Are Western Spooks Backing a New 'Ukrainian White Helmets? Al Mayadeen investigates
A new attempt is made by Western mercenaries to fuel the fight in Ukraine further under the guise of "humanitarian assistance," former Western soldiers and mercenaries are at the forefront of such operations.
A British mercenary with alleged ties to the US intelligence services is working to establish a version of the pseudo-humanitarian White Helmets in Ukraine.
Macer Gifford, who has previously fought with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syriac Military Council is crowdfunding for supplies which he says are bound for the frontline.
“On the 27th of February, President Zelensky formally called for International Volunteers from around the world to assist his country. The people of Ukraine need our support and they need it NOW!,” his appeal page declares.
Gifford aims to raise at least £15,000 that he says will enable him “to create a fast response medical team, staffed by international volunteers, that will deploy to the frontline within the next month.”
He plans to emulate his experiences in northern Syria where as well as fighting ISIS, he established a medical team and provided training to mercenary forces and locals there. But he is clear that this will not merely be a humanitarian mission.
“The terrain, the particular needs of the Ukrainian military, and the enemy that we'll be fighting mean that we'll have to bring the very best equipment with us,” he writes, indicating that he is recruiting people to take part in combat against Russia.
His own Twitter page appears to support this, sharing posts on how to sign-up for the Ukrainian armed forces following Zelensky’s plea for international support. He made similar appeals during a BBC radio debate with one of the leaders of Britain’s Stop the War Coalition John Rees who described the call for volunteers to fight as “ludicrous” and dangerous.
Gifford’s organization aims to join the fight against Russia under the guise of humanitarian intervention, a model that has been used before.“I want to be absolutely clear here, the ambition is to create a Ukrainian version of the White Helmets,” Gifford states, a reference to the notorious group operating in Syria.
Also known as the Syrian Civil Defence force, the White Helmets poses as a humanitarian organization, however, is linked to both jihadist groups and western military and intelligence services. Set up by former British Army officer James Le Mesurier it has received millions in funding from the US, British, and other western governments, acting as a front for regime change operations.
Predictably, criticism of the White Helmets is dismissed as propaganda and smears led by the Syrian and Russian governments. But the White Helmets operate in jihadist-held areas and have its buildings situated next to the Islamists headquarters in many Syrian cities.
The group has been involved in a series of controversies and some of its members have been shown to be supporters of Al Qaeda and other Salafist organizations. It has been accused of staging chemical attacks, most notably in Douma, to pave the way for western military intervention in Syria.
Fears that a White Helmets-style operation could be deployed in Ukraine for similar purposes have long been praised by critics. Gifford - whose real name is Harry - hails from a wealthy part of rural Cambridgeshire. Prior to his military adventurism, he served as a Tory councilor and city currency trader.
He has openly boasted of meetings with the US and British intelligence services and has briefed government officials on the situation in Syria, pleading for increased military support. Using his connections he tried to drum up support for the YPG and attended meetings with financiers in Switzerland, the FBI in New York, and inside the British parliament.
“I’ve been to the Carlton Club [a private Conservative club in central London], you would not believe, so many times,” he said.
“But it’s important to get the message across. It’s so intensely frustrating to be out there, to be on the frontline and see the success and then see politics hold back people’s hand,” he told The Guardian newspaper in a 2016 interview.
Gifford now openly encourages British military volunteers to follow him and join “the defense of Ukraine.”
His Twitter feed sees him glorify what he describes as “a British sniper” posing with a weapon and fatigues bearing the logo of what appears to be the ultranationalist Right Sector.
Photographs appear to show members of his organization delivering training to Ukrainian soldiers in an unknown location. In video footage, he claims that he and his partner are off to train the Ukrainian police force.
His operation works under the name Nightingale Squadron, its flashy logo emblazoned on the side of an expensive Landrover Freelander vehicle seen loaded with aid packages.
While to westerners the name may seem innocent enough, it has chilling connotations for those in Lviv, evoking the name of the unit that collaborated with the Nazis, sending tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust.
The Nachtigall Battalion/Nightingale Battalion was founded in 1941 and came under the control of Stepan Bandera’s Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists.
Most of its members formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, while 14 of them joined the SS Galicia Division in 1943.
The Simon Wiesensthal Centre says the Nightingale Battalion was in Lviv and collaborated with the Nazis between June 30 and July 3 of 1941 when 4,000 Jews were massacred. Its descendants can be found in the far-right forces now operating in Ukraine that have been involved in the massacre of Russian speakers and pogroms against Jews.
Gifford shot to prominence in Britain having served in northern Syria in the fight against ISIS.
A notorious self-publicist who seeks to further his career in politics, Gifford published an “Andy McNab-style” book, Fighting Evil in 2019 describing his experiences in the region.
His treatment is a stark contrast to the working-class volunteers, many of whom served alongside him in Raqqa and other key battles on the frontline.
The large majority have faced arrest, surveillance, and the threat of prison on their return to Britain while Gifford has escaped similar scrutiny.
By contrast, Gifford roams freely between parliament, TV studios, and radio stations that fall over themselves to amplify his voice.
Many of his YPG peers have privately voiced suspicions that Gifford is a state agent.
He certainly fits the mould and has the contacts. Politically right-wing with conservative values, he can be relied on to trash the antiwar movement and opponents of the Tory government along with the political establishment.
And there are obvious similarities between Gifford and the man he seeks to emulate, White Helmets founder Le Mesurier who died in suspicious circumstances in Istanbul in 2019.
In many ways, he is the perfect candidate to establish a “Ukrainian White Helmets” which those on the ground have long-suspected of being an international operation.
Other former YPG fighters are also getting in on the act. Gifford’s comrade in arms, former British paratrooper and veteran of the Afghanistan war Daniel Burke, has set up a similar operation which he announced last week.
He has established what he described as an NGO named “Dark Angels of Ukraine,” although the background to this is unclear.
Burke, who was discharged from the army for fighting, said he had set up the NGO “because other NGOs or international military units tend to go to war against each other to show who is best.”
Dark Angels of Ukraine exists to provide humanitarian relief and training to the military and is already known to be operating inside Ukraine. The activities of the unit, which appears to be made up of military veterans include “moving logistical requirements such as food, water, and medicine to refugee centers and military units.” Their vehicle rescued a couple stranded somewhere in Ukraine and enabled them to return to France.
“It was on this trip that we had christened our truck the "Dark Angel" since our backgrounds as veterans lends our expertise to the Territorial Defence Forces,” the fundraising page says.
The group is there to “protect the freedoms that we all hold so dearly from our homelands here in Ukraine,” it declares.
Burke is in many ways the opposite of Gifford.
A trained soldier he was motivated to join the fight against ISIS in Syria after the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing in which 22 people died following an attack on an Ariana Grande concert.
During his time in Syria, Burke photographed and retrieved documents and hard drives that he passed onto the British counter-terror experts, and maps, which he handed to US special forces.
This led to accusations by the YPG that he was a British spy and he was interrogated for days before he eventually convinced them otherwise.
Unlike Gifford, Burke came to the attention of security services, spending eight months in prison after he was charged with terror offenses, although his case was later dropped.
According to social media networks, many former YPG volunteers have joined the ranks of the international mercenary fighters in Ukraine.
It is not clear exactly how many have traveled to the country, however, Nottinghamshire care worker Aiden Aslin - also known as Cossack Gundi - surrendered to Russian forces in Mariupol last month.
He insists that he is not a foreign mercenary and, like fellow Brit Shaun Pinner, was a member of the regular Ukrainian armed forces having signed up in 2018.
Russia claims that thousands of foreign mercenaries have entered Ukraine and accuses NATO and the west of shipping weapons and equipment via civilian rail and transport networks.
As the war drags on, the profits of the arms companies continue to rise and western efforts to weaken Russia continue while peace looks to be further away than ever.
"It is quite conceivable for a Ukrainian White Helmets to play the same role as its Syrian counterparts; a major anti-Russian propaganda offensive, staged events, and the triggering of incidents to pave the way for NATO intervention."