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Paul Hughes came to Ukraine from Calgary on with plans to join the International Legion of Territorial Defence. He became disillusioned with the group and ended up starting a humanitarian organization called HUGS: Helping Ukraine Grassroots Support.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Like a lot of foreigners eager to fight the Russians, Paul Hughes arrived in Ukraine expecting to be handed a gun and taken straight to the front line.

And, like many would-be combatants, he had decided to come to Ukraine on a bit of a whim. Mr. Hughes, 57, is an anti-poverty activist from Calgary who spent some time with the Princess Patricia Light Infantry years ago. He felt compelled to join the struggle in Ukraine after the Russian army invaded last month, even though all he knew about the country was that it contained a city called Kyiv.

A generous donor gave him a plane ticket, and, after travelling a circuitous route that included a brief detention in Germany, Mr. Hughes arrived in Lviv on March 4 eager to sign up with the newly formed International Legion for the Territorial Defence of Ukraine. “I thought literally when I got across the border they were going to hand me a gun,” Mr. Hughes recalled.

He quickly discovered that the legion was ill-equipped and disorganized. “They couldn’t guarantee me a weapon,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere near Russia without a weapon. So I bailed on all that.”

Foreign fighters flocking to war zones are nothing new, but they usually operate in an informal capacity, or as mercenaries. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took the unusual step of actively recruiting foreigners by calling on “citizens of the world” to join the battle against the Russians. He created the international legion as a special branch of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Force, a largely civilian operation, and his government has estimated that about 20,000 people from more than 50 countries have signed up.

While it’s hard to verify the numbers, there’s little doubt that thousands of eager warriors from Canada and elsewhere have joined the Ukrainian cause and provided crucial support on the battlefield. But some foreign fighters have found the experience unexpectedly frightening and dangerous.

Mark Preston-Horin came to Ukraine from Victoria, hoping to serve as a medic.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Mark Preston-Horin, 43, came to Ukraine from Victoria in early March, hoping to put his experience as a medical responder with his local fire department to use in the Ukrainian army. He was told to join the international legion, but that officials couldn’t guarantee him a position as a medic. They said he had to sign a contract to stay indefinitely.

“They said, ‘you don’t get to leave until we tell you when you are allowed to leave,’” Mr. Preston-Horin said. “They take your passport number and they kind of mark that and you’re not allowed to leave the country until you get a release.”

He refused to sign the contract, but soon found his way to another paramilitary group, called the Georgian Legion. It consists mainly of ethnic Georgians who have been fighting alongside the Ukrainian army in the eastern part of the country since 2014. The legion has an affiliation with the Ukrainian military and it has now become a popular choice for foreign fighters from Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Mr. Preston-Horin trained a group of new volunteers in first aid. He said most of the 35 recruits had no helmets, no bulletproof vests and no guns, and had been given only a vague promise that the hardware would eventually arrive. Legion commanders “were wanting them to roll out, and that’s sort of where my interest in volunteering came to a halt,” he said. He left the legion, he added, and the other 35 men left as well.

Matthew VanDyke came to Ukraine to train the country's Territorial Defence Force, which is largely made up of civilians.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Matthew VanDyke, founder of the U.S.-based Sons of Liberty International organization, which has provided military training in several countries, questioned the seriousness of the international legion.

He arrived in Lviv recently to start training members of the Territorial Defence Force in urban combat tactics, but he said he hasn’t been impressed by what he has seen of the International Legion. The volunteers he has met are inexperienced, lack equipment and seem interested only in gaining some quick combat exposure.

“I think that the international legion was something that was conceived to be a propaganda tool to push forward the message that this is the world against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and that they’re fighting for more than just Ukraine,” he said. “They don’t have the infrastructure, or the time, to really properly do any sort of international unit.”

His message to Canadians thinking about coming to Ukraine and joining the legion: “Don’t. You’re probably wasting your time.”

Foreign fighters in Ukraine may find themselves in legal – as well as physical – danger. Ottawa hasn’t been clear about whether the law permits Canadians to head off to join the war. Meanwhile, the Russian army has said it will treat captured foreigners as criminals and not prisoners of war.

For its part, the Ukrainian military has sung the praises of the foreign combatants and insisted that no fighter will be forced into battle. “Any help is worth its weight in gold,” Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, who runs the legion, told CNN this month.

After he dropped out of the legion, Mr. Hughes stayed in Ukraine, but changed course. He launched HUGS, or Helping Ukraine Grassroots Support, an organization that transports food and medical supplies to shelters across the country. The group has two vans and recently received a donated ambulance.

Mr. Preston-Horin and several other ex-legion members have joined HUGS as well. “We’re doing so much more than me just going out and trying to stop a Russian bullet,” Mr. Hughes said.