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«Ukrainians' courage may appear suicidal to foreigners» — Commander Harulf of the Norman Brigade

Today’s interlocutor is Harulf, who is a Canadian, a soldier, and the commander of the Norman Brigade.

«Ukrainians' courage may appear suicidal to foreigners» — Commander Harulf of the Norman Brigade
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Oleh Klymchuk: Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, the English language podcast from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. I am Oleh Klymchuk, and I’ll be talking to Harulf, who is a Canadian, a soldier, and the commander of the Norman Brigade. And he is going to tell us why he and his guys have been fighting with the Russian aggressors in Ukraine since 2017, what drives him most in this war, and how Harulf’s perception of Ukrainians has been changing.

Bonjour Harulf, ça va?

Harulf: Bonjour Oleh, merci.

«I travelled here, and I just wanted to help»

Oleh Klymchuk: Harulf, since when have you been in Ukraine?

Harulf: I started to get involved in 2017. So at the time, I remember we met because you were our point of contact. So the goal was basically to have an idea of what was going on in Ukraine. So, 2017, I remember we had a common friend that was serving with me in the French Foreign Legion, if you remember well. And I saw a lot of Ukrainians come into the French Foreign Legion, and I had a lot of recruits under my orders that were talking about a war. So, I travelled here, and I just wanted to help. Most of my intentions were to help, but also to understand this conflict, the roots of the conflict in general. So yeah, 2017 would be my first interaction here in Ukraine.

Oleh Klymchuk: Why did you decide to fight against Russian intruders? What does drive you most in your motivation?

Harulf: So at the time, back in 2017, I just wanted to understand and also to get involved for justice. Things have changed since 2017 and I became a father. So basically, I’m fighting for my daughter. She’s my sole motivation, but also for friends. I learned to know people, I’ve made friends here. Some of them became brothers. Yeah, it’s literally for family, love and justice, basically. It’s the most corny, it’s the cheesiest reasons, but this is what it is.

Oleh Klymchuk: Harulf, are you a fighter of the International Brigade, or it is correct to say that you are a fighter of the Norman Brigade?

Harulf: Yes, I am the commander of this unit.

«We were just a bunch of Normans, very motivated, but it changed»

Oleh Klymchuk: May you tell please, what ideas stood behind its creation and about the origin of its name?

Harulf: So originally, we were just a bunch of Canadians of Norman ancestry. So back in the days, I would say in 1500s and 1600s, settlers left the Duchy of Normandy to settle in what was at the time New France. So remember, France is a confederation of small little countries, you know, Aquitaine, Brittany and Normandy, for instance. So the settlers obviously settled in Canada and the Normans, we always had a tumultuous relationship, I would say, with history. So we’ve been those kinds of people who wouldn’t understand their story, where they come from. And we were conscious about the military legacy and the type of combativity we were transposing on the battlefield. It’s something that we have in us, and this is something we’re proud of.

So the name would come from the small, like the original founders were just Canadians of Norman ancestry. Now, why we decided to start this unit originally, we were kind of neutral. So back in 2019, we didn’t have the whole understanding of really what was going on because of Russia and their propaganda. They were very efficient at pushing false narratives. They were very efficient at shuffling the cards, basically. So what we tried to do is we just wanted to create a peacekeeping force that would go on the front line and that would help the populations on both sides of the front line. And we were always about peace, but we knew that we would have to carry weapons because the Russians obviously cannot, you cannot count on their words. And at the time we’re conscious about this. And yeah, it started as a humanitarian initiative, but we never got activated. We never deployed as a humanitarian force or peacekeeping force. First, for lack of political support and secondly, for lack of resources.

Some people in Ukraine understood what we were trying to do, but we were probably the only ones who didn’t know how useless it was going to be.

Oleh Klymchuk: One more question about the Norman Brigade. Your first soldiers were from Québec. Does it mean you accept Québec as mainly Normans?

Harulf: No. The Normans, we have an history of being very inclusive. When it started, we were just a bunch of Normans, very motivated, but it changed. It took an international shape with time, right? And I remember when the full-scale invasion started, I have an acquaintance that was living in Donetsk Oblast. And he told me, hey, be careful because your daughter will become Russian soon. And it kind of hit me in the feels. I didn’t want her to become a slave. And what I did is I called the kind of gathering council and I said, okay, guys, this is the situation. Do you vote for activating Norman Brigade as a combat unit? And 100% of us voted to be a combat unit. So what I did is I prepared different things and different equipment in Europe. And then we made our way to Ukraine. And this is where the story starts.

As I said, we never deployed in a humanitarian format. When we deployed on the battlefield as a combat unit, one of our first operation was in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. And we stormed Novozlatopil’, which is close to Uspenivka, Malynivka. And we tagged along the 81st Air Mobile Assault Brigade. They invited us to join them. But the original unit we joined was the Українська добровольча армія (Ukrainian Volunteer Army), which is UDA. And yeah, we were just doing freedom fighting.

Not getting paid without really any contract binding us to anything. But we had to follow the rules of war, obviously. And we were taking legitimate orders from ZSU officers and our commanders to carry on task and to kill the invader.

You may also read or listen on Hromadske Radio: «Everybody in this country and beyond its borders are involved in this war» — Canadian lawyer and soldier in Ukraine’s territorial defense Daniel Bilak

«Lady from Novozlatopil’ told me in her broken English, what are you doing here?»

Oleh Klymchuk: Harulf, how would you describe the attitude towards you from Ukrainian soldiers and officers? Has it changed since 2017?

Harulf: Look, in 2017, I believe they were very sceptical. Because if you don’t have roots in this country, how can you be really determined to fight? So there was, I think, a little bit of, not even suspicion, just like, do you have what it takes to do the job right. And then when we came in 2022, everybody was like, you guys are crazy. And everybody ran for Kyiv. And us, we just ran for Dnipro, because we knew the fight would be in the East, like the most important fight. You know, Kyiv, 900,000 people, they were giving guns and equipment like it was, I don’t know, some free meals or something. I don’t know how to put that together. So yeah, we ran for Dnipro. We met with people that were part of the operational commander. And we were welcomed. I think it was a moral booster. And this is because everybody was just running to save Kyiv. Nobody was going in East and we were the first one to just be like, OK, f this thing, let’s go, we go.

Oleh Klymchuk: Do you remember the words the Ukrainians told you when you liberated citizen villages? How did they accept you? Were they puzzled when you spoke French or English?

Harulf: When we stormed the Novozlatopil’, I was communicating, most of the Ukrainians I was communicating with, it was by hand signs with the other soldiers. The officers knew how to speak English. And then when I met the civilian population, they saw my flag because I was wearing a Canadian flag, this Canadian flag that you see here. And I did not talk to anybody because Canadian soldiers and most of NATO soldiers usually were not really encouraged to speak with the local population. Either someone could slip with the information or anything. And I really, I didn’t want to endanger more this Ukrainian unit because we had to go back to our staging area and our positions.

And if the Russians would get the information that they have Canadians there and everything, maybe they would have deployed more capabilities. So this was my trail of thought. And then this lady, I remember this lady, and she told me in her broken English, what are you doing here? And she made like the sign of the cross, and she offered me water, and she was crying. She was like, thank you.

Oleh Klymchuk: Where was it?

Harulf: Novozlatopil’.

«We were encouraged to just join a regular Ukrainian brigade»

Oleh Klymchuk: Harulf, you are in war for nearly five years.

Harulf: On and off because I had responsibilities in other countries. I was a service member, obviously of another type of army. And then yeah, when I came here to Ukraine in 2002, I didn’t leave. I’ve been involved in the fight in making sure that I take care of politics when it comes to being able to deploy Norman Brigade with a Ukrainian unit. Because we cannot do whatever we want in this country. There are laws, there are a format, operational format that you must follow.

And you must take legitimate orders from the Ukrainian chain of command. So it’s always a little bit of politics, but I think I got better with this with time. Because honestly, I’m not a guy who’s gonna talk much or try to influence events basically to achieve something. It’s more like, okay, we are here to fight and let’s go. If you want, you want, if you don’t want, we move somewhere else. And this is basically the situation that had been going on with some other foreign teams. It’s a reality. It’s no big deal. We’ll always find a home at the end of the day.

Oleh Klymchuk: Has the Norman Brigade become an integral part of the armed forces of Ukraine?

Harulf: We did at one point. And after some inconsistencies with the paperwork. So this was due to lack of understanding on a legal format. It was a new thing for the Ukrainians. Because previously we were, the foreigners were encouraged to join the International Legion. What they call the GUR legion (it’s correct). So it’s like another foreign branch ran by the main intelligence directorate of Ukraine. And there was us. Norman Brigade was part of UDA, Українська добровольча армія (Ukrainian Volunteer Army). And we were kind of an anomaly in the system because we didn’t want to be under contract. We were not getting paid for this. We were just there to fight for freedom.

Oleh Klymchuk: Were there attempts to push you into a union with the International Brigade?

Harulf: We were encouraged to just join a regular Ukrainian brigade. Not the International Legion, not the GUR legion (correct:). We had a couple offers, but it didn’t really fit the type of doctrinal approach that we wanted to bring on the battlefield. So I would say December 2022, this is when we signed our first contract in Odesa. And yeah, I think there was just a lack of understanding of what could be next. I think it was their first time that they were handling such a high number of foreigners. Usually the Ukrainians, they like to send 10, 15 guys in this unit, 10, 15 guys in the other unit. I think it mitigates the liability. If a whole group of foreigners, for instance, due to language barrier make a mistake on the battlefield, it’s less worse to lose 15 guys than to lose 150 guys for language barrier mistake, for instance.

«I hope this war will not take 5 more years, but if it does maybe this brotherhood will get the size of a brigade»

Oleh Klymchuk: Has it been long before you get used to the Soviet style weaponry and ammunition?

Harulf: When we talk about the weapons platform, no, not really. Especially for the Americans because they have the AK platform. There’s always some… It was like one of the most exportable weapons at the time, I think. So some people knew, but we had to go through a refresh. There were other Soviet platforms that we didn’t really know, but it all comes down to the same thing and effect, basically. So it didn’t take quite a long time. There were more technical things, technical weapon system like the AGS, for instance. But other than that, it was pretty straightforward, really.

Oleh Klymchuk: Does your brigade consist of infantry, mainly?

Harulf: Yes. Now, I want to clarify: when people say brigade, we’re not the size of a brigade.

Oleh Klymchuk: Ah I see, okay.

Harulf: It’s the name of the unit, Normanska Brigada, but when you look at the military culture in the world, you know, if you go on the Spanish-speaking side, a brigada can be a small unit, heavily armed, you know, twenty-five, thirty people. But also, we thought that it could be a long war and we were like okay, we can preemptively know, like, name this Norman brigade as Norman Brigade, but we just wanted to have the same capabilities concentrated in a smaller force, you know, like artillery, mortar, vehicles, armour support and everything, it’s possible to have such task force with everything you would find in a brigade but on a smaller scale. And also, we thought that it was a brotherhood and people would come and go, and maybe in five years, I hope this war will not take five more years, but if it does maybe this brotherhood will get the size of a brigade if God wills it, but, you know.

«What have the Norman Brigade learned from Ukrainians»

Oleh Klymchuk: What have you learned from Ukrainians and what have you taught them during this time?

Harulf: So, we have the front approach, okay? The Ukrainians fight for their land, this is the thing. So I can understand them because I have roots in- strong roots in this country, or strong reason to fight. So, the Ukrainians, they have this crazy courage that most of foreigners would think it’s almost like suicidal, basically. But if you understand the roots of this conflict, you understand why they have this mindset of «it’s all or nothing, ” it’s. You know, this is what we saw, like, the sheer courage, the sheer determination to the point where it was getting sometimes a little bit suicidal, as I said. Now, when us, we came, we- we tried to adapt different style of warfare because you would have the conventional warfare, you would have guerilla warfare, and there was always this combined arm aspect where you would use different capabilities to achieve your goal. And the Ukrainians, because of the high stake of mobilisation, didn’t have time to- to train and prepare such professionals in a very efficient manner, right? So, at first it was very chaotic, so, so, we saw them mastering the skills the best they could but what we teach them was how to use the new weapons systems, like analogue javelins…

Oleh Klymchuk: And you were able to use it already, weren’t you?

Harulf: So, we were already used to it because our doctrine was based on these weapons- weapons platform. Also, some tactical, you know, things when it comes to conduct some operations. I’m not saying we were better or less better than them, we just have a different approach, a different mindset. Now, I met two different types of officers: you have the new school officers, who had been in contact with the NATO-

Oleh Klymchuk: You mean from the Ukrainian side?

Harulf: Yeah, yeah, from the Ukrainian side. We had been in contact with the NATO education that they had back in the days in Yavoriv (a city in the West of Ukraine where a drill base is situated**) in 2014, ‘15, etcetera, etcetera. You had also the hardline officers that came from the Soviet background who were either trying to open their mind to it or there was just like, okay no, I have a mission to do, this is the resource that I have, and I can only answer two orders and respect them and they didn’t have this open mindset, flexibility type of thing. Things are starting to change, but we are losing our best. This is also what Ukraine also must realise. We are losing very, very good people. We, like the West, should start pulling their fingers out of their nose and start giving us what we need. More than just a few things there and there. Now this is very important. We could talk a lot about this, how discontent I am with the support that the West is giving or not giving, but they should stop thinking about escalation and, „oh there’s a risk of escalation.“ Things already escalated in 2014. If people don’t see it, now there’s- there’s a problem. Now there’s where the Russian propaganda comes into play, how they have been poisoning the perception of good people who probably think that they should come first before helping Ukraine, for instance. If we lose here, it’s done. Like it’s gonna be a terrible, terrible era for the world if Russia succeeds in Ukraine. So, please, contact your local politicians and tell them to send whatever they can as fast as possible. We must win this.

How to join the Norman Brigade

Oleh Klymchuk: About those guys and girls willing to join the Norman Brigade, how can they find you, and how do you find them?

Harulf: So, there are two ways. We have the local way, I would say, where people know some people that used to or are serving with us. So, they take contact with us, they show a proof of identity, a proof of service and we can take it from there. Now the- the main, I would say, recruitment channel is they can find us on Facebook. You know, we have an admin there, so we have an admin there that takes the information- well the initial informations; if they have military experience, if they- you know, what speciality they have, and then we move to a secure channel where they can put their informations. So, now, right now, it’s a good time because we are moving under contract, because we’ve been moving from, you know, being contracted to going back to there, now, we’ve been contracted again, so it is paid, this is a- you know, this is the same pay rate, I would say, as any frontline fighters, we have a nice support, we have a nice operational format and we’re still looking for good professionals who are willing to fight. We are willing to develop new ideas because this is what we’re looking for, like, good talents, because, you know, war, it’s an art, this is what people have to remember. It’s not only a butchering. So, this is what it is, we’re looking for artists.

Oleh Klymchuk: Did you think over the brigade’s future? How do you see its prospects?

Harulf: It will depend of what the Ukrainians want. We will adapt. Obviously I would like it to be a permanent model of foreign integration into the military armed forces. I think it’s ambitious but at the same time, it’s not too far-fetched. Obviously, with my experience with international soldiers while I was serving in the international- sorry, French Foreign Legion, there’s a format of integration that has been proven to work and if we adapted only to Ukrainian integration for foreigners, it’s totally doable and we can achieve a high level of professionalism, if we take the time to implement this kind of system. So, this is what I see, an area of elite and efficient force that would be able to assist Ukraine for the next decades. Because I will not be here forever, right? So, I think someone at one point will continue this legacy, the legacy of the Normans.

Harulf/Norman Brigade

Oleh Klymchuk: I see a medal on your uniform. Will you tell what is it for?

Harulf: It’s the medal Brother to Brother. It was created by, I would say, a joint foundations of volunteers and Prykarpattia defense headquarters who are related in- to Azov, and also, I’m not sure if they are still related to them but UNA-UNSO (УНА-УНСО*), because when they created this medal it was supported, I would say, carried by the foreign fighters of Azov. So, the first foreign fighters to receive this medal was in 2016 for what they had done in 2015, and they were from the Azov regiment, Azov unit back in the days, and those people, especially Iryna Forostyan, was the co-initiator of this medal, started to award this again in 2023. So as far as I know, people in the International Legion, some of them received it. We’re about 200 people who received this medal.

Oleh Klymchuk: I suppose some soldiers from the Norman Brigade were awarded with it, too.

Harulf: So, some of our fighters have received it, and I had also decided to, with also with recommendation to award a few Ukrainians who had been supporting us for quite a long time and they had been sacrificing their own comfort to make sure that when we came, we had like a roof over our heads or they were supporting us on the battlefield. They fought with us, alongside us, so a few fighters from Tretii Battalion, Volyn from UDA received it. One member of the Ukrainian Resistance, from Lviv, received it and we awarded also two Hospitallers also who have received it. So yeah, it’s for sacrifice. A lot of us have sacrificed, you know, family, even our lives. When we talk about posthumously, we talk about Joshua Jones and Clayton Hightower. They were awarded this medal also for sacrifice. They lost their lives while being, serving with the International Legion. But they were still Normans, this is the aspect of the Norman Brigade. It’s a brotherhood. If you earn the right to be part of this brotherhood, you know, it’s for life.

You may also read or listen on Hromadske Radio: Ukrainian soldier Maksym Sviezhentsev: «You have to accept that you can die, and this acceptance makes you stronger»

I’m here until we win or we die

Oleh Klymchuk: Your brigade, and you as its commander, had suffered losses. Did you talk with the relatives of the deceased? Did they ask if it was worth losing life in Ukraine, or the relatives of the fallen soldiers do not put questions like this?

Harulf: So, I’ve talked with the family of Clayton and Joshua, and the- I’m not even sure how to put that in word because it’s still hard. I remember Joshua’s mother, she was so heartbroken, she had lost her baby, she was very – look, she’s a mother. She had very harsh word[s] in general for this war. Josh[‘s] dad was more – he understood, he’s an American patriot. He understood. He came from a military background, and he said, „Boys, you’re doing the right thing, never stop. Don’t stop what you’re doing.“ Clayton Hightower family. T’was also like this. We had heartbroken people who were cursing the whole world for their loss, and I sympathize with them, I understand. And you had also other members, they just said, „Look, don’t stop. We have to win. We have to win. This is a fight for the free world.“ So this is the kind of conversation that I had with the family, to put it simply.

Oleh Klymchuk: What do your Canadian relatives tell you? Do you communicate?

Harulf: Come back, I’m not, well, not until, not until win, or we die. It’s simple.

Transcribed by Caitilín O’Hare and Oleh Klymchuk

Listen to the full interview, turning on the audio player at the top of the page


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