Program aims to give Ukraine more manpower along the eastern front with Russia
By Isabel Coles
July 9, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
Until recently, most of them were civilians, working in offices or jobs such as plumbing. This past week, a group of new Ukrainian military recruits found themselves on a hillside in northwestern England, aiming rifles at a line of targets as a British military instructor looked on. Within weeks, they could be thrown into Europe’s biggest land war since World War II. A woman armed with a megaphone translated his instructions into Ukrainian: “Don’t forget to breathe.…Take your time…. Ten shots at the left-hand target…. Fire!”
The men are among the first recruits to undergo training in the U.K. as part of a new program that aims to prepare up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers every three months for the war against Russia. Some had never picked up a rifle before arriving in the U.K. recently.
Ukrainian officials say long-range artillery systems sent by the West are starting to make a difference against Russian forces that have gained ground in recent weeks by blasting towns and cities in their path. But Ukraine also needs more infantry men such as these to hold positions along the vast eastern front and retake territory where possible, they say. “Hopefully, we set the foundation that enables them to survive,” said Brigadier Justin Stenhouse, who designed the training program. It covers basic infantry skills such as using a rifle, how to behave on a battlefield and treating casualties.
No amount of training, Mr. Stenhouse acknowledged, can fully prepare them for the trench warfare they are likely to encounter in Ukraine’s east, the likes of which many of the British instructors themselves haven’t experienced. “It feels like a huge responsibility,” he said.
As the war settles into a battle of attrition, both sides are in a race to replenish weapons, ammunition and men. At the height of the battle for the eastern city of Severodonetsk last month, Ukrainian officials said they were losing between 100 and 200 men a day.
Some are being killed even before reaching the battlefield. A missile strike on the Desna training facility in northern Ukraine killed 87 recruits in May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. Earlier in the war, an airstrike on the Yavoriv base in western Ukraine killed at least 35 people. That is why the training is taking place in the rolling countryside of northwestern England as well as several other locations across the U.K. in a sign of Britain’s deepening involvement in the war.
Among the recruits is a 34-year-old who ran an e-commerce project until signing up for the war four weeks ago. He said his decision to do so was fueled by anger at the destruction of his hometown of Chernihiv, besieged by Russian forces in the early stages of the war. “This was the first time I took a gun in my hand,” he said
Although fluent in Russian, he refused to speak the language of his enemy, communicating in English instead. “I am fully committed to [absorb] the most information and experience,” he said. “To stay alive and to be of the most value to my country.”
Far from the front line in Ukraine, the training camp also feels removed from the political tumult in the U.K. that forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to say he would resign following a series of scandals. Many Ukrainians are dismayed by the demise of a politician who put the U.K. at the forefront of Western efforts to roll back Russia’s invasion. Mr. Johnson announced the new training program during a visit to Kyiv last month, saying it would “fundamentally change the equation of the war.”
During a visit to the training of Ukrainian recruits on Thursday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said a change of leadership wouldn’t affect the U.K.’s commitment to Ukraine—a stance enjoying wide support from the political establishment.
Mr. Wallace, currently one of the favorites to succeed Mr. Johnson, played down Russia’s recent gains in the east and said Moscow had failed to achieve its objectives. “I would not say the Russians are winning,” he said.
By generating more forces, the training program will give Ukraine’s military leadership greater room for maneuver along the front with Russian troops, he said. Russian forces have made steady advances there behind an intense barrage of artillery after pulling back from northern Ukraine in March and concentrating their firepower on the eastern Donbas region.
In response to Russia’s recent gains, Ukraine’s Western allies have stepped up military support for Kyiv, with the recent arrival of the U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or Himars, already strengthening its hand. Britain’s contribution amounts to more than £2.3 billion (roughly $2.75 billion) in military aid, including more than 5,000 NLAW antitank weapons and long-range Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, which experienced Ukrainian artillery soldiers are being trained to use separately from the infantry recruits elsewhere in the U.K.
Some of the British instructors have experience in working with the Ukrainian military as part of Operation Orbital, in which the U.K. trained more than 22,000 soldiers from 2015 until Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion in February. The key difference: Those were trained soldiers. “These are guys who were working in an office, as plumbers or electricians a couple of weeks ago,” said Lourens, a British soldier who was involved in Operation Orbital. The Wall Street Journal agreed to use only his first name.
The equivalent training for British soldiers would take six months, but the urgency of the war means it is being done in a fraction of the time. When announcing the training, Mr. Johnson said the course would last three weeks.
A higher ratio of instructors to recruits is helping to fast-track the training. So is the high level of motivation among the recruits, according to the instructors. “It’s nonstop,” said Capt. Sam Russon, 28 years old. “They’re learning really quickly.” The course includes learning how to dig fortifications, fill sandbags and maneuver under fire. (Included in the advice: don’t panic; run in a zigzag instead of a straight line.) Mine awareness is a field in which the Ukrainians have expressed particular interest, Capt. Russon said.
One challenge is language: it has proved difficult for the civilian interpreters accompanying Ukrainian recruits to translate technical British military terminology that is heavy on acronyms. The AK-74 rifles with which the recruits will be armed back in Ukraine aren’t used by the British military, so the instructors have had to receive training themselves. And the blank-firing attachment for an AK-74 doesn’t meet U.K. safety standards, so the Ukrainians will have to practice with the SA80 rifle instead.
In the shade of a tent, an instructor showed more than a dozen Ukrainian recruits how to strip down an SA80. “Remember, the firing pin will only go in one way,” the instructor said. A translator conveyed his words in Ukrainian. Another group of recruits was learning to apply a tourniquet using one hand. In the time it took them to fasten the tourniquet, they would already have lost three liters of blood, the instructor informed them.
The recruits are accompanied by a small number of experienced Ukrainian soldiers from whom the British instructors say they are learning lessons of their own. British soldiers typically check corpses for booby traps by rolling them over manually, one instructor said, whereas the Ukrainians do so by attaching a rope to the body so they can flip it from a safe distance.
Isabel Coles is a reporter in London covering economics, with a focus on how changes in the economy impact lives and livelihoods. For a decade before that she reported from the Middle East. Beginning with the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings, her work tracked the upheavals across the region, from the early hopes for political change through the darker chapters of Islamic State’s takeover in Iraq and Syria. She covered the U.S.-backed military campaign against the organization and its aftermath, including the intensifying geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and Iran. Her stories often explore how people experience violent change and political upheaval.