NEAR YAVORIV, Ukraine – US and Lithuanian soldiers training a platoon of Ukrainian army soldiers on a cold and windy day near the border with Poland were preparing the Ukrainians for their first “live fire” exercise.
But first, the American commander had to be sure they were ready. So after loading their old Russian-built infantry fighting vehicles, with Lithuanian soldiers shouting instructions to Ukrainian drivers in Russian – a necessity, as it is a common language – they drove across the mud-covered terrain. and ice. at a place not far away, and fired blank.
They weren’t ready yet.
Safety is one of the key lessons here. Some of the Ukrainian soldiers are new recruits. Others are already frontline veterans in eastern Ukraine, but have not been formally trained.
Americans and Lithuanians are adapting their training practices, based on the experience of Ukrainians.
This included the construction of a large trench.
“The facility basically built this huge network of trenches to mimic some of the conditions… in the east,” Captain Evan Adams, the US operations officer who organized the exercise, told CBS News. “On our side, we really don’t do a lot of ‘trenching’ (training).”
This is a 55-day course for Ukrainian soldiers, the first in the Ukrainian army to train with this multinational coalition. They will graduate in mid-February and most will then return to eastern Ukraine.
The United States is working with Canadian, British and Lithuanian forces at the distance training center near Yavoriv, which is now called the Joint International Peacekeeping Security Center.
The Canadians are also training the Ukrainians at another facility to counter IEDs, and they will also begin flight safety training. There is extensive medical training as so many Ukrainian soldiers died at the start of the fighting as Russian-backed rebels took over the land in the east of the country.
Canada also regularly sends teams to Kiev to train Ukrainian military police.
Lt. Col. Nick Ducich of the California National Guard, US commander of Joint Multi National Training Group Ukraine, arrived in early November, when the mission shifted from training Interior Department troops to army units. regular. Five Ukrainian army battalions will pass through this training center in the coming months.
“Training here will increase their survivability on the battlefield,” said Ducich. “They are going against an enemy that has very sophisticated weapons – and not just from a lethal point of view… there is an electronic warfare aspect to it that we haven’t seen that we are now incorporating into training here. I don’t, ‘I think it’s about matching (Russia’s capabilities). I think it’s about knowing what you can do and maximizing that effectiveness on the battlefield. “
“We learn a lot from them. Our recent history is that of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Ukrainian experience is very different. So we are very respectful of what they need,” Lt. colonel. Tim Arsenault, Commander of the Canadian Forces.
Anatoly, a 46-year-old Ukrainian army major who spent a year and a half fighting in the battlefield towns of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, said the Americans were asking a lot of questions about the Russian weapons that Ukrainians saw.
The most important training, he says, is navigating the battlefield and rescuing wounded soldiers. At the start of the conflict, he says, “there was a lot of blood.”
The future challenge will be to prepare and equip the Ukrainian army to run the training center itself. But they face many challenges.
Anatoly, who didn’t want CBS News to use his last name, said guns and equipment have been stolen frequently in years past.
“Their army (of Ukraine) had not been funded traditionally until this epidemic, and now it is engaged in a fight,” Ducich said. “They’re modernizing their weapons and revising almost their entire approach to their military structure. It’s all happening at the same time. I think some are underestimated by what exactly they’ve had to go through; still being in this fight and being there. where they are right now. “
“They are re-equipping an army from scratch,” added the US commander.
And this process could take years.
The current American formation is purely defensive in nature.
“What we can’t tell them is how to beat their current threat. We can basically show them how to defend what they have and protect themselves,” said Adams, who organized the exercise we observed. . “This stuff is very real to them.”
On this special day of training, the Ukrainians have finally successfully completed their live fire training.
“They were excellent,” said Captain Adams. “They performed a lot faster than we thought. The troops we train are resilient and resourceful. The more we teach them, the more they improve. I have no doubts about their abilities at all. I wish them only. the best. and I sincerely hope that our training will help them. “
Tabled by CBS Radio News correspondent Cami McCormick.