KENT, England — A commander barked orders at Ukrainian recruits. A group of new soldiers in fatigues crosses a street strewn with grenade shells, flaming debris and overturned cars. A wounded man came out on a stretcher moaning.
The battle that unfolded on Monday was a training exercise, led by a British commander who was flanked by a Ukrainian translator as he led recruits through a mock village in south-east England. It was designed to resemble the scenes of destruction unfolding on Ukraine’s front lines over a thousand miles away.
“This urban training is exactly what we need,” said Nick, a 25-year-old Ukrainian recruit who offered only a nickname for fear of Russian reprisals against his family.
Nick is part of a British-led program to provide military training to tens of thousands of Ukrainian army recruits and staff, an effort to build local resistance to the Russian invasion.
The initiative, announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in June, began with more than a thousand British soldiers from the 11th Security Force Assistance Brigade, which specializes in training foreign military personnel. About 2,000 recruits have completed the program and returned to Ukraine, British officials said.
Other countries – including Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden – have pledged to join the effort, which is effectively a revamped version of the operation. Unifier, an international training initiative that began in 2015. In this program, troops from the United States, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Poland and Sweden, among others, have trained approximately 35,000 Ukrainians .
The Ukrainians who gathered on Monday were part of a group of several hundred who had been airlifted by British military planes and brought to an army base in Kent, a windswept corner of southeast England where the British forces were previously preparing for operations in Northern Ireland. It is one of four sites where UK trainers run three-week courses which cover combat tactics, medical and weapons training and the laws of war.
While the new effort focuses on basic infantry training for civilian recruits, Britain has also trained hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers in England to use more complex weapons, such as the multiple rocket launcher systems it supplied to the Kyiv government.
“We are at a stage in the war where we have to retake our cities from the occupying forces,” said a 34-year-old intern named Snizhana. “The British officers who train us have lived through this war in Iraq and Afghanistan – so now it’s very useful for us.”
Trainers said they were impressed with the morale of the recruits, aged between 18 and 50. Major Craig Hutton, a Scottish commander overseeing the training, said he had “never seen people so willing, so eager to fight”.
“It’s an absolute cross section of Ukrainian society that has come together because they have a serious threat to their homeland,” he said.
The training drills were planned in conjunction with Ukrainian military and intelligence officials, he added, and were designed to replicate scenes they might encounter on the battlefield back home – until the spray painted badges on vehicles.
Many Ukrainians taking part in the exercise received variants of the AK-47 weapons that they would likely use on the front lines. Others carried anti-tank weapons called NLAW, which Britain donated in their thousands to help the Ukrainians destroy Russian tanks and armored vehicles.
“Nobody wants to die,” said an intern named Zakhar. A civil engineer before enlisting three weeks ago, he said he was motivated to join his brother in the army and avenge his best friend who died in combat.
“I want my children and grandchildren to live in a free, flourishing and independent country,” he said.