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Hannah McCarthy

Ukraine frontline: 'Everybody needs to be at least this good, so you don’t hurt your friends'

Journalist Hannah McCarthy is in Ukraine documenting the training of soldiers.

LAST UPDATE | 17 Nov 2022

“NEVER POINT THE gun at anything you don’t want to shoot,” says an American who goes by the name Fred.

“Keep your finger off the trigger unless you’re pulling the trigger.”

“The people who don’t know this are the people who are going to shoot you in the fucking back,” he continues.

“Everybody needs to be at least this good, so you don’t hurt your friends and so that you kill the enemy.”

It’s a cold Autumnal day and Fred is delivering training next to an abandoned building on the outskirts of Kyiv. His audience is 60 members of the Ukrainian National Guard of varying ages and builds.

“These volunteers don’t want to be here,” says ‘Jack’, a former British soldier. “There’s a war which has been imposed upon them and only a few weeks ago, they were professionals, tradespeople, fathers, brothers and the like.”

Jack didn’t want to use his real name as he is worried about being detained or questioned back in the UK about his work in Ukraine.

Jack and Fred are part of a team from The Mozart Group, a security company comprised of veterans of Western militaries. Founded by Andy Milburn, a former US marine, the group has been delivering training across Ukraine to the military and police, as well as conducting evacuations from frontline areas.

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“There are no formal military schools anymore,” says Martin Wetterauer who served with Milburn in the Marines and is now working for The Mozart Group in Kyiv. “When the war started the military schools [in Ukraine] shut down and they sent all their instructors to the frontline. And a lot of those guys didn’t come back.”

“So, you end up with this void,” says Wetterauer. “That’s where we have come in to try to help the unit commanders get training for their troops.”

Urban warfare

The focus of the training camp in Kyiv is urban warfare, first aid and ensuring that the Ukrainian soldiers are equipped to deal with the demands of Winter fighting.

“We’re trying to get them to give them an idea of what the fighting urban area will be like because a lot of them a lot of the fighting right now is concentrated on small hamlets and trying to take back the industrial areas [in Eastern Ukraine],” says Mark who served in the Canadian military but still speaks with an accent from his native Poland.

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“What we’re going to be doing is making sure that they’re as best equipped as possible with an understanding of the best way to approach urban fighting, both defending and attacking principles,” says Jack.

“It’s very easy to put on a combat uniform, carry a gun, get shot out and shoot back – it doesn’t really make you a soldier,” he says. “Being a solider is understanding concepts and tactics like deconfliction, administration and forward planning – the abstracts all brought together makes you a soldier.”

Mark says that the Mozart Group instructors have spent a lot of time teaching the soldiers how to look after themselves when they’re on deployment: “We explain the type of shoes they need, how to stay clean and how to avoid gangrene when they’re spending weeks fighting outside in the cold. It’s not the same as running around in Summer.”

As casualties mount for Ukrainian Forces, medical equipment and first aid training have been a priority. The commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhny said in August that 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died while Russian sources put Ukrainian losses as high as 14,000.

At the training session in Kyiv, the men are all told to drop to the ground and apply tourniquets that will stem the loss of blood in the event of a catastrophic bleed which can kill within minutes.

As the outbreak of war in Ukraine led to an increase in demand for tourniquets, there’s been an uptick in poor quality tourniquets that break on application being sold online. “You’ll only realise it’s not good enough when it’s too late,” notes one instructor grimly.

As part of its policy of non-military alignment, Ireland has not contributed funding for weapons or ammunition to Ukraine. Instead, the Irish state has so far provided EUR 66 million through the European Peace Facility to Ukraine for “non-lethal assistance” which includes medical equipment, body armour, uniforms, first aid kits and fuel.

Medical training

Dathan Brennan was a member of the Defence Forces for 22 years and served as an advanced combat medic in the medical corps. He’s now using his experience to oversee medical training for Ukrainian soldiers with The Mozart Group.

He has also been assisting in evacuations from frontline zones. “There are people who literally just woke up one day and found they were living in a warzone,” says Brennan.

“We’ve gone into places where the guy is standing in front of his house that’s gone, literally just after being shelled the night before.”

“If we want to go into the fire and get somebody out, Andy [the head of the Mozart Group] will let us. We’re not restricted to rules and procedures,” says Brennan on a call from Ireland where he has been on a break from Ukraine.

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As members of the group are all ex-military, some of the structures and processes are similar to those used by the military but “the risk factor is obviously a lot higher,” he says. “From a military point of view, you would be going around armed. Here, we’re going in unarmed and in soft skin vehicles to get people.”

The tactical and medical training being provided to the Ukrainian soldiers in Kyiv by the Mozart Group is “backwards,” says Brennan. “These people, unfortunately, have gone to the frontline with no training and could spend a couple of weeks there – maybe even longer – and then they come back and then to try get their basic training. You normally don’t go anywhere until you’re fully trained and ready to go.”

One Ukrainian soldier at the training sessions said he had joined the Ukrainian National Guard in March and was immediately deployed to a defensive position around Kyiv and then the Donbas.

“After we finished the mission in the Donbas, we came back to receiving some training from the international instructors,” he says. “I’ve started to pay attention to small details, and I improved my knowledge of how to look after myself on the battlefield as well.”

While in Zaporizhzhia in Eastern Ukraine, Brennan trained members of the Azov Battalion, a former right-wing nationalist militia which has been involved in heavy frontline fighting since the start of the war. Recruits join that battalion because they know they’ll be sent to the frontline, says Brennan.

“One of the Azov guys who helped us with translation used to play the flute in an orchestra in Kyiv,” he recalls. “He said ‘we’re being sent to go fighting but now we’ve been trained by special forces from America that give us confidence and help us not to feel so vulnerable.’”

EU military training for Ukraine

While other EU countries and members of the NATO alliance have been funnelling high volumes of weapons to Ukraine, military trainers from these countries are prohibited from entering Ukrainian territory to avoid a direct confrontation with Russian forces. This means that there is a shortage of instructors inside Ukraine teaching soldiers how to use some of the more technical weapons.

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“Javelin missile launchers can be difficult to use,” says one British trainer after the training camp in Kyiv has finished. “I’ve met Ukrainian units who say that they have them but can’t use them because they don’t know how to, or they say they’re malfunctioning, and they don’t know how to fix them.”

In October, the EU including Ireland agreed to establish an EU Military Assistance Mission to support Ukraine. According to a spokesperson with the Department of Foreign Affairs, “the Missions will provide specialised training to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and coordinate existing Member State training.” This specialised training would likely focus on demining and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

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The spokesperson further noted that “an Irish contribution at staff level is under active examination, as is a potential contribution to the wider training offer.”

This means that members of the Defence Forces could be stationed in mainland Europe – likely Poland and Germany – training Ukrainian soldiers.

Paul Murphy TD said in the Dáil last month that his party, People Before Profit, “are opposed to the participation in EU military training and the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, which is, in reality, a NATO alliance.”

Hannah McCarthy is a journalist currently reporting from Ukraine.

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