A decorated Ukrainian commander has urged Volodymyr Zelenskiy to intervene in the case of a British soldier who has been sentenced to 12 months in jail after deserting his unit to go to fight in Ukraine.
Alexander Garms-Rizzi, 21, slipped away from his regiment while it was deployed in Estonia and joined Ukraine’s foreign legion. He spent six months fighting on the frontline near the southern city of Mykolaiv before returning to the UK.
In July, he became the first British soldier to be imprisoned for deserting the army and signing up with Ukraine’s armed forces. He had defied orders and created a “security risk”, a tribunal was told.
Roman Kostenko, a politician and special forces colonel, said Garms-Rizzi had served in Ukraine under his personal command. The soldier – part of an infantry regiment – was one of 10 foreign volunteers who in spring 2022 helped Kostenko beat back a Russian advance around Mykolaiv.
“He arrived soon after the full-scale invasion. Even though he was young, he was an accomplished soldier,” Kostenko said. “He spoke fluent Russian and served as a translator. He shared his military experience with us, including on how to use foreign-made weapons.”
Garms-Rizzi – whose mother is Russian – was “straightforward” when asked why he had volunteered to defend Ukraine, Kostenko said. “He considered he was fighting against a great evil. We had many conversations about this. It was a difficult moment, early in the war. He spent two months with us.”
Kostenko is a deputy for the pro-European Golos party and chair of the Ukrainian parliament’s intelligence committee. He has written to Zelenskiy and asked him to raise Garms-Rizzi’s imprisonment with Downing Street.
“The unit he joined bravely and professionally performed combat missions in the south of Ukraine together with Ukrainian defenders,” the letter reads.
It continues: “I had the opportunity to meet him personally on the battlefield and watch how he, as part of a group, selflessly and bravely defended our lands. Despite his young age, and at that time he was 19 years old, he understood the strategic importance of defending Ukraine.
“I ask you to appeal to the leadership of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland with a request to consider the possibility of a pardon.”
On Friday, Kostenko raised the case in person with Boris Johnson, the former UK prime minister, who had travelled to Kyiv for an international conference. The commander has tabled a motion in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, urging Zelenskiy to act. A vote is likely to take place soon.
Kostenko acknowledged that the soldier had broken UK military law but said Garms-Rizzi’s actions were morally justifiable, at a time when Russia was bombing peaceful cities and murdering civilians. “His choice was right, from the point of view of humanity,” Kostenko said. His presence in Ukraine had a positive effect on frontline morale, he added.
“It’s bad for Britain if Ukraine loses this war. When volunteers from the UK and US stand with us on the battlefield we feel the whole world supports us. They are representatives of democratic countries. This is more important to us than Himars [long-range artillery] or rockets.”
Garms-Rizzi is serving his sentence in a military detention centre. “The order not to go to Ukraine could not have been clearer. The order was there to protect British forces and the state from being dragged into the conflict,” the judge advocate general, Darren Reed, told him.
If Zelenskiy raises the case, it could prove awkward for the UK government. Garms-Rizzi deserted in March 2022. At the time, Liz Truss – then foreign secretary – backed Britons travelling to Ukraine to fight against Russia. “I do support that. That’s something people can make their own decision about,” she told the BBC.
Some of the British volunteers who went to Ukraine ended up in Russian detention. They included Shaun Pinner, Aiden Aslin, John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill, all of whom were released last year as part of a prisoner swap.
Others have been killed. Samuel Newey, a 22-year-old from Solihull, died last month. A former Scots guard, 31-year-old Jordan Chadwick from Burnley in Lancashire, was found dead in water, with his hands bound behind his back. Other British nationals continue to fight.
The tribunal in July heard that Garms-Rizzi was absent without leave for nearly six months. When his unit managed to contact him, the soldier, who lived in Russia until the age of 12 and had Ukrainian friends, admitted he had gone to join the war. He was arrested when he returned to Dover.
According to the Telegraph, Garms-Rizzi, from Tidworth Barracks, Wiltshire, told the hearing: “My mother is Russian. If I go back to Russia [to see her] I will be sentenced to the gulag. I can’t see anyone in Russia. [I went because] my friends were getting killed. I have Ukrainian friends from school who I met in Russia. I think I did the right thing.”
As he sentenced him and dismissed him from the army, Reed told Garms-Rizzi his actions were “deliberate and premeditated”.
“You lived in Russia until you were 12 years old and spent summers there after leaving. You felt morally it was the right course of action to support the cause. You are clearly an intelligent and thoughtful young man. You made no pretence of covering up what you had done.”
The judge concluded: “Those who serve do not have a choice about lawful orders they obey. The order not to go to Ukraine could not have been clearer. The order was there to protect British forces and the state from being dragged into the conflict.”
Approached for comment, a British army spokesperson said: “Serving personnel have a duty to the UK armed forces. They are not authorised to be absent and to join foreign services while serving the colours.”