Ukrainian Army recruits join British training camp to prepare for battle

Two burned-out vehicles smoke in an abandoned village and distant screams can be heard. Suddenly machine gun fire crackles and two Ukrainian soldiers charge through the smoke. You enter a half-ruined building and check if two Russian soldiers are dead. He picks up a rocket launcher lying next to them and aims it at a nearby tank.

But this isn’t Ukraine’s front line – it’s a military installation in the wild moors of northern England where new Ukrainian troops are being trained for battle. The “Russians” are Dutch instructors who resume their positions while two other recruits repeat the scenario.

After eight months of fighting, the Russian and Ukrainian armies have taken a beating. Around 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded since Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February, US Army Chief General Mark Milley said this week, similar numbers “probably on the Ukrainian side”. In the face of such shocking losses, victory will depend in part on which side can train new forces fastest.

Hence the British-led programme, which includes instructors from eight Western allies. It started in June and has so far trained 7,000 Ukrainian soldiers, with another 3,000 due to be ready by Christmas. A similar EU initiative aimed at training 15,000 soldiers in Germany and Poland starts this month.

“Battlefields are dirty, noisy, smelly and scary,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jon Harris, who is in charge of training Ukrainians at the UK site. “You don’t want the first time you face these conditions to be real. We are trying to vaccinate them against the stresses they may be facing.”

Most of Ukraine’s 700,000-strong active force, which has nearly tripled since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion, is made up of soldiers recruited just this year.

Despite this, his army launched a blazing northern counter-offensive around Kharkiv this summer, while a grueling southern push prompted the Russian army to withdraw its troops from the strategic city of Kherson this week.

“Ukraine has conducted two successful counter-offensives and has so far managed without training,” said Konrad Muzyka of Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based military advisory group. “But that’s partly because it was able to make up for the lack of training by demoting Russian forces with high-precision missile strikes and good intelligence.”

Lt. Col. Jon Harris
Lieutenant Colonel Jon Harris, who is in charge of training the Ukrainians at the UK base, praised their motivation and determination © Ian Forsyth/FT

This calculation could now change. Moscow has drafted up to 200,000 new recruits, of which Putin says 50,000 are already in combat. Although often poorly trained, poorly equipped and suffering from low morale, when added to the estimated 170,000 Russian soldiers already in Ukraine, “[that] is a lot of men and a force to be reckoned with,” said a Western defense adviser.

Another challenge is that Ukraine’s counter-offensives have shrunk Russian-held territory, and paradoxically, this consolidation “will give the Russians some advantages,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank. It will make it easier for the Russian military to stabilize its front lines over the winter, maintain defensive positions and deploy forces for rest and training, he said.

Back at the English training ground, a flashbang explodes near Ukrainian recruits practicing first aid. Fake blood, recorded screams, amputated actors and drenched trenches add to the realism.

A British instructor releases smoke in a tank in preparation for a training exercise with the Ukrainian recruits
A British instructor releases smoke in a tank in preparation for a training exercise with the Ukrainian recruits © Ian Forsyth/FT

Led by Britain but adapted to the needs of the Ukrainian front, the lessons include weapons training, basic battlefield tactics such as flanking maneuvers and cyber security. For the instructors, the Ukrainians bring valuable insight into the nature of high-intensity battles of the 21st century.

According to organizers, the recruits are between 18 and mid-30s old, including women. There is a separate management course for non-commissioned officers. Confusing tactical differences that might be taught by participating allies will be smoothed out, the instructors said.

“They are the most motivated, determined, and eager to learn trainees I’ve worked with in my 20 years as a soldier around the world,” Harris said. “The fact that they can train up to their knees in water for 36 hours and still be able to laugh, joke and answer questions speaks volumes for me.”

Even so, organizers concede that recruits can only learn so much in the five-week course compared to the 14-week basic training camp for British Army recruits.

Ukrainian soldiers practice a weapons exercise at the northern England training facility
Ukrainian soldiers practice a weapons exercise at the northern England training facility © Ian Forsyth/FT

Another disadvantage is that many of the Ukrainians are not trained as units to fight together after the course, as they have been deployed from different parts of the military.

“It’s the double-edged sword of bravery and improvisational skills of Ukrainians – they have a certain anarchism,” the western defense adviser said.

For now, the momentum on the battlefield remains with the Ukrainians. The Russian army has more serious coordination problems with its own new recruits. “They have little experience of effectively incorporating additional, recently mobilized infantry into maneuver formations,” Gady said. “The whole structure of the Russian armed forces makes that difficult.”

In a possible foretaste of the winter deployment, Ukrainian recruits were also given more training in offensive tactics, the British organizers said.

Brigadier Justin Stenhouse, who oversees the training program at several UK sites, said a Ukrainian commander emailed him about a recent frontline incident in which he witnessed a Russian attack on ten soldiers but stood his ground and ” carried the fight to the Russians while the others took it on “Home”.

Her example inspired the rest of her platoon to join the fight, Stenhouse recounted. When the Russians later fought back, the commander asked them why they did it. They replied: “We were taught that in British training.”

“War has always been a human endeavor,” Stenhouse said. “Take courage, motivation and fighting spirit, which Ukrainians do not lack. Add a little training and you’ll be a top-notch soldier.”

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels and Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

https://www.ft.com/content/bb8c700c-07d1-438c-91a5-6744cb0be6bc Ukrainian Army recruits join British training camp to prepare for battle

Adam Bradshaw

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