Meet the war veterans from the ex-Soviet state of Georgia who are spearheading Ukraine’s foreign volunteer force
By Colin Freeman 21 July 2022 •
The head of Ukraine’s largest foreign volunteer unit has a blunt message for any Britons still wanting to join the fight against Russia.
First, don’t even think about it unless you have combat experience from Iraq or Afghanistan. And then, imagine what it would have been like to be fighting on the insurgents’ side.
“In those conflicts, the West had all the advantages, with air support and superior artillery,” says Mamuka Mamulashvili, commander of the Georgian Legion, which has around 1,000 volunteer fighters supporting the Ukrainian army.
“Here, it’s the Russians who have those advantages instead. It is your choice if you want to come here to defend democracy and freedom – but you may end up sacrificing your life.”
Mr Mamulashvili’s legion is named after his home country of Georgia – another ex-Soviet state that has suffered military bullying by Russia, which briefly invaded in 2008.
Since then, it has admitted volunteers from every corner of the globe, from America and France through to India, Australia and Mexico. Among its ranks are around 100 Britons – some in training roles, others in active combat.
Thousands of other foreign fighters have joined the newly-formed International Legion, set up by President Volodymyr Zelensky at the war’s outset, which disperses volunteers to different Ukrainian army units.
Kyiv has not revealed precise figures on their total numbers. Yet the fate of several of the British volunteers has already underscored Mr Mamulashvili’s warnings about the perils.
Two of them – Scott Sibley and Jordan Ashley – have been killed in action. And at least three others – Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Andrew Hill – are being held as prisoners of war by pro-Russian separatists in the People’s Republic of Donetsk, where they face the death penalty as “mercenaries”.
Their only chance of freedom now lies in a prisoner swap with the Kremlin, which is likely to demand a heavy price for their release.
It is a point not lost on Mr Mamulashvili, who is aware that all his Western volunteers are potentially prize targets for capture in battle.
“I fear that those who have been caught will be getting tortured, as Russia has experts in that field,” he said. “Now they have been sentenced to death, it becomes a political game, although in my opinion, they will not dare to kill Britons or Americans. I think they will be prepared to do a prisoner swap.”
Kyiv has already done several such exchanges, including one last month in which 144 Kremlin fighters were exchanged for the same number of Ukrainians, including some from the Azov Regiment that defended Mariupol.
Captured by Russian separatists at 14
The mechanics of prisoner-swaps are something Mr Mamulashvili, 44, is familiar with – having been subject to one himself aged just 14.
In 1992, a year after Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union, war broke out between Georgian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in Abkhazia, a sliver of land on the Black Sea. Mr Mamulashvili’s father, Zurab, was a general in the Georgian army, and took his son to fight alongside him in a war that cost 25,000 lives.
“Back then it was common in Georgia for boys of that age to fight,” he said. “I spent about a year on the frontlines with my father’s battalion, but in the end we were surrounded and most of the battalion killed by artillery fire.”
After being captured, he was imprisoned for three months along with his father, both of them suffering torture. Russian media also paraded a photo of the pair on television as a propaganda coup.
His father – who passed away last year – acted as the Georgian Legion’s “ideologist” when it founded in 2014. On the frontlines in Ukraine together three decades later, they also recreated the same father-and-son photo that had been taken in captivity.
“We Georgians were the first post-Soviet country to experience Russian aggression – I have basically been fighting them ever since,” Mr Mamulashvili added. “If we don’t stand up to Russia, it will be eventually the whole of Europe that suffers.”
Mr Mamulashvili, who is fluent in English, spoke to The Telegraph from the Georgian Legion’s makeshift HQ at a disused building in Kyiv, from where it despatches fighters to assist all over the Ukrainian frontlines.
He says that since the Russian invasion, the legion has done more than 200 operations, attacking Russian positions and supply lines, and also targeting high-ranking Russian officers.
Painting Westminster, a ‘symbol of democracy’
When not fighting, he swaps his gun for an artist’s brush, and in one room of his quarters hangs a large painting of the Palace of Westminster.
He painted it years ago, simply because he liked the look of the building, but says it has acquired added symbolism because of Britain’s military support for Kyiv during the war.
“Your British parliament is a symbol of democracy, and its support for Ukraine is much appreciated,” he added.
“But we still need more weapons from the West – the delay in providing them is costing thousands of lives.”