1705744101 Five weeks to become a Ukrainian soldier in the trenches

Five weeks to become a Ukrainian soldier in the trenches of eastern England

A group of men in military uniform gather around a table where first aid techniques are being practiced on a plastic figure. For many, it is their first contact with a hypothetical scenario of helping those injured in war. In the next room there is a less epic (but still essential) lesson on the rules of combat: if the enemy surrenders, you cannot attack them. With these short lessons, which continue later in some trenches and a city attempting to recreate wartime conditions in Ukraine, the British Army teaches some keys to armed conflict aimed at teaching a group of volunteers in just a few weeks to transform them into operational soldiers. at the front against the Russians. “I decided to fight because I love my country and my family,” argues simply a 47-year-old, somewhat elderly man who in his previous life dedicated himself to building maintenance and asks to be identified by the name Alexánder .

As two years have passed since Russia's full-scale invasion, the need to strengthen the war front in Ukraine is more urgent than ever. The army itself says it has taken on up to half a million new recruits. Aware of the challenge, the British military command is accelerating the training of Ukrainians, in the vast majority of cases civilians, who volunteer for the army and return to their country to take up arms after a few weeks in the United Kingdom. . Your dilemmas are constant. Moryachok, who has just turned 30, hides his time at the front from his children, ages nine and five (he has fought before). With a stern face and almost defiant speech, this soldier denies that he is afraid of what awaits him. “Scared, what is that?” he blurts out, surrounded by British and Ukrainian commanders. Moryachok, who like all Ukrainians interviewed for this report uses a nickname, is one of more than 34,000 who completed the training offered by the United Kingdom as part of the so-called Operation Interflex. A dozen countries are working on the project.

The secrecy is absolute. The visit, organized by the British Ministry of Defense, to which EL PAÍS was invited this week along with other Spanish media, is taking place at a military base in the east of England, which the authorities are not allowing to be identified for security reasons. It is a vast and cold area populated by semi-cylindrical barracks, mostly built during World War II and now dedicated to the conflict that brought the war back to European soil. The United Kingdom army, one of the most active in training the Ukrainian Armed Forces, uses five other bases distributed in different parts of the country for training aimed at converting volunteers – carpenters, technologists, teachers… – into combatants .

In a room at the base, Col. James Thurstan, commander of Operation Interflex, emphasizes the purpose of his work: “We want to equip soldiers with the offensive spirit required for war, to go out onto the battlefield and kill the enemy.” Thurstan, who punctuates his words with forceful gestures that reinforce the message, admits that “it is a challenge to mobilize civilians who need to acquire this knowledge in a short period of time.” The most basic courses last five weeks. The most advanced courses are aimed primarily at professional soldiers and focus on leadership skills. They last up to 11 years. The average age of participants is around 25 years and barely 1% are women, who are largely responsible for translation tasks as the training is held in English and English language skills are not a requirement for receipt.

Ukrainian soldiers take part in first aid training for war casualties conducted by a British Army instructor. Ukrainian soldiers take part in first aid training for war casualties conducted by a British Army instructor. Lucía Abellan Hernández

The hardest part of the training usually takes place in the trenches, according to British soldiers involved in these courses. Although every Ukrainian citizen endures temperatures much colder than those currently recorded in the East of England, it consumes large amounts of energy to squat on wet, uneven ground for 48 hours straight with no protection other than a military uniform. Surviving in a half-destroyed city, where the enemy can lurk in the dark in every staircase or passageway, is also not easy.

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After completing training in the UK, Ukrainians return to their places of origin with the basic equipment for combat – helmet, boots or bulletproof vest; Weapons are not included – and the belief that they are more willing to fight the Russians. The greatest difficulties currently faced by the Ukrainian government in recruiting soldiers for front-line operations have led to the inclusion in these training courses of people who until recently were outside the military sphere of influence. This is the case of Andrii, a 45-year-old Kyiv citizen who was not initially selected for the mission but joined the armed forces three months ago. “My time has come,” he argues laconically.

With more or less conviction, these soldiers are trying to protect themselves from the increasingly uncertain prospects brought about by the war in Ukraine. The counteroffensive stalls and Western support begins to weaken. The United States, Kiev's main financial and military base, is having serious problems disbursing promised funds. The EU, which took the decisive step to start accession negotiations with Kiev at the end of 2023, is also revealing some difficulties, essentially to circumvent Hungary's veto of a 50 billion euro package that Ukraine is impatiently waiting for.

An expert who spent much of his career in the British Foreign Office and did not wish to be named warns that Russia currently has a slight advantage in the war but cannot sustain it in the long term. But if Donald Trump wins the US presidential election in November, extensive aid to Ukraine will likely suffer. “It is a potential risk,” he warns, calling on European countries to make “difficult decisions” to maintain support for the invaded country.

This dose of realism does not seem to dampen the morale of those who leave their country for a few weeks to return as soldiers. From a large room where the participants of the course pass their limited free time playing chess or table tennis, Vedmid, 28 years old and with a distant look, thinks only of a scenario to end a war that has shaken the world scene and caused a war enormous destruction in the east of the country: “Let the Russians go and I will stay in my country.”

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