How European Trainers Have Transformed Kyiv’s Army and Changed the War
By Alexandra Chinchilla and Jahara Matisek
May 11, 2023
In the 14 months since Russia invaded Ukraine, analysts have expressed recurring doubts about the strength of Europe’s commitments to Kyiv. Through much of 2022, many noted that Germany dragged its feet in supplying arms to Ukrainian forces and took months to come around on tanks. Others have worried that some European countries facing rising energy costs and other economic stresses would curtail their support and press for a negotiated peace with Moscow. Even now, despite a steady flow of weapons and aid to Ukraine, some commentators have suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be calculating that Europe is wavering and that he can simply outlast Kyiv’s Western partners.
But by focusing on weapons and aid, such assessments overlook the full extent of European efforts in Ukraine. The United States deservedly gets credit for providing about half the $156 billion in economic, humanitarian, and military aid that Ukraine received in the first 12 months of the conflict. Yet aid and equipment, though important, are not sufficient to account for Ukraine’s success on the battlefield: much has depended on the quality and training of Ukrainian forces. And in this regard, Europe has been able to play an especially crucial role. In 2022, for instance, the United Kingdom trained about 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers, whereas the United States trained only about 3,100. And with the exception of Austria, every country in the EU, and even Switzerland, has provided some form of lethal or nonlethal aid and training to the Ukrainian military since the war started.
In fact, these European efforts build on training and advising programs that NATO countries provided to Ukraine before the war started: between 2014 and 2022, Canada, Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—along with a dozen other Western countries—trained and advised Ukrainian forces on a variety of skills, from combat leadership to operational planning. NATO advisers also helped build Ukrainian special forces to meet NATO standards. These initiatives paid off: in contrast to 2014, when they were disorganized and lacked up-to-date training to counter Russia’s seizure of Crimea and initial war in the Donbas, Ukrainian forces successfully thwarted Russia’s 2022 invasion and have since defended much of Ukrainian territory. In doing so, they have used irregular warfare tactics absorbed from Western advisers to stop Russian forces on the road to Kyiv as well as more conventional tactics based on military strength and discipline to halt Russia’s offensive in the eastern part of the country.
But training is a continuous process and will become even more important the longer the war continues. Ukraine needs more new recruits and specialized training in the advanced weapons systems it is receiving from the West. To improve the odds of success in its upcoming spring offensive, it also needs expertise in coordinating large masses of forces and firepower in what is
known as combined arms maneuver. Scaling up training from the level of squads to platoons, companies, and eventually battalions will give Ukrainian forces the agility and speed they need to overcome Russia’s preferred war of attrition and to recapture Russian-occupied territory.
With its geographic proximity, Europe is ideally positioned to provide this support. Since Russia’s invasion, and without any U.S. involvement, European countries have been hosting and providing all basic combat training for new Ukrainian recruits—converting civilians into capable soldiers in a five-week training course. Additionally, many European countries are providing specialized training in weaponry such as Leopard tanks and air defense systems and are currently supplying about half the more advanced training needed for larger Ukrainian formations to learn and master maneuver warfare. Even more than arms and ammunition, Ukraine’s offensive to push Russia out of its territory will depend on training. To better grasp the challenges Ukraine faces and the ways that Europe in particular can help meet them, it is crucial to recognize this important dimension of the war effort and how it is being addressed today.
After more than a year of hard fighting, maintaining force quality has become a key challenge for Ukraine. Any military that is engaged in intense combat over a prolonged period will experience a drop in combat effectiveness as experienced soldiers are lost and replaced with fresh recruits. More than 120,000 of Ukraine’s professional, well-trained forces were killed or wounded over the last year, and their replacements include large numbers of mobilized citizen-soldiers who have little or no combat experience. Such a decline in skills and expertise is to be expected and is also affecting Russia, whose military has suffered over 200,000 casualties and is filled with mobilized soldiers and recruits from prisons who have little desire to fight and die in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Kyiv cannot simply hope that Russia, with a population more than three times larger, will see its forces degrade faster than Ukraine’s. To defend its own positions and reclaim territory from Russia, Ukraine must continue to train large numbers of citizen-soldiers, many of whom lack basic skills, such as how to shoot, move, communicate, and provide combat medicine. The Ukrainian government has set out to train 6,000 new soldiers a month—a difficult task given the country’s severely stretched resources and struggle for survival.
To help Ukraine meet this goal, European countries are providing crucial support. Our interviews with Ukrainian and NATO personnel indicate that trainers from NATO countries have been able to get around 2,500 new Ukrainian soldiers through basic combat training each month—short of Kyiv’s target but still an important contribution. Known as Operation Interflex, this program started in June 2022 and has been led by the United Kingdom with the assistance of army trainers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden.
Training takes place at four sites and is an extension of the training that was provided by the United Kingdom and its NATO allies before 2022. It is tailored to what the Ukrainian armed forces consider useful in view of actual conditions on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine. The reliance on army trainers from European countries and their partners in the Indo-Pacific has been vital to demonstrating multilateral support for Ukraine and combating Russian narratives about
the war’s being fueled by the United States and NATO. Along with basic training, Ukrainian recruits who complete the program are given gear such as uniforms, helmets, vests, first-aid kits, and cold- and wet-weather clothing. Alongside this effort, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, and Spain have also provided training to smaller groups of Ukrainian soldiers, around 200 per month.
Even battle-hardened Ukrainian soldiers need training in using and maintaining the large variety of weapons systems now being provided by the West. Since the early months of the war, Ukraine has relied on military equipment from a variety of Western and unaligned donors to replenish its existing stockpiles and equip the new units it is building to prepare for counteroffensive operations. Some Western weapons systems, such as Javelin and NLAW antitank missiles, have been easy to integrate into Ukrainian operations because they are easy to use or already familiar to Ukrainian soldiers. But many other kinds of non-Soviet weapons and equipment—including artillery, air defense systems, and the German Leopard 2 and British Challenger 2 tanks—are new to Ukrainian soldiers and require advanced training to master.
In fact, European countries have another advantage in leading this training effort: they are familiar with a wider variety of equipment and weapons systems than their counterparts in the United States. Although the United States is the biggest donor in terms of the volume of aid, European countries provide a wider array of weapons systems, ammunition, and equipment to Ukraine. Take artillery shells: the United States provides substantial numbers of 120-millimeter mortar shells and 105-millimeter artillery shells compatible with the U.S. weapons sent to Ukraine, but European donors have been providing dozens of other kinds of shells to supply the large variety of guns in Ukraine’s arsenal. Several European countries, such as Slovakia, are scaling up production of 155-millimeter artillery shells fivefold to meet Ukrainian demands.
According to interviews with Ukrainian troops in February 2023, over half the artillery and mortar systems they have been using were donated by European countries, Australia, and Canada. Because of its proximity to Ukraine, Poland is also taking a lead role in maintaining and fixing numerous Western and Soviet legacy weapons systems that Ukraine trucks across the border when they break down. In March, the European Union collectively agreed to refund member countries that are sending a combined one million artillery rounds from their own stockpiles to Ukraine, with plans for a $1 billion joint munition procurement to further support the country.
Given the broad range of weapons and artillery they work with, European donors are best suited to train Ukrainians on these systems. Indeed, according to interviews, European countries are now providing the majority of training for specialized weapons systems. For example, at sites across Poland, Ukrainian tank crews are learning how to use Leopard tanks with the assistance of Canadian, Polish, and Norwegian trainers. Europe has also played a lead role in enhancing Ukraine’s air defense capabilities. Germany is training Ukrainian forces on their own territory on the IRIS-T advanced air defense systems and Gepard antiaircraft guns; France and Italy have been introducing them to the Aster 30 SAMP/T air defense system. Such an emphasis on air defense training is crucial to Ukraine’s ability to protect its infrastructure and civilians. Still, Ukraine will need more of these European air defense systems by the end of the summer, given
Russia’s use of Iranian drones and ballistic and hypersonic missiles to cause collateral damage throughout the country.
European contributions have not been limited to training Ukrainian forces in new weapons systems. For one thing, Europe has provided crucial help in integrating newly trained units into Ukraine’s existing forces and in preparing Ukraine for complex combined-arms operations. Once individual soldiers are trained, they need to be integrated into the company- and battalion-size units to which they are assigned. To be able to orchestrate effective defensive and offensive operations, such units must quickly learn to coordinate with one another. Ukraine’s much-anticipated spring offensive to reclaim its territories in the south and east will require even more advanced coordination, involving armor, artillery, reconnaissance, and airpower, in combined arms maneuver warfare. Planning and executing such operations in line with NATO principles will be crucial for Ukraine to gain the full potential of the advanced weaponry it is receiving from Europe and puncture Russian lines and trenches.
Certainly, the United States has played a significant part in this effort. At present, U.S. trainers are providing around half the combined arms training to Ukraine at the Grafenwöhr training area in Germany. But Poland and many other European countries have been especially crucial. For example, the European Union Military Assistance Mission to support Ukraine was established in November 2022 with the support of 24 countries. It will train 15,000 Ukrainians over the course of two years in activities ranging from basic training to advanced and more specialized military capabilities such as demining, junior leadership, logistics, and communication. Allowing many European countries to train smaller, company-size Ukrainian units in combined arms maneuver, this initiative will enhance Ukraine’s fighting capabilities and reinforce European unity against Russian aggression.
European countries have also taken the lead in providing weapons that the United States has been hesitant to send, such as MiG-29 fighter aircraft from Poland and Slovakia. Even the transfer of main battle tanks to Ukraine, agreed to in January by the United States and many of its European allies, was a European rather than a U.S. initiative. The agreement was reached only after the United Kingdom first pledged Challenger tanks and Poland, along with 11 European countries and Canada, made a similar pledge of Leopard tanks and pressured Germany to permit their export to Ukraine. In the end, Germany consented to the Leopard exports after the United States agreed to contribute Abrams tanks. But that U.S. contribution was largely symbolic, at least in the short term: Ukraine will receive almost 300 Western battle tanks with modern targeting and optical kits before its spring offensive, but none of them will be Abrams tanks, which will not arrive until later in the year.
Such European initiative and resolve may prove even more crucial in the months to come as countries such as Finland, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom consider providing fourth-generation fighter aircraft and fighter pilot training to Ukraine. So far, the United States has not yet agreed to train Ukrainians to fly F-16s. It seems plausible that the United States will agree to have European countries provide advanced fighter aircraft on their own to avoid the escalation concerns raised by some in Washington.
In contrast to the narrative of European wavering on Ukraine, the EU and NATO have displayed a remarkable degree of unity throughout the war. Moreover, this united front has been bottom-up—driven by individual countries’ stepping forward to offer training, equipment, and other support—rather than imposed by the United States. Most important, although this multifaceted assistance has received less attention among analysts in Washington, it reflects genuine public support in Europe for Ukraine. Polling of NATO member states in November 2022 showed that around 64 percent of respondents believed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has threatened their security and that 69 percent thought their country should continue to provide aid to Ukraine. Across Europe, civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations have responded to Russian aggression with their own informal assistance to Ukraine, countering Russian disinformation while crowdsourcing weapons and military aid and providing humanitarian training.
When it comes to training Ukrainian forces, European countries are shouldering a much larger burden than the United States despite the high costs and impacts to their own military preparedness. The British military is sacrificing a substantial portion of its own military readiness by training and equipping Ukrainians instead of their own soldiers. The combined arms training the United States is providing at several bases in Germany comes at a far lower impact to the U.S. military, given its size and the significant U.S. resources that are present in Europe. Indeed, the United States should do more to help Ukraine train its military and maintain consistent force quality.
An area of particular need is the development of company-grade officers and midlevel sergeants. Ensuring the continued quality of Ukraine’s junior military officers will be essential to maintaining the good battlefield decision-making that has been crucial to Ukraine’s success thus far. Since European countries are already doing so much to train Ukrainians, this is one area in which the United States, with its combat experience and resources, could take the lead.
Training takes weeks and months to deliver results, and Ukraine’s Western allies cannot afford to wait until new needs emerge in Kyiv. Up to now, Europe has helped give Ukraine a crucial edge in force quality through its extensive training efforts. But the United States and its European allies should immediately begin planning to sustain Ukrainian combat effectiveness with extra reserve forces over a potentially long counteroffensive. Greater U.S. support would help increase the volume of training and maintain the resolve of European providers if their efforts failed to materialize into quick Ukrainian gains on the battlefield. The willingness of European countries to put significant resources on the line—even in areas where the United States is doing comparatively little—has become increasingly vital to Ukraine’s defense and will be crucial to its continued success.
ALEXANDRA CHINCHILLA is an Assistant Professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
JAHARA MATISEK is a Military Professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. The views expressed here are his own.