Interview of British Mercenary Aiden Aslin: profile of a foolish and naive young man involved in grave war crimes

Graham Phillips, “Exclusive Interview – Aiden Aslin – British Man Fighting for Ukraine, Captured in Donbass, Mariupol” (19 April 2022)

Early in the Russian intervention in Ukraine that began in late February 2022, Russian forces besieged the city of Mariupol in Donetsk Oblast on the southeast Ukrainian coast bordering the Sea of Azov. By early March, Mariupol was completely surrounded by Russian forces and by mid-April, the Russians had full control of the city. Several hundred Ukrainian soldiers were either captured or had surrendered to the Russians and one of these soldiers turned out to be British mercenary Aiden Aslin, at the time in the process of gaining Ukrainian citizenship. While in the custody of the authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aslin was visited and interviewed by British journalist Graham Phillips who happens to be from the same part of Britain (Nottinghamshire) as Aslin.

Phillips does not say why he chose (or was chosen, as it turns out) to interview Aslin, nor does he say what he aimed for while interviewing Aslin. The interview is preceded by a brief conversation between the two during which Aslin agrees with Phillips that he is not under pressure or any other kind of compulsion or order to say what he says during the interview. Among the things Phillips asks Aslin about are the usual topics: Aslin’s own background and the incidents and events in his life that led him to go to Ukraine in 2018 and to join the Ukrainian army; what Aslin did in the Ukrainian army and what he had been doing at the time of his capture; what Aslin observed of the behaviour of the Ukrainian soldiers towards their Russian enemies and Ukrainian civilians; and Aslin’s own views on his treatment by the Russians since his capture. Aslin admits to having fought with the YPG in north-eastern Syria during the recent conflict against ISIS and other Western-backed extremist groups. Aslin was then apparently influenced by someone he met to go to Ukraine and fight with Ukrainian forces there. When asked what he was doing in the Ukrainian army, Aslin replies that at the time of his capture he had been working with a mortar company preparing artillery for use by other soldiers to fire at Russian soldiers – and Ukrainian civilians. On being questioned about what he observed of the behaviour and actions of the Ukrainian soldiers, Aslin replies that they behave brutally and thuggishly. (Aslin even mentions having tried to desert from the Ukrainian army due to its soldiers’ conduct towards civilians.) By contrast, his treatment by Russian soldiers is humane.

During his questioning, Aslin comes across as a foolish young man who was easily influenced by others to do things that might later result in tragedy or at the very least severe and permanent consequences for him. The astonishing thing is that even before he left Britain for Syria, he seems to have been quite socially aware and to have realised that Crimea had returned to Russia of its own accord through popular referendum and that the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics had genuine grievances against the Ukrainian government. Moreover Aslin is aware that Azov Battalion is a neo-Nazi organisation: he describes individual Azov Battalion fighters as thugs and mentions seeing Croatians among them. He is aware of Ukrainian hero-worship of the notorious Nazi collaborator and Ukrainian ultra-nationalist Stepan Bandera. Why then he would willingly work with these people and even help them kill others by making and supplying them with mortar weapons against his better judgement is very puzzling and defies belief.

For his part, Phillips seems quite disdainful of Aslin and at times during the interview speaks down to Aslin as if the soldier were a child. The answers that Aslin gives Phillips do come across as self-serving and evasive, and the soldier seems willing to do anything to save his own skin. Both the journalist and the mercenary have skin in this game: Phillips has seen many close friends and acquaintances affected, even maimed or killed, by the actions of fighters and mercenaries like Aslin over the eight years he has worked and travelled in the Donbass and Crimea among other places in and around Russia; and Aslin has a Ukrainian wife and in-laws who support the Ukrainian government and armed forces. Phillips reminds Aslin that he (Aslin) is under the authority of the Donetsk People’s Republic and if he is tried and convicted under that republic’s laws, the death penalty awaits him as a mercenary. Aslin naively hopes to be part of a prisoner swap between Russia and Britain and to be able to return to Britain and his family, not realising perhaps that while undergoing the process of becoming a Ukrainian citizen he would have had to give up British citizenship. Ukrainian law forbids dual citizenship.

At the end of the interview Phillips is perhaps no closer to understanding what drove and motivated Aslin to do what he did against his own best interests – and against what he knew was right if his answers are to be believed – than the journalist was at the beginning. We remain in the dark about what really motivated Aslin to go to Syria and then to Ukraine. In some ways the interview is very disappointing: there is not much indication that Aslin is fully aware of what he has done or what really awaits him. What the future holds for mercenaries like Aslin is very uncertain: I should think at the very least, Aslin will be charged with war crimes and be convicted by a tribunal in Russia, and he will have to endure whatever punishment is given him. After he does his time, he will be better off staying in Russia and finding his own place that will allow him to live in peace. He has done enough foolish adventuring and helped cause unnecessary suffering.

Certain things that Aslin mentions in his interview – for instance, the fact that his Twitter account is being handled by a Canadian, and his meeting with someone in Syria who suggests he go to Ukraine – suggest that he was manipulated by strangers who may have been working directly or indirectly for Western intelligence agencies. These agencies could well threaten Aslin’s life were he to return to Britain. One fears that the consequences of past foolish actions by Aslin will fall on him and his family hard and heavily.