2023.03.18 10:00

‘The fight starts inside’. Why are Lithuanian volunteers drawn to war in Ukraine?

For some, the war in Ukraine is not only a struggle against an invasion but also a battle against one’s inner darkness, past traumas, and the banality of life. Albertas Glazauskas, likely the first Lithuanian to pick up a weapon on February 25 to defend Kyiv, is one of them. 

The footage is chaotic, shaky. His voice is pulsating with adrenaline, nervous; the others are shouting. Take the machine gun, says one man. Where are the magazines, asks another. Albertas is standing next to a garbage truck loaded with guns. It’s February 25, and the Russians are advancing on Kyiv. Nothing is certain. This is Ukraine’s most precarious moment.

With the push of his fingers, he loads bullets into the AK magazine. Others all around him, dressed in tracksuits, jeans, and puffy, colourful jackets, are doing the same. They are mere civilians, hoping to stop armoured columns. These images will become synonymous with the cry of “total defence” announced by Kyiv officials at the dawn of the invasion.

“Nobody was handing out those weapons in the street, it just happened that everybody was nervous, there was an air-raid alert, and the women who were supposed to process everything from the headquarters, they went downstairs to the bunker,” says Albertas. “And these men like me gathered, saw the Kamaz, and said let’s run and get the guns.”

His adventure through the war had begun.

We met in December 2022, ten months into Russia’s three-day war. “This was the situation then, chaos, we thought that that was it, Russian tanks were on their way to Kyiv.”

The story of foreign fighters in Ukraine is often wrought with heroic last stands, adventures, and combat. But for some, it is an endless grind. As much as it is a struggle to fend off genocide, it can also be a fight to find themselves and – ultimately – meaning in life.

“I feel that I am at war with my ego, with past conflicts, with ulterior motives. The fight does not start on the battlefield but inside, inside everyone,” he says.

Friendly fire

We first got in touch in late February, when the fate of Kyiv – and Ukraine – hung in the balance. He manned a barricade in the capital’s north.

“I will leave the key under the doormat – just in case,” he wrote to me on the Telegram app. It was a time when people kept even their phones unlocked. If they died, their brothers-in-arms could call their families.

“If you find black bread where you are, could you buy some,” he wrote. The food and cigarette shortage had gripped the city.

Albertas is Lithuanian, yet speaks with a slight British accent after having spent most of his teenage and adult years in England’s west county. He was born in St Petersburg to a Russian mother and a Lithuanian father, a sailor from Klaipėda.

After a few months in Russia, he moved back to the Lithuanian coast. Later, in his teenage years, he was particularly drawn to militarism and World War Two reenactments. Then, he even mulled joining the fight against ISIS in Syria.

“When they sent me a list of questions, about 50 questions – what’s your motivation, what will you do after the war – they said answer them and we’ll see if you’re a good fit for us or not,” he says. “I read it and didn’t even try to answer because I realised it wasn’t my war. There was a lot of ideology.”

Amid called-off military adventures in Syria, he also stayed put during Ukraine’s Maidan, the war in Donbas, and the abortive Belarusian revolution. He was stricken by guilt for “having done nothing”. This is what brought him to Ukraine in December 2021, convinced that a full-scale war was imminent.

“I had a feeling there was going to be a war. I wanted to be involved somehow but I didn’t know how or where. When I was in the UK and went to Ukraine, I imagined what I would do. I just didn’t know where, how, or with whom.”

In the first among several interviews he gave to Lithuanian media, Albertas maintained an image of someone caught up, accidentally, in the war. He claimed to have arrived for medical tourism in Ukraine, only to see the war begin a few weeks later. He did get his teeth done, but that was just a facade.

“Things looked different then. I just created and maintained the image of a good, simple boy, which ended up here accidentally,” he says.

He also feared seeing his rifle taken away if others found out he was Lithuanian. “I made up a legend that I’m from Kherson, my name is Albert, I’ve been living here for half a year, I teach English in a private school, and I lost my passport.”

At the time, foreign volunteers were not yet invited to Ukraine by the president, who issued the call on February 27. For several days, Albertas tried to get drafted into the military to no avail. But in the first days of the full-scale war, few people cared who held a gun as long as it was aimed at the Russians.

Unwittingly, Albertas found himself at the centre of the first street battles in Kyiv. On the morning of February 24, a military column made up of several trucks and armoured troop transports was ambushed. Bullets poured at them seemingly from every window and street of the Obolon suburb in northern Kyiv.

Stricken with panic, the trucks and armoured vehicles swerved around traffic, crashing into a civilian car and sidewalks. As the column came to a standstill, several men fell from the vehicles and onto the street. Then, Ukrainian soldiers approached, executing them with close-range shots.

At the time, Kyiv officials alleged that the military column was made up of Russian troops dressed in Ukrainian uniform, which would have been a war crime.

Although publicly unconfirmed, at least several people with sources close to the Ukrainian intelligence services said it was a lie – the executed men were Ukrainian soldiers who took a wrong turn on the road north to face the Russians.

Moments before they were all killed, Albertas filmed them from atop a bridge making their war across the Ukrainian capital. The chaos was paramount – the idea that Russian forward units were already inside Kyiv was palpable.

“We both were looking at each other for around two seconds as he was passing,” Albertas wrote a day later on Facebook. “At that time, nobody really knew how many more of them there could be in the whole district.”

Like everyone else, he thought they were Russian soldiers; he thought he had stared them in the eyes.

Rumours spread that more tanks were already on the streets of northern Kyiv. Albertas found himself among thousands of regular men and women who took up arms to protect their city blocks.

His first fighting position was underneath the same bridge, where he was paired up with a woman brandishing a shotgun. Albertas was named the number two. “What does number two mean? [The commander] says if she is killed or injured, take the gun from her. I said okay.”

A rocket launcher was laying beside them.“She told me that we must stop ‘the Russian tanks’ if they will attempt to go over that bridge back again,” Albertas wrote then.

More anxious waiting followed. Albertas was patrolling streets, manning checkpoints, and sleeping in shelters. Everyone waited for the final assault on Kyiv to begin, as Ukrainian troops were battling Russia on the outskirts.

His messages on Facebook and Telegram became curt and steadfast as Russia began their failed encirclement of the capital. Rumours spread that the city was already blockaded.

“February 27. Kyiv. Evening,” wrote Albertas. “We are prepared.”

Looking for a fight

But the tanks never rolled into Kyiv. The sense of urgency began to fade. War was grinding on in the northern outskirts of Kyiv, in Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, but without Albertas.

In early March, Albertas handed his rifle back and focused on medical training. Thus began his odyssey to find a place to serve, to be useful.

At one point, he became a guard at a strategic object. It was “bloody boring”, he admitted in one of the many Facebook posts that followed. Then, he started transforming his medical and sports rehabilitation background into tactical medicine skills and became an instructor.

Later, he joined a Lithuanian team who were mostly teaching Ukrainian troops in Lviv and Kyiv. As the group split amid internal quarrels, he also parted ways together with two more Lithuanians. After weeks of being idle, they no longer fancied the idea of merely teaching.

After all, they never fired a shot during the battle for Kyiv. “We wanted to go to the frontline,” says Albertas.

But they ran headfirst into Ukraine’s byzantine bureaucracy and corruption, including attempts to extract a bribe in exchange for accepting them into the army. Anecdotal evidence suggests such racketeering would later become more common in Ukraine, as enlistment remained one of the few sources of income in an economy wrecked by Russia’s war. For Albertas, months-long delays and false promises followed.

“We wanted to join the National Guard and were promised that we would be accepted. There were a lot of promises from people, but they didn’t do anything,” he says. “We were planning to go to Nikolayev [in southern Ukraine], a Russian who has been fighting here since 2014 was planning to take us into his battalion, but then he cancelled.”

His chance to see combat finally arrived when he joined a special detachment of the Territorial Defence Force. The group began preparing for battle. But once the route to the frontline was seemingly open, he opted out. Albertas says he felt out of place.

“Everybody had problems with alcohol. There were different groups – normal people and those that weren’t normal, and I ended up with them. Their leader [...] still lives in the Soviet Union. I left.”

According to one person who served alongside Albertas, he kept getting in trouble for failing to adhere to military discipline and routine, which Albertas denies, saying there were internal squabbles. “I understood it wasn’t for me,” Albertas says.

The two Lithuanian volunteers who remained at the battalion were later injured.

Between ideology and adventure

What strikes from his Facebook posts, which have become a blog for his English-speaking audience, is the odd, joyful tone. Sometimes his testimonies even appear like snapshots from the life of an adventurer, a traveller.

“I wanted to be a hero,” Albertas concedes. There’s him smiling aboard an ambulance, while another post shows several daily snapshots from life under partial siege.

“I’m running this Facebook mini-blog because I also want to draw attention to Ukraine. A lot of people in Europe are tired of it. I write in English, and the image of a simple, homely, good boy is what everybody likes most,” he adds.

The profile of an international volunteer is often one of a glory hunter or a profiteer. Ukraine has also seen a fair share of them. They are also among the first to turn back. Albertas assures he is not one of them.

A 2020 report by the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis categorised foreign volunteers, including those from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who fought in Donbas. Some were adventurers, others from political fringes. Many more had the almost theological belief that Europe’s fate depends on the war in Ukraine.

Albertas, arguably, seems to fit into the group of people looking for a purpose in life, a chance to answer a just call.

“I’ve found myself, I feel needed here. I can’t even imagine what it will be like to live in another country when I return,” he says. “I just don’t want to. I have somehow realised what I have been missing for a long time.”

That something, it seems, was war. “Before, life felt like it was without salt,” he adds.

Albertas values his freedom above else. One day he is at the barracks, the next he is sipping coffee in downtown Kyiv. This is partly why, at last, he landed at the Kalinowski Regiment, a Belarusian unit.

There, as a medical specialist, an instructor, and an occasional help at the frontline, he can balance duty with his free-form routine. He has also grown fond of the Belarusians, who continue their fight against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime here in Ukraine.

“[Belarusians] are tougher than Ukrainians. When I got here, the first month felt like paradise,” says Albertas. He had always been drawn to revolutions, where “youths” build a nation from scratch, he says.

Finally, Albertas felt at the right place, at the right time.

“They know a lot of history, past and present, of their own country, Ukraine, Europe, the Baltic states. There is a lot to talk about, but in the Ukrainian units, it is more about the salary, they are just passing time. Nobody wants to die in the units I was in.”

Grasping the threshold

At times, Albertas seems oblivious to the threat of death, as shown by his decision to take up arms in the early hours of the invasion. However, he backs down once the real, actual possibility of dying becomes real. This duality continues to stalk him, including when the decision comes whether to dive headfirst into combat or stay out.

“I was at the frontline in early September. You see, my health is difficult, I couldn’t have been there long,” he says. “I have more use here, I have management skills. I would soon lose my alertness and strength there.”

Once, we met in October, just days after the first blackouts rolled across Ukraine. It was just the first step in Russia’s campaign against Ukraine’s infrastructure and morale. It was also the first time since the start of the war that I saw Albertas look exhausted.

“Then I thought I would quit, I would at least go to England for a few months, to rest,” he says several months later. “Now, I don’t want to. I was planning to go to Lithuania for the New Year, [...] but I didn’t want to leave because I don’t want to lose that rhythm.”

This rhythm is what keeps those in Ukraine from returning home. At least not the professional soldiers, who know when their service ends, and home begins.

“I feel that we are one, but when you leave, there is a risk of losing that pace, that sense of rhythm,” he says. “I’m afraid it will be hard to come back and I won’t want it anymore.”

One Polish volunteer recalled to me how he continued fighting without a break, fearing that a trip home would mean he wouldn’t come back. The comforts of home, he said, could be overwhelming. But as he kept rolling the dice, his turn eventually came. He was killed in December last year.

“A month ago, I was under a lot of stress. I took a day off, rented an apartment, bought a bottle of vodka, and got drunk,” Albertas says, adding that he normally doesn’t drink.

“I lay in bed and recorded a few video messages to the last person I was in contact with. I started to say how good it was there, to thank him for something, he thought I was dying, that I was on drugs,” he adds.

Albertas smirks as he tells this story, showing little embarrassment and, at times, gleaming over the apparent absurdity of his actions. “They started looking for me, searched for me half the night.”

But they still couldn’t reach him. “I woke up in the morning, they didn’t have anything bad to say to me, just said they were very worried. I was impressed that they cared so much.”

A few weeks later, he checked in at a private psychiatric clinic. Another month later, he was back on duty.

The history of psychological problems, which he doesn’t elaborate on, as well as the night goose chase after a vodka bottle would amount to serious red flags in other militaries. In Ukraine, however, untreated or ignored PTSD and mental illnesses are becoming the new normal.

Asked whether he was afraid he would be kicked out because of the incident, he chuckles: “If they would do it just because of that, they would have to let go half of the army.”

Some are using alcohol or drugs, he adds. “Because how else. Now, I’ve started taking antidepressants, but it’s not working so far. The war has been going on for [a year], everyone is very tired.”

Outside a Kyiv cafe one evening in early 2023, Albertas takes his bag, opens it, and pulls out a grenade. He laughs, with a childish smirk that he often carries when speaking about something uncomfortable, brave, stupid, or all of the above.

This sparks the discussion that I felt we have never properly had – one of his relationship with death and, importantly, where and who is the real Albertas.

I am interested in your relationship with death. Now, we find out that you have a grenade in your backpack. Do you like to feel the presence of death nearby?

The adrenaline, it’s wow.

Then why are you carrying that grenade?

Well, you never know, saboteurs or something.

In Kyiv?

Yeah, why not? You never know.

(Belarusian volunteers often carry personal weapons to protect themselves from KGB and Russian agents.)

I think it’s more of a philosophical question. What’s your relationship with death?

I was a Christian for a long time, then, I became an atheist. My relationship with death is simple – I will end up where I came from, from nowhere, from nothingness.

What happens when the leaves fall in autumn – they rot, they decay, they make this compost and they make a life for new organisms. So do we. We have some kind of energy that will go out and make something new after death.

I made up my mind when it was the first day of the war when I went to the military commissariat. In the evening, I walked around the flat for half an hour, trying to decide whether to go or not to go. Then, I went. [...] I decided everything for myself already.

I don’t care about myself. I don’t care about the world, about civilian life, it’s crap. It’s simpler in war. You meet someone, and maybe you see them for the last time. That feeling makes everything stronger, all relationships and friendships. People are real here. But in civilian life, it’s all intrigue, jealousy, people forget what real friendship means.

So, you had lost the meaning of life before this war started?

I was indifferent, I didn’t give a damn, there was no point in living. Now, I have found meaning in the war, I know what I am living for, I know that someone needs me, it turns out that I can help someone.

If this war hadn’t started, my life would have ended one way or another. [...] I used to like to drive at 200 kilometres per hour, so either I would have died that way or another way, I had no meaning in life.

Do you seem to like that feeling of death breathing down your neck?

Yeah, yeah, adrenaline.

But is it really adrenaline? Or is it the feeling that death is always around?

I also like that, it’s like a drug, better than any drug. And many people feel it, including other soldiers I talked to. Not all of them admit it, they say they are fighting for freedom, for Ukraine.

They [foreigners who] go to all kinds of countries to fight, they talk about that feeling of adrenaline when you are on the verge – here’s life, and here’s [death], that’s it. When you get close to that threshold, it’s like a kind of drug.

But with that attitude, you get the impression that you would have to be in Bakhmut [Donbas] the whole year?

Yeah, I’m not in Bachmut, I’m protecting myself, I’m clever, I don’t go there.

It is paradoxical.

It is a paradox, yes. They don’t send me there, and I keep myself safe. I want to stay alive. It's a paradox at the same time.

So who, among these paradoxes, is the real Albertas? What do you get from being here?

I have two Albertas living in me, one who is talking to you right now, a boy of 15 or 16. And there is a second Albertas, who is 40 years old and who can, if he wants to, kill anybody in a second. I am talking about the enemy.

Somehow I’m now trying to connect the two Albertas inside, to get rid of that young man, but not to become some kind of maniac.

Maybe the war is ….

A school of life.

... a chance to become more mature, to prove something to someone?

Yes, to myself.

Is it really just to yourself?

Well, of course, plus Facebook. I take selfies, my friends send me likes (Albertas laughs).

What do you get out of it?

It’s like a drug of sorts. [...] How long has the war been going on?

A year, almost, eleven months.

I feel like I’ve aged 11 years inside.

So, maybe that’s what you were looking for?

Yeah. I also fell in love with Ukraine from the very first day.

I never cease to be amazed by your duality. You can say that you like to be close to death, but at the same time, you like to be safe. You can also say that Ukraine is full of fools, but at the same time, you say that you love it. Is it just the way you are?

That’s my kind of character. I can be very good, but if I am very angry, I can blow up this whole bar.

But is it then healthy to be with a grenade, or with a gun in your hands at all?

Yes, it is. If you ask around, and anyone in the regiment will prove it, they will tell you that Albertas could not kill a fly. Don’t be afraid.


After ditching the idea of staying on the frontlines, he is now responsible for teaching combat medicine to the recruits at the Kalinowski Regiment. Soldiers and commanders say they are grateful for his professional knowledge and tireless support.

A month after our last conversation, Albertas decided to get rid of his grenade at a shooting range. It didn’t explode.

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