A British man who travelled to Ukraine to join the military fight against Russia’s invasion says he left the warzone amid fears he was facing a “suicide mission”.
Ben Spann told Sky News he did not tell his wife or 16-year-old son that he was going to Ukraine to take up arms despite the fact he has never served in the military and has no ties to the war-torn country.
The 36-year-old, from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, said he spent five days in a safe house in western Ukraine with four ex-British soldiers – and at one point had a gun pointed at his head after the property was searched by a “Ukrainian SWAT team”.
He also claimed he saw the bodies of two dead Russian soldiers propped up at a checkpoint “as a warning” to Vladimir Putin’s army.
The Foreign Office has told Britons who travel to Ukraine to fight in the conflict that they could be prosecuted, after the British Army confirmed a number of serving soldiers had gone AWOL and may have travelled there.
Entering Ukraine warzone without family’s knowledge
Mr Spann, who runs an anti-knife crime charity having previously been involved in growing cannabis, told Sky News he wanted to help defend Ukraine because he believed “it was the right thing to do” but admits it was “an absolute nightmare”.
He said he told his family he was flying to Poland to help with the aid effort for Ukrainian refugees but in fact he intended to “go there and fight”.
After boarding his flight from Stansted to Szczecin in Poland on 2 March, he said he met four ex-British soldiers who planned to “join the resistance” and he decided to enter Ukraine with them.
After landing in Poland, the group travelled by coach before walking across the border into Ukraine in -6C temperatures in the early hours of the morning, Mr Spann said.
They stayed at a “tiny” safe house which had no beds or running water in western Ukraine with several other volunteers, he added.
Mr Spann told Sky News: “It was like walking into a crack den in England to be honest with you.
“That was a bit of a shock thinking: ‘F****** hell, this is the reality’.”
Mr Spann said the group expected transport to arrive at the safe house on their third day in Ukraine so they could collect weapons but it failed to turn up.
‘We sat there with AK-47s pointed at our heads’
That evening, he said there was a knock on the door of the property and “10 members of a Ukrainian SWAT team” stormed in.
Mr Spann said: “One of our snipers who opened the door got pinned back into the wall opposite him by two ballistic shields.
“We sat there with AK-47s pointed at our heads for 20-30 minutes, with our hands on our heads, whilst they searched everywhere and we were being sort of interrogated.
“One lad refused point blank to turn around. He said: ‘If you’re going to shoot me, I want you to look me in the eye when you shoot me.’ It was a surreal moment.
“Once we managed to defuse the situation and they understood the reasons we were there, the whole atmosphere changed.”
Bodies of Russian soldiers ‘propped up as warning’
Because the group had not signed up to Ukraine’s “foreign legion” of fighters before entering Ukraine, Mr Spann said four armed officials later turned up at the property and took photos of their passports.
He said the next day they travelled to a weapons base and saw the bodies of two dead Russian soldiers at a checkpoint “propped up, sat upright with their hats over their faces”.
“This was a warning to the Russians,” he added.
“It was an eye-opener. It made you realise that things are getting real.”
‘My son was doubting whether I even cared about him’
Mr Spann said the group returned to the safe house having failed to receive any weapons and he was feeling increasingly “vulnerable” as air raid sirens went off in their location.
On his fifth day in Ukraine, Mr Spann said he was getting “real grief” from his wife and son – who were now aware he had entered the warzone – and the four ex-British soldiers had decided to travel to another part of the country.
“I became quite close to these guys,” he said.
“We were prepared to go and fight and basically die together, if that was what happened. You quickly form a bond with people in those situations.
“At that point, I was getting some real grief off my wife and my son.
“My son was doubting whether I even cared about him, why I was doing this – same with my wife.”
Mr Spann said he thought the prospect of travelling to a more dangerous part of Ukraine without weapons “was a bit of a suicide mission”.
“As these guys made the decision to venture further into the country, I made the decision to go back to the border,” he added.
‘My wife was pretty p***** off’
Mr Spann said he travelled back to the Polish border where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees have fled to.
“People were pushing and shoving. Kids were screaming and crying. It was snowing. It was cold. My feet were like ice,” he said.
“I dread to think what some of these kids and babies were feeling. They must have been freezing.
“It reminded me of a cattle market to be honest… the tension was high.
“People had been there for hours and just wanted to get across.”
Mr Spann said he slept on the floor of a refugee centre before travelling to the Polish city of Lublin and then flew back to the UK.
After he had left Ukraine, he said his wife’s emotions turned from “worry to anger”.
“My wife was pretty p***** off saying she was going to kick me out and this, that and the other,” Mr Spann said.
“She’s okay now. I’ve been with her for 19 years.
“My son’s okay. He never went through the anger process. I just think he was happy and glad I was back out of there.”
Will Britons be prosecuted for going to Ukraine to fight Russian troops?
- The Foreign Office has told Britons: “If you travel to Ukraine to fight, or to assist others engaged in the conflict, your activities may amount to offences against UK legislation and you could be prosecuted on your return to the UK.”
- The Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 bans Britons from fighting in the “military or naval service of any foreign state” that is at war with a country that the UK is “at peace” with.
- As of February 11, the Foreign Office has advised Britons against all travel to the whole of Ukraine and has urged British nationals to leave the war-torn country.
- The British Army has said all service personnel are banned from travelling to Ukraine.
- The Metropolitan Police have reportedly warned officers they will face disciplinary action if they travel to Ukraine to help fight the invading Russian army.
- There have been questions about the legality of Britons going abroad to fight in previous foreign conflicts.
- In 2014, the Crown Prosecution Service warned that UK nationals who went to fight in the Syrian civil war could be committing an offence, even if they joined the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
However Mr Spann, who founded the charity Change Your Life Put Down Your Knife, said he now “regrets” leaving Ukraine.
“I have no regrets at all for going, but I have regrets for leaving,” he added.
“I regret leaving those lads. I don’t know how much use I would have been for them but I feel like I let them down a little bit.
“I do wish I was still there to be honest.
“I know they’re safe and they got to their destination safely so it does make me think I would have been safe and maybe I shouldn’t have left.”
Mr Spann said he would consider returning to Ukraine during the conflict but believes people without military experience “can be more of a burden”.
“I wouldn’t recommend non-military people going out there,” he said.
“I think you can be more of a burden for these guys and the resources they have got out there.
“I would say I would go back – that’s probably the ego side of me.
“The little voice in my head would be thinking I’d be more of a drain on them.”