Poca Wander / Getty Images; Arif Qazi / Insider
- A US veteran went to fight in Ukraine but has defected to Russia.
- Those who fought with him in Ukraine told Insider he was unstable and erratic on the battlefield.
- His time in Ukraine calls into question the vetting processes of the country’s International Legion.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, scores of foreign fighters flocked to help defend the country.
Among them was John McIntyre, a 25-year-old American veteran nicknamed Johnny Alabama, or Bama, by his fellow fighters who took up arms and joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine.
Videos show the American among the uniformed fighters on the ground calling out, “God bless Ukraine,” and, “Fuck you, Russia.”
Then he switched sides.
In February 2022, McIntyre was sitting in a restaurant in Moscow and talking to a journalist from the Russian state-controlled network RT about his decision to defect from Ukraine to Russia.
McIntyre is the first known foreign fighter to have crossed enemy lines to join Russia. In the RT interview, he claimed that he went to Ukraine with the intention to defect all along.
But two legionnaires who directly worked with McIntyre told Insider he was an erratic and unstable person who wreaked havoc in Ukraine and was pushed out of the legion before he decided to defect.
—Gonzalo Lira (@GonzaloLira1968) March 1, 2023
They painted a picture of a troubled man who at least once excessively drank alcohol whilst fighting and urinated in an army vehicle, defaced Ukrainian guard posts, and was eventually barred from handling weapons because he was deemed a danger to himself and others.
Malcolm Nance, a former US Navy officer and counterterrorism expert who joined Ukraine’s International Legion in the early days of the war and has since become a recognizable face of foreign fighters in Ukraine, said McIntyre caused issues from the beginning.
“Bama is a highly unstable character,” Nance told Insider. “Bama was known to be a professional fuckup and mentally ill.”
He added: “We used to say crazy with a capital K.”
While the fighters who spoke with Insider cited McIntyre’s mental state while talking about his actions, mental illness alone does not necessarily indicate combat-readiness, and the legionnaires are not professionally qualified to assess a person’s psychological status.
Malcolm Nance, a former United States Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer and intelligence and foreign policy analyst. He is currently in the 3rd Battalion International Legion in Ukraine.
Little is known about McIntyre’s background, but he’s originally from Mobile, Alabama, attended Lincoln County High School in Lafayette, Tennessee, and then went into military training at Fort Bliss, Texas.
He served in the US Army as an indirect-fire infantryman from June 2015 to August 2017 but was never deployed and left the service as a private first class, Madison Bonzo, a US Army spokesperson, told Insider.
The US military was unable to confirm which type of discharge he received, or any information about medical or personnel actions related to him because of federal privacy laws. Insider was unable to reach McIntyre.
The retired Marine Elliot Smith — not his real name, as he was granted anonymity so he could speak freely — was second in command of McIntyre’s platoon and met him in April, soon after they both joined the war.
McIntyre “initially gave a good impression,” Smith said, but cracks started to show as they got closer to the battlefield and began to face the threat of death.
“One night, he confided in me that he saw the ghost of a dog that he had killed,” Smith said. “So I thought, ‘OK, maybe he’s not all there.'”
The warning signs continued, as McIntyre told Smith that he was wanted by the FBI for threatening to kill personnel at the White House, Smith. Insider has been unable to verify the validity of this claim.
“As time went on, he confided to me that he had converted to Islam and that he was planning to do a jihad,” Smith told Insider.
Nance, who worked as the chief of intelligence of the battalion, said that he was brought many reports of similar outlandish claims made by McIntyre.
“I think he was a mentally disturbed man who was looking for a place of notoriety to fit in,” Nance said.
Smith offered a similar assessment of McIntyre.
“What I got from Johnny, and this is reflected in his behavior in our unit all the way to him leaving for Russia, was that he was just looking for people to pay attention to him,” he said.
McIntyre and Smith’s unit was fighting in Molodova, a village near Kharkiv, after Ukraine recaptured it in May. With the Russians furious that they had lost hold of the village, the fighters often found themselves under attack.
A destroyed market seen in Saltivka, near Molodova in Kharkiv, on April 29, 2022.
Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
That, Smith said, is when the real cracks in McIntyre’s abilities started to show.
Smith said McIntyre loaded his machine gun upside down and that while he was running through the forest dodging artillery fire, he “physically showed that he was not capable of combat.”
When on the retreat, Smith said he and another fighter had to stay back in the forest because McIntyre couldn’t continue with the rest of the unit. They spent an hour waiting for him until additional help arrived.
As the pressure of war continued to mount, Smith said he was told that McIntyre had started excessively drinking in secret, which brought him to a “breaking point.”
Smith said that one day, McIntyre was given permission to go to Kharkiv with leadership and came back drunk, having found alcohol in the city.
“His rights had been read, and he had to be detained because he had caused a struggle with officers and leadership,” Smith said. “He had urinated in the vehicle being brought back to our combat point and then made a scene in the middle of the village, half naked, and threatened the leadership and all the legionnaires present in the area.”
The platoon commander chose to be lenient and said that McIntyre should just sleep it off. As McIntyre slept, the platoon was warned of an incoming artillery attack.
McIntyre took advantage of the chaos. He escaped from the watch he was under and ran off, still intoxicated and half naked, into the forest.
“We spent about maybe an hour or two looking for this man, in the dead of night until the morning came up,” Smith said.
Eventually, McIntyre turned himself in and was sent to the main command, where Smith said everyone hoped he’d be sent home.
But McIntyre was given a second chance — but this time away from the action, on logistical duty.
Once back to battalion, McIntyre’s erratic behavior continued
McIntyre was sent in June to the battalion headquarters in Kharkiv, where he met Nance.
“When you screw up, a company gets rid of you, pulls you off the line, and sends you back to the battalion,” Nance told Insider. “And now you’re our problem. What we’re doing is we’re filling out the paperwork to kick you out of Ukraine.”
From the beginning, McIntyre would talk about crossing the river in Kharkiv to go to the Russian side “out of sheer boredom,” Nance said, which raised a red flag.
Once he was back at the battalion, McIntyre’s erratic behavior continued. On one occasion, Nance said a nearby Russian strike had caused large windows at the HQ building to shatter, leaving 1-foot-high piles of broken glass.
With an artillery barrage outside, he said he spotted McIntyre sitting amid the shattered glass.
McIntyre was smoking a cigarette in his uniform pants, a white tank top, and flip-flops and appeared to be “mesmerized” while “watching the pretty lights” of the artillery barrage, Nance said.
“So I have to go out on the roof — glass is crunching everywhere — and I said, ‘What the fuck are you doing out here?’ and he says, ‘I’m just having a smoke.’ This is when I realize he is out of his mind,” Nance said.
To keep him out of trouble and away from the front line, Nance said, McIntyre was not allowed to handle weapons and given menial tasks, including moving supplies and cleaning the kitchen.
At one point, he was put on guard duty, operating a makeshift checkpoint built from white sandbags.
When Nance went away for two days in July, he returned to be told that McIntyre had spray-painted more than 200 sandbags with the words, “Fuck you,” and incomprehensible phrases.
The makeshift checkpoint spray painted by McIntyre
“It’s mind-boggling as to the intensity and dedication that it took,” Nance, who inspected the defaced checkpoint, said. “It was just insane. And then, boom, he was gone out of the legion that day.”
Fleeing across enemy lines to Russia
McIntyre said in the RT interview that he went and joined the Carpathian Sich, a unit of Ukrainians and foreign nationals that Nance described as an “authorized militia.”
After some time, he tried to rejoin the International Legion, but the leadership refused, Nance said. Several months later, he appeared on TV in Moscow claiming that this was his plan all along.
—GraphicW (@GraphicW5) March 1, 2023
McIntyre said in the interview that he went to Moscow via Istanbul and claimed that he did so to pass along valuable information he gathered while acting as a “spy” in Ukraine.
“It’s the reason I came to Ukraine in the first place, you know. I’m a communist. I’m an anti-fascist,” he said in the interview, while repeating the false Russian propaganda line that Ukraine is full of Nazis.
Nance said he categorically rejected the idea that McIntyre had any strong ideological bent or that he could have gathered any useful information to take over to Russia.
“He’s an idiot who was mentally ill,” Nance said. “And at the last minute, when he couldn’t get back into the legion, he just decided he would go to Moscow.”
McIntyre made various other dramatic claims in his interview. He said that he was under threat of execution as a whistleblower, that the Ukrainian army had snipers set up to shoot defectors and used civilians as human shields, and that many fighters had Nazi tattoos.
Nance said all these claims were fabricated and an example of him “using the Russian political line to further an agenda.”
His behavior calls the Intentional Legion’s vetting process into question
When McIntyre went to Ukraine in the early weeks of the war, following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s public appeal for foreign volunteers, the vetting process did not appear rigorous.
Smith, the retired Marine, said that when he joined the legion in March 2022, he realized “all you had to do was shoot a gun and breathe.”
The apparently lax process meant that people like McIntyre who may be ill-suited to warfare were able to slip through the cracks. The process has changed, Smith said, and is now more robust.
The International Legion did not respond to a request for comment.
While McIntyre is an example of someone who may have gone to Ukraine with the wrong intentions, Nance said this was not typical of the volunteer fighters he’d worked with.
“Eighty percent of the people that come into the legion are fine,” Nance said. “They’re ideologically driven. They don’t like what Russia has done. They feel in their hearts that they have to come help.
“But every once in a while, there’s a class of what I call ‘the criminals, crazies, and con artists’ — the people who are there to reinvent themselves.”
Smith affords McIntyre some sympathy. “He legitimately needed institutional help. He was going through psychological issues,” he said.
“There is pity to be had for him, but this is a war,” Smith said. “There are people here who have legitimately died, who have bled out, and this guy just took it as a PR stunt.
“Johnny Alabama is literally self-destructing and just trying to undermine this personnel group who have given all that they got.”