Basic training in Ukraine is barely covering the basics, commanders say

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — As Ukraine prepares to mobilize tens of thousands of men to address a critical shortage of soldiers amid intensified Russian attacks, Ukrainian commanders in the field say they are bracing for most of the new troops to arrive with poor training.

Ukrainian commanders have long griped about lackluster preparation for recruits at training centers. But with Russia on the offensive, the persistent complaints are a reminder that a newly adopted mobilization law intended to widen the pool of draft-eligible men is just one step in solving the military’s personnel problems.

An influx of conscripts under the new law is still months away. In the meantime, commanders are redeploying soldiers from rear positions to fighting units near the front. President Volodymyr Zelensky last month also signed a law to allow some prison inmates to join the military in exchange for a chance of parole — copying a Russian tactic that provided thousands more fighters but is also releasing violent criminals back into society.

Wherever the new soldiers come from, Ukrainian field commanders said that because training is so deficient, they must often devote weeks to teaching them basic skills, such as how to shoot.


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“We had guys that didn’t even know how to disassemble and assemble a gun,” said a 28-year-old deputy battalion commander from the 93d Mechanized Brigade, whom The Washington Post agreed to identify by his call sign, Schmidt, according to Ukrainian military protocol.

Schmidt said that he spent the first week with soldiers transferred from rear posts just making sure each one fire at least one box of bullets — some 1,500 shots — daily before moving on to more complex tasks. Within weeks, these soldiers could be fighting near the embattled town of Chasiv Yar, where Russian forces have been making advances.

“We are just wasting a lot of time here on basic training,” Schmidt said, adding: “If, God forbid, there will be a breakthrough near Chasiv Yar, and we get new infantry that doesn’t know basic things, they will be sent there to just die.”

With Kyiv’s forces critically understaffed and losing ground, the failure to provide adequate basic training for soldiers underscores the dire situation Kyiv is facing more than two years after Moscow’s invasion.

Russia has made gains this year in large part because Ukraine’s military doesn’t have enough troops to defend against relentless assaults, soldiers say, while the government has been slow to ramp up its mobilization efforts.

To get more troops to the battlefield immediately, Zelensky’s recently appointed military chief, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, has redeployed people who were previously serving in jobs such as guarding bridges and other infrastructure far from the combat zone to brigades engaged in some of the fiercest fighting.

The move was designed in part to reduce the number of men who would have to be drafted — an issue that is politically fraught for Zelensky. Syrsky’s predecessor, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, had proposed drafting close to 500,000 people — a figure Zelensky publicly rejected by saying he had not been shown evidence that it was necessary and that Ukraine would struggle financially to pay so many new soldiers’ salaries.

For front-line commanders, any new troops are welcome, given that some units have endured months without reinforcements. But many of these redeployed arrivals appear ill-prepared, commanders said, despite many having served in the military since the start of Russia’s invasion more than two years ago, albeit far from the battlefield.

Until about a month ago, a Ukrainian soldier, whose call sign is Val, had been standing guard on a bridge in the southern Odessa region — the same job he’d been doing every day since he enlisted at the start of the invasion.

On April 30, Val was told that he was being transferred to combat duty. Within 24 hours, he was assigned to the 93rd Brigade and instructed to deploy to the eastern Donetsk region. He didn’t even have time to pack his things — some had to be shipped later.

“It’s scary,” the 31-year-old said. “Nobody was really prepared.”

For a reconnaissance unit in the 42nd Mechanized Brigade, which was recently redirected to the northeast Kharkiv region to defend against a renewed Russian offensive, many of the scouts had just been reassigned from rear roles and were given just two weeks preparation before being sent into combat, to carry out tasks that at times require sneaking behind enemy lines.

What is taught in Ukrainian training centers “is complete nonsense,” said a 32-year-old soldier in the unit with the call sign Chirva. “Everything is learned on the spot.”

An officer who has spent more than a year instructing new soldiers at one of Ukraine’s facilities said the training centers are low on Soviet-caliber ammunition because it is being saved for troops on the battlefield. That means recruits get little experience firing live rounds. The officer said the training center received just 20 bullets per person.

“There are no grenades for throwing in training centers, and there are no grenade launcher rounds in the training center,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly. “This is the problem.”

“We don’t have a proper training system in place,” the officer continued, adding that Ukraine needs its instructors to be taught by NATO trainers to condense the standard two-month basic training into one month.

A current priority for Ukraine’s General Staff is securing more training for recruits abroad — at facilities that can’t be targeted by Russian bombardment, unlike those in Ukraine. Britain so far has provided the most basic training for Ukrainians. In a potential boost, France is considering sending instructors to Ukraine to help prepare draftees, Syrsky said in a post on social media this week.

The prospect of being sent to dangerous front-line positions without adequate training is a main reason many Ukrainian men fear conscription. As part of a recruitment effort, the National Guard’s Khartia Brigade has billboards across the country promising “60 days of preparation.”

But despite individual brigades investing in ads to attract recruits — an internal competition of sorts within the military — those who enlist might not end up with their preferred brigade.

The chief sergeant for a battalion fighting in the eastern Donetsk region described a process in which certain brigades, particularly assault brigades, often get first pick of new soldiers brought to training centers.

The sergeant, who is typically sent to training centers to select troops for his battalion, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid and because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive matter publicly.

Some assault brigades might devote personnel to live practically full-time near training centers, the sergeant said, to quickly snatch up the youngest, fittest, most motivated men. The officer who was an instructor at a training center confirmed that some brigades indeed plot for first dibs.

“If they send us to recruit someone, all the good ones have already been taken by other brigades, and you have to choose from the crooked, lame, sick ones,” the sergeant said. “And so you choose from them, dammit.”

The sergeant said that he aims to communicate with soldiers to get a sense for who is more willing to fight versus those who were conscripted forcibly and might refuse orders on the battlefield. This is expected to become an issue of heightened importance, as most Ukrainians eager to serve have already volunteered to do so. Those who have not yet volunteered tend to be resistant to fighting.

Some recruits, the sergeant said, are deemed physically fit despite being over age 50 with knee and back issues, meaning they will struggle to walk miles with a pack of gear and weapons, as is often required. Some brigades are ordered to take those men anyway.

“There are guys whom you just look in the eye and understand he’s hesitating,” the sergeant said. “He needs a push. He needs confidence in his weapon, confidence that we won’t abandon him, and he will fight.”

“And there are those who immediately say, ‘I won’t fight,’” he added. “Of course, you try not to take them. But again, in our army, it’s set up so that the personnel department tells you, ‘No way, you have to take him, he’s healthy.’”

Anastacia Galouchka in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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