Three days after the Russian invasion, Hannibal told me he was setting up a group of international military volunteers to fight for Ukraine.
Hannibal — who asked that Rolling Stone not reveal his name because of security concerns — had been a U.S. Army infantry officer with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He’d joined up in 2005 after graduating from Yale, done multiple deployments to Afghanistan, and after getting out of the military, he’d bounced around in a variety of communications roles.
A burly middle-aged man who switched between enthusiastic appraisals of operas to technical analysis of high explosives midsentence, he’d also spent years in Ukraine, touring the front lines of fighting in Donbass about 10 times between June 2015 and August 2017 as a military-focused writer and analyst. He felt a connection to the country and the people, in part because he had also returned to America with a well-connected Ukrainian wife.
Two days after calling to tell me of his plan, Hannibal had assembled a small team of battle-tested former elite combat officers. Two days after that, I was standing with him and his crew in an old Soviet factory building on the outskirts of Lviv, in western Ukraine. Their footsteps echoed hollowly in its large empty rooms, thick dust clinging to their clothing as they planned a crash course in guerrilla warfare.
“The defender has the advantage of being able to choose where to fight,” he told more than three dozen Ukrainian men and women assembled before him. They were intensely nervous, filled with fear about the war on their doorstep. In a mix of puffy coats, camouflage jackets, old uniforms, and New York street fashion, they were a cross section of Ukraine’s Westward-looking middle class. In the gloomy industrial space turned impromptu classroom, the Ukrainians huddled against the cold as snow began falling outside.
Hannibal paused longer than the translator needed to convey his words, before adding: “You will choose your killing ground.”
As tens of thousands of Russian soldiers poured into Ukraine at the end of February, Hannibal and his team had linked up with Ukrainian officials to help teach the average Ukrainian how to become effective partisan fighters. It was time to create a new “Lincoln Battalion,” as Hannibal called it half-jokingly, after the heavily romanticized but ultimately ineffective group of American volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War. “If you are very unlucky and alive at a moment in history,” Hannibal told me, “when your position in life and skill set mean that you can contribute usefully on the side of good in an immoral war, there’s really only one choice: to help try to end it.”
I had my doubts. The most obvious recent example of a large influx of foreign fighters, weapons, trainers, and proxies into a conflict had been during the Syrian Civil War. That hadn’t stabilized anything. But it had made the conflict more brutal: Religious extremists ran wild; spy services funded training and provided arms; the armed groups backed by foreign cash fought one another; and all the while, civilians were slaughtered in greater numbers.
Hannibal readily admitted he didn’t know how it was all going to work. But he knew his team was uniquely positioned to use its experience and training to help the Ukrainians.
“You and I both know if you get on a train to Kyiv, and you show up in Kyiv,” Hannibal told me, “there’ll be an AK for you, or a Molotov.”
By the time I made my way into Ukraine, it still wasn’t clear to me how far the government had progressed in actually trying to create a stand-alone fighting force of foreigners, or how Hannibal might fit into this picture. True, the government had issued a call, and applications appear to have flooded in from around the world. The Ukrainian government says that thousands were signing up to join the fight. But was Hannibal part of this effort? Or was he just freelancing his way into the war?
I didn’t know what to make of the small group of Americans Hannibal had enlisted to his cause. Due to ongoing security concerns, they will be identified by pseudonyms. For my generation, if you talk about a small team of soldiers of fortune that show up to help when no one else will, you immediately think of one thing. Therefore, these pseudonyms will be taken from one of the most popular television shows of the 1980s: The A-Team.
Faceman served two tours in Iraq and developed a subsequent career as an artist and actor, landing a few small but recognizable roles in popular TV series. When I first saw him, I assumed he was a burnout more familiar with getting baked on the couch than infantry tactics. I was surprised to learn he had been a decorated Marine officer. His latest project is recording a rock album on his farm in rural Michigan. He also claimed he had never smoked pot.
B.A., a former cavalry officer, also served in Iraq and conducted intelligence operations targeting insurgents. He’s now a novelist with several books under his belt. Despite the pseudonym, he’s a photographic negative of Mr. T.: laid-back, thoughtful, and anything but intimidating.
Murdock is a dead ringer for a spy, with the physique of an ultramarathoner, and the unflappable aura of a Zen master. He talked about having lived in France, so perhaps he’d been in the French Foreign Legion? But no. Murdock had no military experience. He said he was a serial entrepreneur, having started successful restaurants in Paris. Shortly before joining Hannibal’s team, he’d been on a trek in Nepal studying meditation. His now-cleared mind was coordinating logistics.
So: a chef, a novelist, an actor, and a Yalie.
Accompanying this band of middle-aged misfits was Tawnia — Hannibal’s wife. She was the factotum unlocking the doors of Ukrainian officialdom and keeping everyone on schedule. But even as she was navigating bureaucracy to help Hannibal set up his campaign, she was trying to coordinate the evacuation of her elderly parents from Kyiv.
Later, I asked Tawnia how the evacuation was going as we huddled in the entryway of the team’s borrowed apartment, taking shelter as an air-raid warning echoed down the cobblestone streets outside.
Her brother was driving them out now, she explained. “They should be here soon, I dunno. Maybe two days. There’s a lot of roadblocks.”
“And when they get here, my father-in-law is going to kill me for bringing his daughter into a war zone,” Hannibal added.
I had known Lviv before the war, and there was nothing normal about the city now. Checkpoints guarded its entrances. Soldiers, police, and random security teams patrolled with guns and yellow armbands. Public spaces have been commandeered as collection points for humanitarian supplies. Few restaurants or shops were open. Everyone was paranoid about Russian saboteurs, or paratroopers suddenly appearing overhead.
The team met its local contacts in front of a university. “I’m Taras One,” one of the translators said.
“And I’m Taras Three,” the other said. “We’re both named after the poet [Taras Shevchenko].”
“Taras Two is in Poland,” Taras One added apologetically. “Where the CTC moved just before the invasion.”
The CTC, or Combat Training Center, had been located near Lviv in western Ukraine before the Russian invasion, where NATO and its partners conducted multinational training with the Ukrainian military. Both men had worked extensively with the American military as units rotated through the CTC, teaching combined arms tactics and assisting in a modernization program of the Ukrainian military after it was proven to be largely hapless when Russia seized Crimea in 2014.
“Putin is chasing windmills,” Taras One told me. “He said he wants to ‘denazify’ Ukraine. But Ukrainians understand what he wants is to destroy us.”
Two other English speakers joined the team to coordinate training efforts. One, who asked to be identified only as Stacy, was a serving Ukrainian military officer who had been on the front lines when the invasion began. An outgoing and energetic redhead, she described taking shelter in a bunker for days of Russian artillery barrages and airstrikes that, she said, were aimed at destroying her unit: “It was not fun.”
The semicovert operation required a certain level of comfort with ambiguity, and the embodiment of that was the other English speaker: Mykyta. He had an impressive beard and dressed in “operator chic” — baseball cap, cargo pants, boots, parka, and lots of pouches — and no one could pin down any precise details about his role or background. But he could get things done.
“We need some kind of building we can train in,” Faceman said.
“OK,” Mykyta said, and made a call.
“Can we make sure the volunteers bring weapons to train with?” Hannibal asked.
“OK.” Mykyta sent a text.
Weapons, vehicles, food. Whatever. Mykyta nodded without expression, typed on his phone, and the problem was solved. Soon Hannibal’s team was standing on the roof of a Soviet-era factory in a crumbling industrial complex.
“Now just give me an army,” Faceman said, looking at the abandoned buildings with satisfaction.
“Are you going to teach us how to create a corridor so we can evacuate women and children to safety?” was one of the first questions a volunteer asked Hannibal.
That clarified what this was about. These were people desperate to learn how to defend themselves. They saw the wave of carnage, and they knew it was coming their way. They wanted someone, anyone, to teach them how to survive it.
“Some of you may have never thought you’d be in a position like this,” B.A. told the volunteers. “But more than anything . . . I want you to know that you have the advantage when the enemy comes here. Because this is your home. It is not a matter of if the resistance wins, but when.”
Looking at the 40 or so Ukrainians who showed up for the training, however, that victory seemed less than assured. The youngest was a boy “who looked like he was 14 years old,” one of the Taras said (later saying that he was in fact 16), the oldest looked to be in his sixties. They were shopkeepers and office workers, waiters and warehouse managers. Many were college students.
“I can’t find an assault rifle to buy,” one student told me. He said that the only guns available in stores were .22-caliber small-game rifles. Some of the students were using four-foot-long Mauser bolt actions. I looked at the markings on one. It was made in 1933.
By the next morning, the three instructors had the volunteers broken down into squads practicing room-clearing operations.
“The goal is to teach you the best practices, so that you will know how to counter them,” Hannibal told the Ukrainians.
After a full day of training in small-unit tactics and weapons handling, the team was back at its apartment eating tacos thrown together by Murdock. Tawnia said that word had started to spread, and the deputy governor of another province was asking whether the team could come and train his people, since a nuclear-power plant was located there.
It’s a “fuckin’ resistance academy,” B.A. said.
“You know you’re never leaving, right?” Faceman told Hannibal.
Hannibal smirked and looked at his wife, who was absorbed in her phone managing her parents’ escape.
Faceman watched closely as his two teams of four walked down the street carefully, arranged in diamond tactical position for dismounted movement.
“Don’t bunch up,” he told them. “Stay spread out. Nonverbal communication. I need people to check their sectors and communicate to the squad leader that they are clear.”
They’d been training for just a few days, but they seemed to be picking things up. They could move through danger areas in the open using only hand signals. They kept dispersion and covered one another’s advances and withdrawals. They could set up barricades and prepare an ambush.
B.A. was working with his squad, which included some older men who had military experience. He was explaining how they could make life hard for the invaders.
“And you are fighting with us, right?” asked a volunteer.
B.A. gave a careful response about being willing to provide the tools they needed for survival, but that ultimately this was their fight. It was clear the answer was “No.”
Hannibal said that based on the conversations he had with American officials, he was confident that — so long as his team restricted its activities to training volunteers for the local militia, known as the Territorial Defense Forces — he was staying in the legal gray area where he wanted to be.
And it is hard to remain a neutral participant in a war. American history — from Vietnam to Syria to Niger — is stuffed with incidents of “trainers” who wound up in the middle of the fight.
Then there’s the Nazi issue. More than three dozen nationalistic or patriotic “volunteer military formations,” or dobrobaty, have fought against Russia in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Some are the private armies of oligarchs. The defense and interior ministries have taken control of many. And some accept foreign volunteers into their ranks, or are even composed entirely of “foreigners” from former Soviet republics. One of the dobrobaty, the ultranationalist Azov Battalion, had played a decisive role in the liberation of Mariupol in 2014 — and later been accused of having Nazis in its ranks. Because there were. War junkies, white supremacists, fascists: A number of these had found their way to Azov, which resulted in the group being excluded from receiving American arms or aid as the United States ramped up its military support for Ukraine.
Azov’s reputation as a haven for the far-right played well with Russian propaganda aimed at portraying Ukraine as full of Nazis, one of the primary justifications for Putin’s war. The same day Hannibal’s team was exploring its training ground, a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry, Igor Konashenkov, told state media outlet TASS that “mercenaries” captured while fighting with Ukraine would not be treated as prisoners of war, saying “at best, they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals.”
It seemed impossible that any amount of legal caution would prevent the involvement of Americans — regardless of how they defined themselves or tried to limit their role — from becoming an inflection point in an escalating arc of war. Back in 2014, the Kremlin insisted that they had nothing to do with the “little green men” invading Crimea. No one believed them, but the fiction gave Putin cover to achieve his goals. Could this A-Team become part of a propaganda push as well?
Later in the day, as the Americans had divided the volunteers into squads and were practicing hand signals throughout the complex, Taras Three noted a man who had come in and was filming the instructors. He was gone before anyone could ascertain who he was or why he was there.
That rattled the team and the Ukrainians. There was reasonable cause for concern. Irregular, hastily formed military groups like this one have traditionally been the softest of targets for spies. A few days prior to the start of the training, according to Stacy, two Russian infiltrators had joined a group of volunteers for the Territorial Defense Force in Kyiv. When weapons were issued, the infiltrators reportedly had opened fire and killed 14 of the defenders before they ever had a chance to join the fight.
When the volunteers broke for lunch, Hannibal’s team left the training site to talk over the suspected security breach with Stacy, Mykyta, and Taras One and Three. As B.A. listened to the conversation about what the event meant and how it should be handled, he grew increasingly agitated, his chicken Kyiv untouched on his plate. Finally, he exploded in anger.
“I’m really tense right now,” B.A. said, calling for the rest of the day’s training to be canceled, so that they could address security concerns. “There may be a video circulating out there that portrays us as active U.S. military, and that is a geopolitical issue.” Biden had promised no American boots on the ground, and with good reason: U.S. and Russian troops fighting one another would mean World War III.
B.A. outlined a series of steps that would increase security for both trainers and trainees. “This is a hard conversation to have, but if we don’t address it right now, it’s going to be a shadow hanging over this thing.”
Stacy agreed: “This isn’t a game. This is military training.”
Mykyta, unreadable as always, simply nodded and started making calls. From that moment forward, the facility was secured by layers of grim-faced bruisers with loaded AKs. Anyone entering would have their identity verified, their weapons cleared of ammo, and their bags checked.
That evening I asked B.A. why he was in Ukraine, why he wanted to be involved in this war.
“It’s very evidently just,” he reflected. “You don’t have to go into a long maze of chemical weapons and tribal issues. It is a democracy — yes, with problems, but so are we. It is a sovereign country that has been invaded. And that’s wrong. Full stop.” In other words: some of the camaraderie and adrenaline and sense of purpose that comes with war, but without the moral black hole at the center of being an occupier.
“I literally didn’t know that we were independently standing up a militia,” Faceman said. “I thought it was going to be coordinated. But fuck … we are doing this on our own. We are basically creating an army.”
I thought about that army, the squads of amateur fighters moving down the street during training: law students, entrepreneurs, young men and women. I pictured them confronting one decent crew of Russian soldiers with a PKM belt-fed machine gun. I pictured bodies in the dirt.
Late one night I challenged Hannibal and Faceman about whether this wasn’t all some romanticized adventure. Were they compensating for their role in America’s dirty wars? “I have no illusions about combat, and I don’t have anything to prove about what I did in Afghanistan,” Hannibal said forcefully.
Wasn’t he concerned that former American military officers training Ukrainians could be a proximate cause for a war between NATO and Russia?
“We aren’t doing anything that NATO isn’t on a larger scale,” he said. “These volunteers are going to fight. They will do it without training, or they can do it with some training. But they’re going to do it.”
Faceman jumped in: “There will be children who die. There will be Russian soldiers who die. There will be Ukrainians who die. And the worst part of this, is that this is one man’s war.”
While the training continued, I was still trying to figure out if Ukraine’s “foreign legion” was actually being created as a military unit, or whether it was intended that the participation of foreigners be limited to the kind of volunteer civil-defense training that Hannibal was conducting.
One of Tawnia’s contacts told her that foreign fighters were indeed being allowed to enter Ukraine. A few days later, a picture of several foreigners in military kit “defending Kyiv” started circulating on social media. It appeared some foreigners were in fact taking up arms to defend Ukraine.
Hannibal told me a lot of military and “military-adjacent” people had been reaching out to him with complicated plans for getting involved.
“They’ll message me saying ‘Get in touch with this guy, and meet that guy, and get keys to this apartment, and set up transport for blah, blah, blah.…’ They’re back in the states. But we are here.”
The situation was too fluid, he said, for him to have a longer-term plan other than the immediate training program. But he was certain motivated people could get involved if they felt compelled to do so.
“That’s the truth of war. You take an incredible risk to show up to a place, they’re not gonna turn you away. If you want to participate in the war, you can,” Hannibal concluded. “That’s one of the ways you know this is a real war.”