Ukrainian infantrymen charged across a boggy field, Kalashnikovs raised, unleashing a flurry of bullets.
“Move! Move! Move!” came the order. Concealed by the cloud from a smoke bomb, one soldier raised a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and fired at a target 50 metres away — and missed. The group’s trainer ordered them to run the drill again.
A little more than a year ago, most of these troops were ordinary civilians. Then Russia launched its brutal new invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and they volunteered to join the fight, becoming soldiers of the Dnipropetrovsk 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade.
Aged from their 20s to their 60s, the former lawyers, interpreters, programmers and retired factory workers are now part of Ukraine’s big push to train up less experienced and completely new troops for its much-anticipated counter-offensive against Russia’s occupying forces.
“The average combat experience of the guys in this brigade is seven to 10 months,” said Roman, a press officer for the brigade who like other soldiers provided only a first name or call sign in keeping with Ukrainian military protocol.
“Some of them have seen real fighting but many have not . . . They all must be prepared for a tough battle ahead.”
After 14 months of all-out war, including grinding, months-long battles in the eastern cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, Ukraine’s military has been worn down. It has lost a large portion of its experienced soldiers, who made up the most effective units, and expended massive amounts of weaponry and artillery.
A few days before the training, Oleksiy, a soldier in a Kyiv Territorial defence brigade who was a linguist and teacher before the invasion, told the Financial Times that of his platoon of 21 troops, only three, including himself, had not been wounded or killed after a single day in Bakhmut.
“It was real hell. Like the first or second world war,” Oleksiy said. “We were shelled by mortars, tanks and planes. Drones dropped bombs on us.”
“I had to evacuate a severely wounded guy and a dead body from the trenches . . . It all happened in 24 hours,” he said.
Both Ukraine and Russia keep their official casualty figures as state secrets. But the US has estimated Ukraine’s casualties to be around 100,000, possibly as high as 120,000, including between 16,000 and 17,500 soldiers killed in action. Washington estimates that Russia’s overall casualties since its full-scale invasion in February 2022 amount to about 200,000, including between 35,500 and 43,500 troops killed.
The combat readiness of Ukraine’s military is vital if it is to achieve its goals of crushing Russian forces on the battlefield, recapturing occupied territory and swinging momentum decidedly in its favour.
After the training exercise, a soldier and father of three in his 50s who goes by the call sign Discus told the FT that he and his comrades might not be the most experienced soldiers, but they are highly motivated.
“We are fighting for our existence,” he said.
Discus retired from the Ukrainian armed forces in 2010, only to come out of retirement last year. “What was I going to do, sit on my ass?” he said when asked why he returned to military service. “How could I look my children in the eyes if I didn’t help?”
Yet leaked top-secret US intelligence documents reviewed by the FT suggest Washington is pessimistic that Kyiv can achieve its counteroffensive goals, even as western military aid continues to pour into Ukraine. One document predicted that the war in the eastern Donbas region would remain a “stalemate” throughout 2023.
Ukraine launched a big recruitment drive in winter, and posters calling for people to join the armed forces, police units and territorial brigades have since appeared around the country. Several new assault units are being formed under the Ministry of the Interior for use in offensive operations. The government expects around 40,000 soldiers to fill out their ranks.
But officials fear that will not be enough. The government has also been drafting new soldiers, and it approved rules earlier this month allowing recruitment centres to send call-up papers anywhere in the country. Previously they could only be handed to men aged between 18 and 60 at their registered addresses, but tracking them down proved difficult due to large-scale internal migration resulting from the war.
The stakes for Ukraine in the coming months could not be higher, senior officials in Kyiv told the FT. They are worried that a counteroffensive that fails or does not win back a large amount of Ukrainian territory could lead western supporters to push Kyiv to open negotiations with Moscow.
Andriy Sybiha, deputy head of the office of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told the FT in an interview this month that there is no room for mistakes.
“We are in a decisive moment now,” he said. “We need to show successes.”
The Russian army in Ukraine has faced its own challenges in recent months. An offensive operation launched in January has largely failed; Russian troops have managed only to capture — but not completely control — a few square miles of ground in Bakhmut.
Moscow’s military struggles are underscored by an intercepted phone call made by a Russian soldier to his mother back home on 18 March that was provided to the FT by a Ukrainian intelligence service.
In the call, Yegor, the soldier, tells his mother in Arkhangelsk, a city in Russia’s far north-west, that his comrades in and around Bakhmut are sustaining major losses and only a few men from his motorised rifle brigade remain alive.
He says Russian troops are suffering from an ammunition shortage; they are forced to carry out risky offensive operations without proper artillery support, leading to steep casualties; and they are not paid on time. Newly mobilised Russian servicemen arrive at the frontline untrained and scared, and “run away” when they are fired upon, he added.
He blames President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s top commanders for the battlefield failures.
“The main thing for them is to do well for themselves. They don’t care about anything else,” Yegor says. The FT could not independently authenticate the call.
While Russian forces have struggled to seize more Ukrainian territory, they have dug in on land under their control, intent on holding areas that Putin claimed to have annexed into Russia in September; Kyiv and much of the international community condemned the move.
Satellite imagery has shown newly dug, miles-long trenches and anti-tank “dragon’s teeth” obstacles in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces, as well as in Crimea.
Moscow’s focus on those areas is clear. Kyiv is expected to launch its counteroffensive somewhere near the flat, wide-open terrain where the FT met the 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade on April 12, driving in a military truck to a pasture less than two miles from the southern front line in Zaporizhzhia province.
Ukraine wants to push south and retake the strategic city of Melitopol, a logistics hub for Russian forces with a prewar population of around 150,000 that serves as a key section of the land bridge linking Russia to occupied Crimea. Liberating the city would undermine Moscow’s ability to reinforce its army and deal a humiliating blow to the Kremlin. It would also slice the territory under Russia’s control in two.
The 108th positioned an array of weapons across a field, including an SPG recoilless gun, an anti-aircraft twin-barrelled auto-cannon, an American Browning machine gun, and various mortars and grenade launchers. The troops took turns on the weapons while a drone was used to correct their fire. Over the course of two hours, they managed to destroy all their targets.
The territorial units are overseen by the Armed Forces of Ukraine and have been used alongside the military’s more established brigades. In Bakhmut, troops from the Kyiv Territorial Defence Forces have been fighting for months alongside elite units.
Coyote, a soldier in his 50s who drove over two landmines while fighting in eastern Ukraine and survived with minor injuries, brushed off doctors’ orders and left hospital early to get back to the battlefield.
“We need every man,” he said.