The Briton, who has joined a controversial Ukrainian military unit, says he is ready to spend next year defending against the Russian invasion – and has not been deterred by the captivity of other Britons.
Mark Ayres spent the last two months in Ukraine after joining the Azov Regiment, which has far-right origins, insisting that he challenged some members because of their beliefs, and those he met were not “monsters and lunatics.”
A 47-year-old veteran of the British Army who has a teenage son in the UK, first talked to Sky News when he arrived in Ukraine in early March, despite having no ties to the country.
Since then, Mr. Ayres says he helped the Azov Regiment defend the city of Bucha, where Russia is accused of war crimes with mass killings and torture, rapes and killings of civilians.
He has now been told he must wait in Kyiv to sign a contract with the Ukrainian army before engaging in any further hostilities after several Britons were captured by Vladimir Putin’s troops.
Mr Ayres, who had previously traveled to Syria to join the fight against Islamic State, said he had “no problem” with spending the next 18 months in Ukraine “until the fighting stops”.
He told Sky News: “I hope to return home – not in a corpse bag – whole.
“I have no problems with a year and a half (in Ukraine).
“If (Putin’s) operation went according to plan, Moldova would be next, and then he would look at other countries, and then, perhaps, he would put pressure on NATO, who knows.”
“They are not monsters or psychics”
Mr Ayres says he had reservations about joining the Azov Regiment, which emerged as a far-right paramilitary unit and is now part of Ukraine’s National Guard.
The Kremlin used the regiment’s history to substantiate its claim about the need to “denationalize” Ukraine.
However, Ed Arnold, a European security researcher at the RUSI defense think tank, told Sky News that the Azov military group had “taken steps to break away from its far-right ties”.
Who are the Azov Regiment?
The Azov Regiment (or Brigade) was formed as a volunteer combat group in May 2014, shortly after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
They fought Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region and helped recapture the southern port city of Mariupol after it was temporarily captured by the Russians that year.
Taking their name from the Sea of Azov off the coast of Mariupol, they originally consisted of members of the ultranationalist group Patriot of Ukraine and the neo-Nazi Social Group of the National Assembly (SNA).
Both have ties to neo-Nazism and white supremacy, but in 2015 a group spokesman said only 10 to 20% of recruits were Nazis.
They denied adherence to Nazi ideology in general, but still use symbols such as the swastika and SS regalia.
After the recapture of Mariupol in November 2014, the then President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko praised the unit and allowed it to integrate into the National Guard of Ukraine.
The group received government support after officials realized the military was too small to fight the separatists on its own.
Although they are mostly based from Mariupol and serve in the south and east, they have been deployed elsewhere.
In January 2018, they set up their self-proclaimed “street patrol” unit in Kyiv, which led to attacks on LGBTQ members and Roma communities.
In a 2016 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Azov Regiment was accused of violating humanitarian law.
They were banned by Facebook under its “dangerous group” policy before the Russian invasion in February this year.
Analysts said that after many years of working with the military, they have made efforts to distance themselves from far-right ideologies.
Vladimir Putin, however, used their Nazi ties to justify the Russian invasion, calling it a “special operation to denationalize Ukraine.”
And in March, the President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelenskywho is a Jew, the commander of Azov was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine.
Mr Aires told Sky News: “I accidentally joined the Azov unit. It would have been my last choice of unit I went to, but I’m very glad I did.
“They’re not the monsters and psychics I would imagine myself to be neo-Nazis, I mean, they’re not all like that.
“A lot of them are decent guys, only with stupid looks.
“I tell my friend, ‘I don’t understand how you can say you’re a neo-Nazi if you’re a decent guy with decent morals.’ And he said, “Well, I’m not quite …”
“It’s just the way they play it. They’re passionate about wanting to belong to something that catches them in. It’s so stupid.”
Mr Ayres said one member of his campaign was a “Ukrainian Jew”.
“It’s probably some kind of psyche in the battalion, but I haven’t met anyone yet,” he added.
“I don’t think I will be very tortured or killed.”
Mr Ayres said he knows there is a “possibility” that he could be captured by Russian troops, but he believes the Briton means he is likely to survive because he will be “very valuable “.
He added: “I would probably be brutally shot, interrogated and the like, but I don’t think I will be severely tortured … or killed.”
Mr Ayres said he knew Aiden Aslin personally, one of them two British fighters captured by Russian troops in Ukraine – because they were both in Syria at the same time.
Two British aid workers were also seizedwhile an army veteran Scott Sibley was the first known British citizen to die in the war in Ukraine.
Mr Ayres, who previously served in the Royal Green Jackets before being fired after being convicted of robbery, said joining the war in Ukraine was “like becoming a soldier again”.
“I was on two operations (in Ukraine),” he said.
“With Bucha we were on the right flank across the river, holding positions, and our left flank attacked and squeezed them out of Bucha.
“This is very heavy artillery. Major battles.
“I didn’t see any fighting, it was just artillery. He was simply defeated by artillery. “
He added: “If you are really shelled, you can die at any moment – just enough to hit the projectile.
“I wouldn’t say I was scared. You know what could happen.”
“One weirdo fired an anti-tank missile in his room”
Mr Ayres, who is originally from London but lives in Bedford, said he believes his unit is no longer willing to accept Western volunteers with a lack of military experience.
“They don’t want people to come and then just train and equip, and then just get selected,” he added.
“I think there was one weirdo who fired an anti-tank missile into his room and besieged himself.
“Just problems. They always cause problems. “
The Foreign Office has warned that Britons traveling to Ukraine to fight could be prosecuted for returning to the UK.
However, Mr Ayres said those seeking prosecution “will not have a foot to stand on” after statement by Foreign Minister Liz Trass who supported the British who wanted to go to Ukraine to fight.
He said he had previously been arrested after returning from Syria three times, but no further action was encountered.
“I’m still just focused on what’s going on here, but I don’t think it’s going to have any consequences,” Mr Ayres added.
Mr Ayres said he was now in an apartment building in Kyiv, and his unit had moved to eastern Ukraine to counter Russian troops.
“Everything is pre-war now. Everyone returns to Kyiv. Everything goes.
“It used to be like a ghost town.”
He added that every two to three weeks he manages to talk to his 16-year-old son.
Asked how his son felt about his father joining Ukraine, he said: “I don’t really say.
“I get only one word of answer from him … he’s at that age.”