The British Army is helping to train Ukrainian recruits

Durrington (United Kingdom) (AFP) - Faces streaked in mud, Ukrainian soldiers charge across a plain, brandishing rifles as smoke drifts from an explosion.

But the recent recruits are not on the front line back home. They are in Britain, where the army is helping them to learn vital battlefield skills.

The first group of such volunteer recruits arrived in July and more than 5,700 have already taken the course.

In all, Britain has offered to train 19,000 Ukrainians.

The soldiers are taking part in a realistic training exercise involving exploding munitions and military vehicles. An actor plays a wounded soldier.

The group has little or no military background and just five weeks to develop high-level fighting skills.

“Before the fully-fledged invasion began, I was just a normal civilian person,” said one recruit with the fighting nickname “Panda”, his mud-smeared face masked up to his eyes.

“And then after the invasion started, I couldn’t do that anymore, I couldn’t live the civilian life anymore.

“So I joined the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces,” said the man, who worked as an engineer before the war.

“I’m ready to go to the battlefield and put into practice everything that I have learned,” he vows.

- ‘As lethal as possible’ -

The two most important skills being taught “are to how to survive on a battlefield and how to be as lethal as possible in a close fight,” says Lieutenant Colonel Kempley Buchan-Smith, commander of the 5 Rifles infantry battalion.

More than 5,700 Ukrainians have already taken the course and the UK has offered to train 19,000

He says the Ukrainian recruits are going through a “comprehensive training programme” comprising marksmanship, weapon handling, urban and trench warfare, battlefield first aid and the rules of armed conflict according to international law.

During the day’s training exercise, “we can see how accurate their live firing is” and train them to “engage targets as and when they arise”, he adds.

The troops crouch behind sandbags and respond to the rat-a-tat of “enemy” fire.

Suddenly the men have to deal with a civilian “casualty” – a man lying near bushes.

With outbursts of swearing, soldiers put a dressing and bandage on a wound – only for a British trainer to point out it is not put on properly.

The course involves battlefield skills, from weapons handling to first aid and the rules of armed conflict

“Training is necessary for everyone,” says one of the Ukrainian officers supervising the training, whose nom de guerre is “Neptune”.

“Especially in such a difficult and unpredictable situation.”

The trainees go back to Ukraine with kit donated by the army, including body armour and helmets –

- ‘Ready to advance’ -

Buchan-Smith says the training is adapting to the current state of the war, with Ukrainian troops recently managing to retake territory from Russian forces.

“As you have seen in the progress that’s being made by Ukraine in the east of their country, we have changed the nature of the training to be more offensive in nature.”

“So they’re absolutely ready to continue the advances that are being made.”

The UK has been a strong supporter of Ukraine since the Russian invasion

Later the group sits on the ground for a class on military vehicles including the Soviet-designed MT-LB amphibious vehicle and the SA-13 surface-to-air missile system.

The British officer is helped by a Ukrainian interpreter.

The class is also shown a American FGM-48 Javelin portable anti-tank missile system.

The training builds on an existing programme to train Ukrainian troops called Operation Orbital, which began in 2015, instructing more than 22,000 soldiers.

One of the British trainers, warrant officer Suren Ball, praises the recruits as “willing to learn”.

“I’ve seen the progression they make from day one to week five: it’s been absolutely immense,” he says.

Britain has strongly supported Ukraine’s armed forces during the war and announced Thursday it would supply them with air defence missiles and for the first time, rocket capable of shooting down cruise missiles.