrainian officials. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
The interviews and research reveal a series of deceptions, mistakes and squabbles that have hindered the volunteer drive that began after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine called for help. “Every friend of Ukraine who wants to join Ukraine in defending the country, please come over,” he said. “We will give you weapons.”
Thousands answered the call. Some joined military groups like the International Legion, which Ukraine formed for foreign fighters. Others took roles in support or fundraising. With Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, under attack, there was little time for vetting arrivals. So people with problematic pasts, including checkered or fabricated military records, became entrenched in the Legion and a constellation of other volunteer groups.
Asked about these problems, the Ukrainian military did not address specific issues but did say it was on guard because Russian agents regularly tried to infiltrate volunteer groups. “We investigated such cases and handed them over to law enforcement agencies,” said Andriy Cherniak, a representative for Ukrainian military intelligence.
‘A Million Lies’
One of the best-known Americans on the battlefield is James Vasquez. Days after the invasion, Vasquez, a Connecticut home-improvement contractor, announced he was leaving for Ukraine. His local newspaper told the tale of a former U.S. Army staff sergeant who left behind his job and family and picked up a rifle and a rucksack on the front line.
Since then, he has posted battlefield videos online, at least once broadcasting his unit’s precise location to everyone, including the opposing side. He used his story to solicit donations. “I was in Kuwait during Desert Storm, and I was in Iraq after 9/11,” Vasquez said in a fundraising video. He added, “This is a whole different animal.”
Vasquez, in fact, was never deployed to Kuwait, Iraq or anywhere else, a Pentagon spokesperson said. He specialized in fuel and electrical repairs. And he left the Army Reserve not as a sergeant as he claimed, but as a private first class, one of the Army’s lowest ranks.
Still, Vasquez had easy access to weapons, including American rifles. Where did they come from? “I’m not exactly sure,” Vasquez said in a text message. The rifles, he added, were “brand-new, out of the box and we have plenty.” He also tweeted that he should not have to worry about international rules of war while in Ukraine.
He fought alongside Da Vinci’s Wolves, a Ukrainian far-right battalion, until this past week, when the Times asked about his false military service claims. He immediately deactivated his Twitter account and said he might leave Ukraine because authorities discovered he was fighting without a required military contract.
Vasquez said he had been misrepresenting his military record for decades. He acknowledged being kicked out of the Army but would not talk publicly about why. “I had to tell a million lies to get ahead,” Vasquez said in an interview. “I didn’t realize it was going to come to this.”
The International Legion, hastily formed by the Ukrainian government, spent 10 minutes or less checking each volunteer’s background early in the war, one Legion official said. So a Polish fugitive who had been jailed in Ukraine for weapon violations got a position leading troops. Soldiers told The Kyiv Independent that he misappropriated supplies, harassed women and threatened his soldiers.
Ukrainian officials initially boasted of 20,000 potential Legion volunteers, but far fewer actually enlisted. Currently, there are around 1,500 members in the organization, say people with knowledge of the Legion.
Some are experienced fighters working as part of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine.
But there have been high-profile problems. A former Army private first class, John McIntyre, was ejected from the Legion for bad behavior. McIntyre defected to Russia and recently appeared on state-run television, which said he provided military intelligence to Moscow.
Internal documents show that the Legion is struggling. Recruitment has stagnated. The Washington-based Counter Extremism Project wrote in March that the Legion and affiliated groups “continue to feature individuals widely seen as unfit to perform their duties.”
Malcolm Nance, a former Navy cryptologist and MSNBC commentator, arrived in Ukraine last year and made a plan to bring order and discipline to the Legion. Instead, he became enmeshed in the chaos.
Nance, whose TV appearances have made him one of the most visible Americans supporting Ukraine, was an experienced military operator. He drafted a code of honor for the organization and, by all accounts, donated equipment.
Today, Nance is involved in a messy, distracting power struggle. Often, that plays out on Twitter, where Nance taunted one former ally as “fat” and an associate of “a verified con artist.”
He accused a pro-Ukraine fundraising group of fraud, providing no evidence. After arguing with two Legion administrators, Nance wrote a “counterintelligence” report trying to get them fired. Central to that report is an accusation that one Legion official, Emese Abigail Fayk, fraudulently tried to buy a house on an Australian reality TV show with money she didn’t have. He labeled her “a potential Russian spy,” offering no evidence. Fayk denied the accusations and remains with the Legion.
Nance said that as a member of the Legion with an intelligence background, when he developed concerns, he “felt an obligation to report this to Ukrainian counterintelligence.”
The dispute goes to the heart of who can be trusted to speak for and raise money for the Legion.
Nance has left Ukraine but continues fundraising with a new group of allies. One of them, Ben Lackey, is a former Legion member. He told his fellow volunteers that he was once a Marine and wrote on LinkedIn that he had most recently been an assistant manager at LongHorn Steakhouse. In fact, the Pentagon said he had no military experience (and he worked as a server, the steakhouse said).
In an interview, Lackey said that he lied about being a U.S. Marine so he could join the Legion.
With Legion growth stalling, Ryan Routh, a former construction worker from Greensboro, North Carolina, is seeking recruits from among Afghan soldiers who fled the Taliban. Routh, who spent several months in Ukraine last year, said he planned to move them, in some cases illegally, from Pakistan and Iran to Ukraine. He said dozens had expressed interest.
“We can probably purchase some passports through Pakistan since it’s such a corrupt country,” he said in an interview from Washington.
It is not clear if he has succeeded, but one former Afghan soldier said he had been contacted and was interested in fighting if it meant leaving Iran, where he was living illegally.
Grady Williams, a 65-year-old retired engineer with no military experience and a methamphetamine conviction from 2019, was a volunteer tour guide at Ronald Reagan’s Santa Barbara ranch when he heard Zelenskyy’s plea for volunteers.
“I shot rifles since I was 13,” he said in an interview. “I had no excuse to say, ‘Well, I shouldn’t go.’”
He said he flew to Poland, hitchhiked to Ukraine and took a train to Kyiv. He bumped into two Americans in military-looking gear. “They said ‘Dude, come with us,’” he said.
The volunteers brought Williams to a base near the front and gave him a gun. Days later, he said, he was nearly blown up while fighting alongside Ukrainian soldiers from a trench near Bucha. Within a week, the military realized that he had not registered to fight and sent him back to Kyiv.
From there, he took a circuitous path that ended in raising money for volunteers from the Republic of Georgia. He raised about $16,000, telling donors their money would buy electric motorcycles for fighters. But the Georgians kicked him out after he got into a conflict with another volunteer. He said he spent about $6,900 of the contributions on down payments for motorbikes and the rest on his travel and other expenses.
He has since linked up with a new group, which he said promised him command of a motorcycle unit if he raised enough money. So he moved this month to Odesa, Ukraine, he said, and expects to deliver a single motorbike soon.
Examples of wasted money in the hands of well-intentioned people are common. Mriya Aid, a group led by an active-duty Canadian lieutenant colonel, spent around $100,000 from donors on high-tech U.S.-style night-vision devices. They ended up being less-effective Chinese models, internal documents show.
“We experienced a problem with the night vision,” said Lubomyr Chabursky, a volunteer on Mriya Aid’s leadership team. But he said the purchase represented only 2% of the aid the group had provided.
Earlier this year, the Mozart Group, which two former Marines established to help Ukraine, disbanded after one sued the other, alleging theft and harassment.
Absent Paper Trail
Last spring, a volunteer group called Ripley’s Heroes said it spent approximately $63,000 on night-vision and thermal optics. Some of the equipment was subject to American export restrictions because, in the wrong hands, it could give enemies a battlefield advantage.
Front-line volunteers said Ripley’s delivered the equipment to Ukraine without required documentation listing the actual buyers and recipients. Recently, federal authorities began investigating the shipments, U.S. officials said.
In his defense, the group’s founder, a retired U.S. Marine named Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV, provided deal documents to the Times. But those records show that, just as the volunteers said, Ripley’s was not disclosed to the State Department as the buyer.
Ripley’s says it has raised over $1 million, some of it thanks to the former Connecticut contractor, Vasquez, who claimed to be the group’s chief strategy officer and promoted Ripley’s to his online audience.
Ripley’s spent around $25,000 on remote-control reconnaissance cars last year, but they never arrived, shipping records show. Rawlings said Polish authorities held them up over legal concerns.
Rawlings has said that his group is awaiting American nonprofit status. But he has not revealed his spending or proof of a nonprofit application to the Times or to donors who have asked. So it is not clear where the money is going. “I believed these guys,” said Shaun Stants, who said he organized a fundraiser in October in Pittsburgh but was never shown the financial records he asked for. “And they took me for a fool.”
Corporate records in Poland and the U.S. show that Rawlings also started a for-profit company called Iron Forge. In an interview, he said he expected his charity and others to pay Iron Forge for transportation, meaning donor money would be used to finance his private venture. But he said no conflict of interest existed because Iron Forge would ultimately send money back to the charities. Details are being worked out, he said.
In the days after the Times approached Vasquez and others, members of the squabbling groups — Ripley’s, the Legion, the dissident Legion members and more — escalated their feud. They accused one another of misappropriating funds and lying about their credentials.
After a former ally turned on Vasquez, Nance came to his defense.
“James was NOT fake, he was troubled,” Nance said on Twitter. “He did a lot for Ukraine but has challenges to face.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.