As Ukrainian commanders gear up for a pivotal counteroffensive to push Russian forces back in Ukraine’s war, 23-year-old Vadym, a military recruit from Kyiv, says he wants to be on its front lines, even if it means losing his life.
“We’re going to die, probably,” Vadym said bluntly, as he trained on Friday at a military camp in Yorkshire, England. He was one of several hundred Ukrainians who volunteered for a five-week crash course in basic training, as what could be one of the bloodiest phases in the 15-month war is set to begin. Like other recruits, he asked to be identified only by his first name.
Vadym said his bleak view of his chances of survival was widely shared among his fellow recruits, all of whom are now halfway through the course.
“They want to fight, and being in hell on the front lines is part of it,” Vadym said, his boyish face covered in camouflage paint. “I realized all the dangers. It just doesn’t matter.”
He stopped himself: “It does matter of course, but still, it is the price we pay.”
It may still be weeks, if not months, before Vadym and others currently going through basic training find themselves in actual combat. The timing of Ukraine’s promised counteroffensive has been kept a closely guarded secret, although Ukrainian leaders have said in recent days they are ready for it.
That young Ukrainians are enlisting now, in time to join a military operation that could slog on indefinitely, evokes comparisons to American men and women who signed up for military duty after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There is, however, a key difference: The survivors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan returned to a relatively safe homeland. The Ukrainians who crawled through muddy trenches and stormed a makeshift hotel in training exercises on Friday may be forced to fight for their country’s territory against neighboring Russia for years to come.
And while Western forces generally spend years training, and many who enlist are professional soldiers who want to make the military a career, the Ukrainians have “a different mentality,” said Second Lt. Jordan Turton, a British infantry officer who has been working with the recruits.
“Five weeks ago, one of them was a translator, one of them worked in sales, one of them was a barber,” Lieutenant Turton said. “The overriding feeling is that they want to defend their country, to defend their loved ones, to defend their friends, their family.”
The military exercises in Yorkshire’s rolling green and yellow dales — not unlike the steppe of southeastern Ukraine where parts of the offensive are expected to unfold — were the latest in a mission that has trained almost 15,000 recruits over the last year.
It was carried out Friday by British and Norwegian troops who recently began showing the Ukrainian recruits how to disable drones — a nod at their growing importance on the battlefield, particularly in the trench warfare that has become a hallmark of the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian infantry.
Lieutenant Turton, who underwent his own basic training not too many years ago, said the Ukrainian recruits have been aggressively eager to learn.
“If I’m honest, in terms of looking back at this stage in my training, they’re far better than I was,” he said.
Just a little over six weeks ago, one of the recruits, who gave only his first name, Ihor, was working as a stonemason in Lviv. He said his wife and two children were shocked when he announced he was going to volunteer for the war.
“And when they calmed down, they understood,” said Ihor, who was born in 1990 — the last year Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. Even though democracy and other Western ideals have always been a part of his values, it was not until recent years that he began to see Russia as a threat, Ihor said through a translator.
“The Russian narrative states that we are brother nations,” Ihor said. “But a brother doesn’t come to a brother with a weapon in his hands.”