Jordan Mullins doesn’t know exactly what hit him – he only remembers the pain he felt when shrapnel punctured his left calf.
Mr. Mullins, a 26-year-old from Oshawa, Ont., was fighting in Ukraine when his unit encountered a Russian armoured personnel carrier during a recent battle for a “coastal city” that Mr. Mullins prefers not to name. He said he and his unit – a volunteer formation known as the Georgian Legion, made up primarily of fighters from the country of Georgia – were “bounding across a street” when the Russians opened fire.
“I caught shrapnel in my left leg either from a round or maybe what it hit – not sure. Just felt excruciating fire in the back of my calf,” he recounted in an exchange of messages.
Now recuperating back home in Canada, Mr. Mullins is proof that there are Canadians fighting on the front lines in Ukraine. But he nonetheless scoffs at a claim by Russia’s Defence Ministry last week that 162 Canadians have been killed in the four-month-old war.
“That’s not accurate at all. I’m still in contact with most Westerners I met in country, and believe me, all the Canadians I met are still fighting and will continue … I’ve heard of wounded Canadians but [none killed in action] as of yet,” he said. “I’m quite sure our government would have to address over 100 of our citizens dying in a foreign conflict, no?”
Besides Mr. Mullins – who says he’s healing well and is keen to get back to Ukraine and what he calls a fight for the country’s freedom – at least one other Canadian has been injured in the war, when Russian cruise missiles slammed into the Yavoriv training centre in western Ukraine.
The Russian Defence Ministry’s figures, published Friday in state-controlled media, paint a picture of almost 7,000 Western fighters – the Kremlin calls them “mercenaries” – who have joined the fight and are taking heavy losses. (Foreign fighters who join recognized units of the Ukrainian military receive a basic salary of about US$630 a month.)
According to the Russian figures, which are unsupported by any evidence, 601 Canadians have travelled to Ukraine to fight, a number second only to the 1,831 Poles who are said to have signed up. The United States, Romania and Britain are claimed to have more than 500 citizens fighting in Ukraine.
The numbers are likely intended for domestic consumption – as “proof” that Russia is fighting not only Ukraine, but also NATO and the West. What is truly eye-catching is the alleged number of foreigners killed. Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Lieutenant-General Igor Konashenkov claimed that 1,956 foreigners had been “destroyed” since the start of the war, including 162 Canadians.
Jason Kung, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said the Canadian government is aware of the figures published by the Russian Defence Ministry.
”The Russian regime has long employed state-sponsored disinformation at home and abroad, including to create a pretext for its illegal invasion of Ukraine. As such, no information provided by the regime can be taken at face value,” Mr. Kung said.
There have been no known funerals for Canadian fighters in Ukraine. Damien Magrou, a French-Norwegian lawyer who is a spokesperson for the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine – a unit of the Ukrainian military created after President Volodymyr Zelensky called for foreign volunteers to help his country – said that while the legion does not provide statistics, the Russian claim is false.
“I can say for a fact that the number of supposedly killed is completely untrue. As far as I know we have not had a single Canadian casualty yet.”
Mr. Magrou said he believes it was all a propaganda effort aimed at scaring off foreign fighters who might be thinking of heading to Ukraine. “It’s not working,” he said.
Mamuka Mamulashvili, the commander of the Georgian Legion, said he currently had four Canadians in his unit, not including Mr. Mullins, and didn’t know of any Canadians who had been killed in combat.
Some foreigners have died fighting for Ukraine, however. At least two British citizens are known to have been killed in battle, most recently Jordan Gatley, a former British soldier who died on June 10 in the besieged eastern Ukrainian city of Sieverodonetsk. An American fighter – a long-time resident of Kyiv who has enlisted in the regular Ukrainian army – told The Globe and Mail he believes “one or two” U.S. citizens have also died in the war.
Several foreign fighters have also gone missing or have been captured in recent weeks. Twenty-eight-year-old Aiden Aislin and 48-year-old Shaun Pinner of Britain were captured near the Russian-occupied port city of Mariupol in April. Both were long-time residents of Ukraine and part of its regular army.
They were convicted, along with Moroccan national Saaudun Brahim, on terrorism charges on June 9 by a court in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” an unrecognized puppet state established on Ukrainian territory by Moscow. The three men have been sentenced to death.
The British government has denounced the proceedings as a sham trial and called for Russia to respect the Geneva Conventions, a series of international treaties that govern the treatment of prisoners of war. Russia contends the men are mercenaries and thus not covered by those rules.
Two American fighters also went missing near the city of Kharkiv, near Ukraine’s border with Russia, last week. The Kremlin-run RT news channel has since aired interviews with Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh – both of whom are U.S. military veterans – and reported that they too were in the custody of the Donetsk People’s Republic. In its online coverage, RT wrote that “the stakes for Drueke and Huynh are high” because of the death penalty sentence given to the captured British and Moroccan fighters.
It is illegal under the Geneva Conventions to broadcast coerced interviews with prisoners of war.
Mr. Drueke, 39, and Mr. Huynh, 27, were not members of the International Legion or the regular Ukrainian army, but instead are reported to have fought for loosely organized volunteer groups that sometimes operate outside the control of the Ukrainian command structure. The two reportedly became separated from the rest of their unit while on a mission.
A third American fighter is also missing in Ukraine, according to his family and the U.S. State Department.
An unknown number of foreigners – including some Canadians – have come to Ukraine planning to enlist, only to find the official process frustrating to navigate. Some end up joining unofficial volunteer formations.
On a recent visit to the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, The Globe encountered a group of about a dozen men – including at least four Canadians, as well as others from the U.S., France and Mexico – who spent their days wearing military fatigues and drinking in local bars while complaining that no one would give them a weapon and send them to the front line. The men refused to give their names, but vowed they would find a way to join the fight.
With a report from Steven Chase in Ottawa