Training allowed Ukrainian commanders to abandon Russian command-and-control and take the initiative

Murray Brewster

CBC News

Feb 22, 2023

For months after Moscow launched its full invasion a year ago, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resorted to a standard message whenever it was accused of going too slowly, or doing too little, in its efforts to help Ukraine.

Did we ever tell you Canada trained over 33,000 Ukrainian soldiers?

That message served as both talking point and deflection. It was bolted onto almost every speech and media response line in Ottawa during those early months, as the world was riveted by the dramatic stand Ukrainian soldiers made outside the capital Kyiv and in Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city.

At the time, many world leaders and seasoned military, defence and geopolitical observers were expecting Ukraine’s defence to collapse swiftly in the face of Russia’s vastly superior manpower, firepower and airpower. The experts were subsequently caught off-guard by the determination and professionalism of Ukraine’s military, and by its early victories against a brutal antagonist.

There are many reasons explaining Ukraine’s survival. They start with the palpable rage that has united Ukrainians — a visceral anger that only grows with each new atrocity, each indiscriminate missile attack taking innocent lives.

The Russian army itself is another reason. With their ill-prepared soldiers, uncoordinated units, snarled logistics and a habit of combining over-confidence with a lack of competence, Russian army commanders have bungled their war to a degree that has been as astonishing as the Ukrainians’ performance has been inspiring.

But most military commanders will tell you that wars are won and lost on the training grounds — in the mindset instilled in soldiers by that training.

Which is where Canada and its allies came in.

CBC News wanted to know how much of a difference Canada’s much-hyped military training mission made to Ukraine’s ability to survive over the last year. We spoke to both Ukrainian and Canadian soldiers.

For seven years leading up to last year’s invasion, hundreds of Canadian soldiers deployed to western Ukraine to train an already battle-tested army that was holding back Russian-backed proxy forces in the eastern Donbas region. The trainees were put through advanced courses in just about all aspects of combat, from marksmanship and checking for booby-trapped vehicles to battlefield medical treatment and evacuation.

Canadian Brig.-Gen. Tim Arsenault commanded one of the early rotations of trainers. He vividly remembers the sobering experience of watching the first Ukrainian troops arrive directly from the eastern front at the training centre in Yavoriv, near the Polish border. “What will stick with me the most is just watching that first battalion come in from the Donbas, and seeing the state of the soldiers, who were very tired,” said Arsenault. “I think it really hit home at that point in time, how it was affecting Ukrainians at a very basic, you know, moral level, and the fact that they felt almost violated to have to fight with one neighbour who spoke the same language as many of them.”

Arsenault said he encountered “a certain degree of reticence” among the Ukrainians, all of whom had combat experience. Col. Sergeii Maltsev of the Ukrainian National Guard said his soldiers were doubtful at first. “I think some of our people were skeptical,” Maltsev told CBC News in a recent interview in Kyiv. “Maybe it was the fear of the changes? Maybe because they didn’t know at the beginning what it will give as a final result.”

In the end, the Canadian training made two key contributions to Ukraine’s defence, said Maltsev, a short, tough, wiry soldier who has been fighting Russians since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

The first was the combat medical training provided in the later stages of Operation Unifier, the Canadian name for the training mission.

That training has saved many lives, said Maltsev. His opinion was backed up by Ukrainian soldiers CBC News recently interviewed outside of Bakhmut, the focal point of the Russian winter offensive.

The second critical contribution was the training of sergeants and non-commissioned officers — a mid-level layer of command that made Ukrainian units far more nimble than their opponents. “Previously, it was [an] old-Soviet type approach,” said Maltsev, referring to a top-down command structure that discourages troops from taking the initiative without orders.

“We improved the role of our sergeants in our military, and with your help, with Canadian help, we developed our sergeant training programs. And now sergeants are capable to assist effectively, assist the officers and even to command their small units, without any assistance or officers’ assistance. So they can take the lead. They can take the decision directly on the battlefield, without any consultation with higher ranks.”

Lt.-Col. Melanie Lake was one of the last Canadian training commanders to work with the Ukrainians before the onset of major hostilities. She finished her tour in the fall of 2021.

Changing the mindset of the Ukrainians away from the old Soviet approach of waiting for orders was an uphill battle, she said. “In the old Soviet system, there was very much a culture of punishment,” she said. “So you have to break the risk-aversion that comes from that culture of punishment, the aversion to delegating authority, empowering subordinates.”

Nothing demonstrated the drawbacks of the Russian military mentality better, she said, than the fate of that 65-kilometre-long convoy that had been barrelling down on Kyiv in early 2022 — before it was stopped dead in its tracks and picked apart by Ukrainian resistance. “Nobody could make a decision,” said Lake. “You’ve got senior [Russian] generals coming forward, coming way too far forward and getting picked off because they’re the only ones who are empowered to make decisions. And then you see the contrast of the small teams of Ukrainians enabled with anti-armour weapons, or picking off a general, or execution in small teams that allows them to seize initiative.”

Another Canadian training commander, Col. Kris Reeves, now admits that when Moscow launched its full invasion on February 24, 2022, he feared the Ukrainians were going to get bulldozed. “February 24 — I’ve said this to my wife — to me, that’s my 911 moment,” Reeves told CBC News in Ottawa. “I had this rock in my stomach, this pit in my gut thinking everything they had worked for, everything we worked for to help them, is going to be gone.”

CBC News spoke to a senior Ukrainian lieutenant in charge of a mortar battery — a young woman in an army still beset by gender stereotypes. Krystyna “Kudriava” (her nom-de-guerre, meaning “curly hair”) said she met Lake in her capacity as the Canadian in charge of the training mission in early 2021 — and was inspired to find a woman commanding soldiers.

“Meeting Col. Melanie Lake was a very significant event for me,” she said. “And obviously, after I heard the Canadian commanding officer of Operation Unifier was coming and she was a female, I had the great desire to just communicate with her to share our experiences, to hear her story. And to my amazement, she happened to be very open in terms of her personality.”

The two became close. Lake gave Krystyna a commander’s coin and in return she received a bracelet made out of bullets.

When asked whether she believes she’ll return to Ukraine eventually for its Aug. 24 independence day celebrations, Lake doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. I have no doubt. I have no doubt.”


Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.