Why Ukrainian Soldiers Have to Learn to Fight on YouTube and How to Change That
Erik Kramer and I answered the call early last year when Ukrainian commanders pleaded for volunteers to train them given the very limited opportunities to attend NATO training or any training with instructors of combined-arms maneuver. We believed in Ukraine’s plight and put our lives on hold believing we could make a difference, no matter how small or large. For those of us that joined the Ukraine Defense Support Group, we faced suicide drones, artillery barrages, and foreign intelligence service threats while conducting medical training and stabilizing patients near the front lines. We did so because we truly believe that Ukrainian lives are worth preserving and that efforts to bring this war to a swift conclusion are worth the personal risk.
As a former Special Forces ground force commander, I personally have lost soldiers in close combat, cried and trembled as I placed my hand on their coffins — coffins holding the remains of someone who was once young, full of life, and a close friend — then delivered neatly folded flags to their widows and children. In Ukraine I have heard the heartfelt cries of commanders as they ask if they will ever be alright after losing over half of their unit, composed of their close friends. To stop this incredible loss of life is why we started the Ukraine Defense Support Group.
Like many volunteers in Ukraine, we sought numerous funding streams to continue to offset the great personal expense we incurred to keep operations running, but the organization is essentially a not-for-profit in its mission. As founders and directors of the organization, we have not taken a single dollar in profit. The only reason we are not a not-for-profit is because our activities are inconsistent with interpretations of U.S. or Ukrainian tax law for that specific entity.
In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Rudy Weisz pushed back against an article that we wrote detailing significant challenges that the Ukrainian military faces with offensive operations. He also disagreed with our recommendation for month-long short-duration combined-arms training despite relying on his own counter-example of a 2015 training event in Ukraine that featured just eight-week training intervals. The piece also stood in stark contrast to our efforts and the harsh realities that we had personally seen while training the Ukrainian military. Erik and I believe that a “train the trainer” program could overcome several of the cultural and endemic challenges that the Ukrainian military members are facing in combat. Our recommendation is based on the fact that we have literally done it on a limited scale over the last nine months. In Ukraine. That this could be done is because it has been done — on the ground by U.S. volunteers.
Addressing the Real Problem
In Weisz’s piece, he argued that the United States and its NATO allies should continue with the status quo of providing all large-scale formal training. Here is the challenge: The Ukrainian military has grown from a total of 250,800 personnel in 2015 to over one million strong since mobilization in 2022. To train as many soldiers as is required, it is imperative for NATO, volunteers, and contractors to work together — or at least in parallel — to keep up with demand. In our experience, Ukrainian soldiers are often left with no other option but to learn to use foreign aid and weapons from watching videos on YouTube. Our recommendation to teach Ukraine’s own instructors, providing them their own in-house uniform combined-arms maneuver training, helps solve this capacity issue right now and in the future without waiting on NATO or spending billions more in aid.
This recommendation acknowledges the obvious: The United States and other NATO allies have worked hard over the last decade with the Ukrainian political and military leadership to develop a modern combined-arms military. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Western training can keep pace with a demand that has far exceeded expectations. NATO is credited with training “tens of thousands” since 2014, with the bulk of those coming from the recent training and equipping of 36,000 soldiers, or nine brigades, since Russia’s special military operation in 2022. The problem is that “tens of thousands” only meets a small percentage of the Ukrainian military’s training demands for over a million servicemembers.
The trends in the war are also disconcerting. Despite the allocation and expenditure of well over $150 billion in U.S. and NATO aid, Ukraine’s current offensive operations have, as Michael Kofman and Rob Lee recently noted, and a German reporter on the front lines stated, largely stalled and are very likely to become a prolonged war of attrition. According to our field research and other reports, the rate of attrition of personnel and equipment strongly indicates a continued unimaginable loss of life that severely reduces Ukraine’s ability to maintain offensive operations if additional training needs are not met. Units with less training are far more likely to see higher attrition rates, which further accelerates the need for replacements.
To meet mounting personnel requirements in Vietnam, the United States started drafting soldiers who would not have met previous draft requirements under Project 100,000. These soldiers, over 350,000 in total, also received less in-person hands-on training as then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, informed by think tanks and generals, believed that significant advances in weapons and other technology such as video training would supplement their time-constrained training needs. Those soldiers died at a rate nearly three to five times that of their peers and after the war this prompted reform in requirements for military service. Overwhelmingly superior tech and equipment could not in fact supplement their personnel losses and could not win that war. The attrition of trained personnel is a vicious cycle that, once started, is challenging to interrupt. In fact it may already be too late for Ukraine to interrupt their current cycle of trained personnel attrition if it is not immediately and aggressively addressed.
Ukrainian commanders need to develop their own internal capacity to increase soldier training. Given that we have on-the-ground experience and expertise working in developing indigenous partner capacity, we offer that instructors like us are uniquely qualified to modify existing training approaches for the Ukrainian military. Pundits and even experienced NATO commanders who have not stood in Ukraine recently and have not spoken to front line commanders cannot be faulted for not seeing ground-level issues, but they should seek to understand these issues before making too-broad assumptions about how to train Ukrainian forces as this conflict continues.
Our Approach: A Quintessential Method
Our personal motto is De Oppresso Liber, to liberate the oppressed. In Ukraine, Erik and I have gone to where our partners are, shared their risks to understand their exact issues, then developed their cadre and organized their training — all while adapting to each unit’s unique combination of equipment and personnel to build their capacity to not just fight, but to prevail in armed conflict. Finally, we advise Ukrainian units when they go to the front lines and employ their training. We stay in near-constant contact with many of them as they ask for advice while they serve their time on the front, and this also serves to directly feed us relevant real-time observations. These observations allow us to adapt training immediately in response to rapidly changing enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures as well as advances in Ukrainian capabilities — something that longer, more doctrinally rigid training programs abroad cannot do.
Our “train-the-trainer” program is the quintessential method in the Special Forces organization phase of unconventional warfare. This phase is where we develop the cadre and organic capacity of a partner nation. This is what we have done in Ukraine and the results of our work have been some of the most personally rewarding of our professional careers.
We believe that many outsiders, to include former experts, are not fully aware of what it is like for front-line Ukrainian units. From our personal experience, we know that many reports that filter out of the conflict are heavily sanitized and so it is difficult for outsiders to truly comprehend. In Weisz’s article, he states that that other Special Forces teams training in 2019 told him that “the Ukrainians [eagerly] approached training with the U.S. military.”
This is undeniable and is evident in our own personal experience. However, there is a big difference between having the will to modernize and adopt new methodologies, and actual widespread uniform modernization. The challenges that we identified in our previous article for War on the Rocks have prevented wide-scale implementation of this training. In my experience, having trained virtually all types of units in Ukraine and many others around the world, Ukrainian soldiers are some of the best and most attentive students I have ever had the pleasure of working with. They just need help in facilitating these methodologies given significant evolving challenges.
We also believe that training should take roughly 30 days. This is based, in part, on previous U.S. efforts to train the Ukrainian armed forces. In 2015, the six-month Operation Fearless Guardian that trained rotations of approximately 200 soldiers, which Weisz cited as his main example for maintaining the status quo, had just eight weeks of tactical training. That entire operation also trained just 900 soldiers. At the end of it, they were far from “modernized” — then-President Petro Poroshenko addressed the culmination of the event by saying “the training would give a New Face to Ukraine’s conscript army, which is poorly trained and equipped.” Each eight-week training rotation of Operation Fearless Guardian also resulted in live fire exercises at just the “squad and then platoon level.”
We have no doubt that higher-level training likely occurred, but our organization does higher-level, company live-fire exercises as early as the five to 10-day mark. We have chosen to accelerate training and accept more risk because most Ukrainian units have just three to six weeks of training before going to the front lines. This is because of the demand to replace or reconstitute units that regularly see attrition rates as high as 70 to 80 percent before they can be rotated out of their position. The harsh reality of large-scale combat operations allows little luxury beyond a short individual basic course followed by a condensed three-week collective training program. It is also important to realize that most of this training has to be conducted with little ammunition and without most of the equipment they will be expected to fight with, as the priority for limited resources must go to the front. It is very common that military units pick up their equipment on the way to the front or fall in on a rotating unit’s equipment that they leave behind in the trenches. The training for Ukrainian forces in Europe has been a great benefit, but it requires significantly longer periods of time that cannot keep up with requirements to replace front-line units.
This exceptionally high attrition rate, which Konrad Muzyka recently cited on the Russia Contingency podcast, also means that lessons taught to students or units are essentially lost after a single combat rotation. This is why reliance on foreign NATO instructors abroad does not create enough capacity and will not in the foreseeable future. The continued attrition rate also means that most units are severely under-manned and lack offensive capability. Almost every company we have encountered resembles a U.S. platoon in strength.
To send whole units off for months, as required by NATO training programs, means that remaining soldiers in those units must go forward missing large elements of combat power. Every day in Ukraine we would have multiple units asking for training and we would often train almost every single day. Without widely available combined-arms style training that is effective many units have reverted back to older and more available Soviet training, YouTube, and legacy NATO doctrine found in publications like the Ranger Handbook to fill the considerable gaps.
The unprecedented access that the Ukraine Defense Support Group has had at the National Academy of The State Border Guards, the military academy of the Ministry of Interior, has resulted in the internal capacity of Ukraine’s most senior instructors to teach uniform combined-arms training without any additional assistance. This “indigenous” approach allowed them to provide their own uniform combined-arms training for the brigade and battalion commanders and staff of over 15,000 soldiers in both the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense in just one month. This was largely in part because it was already adapted to their specific nuanced circumstances and needs.
Another critical difference to our approach is that we helped to develop Ukraine’s adapted doctrine and laws. These modifications further enabled immediate implementation. Instead of just teaching our doctrine and leaving them to shoehorn it to their unique circumstances, we first took the time to understand the Ukrainian military’s varied conflicts and issues, then worked with senior leaders to overhaul old doctrine and rules that prevented NATO training from being uniformly implemented. We were allowed to work at that strategic level because we demonstrated value, credibility, and reliability in person, in Ukraine. This is what Green Berets can do. This is also what separates us from virtually all other training offered in Ukraine and makes us and other western “contractors” uniquely capable of providing instruction.
The whole effort at the National Academy was with just eight Ukraine Defense Support Group instructors including interpreters. It also cost the U.S. taxpayers nothing. If properly scaled it would supplement all of Ukraine’s needs very quickly and leave us without a job, because the Ukrainian military would have all the tools they need to continue that effort without external assistance.
What is the real problem with NATO training? In our experience, Ukrainian soldiers are generally very appreciative of the training they have received. However, many soldiers have faced significant challenges in implementing that training. Many units were trained by different NATO partners, so the doctrine they were taught was not uniform. This means that the units could not readily work together or achieved shared understanding to work seamlessly with adjacent units. The trained units also did not have uniform personnel and equipment. It was also common that they would not have access to the equipment they were expected to deploy with. In our experience, soldiers felt that they did not actually get significant hands-on experience with specific equipment, and that training was often based on theoretical or simulated scenarios with instruction relying heavily on old, approved NATO-member doctrine training programs.
Most of the combined-arms training has not been adapted for the Ukrainian battlefield. Compounding this issue is that most combined-arms training is based on integrated and interdependent concepts such as targeting cycles, sustainment systems, and medical systems. For example, NATO trainers can teach a Ukrainian soldier how to use a medical evacuation form. However, if there are no uniform communications protocols to make a radio transmission with, or a person on the other end who understands the shorthand transmission, the value of this training is greatly reduced. Worse, it can be completely useless if they cannot provide medical evacuation due to a sheer lack of equipment — an issue that Lee has pointed out on War on the Rocks.
Another major issue is that whole cohesive units are not always participating in NATO training. Ukrainian units would be given “slots” to train, and in an effort to maximize the benefits of these courses many units would send a couple of their best to attend the courses, and then attempt to extract what they learned and adapt this to their varied specific organic personnel and equipment situations. Most of the men sent were junior soldiers. Officers were expected to manage almost all aspects of training in Ukraine given a near complete lack of non-commissioned officer cadre and were therefore incapable of attending. This means that commanders often did not have the chance to receive the training or methodology.
As such, and at no fault to NATO, the Ukrainian military has struggled to adapt to the rapidly changing threats and demands on the battlefield, and has largely moved away from NATO style combined-arms tactics in the face of a challenging offensive. In contrast, with understanding of these complex issues, Ukraine Defense Support Group members always asks training units — who invariably all have different weapons systems — what equipment and personnel they have or are expected to have so we can train whole units including commanders on realistic scenarios and real expected missions. These are all things that smaller groups working with the Ukraine Armed Forces can do in-country.
Considering all these observations earned through genuine in-person relationships, sharing their risks, and applying years of expertise adapted to Ukraine’s needs, we are able to address each unit’s exact personnel, equipment, time constraints, and unique mission considerations to give them the tools to maximize their combat power in offensive operations. One thing that also separates our efforts from other known efforts is that we can directly influence doctrine and legal changes. A low-cost indigenous approach like ours that costs less than a single tank also directly complements current NATO efforts and could potentially save billions in additional aid. The most important thing, though, is that our recommendations could result in tens of thousands of lives being saved. That is hundreds of thousands of parents and fellow Ukrainians who would not need to bury their sons and daughters.
Paul Schneider is the co-founder of the Ukraine Defense Support Group. He is a former commander in U.S. Special Forces who retired to pursue humanitarian efforts that included evacuating his former Afghan allies and U.S. citizens in 2021. After Russia’s invasion in early 2022, Paul then volunteered to help humanitarian efforts in Ukraine and has been an instructor to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.