A U.S. citizen was killed fighting in Ukraine last month, State Department officials confirmed, marking the third American to die in the years-long war that expanded in February when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbor.
The department said Tuesday that Stephen Zabielski had died in Ukraine and that it is in touch with his family to provide consular support and assistance. “Out of respect to the family during this difficult time, we have nothing further,” it said.
Zabielski, a Florida resident who reportedly served in the Army, was killed on May 15 by a land mine while fighting with Ukraine’s International Legion of Territorial Defense, according to Rolling Stone. Zabielski died fighting in the country’s southeast, which has become the war’s focal point after Ukraine successfully stopped the Russian military’s attempt to capture the capital of Kyiv during the war’s early weeks.
According to Rolling Stone, Zabielski was serving as part of an English-speaking squad that called themselves “the Wolverines,” in an apparent reference to the movie Red Dawn.
An unknown number of U.S. veterans and foreign volunteers from other countries responded to Ukraine’s calls for international volunteers with combat experience during the early weeks of the renewed invasion. The International Legion, which requires its troops to officially enlist in Ukraine’s military in accordance with the Geneva Convention, formed from those volunteers.
But some foreign volunteers have joined a number of paramilitary and militia units that are incorporated into the country’s armed forces, such as the Georgian National Legion.
At least one other American citizen, Marine veteran Willy Cancel, has died fighting for Ukraine this year. Cancel was also a member of the International Legion, fellow fighters told the Washington Post.
Three U.S. veterans fighting for Ukraine are also currently missing, two of whom are believed to have been captured by Russian troops.
In brief comments about Zabielski, the State Department reiterated longstanding advice it has given to Americans not to travel to Ukraine for any reason due to the fighting.
But Cancel and Zabielski were not the first Americans to lose their lives in Ukraine’s struggle to resist Russian influence and aggression, which began in 2014 when pro-democracy protesters successfully toppled the country’s autocratic president. Soon thereafter, Russian troops backed Ukrainian separatists in the eastern part of the country and annexed Crimea, a region of Ukraine.
It was in the first months of the war, in August 2014, when West Point graduate and Army veteran Mark Paslawsky was killed fighting against Russian troops and the rebels they backed.
Paslawsky, a businessman who had lived in Ukraine since the early 1990s, was fighting as part of a volunteer battalion when he died.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.