This classroom is much like any other—there are tables, benches, a whiteboard, students, and a teacher up front. There is also gravel, and a smell of wet dog with a hint of gun oil. The classroom is a big green tent buffeted by wind and rain on the abandoned remains of what was once a Soviet military base in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. Within a hundred paces of the tent, 1980s-era rubber gas masks lie in the dirt around an entrance tunnel leading down to a bunker with a blast door as thick as my torso. The students in class today are Ukrainian soldiers plucked from the front lines to learn how to be soldiers from Canadian instructors.
After Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, Russian-backed separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic attempted to break away from eastern Ukraine, and open conflict broke out. Although a cease-fire has been in effect since February, the fighting in the eastern borders of Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts continues daily.
On April 14, 2015, then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada would deploy around 200 armed forces personnel to Ukraine to develop and deliver military training and military capacity-building programs for Ukrainian forces. The training program, which newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already said he will continue to support, will run until March 31, 2017.
The Canadian instructors are here in western Ukraine to train soldiers as part of Operation Unifier, which, according to an official briefing, “is intended to bolster Ukraine’s efforts to maintain its sovereignty, security, and stability in the face of Russian aggression.”
Today’s class is about counter-sniper techniques. Or in very real terms to these students — “How to find and kill the guy who just killed your friend.” The Ukrainian soldiers are dressed in a mixed camouflage of new but uncoordinated military equipment. Their body armor is at their feet on the gravel, along with their helmets and rifles. Some, newly arrived from the front lines of their war with pro-Russian separatists, visibly struggle to keep their eyes open, while others sit almost at attention paying heed to every word the interpreter says, often interrupting and asking for clarifications. They seem to range in age anywhere from 15 to 50.
“I was very concerned initially about them coming right off the front lines and having no rest, but they are very motivated and very eager,” said Maj. Benjamin Rogerson, the commanding officer of Charles Company, of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment. “In a lot of cases they have not been home or had a lot of leave. So we were mindful of that when we developed the training. … We didn’t want them to come right off of the front line into raw intensive training. We are still squeezing a lot into 55 days.”
Fifty-five days is the length of the program developed in Canada and being implemented here in Western Ukraine at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center. The program teaches one Ukrainian Ministry of Defense Mechanized Company of about 100 soldiers at a time. It is intended to supplement the standard six-week boot camp that soldiers receive, with further skills, both to keep them alive, and to get them working and thinking as cohesive units.
“Our platoons and our companies are formed of veterans of the front lines who have been in the military for some time, and also some replacement soldiers that have had only six weeks training,” said Ukrainian Pvt. Ivan Derlyuk, a former tailor who signed up in 2014. “The six-week guys, who just get to the front lines and are suddenly under artillery fire, they lose coordination and don’t know what to do. Some even try to run away,” he said. “Most likely that happens because they never got sufficient training and never understood the need for teamwork and operating as a team.”
The program covers all of the soldiering basics: marksmanship, light-machine-gun teamwork, infantry maneuvering tactics (with and without armored support), urban operations, sniping and counter-sniping, tactical medicine and an extensive course in explosive ordnance disposal and improvised explosive device disposal.
Within the almost $700 million in assistance pledged by Canada to Ukraine is $16 million for non-lethal military equipment: 7,000 helmets, 30,000 sets of ballistic eyewear, 2,300 protective vests, 100 tents, 735 sleeping bags, a mobile field hospital and 300 tactical medical kits. The tactical medical kits are being handed out to individual platoon medics once they complete the life-saving medical course.
“The majority of our soldiers simply don’t know what to do,” said Derlyuk. “I know a soldier who died simply from bleeding out because no one applied a tourniquet. Our army’s approach to medical training is minimal. We usually just get tensor bandages, a couple of Band-Aids and some basic painkillers. The training Canada has delivered is top of the line.”
The Ukrainian army, still very much mired in its former ruler’s Soviet doctrine and equipment level, is facing a well-funded, well-organized opponent, armed with state-of-the-art weaponry and technology.
“We are training them in everything from individual soldiering, all the way up to company-collective skills. But the really valuable stuff is the things we have developed through our recent Afghan experience. Our tactical medicine course is hugely important,” said Rogerson.
“The separatists have an infrared capability, minefields and heavy artillery,” said Master Cpl. Oleg Sharapa, a former engineer and a volunteer Ukrainian soldier. “Formations that the Canadians have taught us may work in the open for them, but don’t work in this conflict.”
He points to a recent operation, near Mariopol, a city in eastern Ukraine on the Sea of Azov, where the Ukrainians moved forward in nine tanks and 80 soldiers spread out as part of a mechanized offensive on the front lines. “Only one tank crew and 10 soldiers survived,” he said.
After a couple of hours of sniper theory, the Ukrainians are loaded onto Canadian trucks and driven out to a windswept firing range to put some of what they have learned into practice. A Canadian master corporal in a bright orange vest marches the platoons of Ukrainians out past the sniper rifles laying next to sandbagged positions, and guides them downrange to where the targets are. On radio command, a Canadian sniper fires at targets beyond where the group stands.
The science here, as this reporter understands it, is that a bullet punches a hole through the air as it flies, which creates a ‘crack’ as the air closes behind the bullet’s path. Using an estimated speed for the bullet, and by measuring the delay between the bullet’s passing and the sound of the rifle shot arriving, then using a table of values, it is possible to estimate the range to the sniper’s position. Standing downrange, it is a sound the veteran front line soldiers are all too familiar with.
“Mostly all of the guys have never received training of this caliber, and this may be the reason why some of them have not survived,” says Sharapa. “If our new guys got taught even basic soldier skills, it would benefit survivability on the battlefield. Through this training we have learned to work as one cohesive unit, and that gives us united strength.”
On the firing line, the next anti-sniper lesson involves running a steel rod through a bullet hole in a piece of cinder block to track the direction and trajectory from where the shot originated. “You could do this with a vehicle, or a tree … or sometimes with a human body,” says the Canadian master corporal, lying in the dirt by the cinder block looking up at the close-pressed group standing around. None of the faces show surprise when this is translated.
“We have to acknowledge that the (Canadian) Afghan experience is very different from what they are experiencing right now,” says Rogerson. “What we were facing was lower intensity. We were not facing tanks and artillery. This is a totally different conflict, and culturally totally different, but there are similarities to be drawn on the level of a post-Soviet military undergoing a rapid mobilization.”
“At times morale does drop,” said Derlyuk, “especially when everyone awaits the next mortar attack or artillery – at times it’s so frequent that guys can’t even catch a breath. But everyone is eager and anxious for an offensive.”
According to the Interpreter, a daily blog translation of Russian media sponsored by the New York-based Institute of Modern Russia, the “ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine entails multiple daily exchanges of artillery, mortar and rocket fire and sniping attacks, along with skirmishes involving grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and small arms. In each case, each side claims that the other has initiated the action.
On a single day in November, the Ukrainian military reported that Russian-backed fighters had conducted 36 attacks, while the defense ministry of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic claimed that Ukrainian forces had violated the cease-fire 16 times that day.
“Hah! The cease-fire ended quite some time ago,” laughs Sharapa.
“A cease-fire merely means a period of regrouping and reconsolidating forces and resupplying separatist positions,” said Derlyuk. “It’s a vicious never-ending cycle.”
Concurrent to delivery of training, Canada is also training instructors to eventually build up a combat training center here to deliver training to battle groups or battalions.
“We are limited in how many companies we can put through training over two years, but if we teach instructors our methods – adapted for their use – then they can continue the training indefinitely. That way we will create an enduring effect,” says Rogerson.
“They are facing a high-intensity, hybrid warfare where they are up against modern armor and artillery,” says Rogerson, “In a lot of cases it has been invaluable for (Canada) because we are finding areas where maybe we could improve our own techniques. The security environment is constantly changing and this in fact gives us operational knowledge that we otherwise wouldn’t be getting.”
At precisely 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, in the midst of training the Ukrainians in armor and infantry assault, a short halt is called along the foggy Ukrainian steppe for an impromptu Remembrance Day ceremony. Some 70 Ukrainians and a half dozen Canadians form a diamond in the blowing grass. A Canadian captain stands at one point, back to the wind, and says a short prayer.
For two minutes the throng of grubby, tired men stand, woollen toques in hands, contemplating all who have died throughout history’s wars, while they stare at the scudding clouds or at the dancing grass. Some perhaps are thinking of those front lines they will soon return to.
“In order for us to fix this, we must go on the offensive. And from history we know, don’t make any deals with Russian politicians. Anything you sign doesn’t mean anything to them.
“They will never keep their word,” he said.
THE CANADIAN FORCES ARTIST PROGRAM (CFAP)
According to the incredibly dated-looking CFAP Web site:
“The CFAP provides a range of unique opportunities to support the independent, creative work of professional Canadian artists of all cultures who wish to contribute to the history of the Canadian Forces. It is the aim of the CFAP to allow artists from across Canada, working in various media, to capture the daily operations, personnel and spirit of the Canadian Forces.”
I was lucky enough to be chosen on the last biannual intake in 2014. I am the latest of many Canadian artists who took the opportunity to record Canada’s soldiers in Canada and around the world. The hope is, again, according to the site statement, that, “these artists, all volunteers, will help usher in a new era of Canadian military art.” So that is what I did. I ‘ushered.’ But mostly I tromped around in the Ukrainian mud in my body armor, sketchbook in hand, getting in the way, and of course sketching. In your face Norman Rockwell.
Here is that link to the full program should any budding Canadian artists be out there reading. Canadian Forces Artist Program
I regularly correspond with sketchers all over the planet. This week I heard from Michael Chomse who wrote from South Africa to say how much he had enjoyed the piece I had written on drawing homeless people in D.C. He send me a sketch he had done of his father-in-law while in a hospital waiting area. Here it is below. Now Michael doesn’t sketch often, yet I feel he manages to capture quite effectively the pensive mood.
You can see more of Michael’s work here. Michael Chomse
Richard Johnson is a former Washington Post artist and journalist you can now contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org at least till someone takes this post down.
Want to see more of my work? www.newsillustrator.com.