told the Russian News Agency that foreign fighters would not be considered soldiers, but mercenaries, and would not be protected under humanitarian rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.

“At best, they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals,” Mr. Konashenkov said. We are urging all foreign citizens who may have plans to go and fight for Kyiv’s nationalist regime to think a dozen times before getting on the way.”

Despite the risks — both individual and strategic — the United States government has so far been measured in its warnings. Asked during a news conference this week what he would tell Americans who want to fight in Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken pointed to official statements, first issued weeks ago, imploring U.S. citizens in the country to depart immediately.

He said: “For those who want to help Ukraine and help its people, there are many ways to do that, including by supporting and helping the many NGOs that are working to provide humanitarian assistance; providing resources themselves to groups that are trying to help Ukraine by being advocates for Ukraine and for peaceful resolution to this crisis that was created by Russia.”

That has not dissuaded a number of veterans who are all too familiar with the risks of combat.

James was a medic who first saw combat when he replaced another medic killed in fighting in Iraq in 2006. He did two more tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing so much blood and death that 10 years after leaving the military he still attends therapy at a veteran’s hospital.

But this week, as he watched Russian forces shell cities across Ukraine, he decided that he had to try to go there to help.

“Combat has a cost, that’s for sure; you think you can come back from war the same, but you can’t,” James said in a phone interview from his home in Dallas, where he said he was waiting to hear back from Ukrainian officials. “But I feel obligated. It’s the innocent people being attacked — the kids. It’s the kids, man. I just can’t stand by.”

Chase, a graduate student in Virginia, said that he volunteered to fight the Islamic State in Syria in 2019 and felt the same urgency for Ukraine, but he warned against simply going to the border without a plan.

In Syria, he said he knew well-meaning volunteers who were detained for weeks by local Kurdish authorities because they arrived unannounced. He arranged with Kurdish defense forces before arriving in Syria. There he spent months as a humble foot soldier with little pay and only basic rations.

Tactically, as an inexperienced grunt, he said, he was of little value. But to the people of northeastern Syria, he was a powerful symbol that the world was with them.

“I was a sign to them that the world was watching and they mattered,” he said.

A few months into his time in Syria, he was shot in the leg, and eventually returned to the United States. He came home and worked for a septic tank company, then got a job writing about used cars. When he saw explosions hitting Ukraine this week, the part of him that went to war three years ago reawakened.

“Everything here is just kind of empty and it doesn’t seem like I’m doing anything important,” he said in an interview from an extended-stay hotel in Virginia where he is living. “So I am trying to go. I don’t think I have a choice. You have to draw the line.”

Michael Crowley contributed reporting.

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