KENT, England — A commander barked orders to Ukrainian recruits. A group of new soldiers wearing fatigues traversed a street strewn with grenade canisters, burning debris and overturned cars. A wounded man was brought 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 directed recruits through a mock village in southeast England. It was designed to resemble the scenes of destruction unfolding on the front lines of Ukraine more than a thousand miles away.
“This training in urban areas is exactly what we need,” said Nick, a 25-year-old Ukrainian recruit who offered only a nickname for fear of Russian retaliation against his family.
Nick is taking part in a British-led program to provide military training to tens of thousands of Ukrainian Army recruits and staff, an effort designed to bolster 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 militaries. About 2,000 recruits have completed the program and returned to Ukraine, British officials said.
Other nations — including Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden — have pledged to join the effort, which is in effect a retooled version of Operation Unifier, an international training initiative that began in 2015. In that program, troops from the United States, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Poland and Sweden, among other nations, trained about 35,000 Ukrainians.
The Ukrainians who gathered on Monday were part of a group of several hundred who had been flown in by British military planes and brought to an army base in Kent, a windswept corner of southeast England where British forces previously prepared for operations in Northern Ireland. It’s one of four sites where the British trainers are leading three-week courses that 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 in using more complex weaponry, like the multiple-launch rocket systems it has supplied to the Kyiv government.
“We are at a phase in the war where we need to reclaim our cities from occupying forces,” said a 34-year-old trainee named Snizhana. “The British officers training us have experienced this warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan — so now it is very useful for us.”
The trainers said they were impressed by the morale of the recruits, who ranged in age from 18 to 50. Major Craig Hutton, a Scottish commander who oversees 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 severe threat against their homeland,” he said.
The training exercises were planned in collaboration with Ukrainian military and intelligence officials, he added, and were designed to replicate scenes they could encounter on the battlefield back home — down to the spray-painted insignia on vehicles.
Many of the Ukrainians taking part in the exercise were given variants of the AK-47 weapons that they would likely use on the front lines. Others toted antitank weapons called NLAWs, thousands of which Britain has donated to help Ukrainians to destroy Russian tanks and armored vehicles.
“Nobody wants to die,” said a trainee 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 was killed in battle.
“I want my children and grandchildren to live in a free and flourishing, independent country,” he said.