People who would not beryllium allowed anyplace adjacent the battlefield successful a U.S.-led warfare are progressive connected the Ukrainian front, with acceptable entree to American weaponry.
By Justin Scheck and Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Justin Scheck, an planetary investigative reporter, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, the Ukraine correspondent, reported this nonfiction from Ukraine and astir Europe.
March 25, 2023, 12:01 a.m. ET
They rushed to Ukraine by the thousands, galore of them Americans who promised to bring subject experience, wealth oregon supplies to the battleground of a righteous war. Hometown newspapers hailed their commitment, and donors backed them with millions of dollars.
Now, aft a twelvemonth of combat, galore of these homespun groups of volunteers are warring with themselves and undermining the warfare effort. Some person wasted wealth oregon stolen valor. Others person cloaked themselves successful foundation portion besides trying to nett disconnected the war, records show.
One retired Marine lieutenant colonel from Virginia is the absorption of a U.S. national probe into the perchance amerciable export of subject technology. A erstwhile Army worker arrived successful Ukraine lone to crook traitor and defect to Russia. A Connecticut antheral who lied astir his subject work has posted unrecorded updates from the battlefield — including his nonstop determination — and boasted astir his casual entree to American weaponry. A erstwhile operation idiosyncratic is hatching a program to usage fake passports to smuggle successful fighters from Pakistan and Iran.
And successful 1 of the much funny entanglements, 1 of the largest unpaid groups is embroiled successful a powerfulness conflict involving an Ohio antheral who falsely claimed to person been some a U.S. Marine and a LongHorn Steakhouse adjunct manager. The quality besides involves a years-old incidental connected Australian world TV.
Such characters person a spot successful Ukraine’s defence due to the fact that of the arms-length relation the United States has taken: The Biden medication sends weapons and wealth but not nonrecreational troops. That means radical who would not beryllium allowed anyplace adjacent the battlefield successful a U.S.-led warfare are progressive connected the Ukrainian beforehand — often with unchecked entree to weapons and subject equipment.
Many of the volunteers who hurried to Ukraine did truthful selflessly and acted with heroism. Some person mislaid their lives. Foreigners person rescued civilians, aided the wounded and fought ferociously alongside Ukrainians. Others raised money for important supplies.
But successful Europe’s largest onshore warfare since 1945, the do-it-yourself attack does not discriminate betwixt trained volunteers and those who deficiency the skills oregon subject to assistance effectively.
The New York Times reviewed much than 100 pages of documents from wrong unpaid groups and interviewed much than 30 volunteers, fighters, fund-raisers, donors and American and Ukrainian officials. Some spoke connected the information of anonymity to sermon delicate information.
The interviews and probe uncover a bid of deceptions, mistakes and squabbles that person hindered the unpaid thrust that began aft Russia’s full-scale penetration successful February 2022, erstwhile President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine called for help. “Every person of Ukraine who wants to articulation Ukraine successful defending the country, delight travel over,” helium said. “We volition springiness you weapons.”
Thousands answered the call. Some joined subject groups similar the International Legion, which Ukraine formed for overseas fighters. Others took roles successful enactment oregon fund-raising. With Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, nether attack, determination was small clip for vetting arrivals. So radical with problematic pasts, including checkered oregon fabricated subject records, became entrenched successful the Legion and a constellation of different unpaid groups.
Asked astir these problems, the Ukrainian subject did not code circumstantial issues but did accidental it was connected defender due to the fact that Russian agents regularly tried to infiltrate unpaid groups. “We investigated specified cases and handed them implicit to instrumentality enforcement agencies,” said Andriy Cherniak, a typical for Ukrainian subject intelligence.
‘A Million Lies’
One of the best-known Americans connected the battlefield is James Vasquez. Days aft the invasion, Mr. Vasquez, a Connecticut home-improvement contractor, announced helium was leaving for Ukraine. His section newspaper told the communicative of a erstwhile U.S. Army unit sergeant who near down his occupation and household and picked up a firearm and a rucksack connected the beforehand line.
Since then, helium has posted battlefield videos online, astatine slightest erstwhile broadcasting his unit’s precise determination to everyone, including the enemy. He utilized his communicative to solicit donations. “I was successful Kuwait during Desert Storm, and I was successful Iraq aft 9/11,” Mr. Vasquez said successful a fund-raising video. He added, “This is simply a full antithetic animal.”
Mr. Vasquez, successful fact, was ne'er deployed to Kuwait, Iraq oregon anyplace else, a Pentagon spokeswoman said. He specialized successful substance and electrical repairs. And helium near the Army Reserve not arsenic a sergeant arsenic helium claimed, but arsenic a backstage archetypal class, 1 of the Army’s lowest ranks.
Still, Mr. Vasquez had casual entree to weapons, including American rifles. Where did they travel from? “I’m not precisely sure,” Mr. Vasquez said successful a substance message. The rifles, helium added, were “brand-new, retired of the container and we person plenty.” He besides tweeted that helium should not person to interest astir planetary rules of warfare portion successful Ukraine.
He fought alongside Da Vinci’s Wolves, a Ukrainian far-right battalion, until this week, erstwhile The Times asked astir his mendacious subject work claims. He instantly deactivated his Twitter relationship and said helium mightiness permission Ukraine due to the fact that authorities discovered helium was warring without a required subject contract.
Mr. Vasquez said helium had been misrepresenting his subject grounds for decades. He acknowledged being kicked retired of the Army but would not speech publically astir why. “I had to archer a cardinal lies to get ahead,” Mr. Vasquez said successful an interview. “I didn’t recognize it was going to travel to this.”
The International Legion, hastily formed by the Ukrainian government, spent 10 minutes oregon little checking each volunteer’s inheritance aboriginal successful the war, 1 Legion authoritative said. So a Polish fugitive who had been jailed successful Ukraine for limb violations got a presumption starring troops. Soldiers told The Kyiv Independent that helium misappropriated supplies, harassed women and threatened his soldiers.
Ukrainian officials initially boasted of 20,000 imaginable Legion volunteers, but acold less really enlisted. Currently, determination are astir 1,500 members successful the organization, accidental radical with cognition of the Legion.
Some are experienced fighters moving arsenic portion of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine.
But determination person been high-profile problems. A erstwhile Army backstage archetypal class, John McIntyre, was ejected from the Legion for atrocious behavior. Mr. McIntyre defected to Russia and precocious appeared connected state-run television, which said helium provided subject quality to Moscow.
Internal documents amusement that the Legion is struggling. Recruitment has stagnated. The Washington-based Counter Extremism Project wrote successful March that the Legion and affiliated groups “continue to diagnostic individuals wide seen arsenic unfit to execute their duties.”
Malcolm Nance, a erstwhile Navy cryptologist and MSNBC commentator, arrived successful Ukraine past twelvemonth and made a program to bring bid and subject to the Legion. Instead, helium became enmeshed successful the chaos.
Mr. Nance, whose TV appearances person made him 1 of the astir disposable Americans supporting Ukraine, was an experienced subject operator. He drafted a codification of grant for the enactment and, by each accounts, donated equipment.
What we see earlier utilizing anonymous sources. Do the sources cognize the information? What’s their information for telling us? Have they proved reliable successful the past? Can we corroborate the information? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources arsenic a past resort. The newsman and astatine slightest 1 exertion cognize the individuality of the source.
Today, Mr. Nance is progressive successful a messy, distracting powerfulness struggle. Often, that plays retired connected Twitter, wherever Mr. Nance taunted 1 erstwhile state arsenic “fat” and an subordinate of “a verified con artist.”
He accused a pro-Ukraine fund-raising radical of fraud, providing nary evidence. After arguing with 2 Legion administrators, Mr. Nance wrote a “counterintelligence” study trying to get them fired. Central to that study is an accusation that 1 Legion official, Emese Abigail Fayk, fraudulently tried to bargain a location connected an Australian world TV amusement with wealth she didn’t have. He labeled her “a imaginable Russian spy,” offering nary evidence. Ms. Fayk denied the accusations and remains with the Legion.
Mr. Nance said that arsenic a subordinate of the Legion with an quality background, erstwhile helium developed concerns, helium “felt an work to study this to Ukrainian counterintelligence.”
The quality goes to the bosom of who tin beryllium trusted to talk for and rise wealth for the Legion.
Mr. Nance has near Ukraine but continues fund-raising with a caller radical of allies. One of them, Ben Lackey, is simply a erstwhile Legion member. He told his chap volunteers that helium was erstwhile a Marine and wrote connected LinkedIn that helium had astir precocious been an adjunct manager astatine LongHorn Steakhouse. In fact, the Pentagon said helium had nary subject acquisition (and helium worked arsenic a server, the steakhouse said).
In an interview, Mr. Lackey said that helium lied astir being a U.S. Marine truthful helium could articulation the Legion.
With Legion maturation stalling, Ryan Routh, a erstwhile operation idiosyncratic from Greensboro, N.C., is seeking recruits from among Afghan soldiers who fled the Taliban. Mr. Routh, who spent respective months successful Ukraine past year, said helium planned to determination them, successful immoderate cases illegally, from Pakistan and Iran to Ukraine. He said dozens had expressed interest.
“We tin astir apt acquisition immoderate passports done Pakistan since it’s specified a corrupt country,” helium said successful an interrogation from Washington.
It is not wide if helium has succeeded, but 1 erstwhile Afghan worker said helium had been contacted and was funny successful warring if it meant leaving Iran, wherever helium was surviving illegally.
Grady Williams, a 65-year-old retired technologist with nary subject acquisition and a methamphetamine condemnation from 2019, was a unpaid circuit usher astatine Ronald Reagan’s Santa Barbara ranch erstwhile helium heard Mr. Zelensky’s plea for volunteers.
“I changeable rifles since I was 13,” helium said successful an interview. “I had nary excuse to say, ‘Well, I shouldn’t go.’”
He said helium flew to Poland, hitchhiked to Ukraine and took a bid to Kyiv. He bumped into 2 Americans successful military-looking gear. “They said ‘Dude, travel with us,’” helium said.
The volunteers brought Mr. Williams to a basal adjacent the beforehand and gave him a gun. Days later, helium said, helium was astir blown up portion warring alongside Ukrainian soldiers from a trench adjacent Bucha. Within a week, the subject realized that helium had not registered to combat and sent him backmost to Kyiv.
From there, helium took a circuitous way that ended successful raising wealth for volunteers from the Republic of Georgia. He raised astir $16,000, telling donors their wealth would bargain electrical motorcycles for fighters. But the Georgians kicked him retired aft helium got into a struggle with different volunteer. He said helium spent astir $6,900 of the contributions connected down payments for motorbikes and the remainder connected his question and different expenses.
He has since linked up with a caller group, which helium said promised him bid of a motorcycle portion if helium raised capable money. So helium moved this period to Odesa, Ukraine, helium said, and expects to present a azygous motorbike soon.
Examples of wasted wealth successful the hands of well-intentioned radical are common. Mriya Aid, a radical led by an active-duty Canadian lieutenant colonel, spent astir $100,000 from donors connected high-tech U.S.-style night-vision devices. They ended up being less-effective Chinese models, interior documents show.
“We experienced a occupation with the nighttime vision,” said Lubomyr Chabursky, a unpaid connected Mriya Aid’s enactment team. But helium said the acquisition made up lone 2 percent of the group’s full expenditures.
Earlier this year, the Mozart Group, which 2 erstwhile Marines established to assistance Ukraine, disbanded aft one sued the other, alleging theft and harassment.
Absent Paper Trail
Last spring, a unpaid radical called Ripley’s Heroes said it spent astir $63,000 connected night-vision and thermal optics. Some of the instrumentality was taxable to American export restrictions because, successful the incorrect hands, it could springiness enemies a battlefield advantage.
Frontline volunteers said Ripley’s delivered the instrumentality to Ukraine without required documentation listing the existent buyers and recipients. Recently, national 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 woody documents to The Times. But those records amusement that, conscionable arsenic the volunteers said, Ripley’s was not disclosed to the State Department arsenic the buyer.
Ripley’s says it has raised implicit $1 million, immoderate of it acknowledgment to the erstwhile Connecticut contractor, Mr. Vasquez, who claimed to beryllium the group’s main strategy serviceman and promoted Ripley’s to his online audience.
Ripley’s spent astir $25,000 connected remote-control reconnaissance cars past year, but they ne'er arrived, shipping records show. Colonel Rawlings said Polish authorities held them up implicit ineligible concerns.
Colonel Rawlings has said that his radical is awaiting American nonprofit status. But helium has not revealed his spending oregon impervious of a nonprofit exertion to The Times oregon to donors who person asked. So it is not wide wherever the wealth is going. “I believed these guys,” said Shaun Stants, who said helium organized a fund-raiser successful October successful Pittsburgh but was ne'er shown the fiscal records helium asked for. “And they took maine for a fool.”
Corporate records successful Poland and the U.S. amusement that Colonel Rawlings besides started a for-profit institution called Iron Forge. In an interview, helium said helium expected his foundation and others to wage Iron Forge for transportation, meaning donor wealth would beryllium utilized to concern his backstage venture. But helium said nary struggle of involvement existed due to the fact that Iron Forge would yet nonstop wealth backmost to the charities. Details are being worked out, helium said.
In the days aft The Times approached Mr. Vasquez and others, members of the squabbling groups — Ripley’s, the Legion, the dissident Legion members and much — escalated their feud. They accused 1 different of misappropriating funds and lying astir their credentials.
After a erstwhile state turned connected Mr. Vasquez, Mr. Nance came to his defense.
“James was NOT fake, helium was troubled,” Mr. Nance said on Twitter. “He did a batch for Ukraine but has challenges to face.”
Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Berkeley, Calif., and Maria Varenikova and Daria Mitiuk from Kyiv, Ukraine.