Incompetence or the realities of war? Turmoil for Canadian-led foreign battalion in Ukraine


Ex-members say the ‘Norman Brigade’ is badly run and under-equipped. But a well-known Canadian sniper says the unit’s leader is a ‘good fighter and warrior’

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The Canadian military veteran who calls himself Hrulf says he realized after his first combat experience in Ukraine several weeks ago that he could have died, multiple times.

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Coming under small-arms, artillery and aerial fire from Russian forces was a “living hell,” he said.

But the Quebec native is now battling a different kind of foe, as he and the Norman Brigade foreign-fighter unit he commands come under serious criticism from several of the brigade’s former members.

Infantry veterans themselves, they allege that the brigade run by Hrulf — a nom-de-guerre he adopted for security reasons — is reckless, has little weaponry or protective equipment for the soldiers he recruits and no official relationship with the Ukrainian forces.

Hrulf is essentially building a “private army” with volunteers from around the world to defend the village of his Ukrainian wife and children, they charge.

“He’s endangering the lives of unsuspecting young Canadians who just want to go and see combat,” says Paul, an Ottawa-based civil servant who was the brigade second-in-command before quitting and joining Ukraine’s official International Legion. “It’s not right, it’s completely irresponsible, especially for a person claiming to be a commander.”

Like other international troops quoted in this story, Paul asked that his full name not be published for security reasons.

Hrulf strongly denies the charges, and counters that his critics simply wanted to take over the brigade, possibly for their own personal benefit.

“This is not about glory,” he says. “This is about winning the fight here.”

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And he has at least one prominent defender among foreigners in Ukraine.

Retired Canadian army sniper Wali — also a nom-de-guerre — says he briefly was part of the brigade before quitting after Hrulf suggested they settle their differences by fist fight.

But “I personally like the NB commander,” he said by email. “He is a good fighter and warrior…. We are all on the same side against Russians and that’s what matters the most.”

Regardless of who’s right, the dispute suggests foreigners eager to come to Ukraine’s defence face not just a brutal adversary, but the chaos and limited resources of a hastily formed network of international combatants.

We are all on the same side against Russians and that’s what matters the most.

Wali

The non-Ukrainian troops’ unusual role in the war was highlighted last week when fighters from the U.S., Britain and Denmark were killed in action.

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Businessman Chris Ecklund of Hamilton, Ont., who set up the FightforUkraine.ca organization to support Canadians who take up arms there, said he’s recommending that would-be defenders avoid the Norman Brigade for now, citing a “huge lack of equipment.”

“Until these things can be rectified, it’s probably not a good idea that you apply and head over.”

Ecklund said he’s always urged Canadians wishing to battle the Russian invaders to apply to the official International Legion for the Territorial Defence of Ukraine through the Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa. The Legion says more than 500 Canadians have joined via a system that screens applicants and now rejects those without combat experience.

There has been a lot of people heading over doing things they shouldn’t be doing

Chris Ecklund

But Ecklund said he regularly encounters people with little or no military background who insist on travelling to Ukraine and joining an unofficial foreign fighter unit.

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“There has been a lot of people heading over doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “Daily I’m basically talking people out of going, which to me is a success.”

Paul says the Norman Brigade lacks the kind of formal links to the Ukrainian armed forces that Ecklund recommends foreigners seek out, just a “hand-shake agreement” with local militias.

Hrulf responds that the brigade is in fact embedded with a battalion of the volunteer Ukrainian army, works with the country’s Territorial Defence Force and is well known to the Defence Ministry. Neither the ministry nor the defence attaché at Ukraine’s Ottawa embassy responded to requests for comment on the brigade.

It does seem to have developed a prominent profile internationally, mainly through a Facebook page complete with fundraising sales of T-shirts and other merchandise.

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The unit is based in a southeastern Ukrainian municipality relatively close to fierce fighting, but the National Post has agreed not to disclose the exact location for security reasons. Hrulf described to the Post how he and one other brigade member took part in a Ukrainian military operation on March 26, briefly re-capturing a village occupied by the Russians.

But five other former brigade members — men from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States who all say they’re combat veterans — each voiced concerns about how the unit was run.

Paul, 27, said he knew the commander from his time in the French Foreign Legion and organized recruitment from Canada, before travelling to Europe on April 9 with a fellow Legion veteran from B.C.

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Hrulf had been at the “front” for two months already but had done little groundwork for the volunteers Paul gathered, veterans he says have the kind of combat know-how Kyiv wants and who came to Ukraine at great personal expense, often giving up peaceful lives at home.

The two Canadians joined other Norman Brigade recruits in Poland and eventually made their way to the city in southern Ukraine that was to be their training base, shocked by how little any Ukrainian officials seem to know of the unit.

The accommodation Hrulf arranged in the city was like a “dungeon,” he said. They had to sleep on the floor and were given two meals a day — often just a thin soup — by Ukrainians who had no idea why they were there. Eventually numbering close to 30, the Norman Brigade recruits moved to a converted school house that was to be their training camp but was so drafty and damp, many of the soldiers fell ill, says Paul.

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Hrulf told them to train on Ukrainian weapons, but among almost 30 soldiers there were just seven or eight AK-47 assault rifles and a paltry 30-60 bullets per person, says John, the B.C. man.

“That is just insanity, actual suicide when you’re talking about (fighting) the Russian military.”

As Paul pushed back against the commander, Hrulf paid a visit to the training base that only heightened tensions, the critics say. He and two brigade members arrived wearing body armour, loaded rifles and grenade launchers and tried to intimidate the second-in-command into submission, say Paul, John and a South African veteran who was also there.

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At one point they discovered that Hrulf had a tattoo on his hand of a “black sun,” a symbol adopted by German Nazis and sometimes used by the Neo-fascist movement, Paul and John recalled.

“My friend James who was there literally spat on the ground in front of him … and said ‘this is everything our grandfathers fought against in the Second World War.’”

Asked about the ink work, Hrulf said he has runic, Scandinavian and a mix of Indo-European and Japanese tattoos. And he says he came heavily armed to that meeting at the base in case Russian paratroopers launched an attack behind Ukrainian lines and he met them on the three-hour drive there.

Meanwhile, others left before Paul and John even arrived because of what they called dangerous policies.

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Joe, a New Zealand infantry veteran, said he showed up with another group of mainly “green-as-grass” Canadian army reservists. Hrulf announced there were weapons for only 30 per cent of them. Those who weren’t armed were told to move closer to the front lines and dig trenches, he said.

“It was disgusting, absolutely … disgusting,” says Joe, 44, who eventually joined the International Legion.

Paul says he also ran into a group at the base who had been sent to the front unarmed to have a photograph taken for the brigade Facebook page.

Hrulf rejects the complaints about lack of equipment, while saying weaponry is in short supply throughout Ukraine’s armed forces and that the recruits were supposed to bring as much equipment as they could themselves.

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“Some of the newcomers wanted to get armed 50 kilometres behind the front line which is not realistic. There is a tight control on weapons,” he said. “If you look at other units like the Georgian Legion, they had one AK (rifle) for every three guys and they were rotating, while we had at least 80 per cent of our personnel armed.”

He said brigade members have been moved in and out of an area 50 km from the front and given equipment once they got there. On one occasion before a group returned to the training base, he asked if they would pose for a photograph and they readily agreed, the commander said.

Wali said he doesn’t believe the brigade was particularly ill-supplied.

“The NB was equipped the same way as many Ukrainian units,” the sniper said. “That means that many things Westerners take for granted are not available. That includes protective equipment, medical supplies, weapons, ammunition.”

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Regardless, it appears that by April, the unit had made a name for itself surprisingly far afield. An American infantry veteran who initially planned to join the organization said an FBI agent questioned him and a friend about their plans at the airport before they left the U.S. for Poland last month.

“They were definitely tracking the Norman Brigade,” he told the Post on the condition he remain anonymous.

Asked about the incident, the bureau’s press office said “the FBI will decline to comment” but didn’t deny the brigade is on its radar.

Paul and several other Norman Brigade recruits finally left the spartan base and joined the International Legion, an organization they’re with now and which they say is much better equipped and led.

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Hrulf challenges that notion, pointing to a text he received from other foreign fighters, saying “we left the international legion due to the incompetence of the Ukrainian officers.”

He generally bristles at suggestions of impropriety. The Quebecer says he set up the brigade to “do my part to defend Ukraine, my family and its values” but said his wife and children are not currently in his operations area.

Paul and the others, though, insist Hrulf is recruiting fighters worldwide for what is essentially a personal crusade.

“It’s him trying to create his own private army to defend himself and his family, quite honestly,” the Ottawa resident said. “He’s setting himself up as some kind of wacky Eastern European commander.”

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