The Life of a British Volunteer in Ukraine and the Middle East
January 2, 2021
By Yaqoub Burney
DISCLAIMER: Burnout Digital is a media production entity. We do not promote, endorse, or assist any combatant group or military. Burnout Digital does not endorse any designated or undesignated terrorist organization, paramilitary organization, state-sanctioned or state-organized military. Burnout Digital does not endorse the phenomenon of foreign fighters, nor do we aid or seek to aid in their joining of militant organizations.
Some pray for easy lives. Some pray to be stronger men. In the case of Johnny, or “CossackGundi” as he goes by on Instagram, the simple life of casework and security back home in the United Kingdom wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough either to turn away from the violence on TV in 2014, as the war between the Islamic State (Daesh), the Kurds, the Syrian Arab Republic, and many other groups raged on in the Levant. Daesh’s goal was to create a so-called Islamic state that spans across the Middle East with the majority of their efforts centred around the Levant, the region of Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and southeast Turkey. It was a war that followed a gruelling period of protests, the Arab Spring as it is more famously known. Johnny had been watching what was going on since the protests had first started, and soon the tensions in Syria hit a breaking point, igniting the conflict known as the Syrian Civil war that still rages on to this day.
Initially learning about the Kurdish people and their struggle from Vice News, Johnny soon grew to sympathize with their struggle and felt, in his own words, “increasingly annoyed at the lack of support” for the Kurds and many other people in the region. The Kurdish people are an ethnic group situated in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. They have long sought to establish their own nation, fighting countless battles and wars for their people and ideals. By his own admission, Johnny believed that “[his] government had a hand in allowing the creation of ISIS through negligence by withdrawing from Iraq too soon.”
It took time, but Johnny found his way into the conflict, deciding that he wanted to help the Kurds regardless of the British government’s stance.
Digital Composition by Nick Parker
Like many foreign fighters in Syria, he found a connection through Facebook – in his case, through the group Lions of Rojava, a Kurdish battalion operating in Syria. The social media site connects various groups of people, from Daesh to the Kurdish militias offering potential volunteers means of contacting them and joining their organizations. Multiple attacks in Europe, such as Daesh’s Westminster Bridge attack in the U.K., involved members recruited online. Other social media sites like Telegram and VK, among other platforms, are used by militant groups to recruit members.
After a couple of conversations, Johnny was given instructions on where to go and what to do to join the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group dedicated to defending Kurdish ethnic territory from ISIS. He spent two weeks in basic-weapons handling before being sent to the front. He served in various operations against Daesh in many regions of Syria such as Tel Abyad, the defence of Al Hasakah, the Al-Hawl operation, the Jezra operation, and the Tabqa operation.
Johnny was also involved in the final stages of securing the villages leading into Raqqa, Daesh’s on-and-off capital. It was before the fifth and last stage of the Raqqa campaign where Johnny finally retired from his tour in the Levant, right before the push into the city of Raqqa itself.
Throughout his time in Syria with the YPG, Johnny has served with many other Western volunteers. However, by the final stages of the Raqqa campaign, he was the only Westerner left in his unit. He said that after serving two tours from 2016 to 2018, he was exhausted from years of constant battles against Daesh.
“I only managed to see the outskirts of the city when we took the last village from the western offensive, and I left because I had enough and also was on my own (in the) sector.”Johnny (CossackGundi)
The life of a soldier, however, was far from over. With the outskirts of Raqqa in his sight, Johnny soon left Syria. He attempted twice to return to the United Kingdom only to get arrested under suspicions of attempting to commit acts of terror. According to Johnny, the charges were dropped after a few months as neither had any evidence to support them. Once again, Johnny said he grew restless with life in England and turned his attention to the East, but this time it was to Europe rather than the Levant.
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Since 2014, Ukraine has been in a state of conflict in the nation’s eastern regions of Donbass and Luhansk who have been seeking to separate from the rest of the country with support from the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian Crisis was still raging, and despite him stating he initially sympathized with the separatists, Johnny said he had met a volunteer in Syria who had served in Ukraine. Johnny mentioned that the unnamed Ukrainian changed his mind to the perspective that Ukraine’s position was justifiable in the conflict. He saw their fight against separatism as a battle of sovereignty against Russian influence, a nation known for supporting divide and conquer tactics in neighbouring regions such as Georgia and Romania. In early 2018, Johnny flew to Ukraine. This time he signed up for the Ukrainian military rather than working with a paramilitary group like many others. One of his greatest motivations was that by serving in the army there would be less of a legal “gray area like fighting with a militia in Syria.”
After two months in boot camp, Johnny was assigned to an air assault company, also working as an RPG operator. However, despite the combat dying down in July 2020, most of the ceasefires declared by both sides failed to stop the fighting. At best, the ceasefires only slowed the intensity of the conflict. The failure of the ceasefires, Johnny says, ended following the Ukrainian Prime Minister’s rise to power and his subsequent plan to end fighting. The nation’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky would enact harsh punishments for breaking the peace, punishments including monetary loss and being removed from the front.
Despite being in the army, Johnny has, on occasion, come into contact with the Ukrainian militias – a topic that he has many opinions on. Militias tend to be military or paramilitary organizations, made up of civilians instead of the regular army, generally forming during a conflict. Many such Ukrainian militias were formed during the Maidan protests, fighting against the police during the ongoing riots. Many of these militias later transitioned into military regiments that served in the war against pro-Russian Separatists in Donbass. The effectiveness of their role in the war has been a topic of discussion. Some see them as more of a hindrance than a help, while others believe them to be vital to the initial stages of the war.
Having done two tours in Ukraine, Johnny stated that the only time he saw any militias was when his commander asked for their assistance in recovering a body from no man’s land.
“The militias are so small now compared to 2014-2016 because the government cracked down on them because they were out of control,” Johnny said. “The guys that came to help us were a very small group of volunteers who, in my opinion, seemed to be somewhat disciplined compared to others. A lot of them are in the rear because they have no power or control on the front now…”.
When asked about Azov, the infamous militia that Russia routinely accuses of being a Nazi organization, Johnny said: “Back when 2014 was kicking off, the whole thing was a shitshow. They took anyone, a lot of hard-core neo-Nazis, right-wing, etc. Since then, Azov has changed. It’s not the Azov it used to be since coming under the control of the national guard.”
“I had a couple of friends who were with ‘em and they themselves are not right-wing at all. While there is a couple who would identify themselves as Nazis, the vast majority I’ve met are a mix of anarchists, Nationalists and Patriots. Overall my opinion on them militarily? They are very professional and very disciplined.”
He also spoke of the diversity present in the militias and the Ukrainian army, talking about how he met people from all sorts of the world – from Poles, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Estonians, and Chechens, to Sudanese, Kurds, and Mongolians. Johnny briefly mentions that he met an Azeri and Armenian who fought closely side by side, despite the tensions in their homelands. Johnny said he also encountered NATO forces, but who seemed less friendly than the ones who had offered him MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) rations in Syria.
While taking part in a joint Ukrainian-British orbital training program, he was removed from the exercise because of his British nationality, as they believed him to be a mercenary, a soldier for hire, a profession deemed illegal by many nations. He does seek to receive his permanent residency in the Ukrainian where, once his three-year contract ends, he sees himself settling down there.
“I’d definitely say the biggest misconception about Ukrainians is that they are all nazis in the military,” Johnny said. “It’s pretty much like any other military… because when you look at the history and the immigration policies during the times of the Soviet Union, it makes sense why there’s still a lot of ignorant racism as they are still getting out of that post-Soviet Period. It’s the same for any other post-soviet block to be honest… there’s a lot of mixed ethnic Ukrainians.”
In terms of the future of the war in Donbass, Johnny believes not much will radically change. “I think Ukraine will eventually come to a more stable frozen conflict and the separatist regions turning into something like Transnistria in Moldova.” Transnistria is a nation, recognized only by Russia, which formed in Moldova in a conflict similar to present-day Ukraine. Comparatively, Johnny sees the Syrian conflict as more of an enigma since “there are so many actors involved in the conflict.”
Despite not having PTSD, Johnny has had to deal with the deeper consequences of his service. He talked about how he suffered from the occasional panic attack until he found methods to cope. To this day, he says he still has the occasional nightmare of his time in Syria. Based on what Johnny described, his time in Syria was far more impactful, with his role fighting with the Kurdish YPG seeming to matter a great deal to him. For him, the combat in Syria was a far more brutal and hellish experience.
Johnny described his time serving with the Kurds as profound:
“If I had to describe what it was like serving, it was an amazing experience. The Kurds are brave, loyal, although they lacked the training, they made up for it in experience which came at a cost, and my personal opinion is that if we want the Middle East to stop being a problem, then it’s the Kurds we need to be backing because they long for peace.”Johnny (CossackGundy)
Despite all this, he wouldn’t have it any other way. To this day, part of Johnny still wishes to return to Syria.
“Not a day goes by wishing I could go back and choose to stay…mainly down to seeing how many friends were killed during the battle for Raqqa,” he said.
“[M]aybe if I was with western friends I would have stuck around for it… working a normal day job just doesn’t cut it once you’ve seen the reality of life.”
Image courtesy of CossackGundi’s Instagram account