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Ukraine demoted commander who gave interview about ill-trained troops

Lt. Col. Kupol, a battalion commander in the 46th Air Assault Brigade, at an undisclosed location in eastern Ukraine, on March 4. He says he was demoted after giving an interview to The Washington Post. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine — A Ukrainian battalion commander who gave an interview to The Washington Post describing how ill-trained troops were weakening Ukraine’s position on the battlefield quit his post this week, after his superiors demoted him because of his remarks, he said.

The commander, a lieutenant colonel who goes by the call sign Kupol, served in the 46th Air Assault Brigade. He declined to provide further details or to grant another interview.

He said that he decided to speak out, despite the risks, hoping the United States would ensure better training for Ukrainian soldiers, including some who have gone into battle without knowing how to throw a grenade or handle their weapons. Some abandoned their positions while under Russian fire, he said in the interview.

Ukrainian military and government officials did not immediately respond on Thursday evening to request from The Post for comment on Kupol’s status.

But a spokesman for the Airborne Assault Forces, Valentyn Shevchenko, confirmed to the Ukrainska Pravda news site that Kupol had been removed from his battalion command and reassigned to a training center. Shevchenko said that Kupol did not have permission from his commander, as required, to speak to the press, and that he had exaggerated his unit’s losses, as well as the poor level of training of replacement troops.

Kupol’s punishment has spurred outrage among some in Ukraine, who said his comments reflected a necessary truth that Ukrainian leaders are unwilling to hear.

Ukraine short of skilled troops and munitions as losses, pessimism grow

Kupol voiced his concerns as Russian and Ukrainian forces are locked in a grinding artillery war with neither side seemingly strong enough to make serious territorial gains. Russian leaders are insisting that their war aims, including the seizure of four southeast Ukrainian regions, will be achieved. Ukraine is preparing for what many analysts expect will be a spring counteroffensive that will require significant manpower and ammunition to push Russian forces out of territory they control.

Kupol and other military personnel have warned that task will be extremely difficult with so many of Ukraine’s most experienced fighters now wounded or killed. Ukraine keeps its casualties secret but U.S. and European officials have estimated as many as 120,000 dead and wounded. Russia is believed to have lost about 200,000 but has a much larger population.

“These are exactly the kind of people we need at the front,” Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, wrote on his Telegram channel about Kupol. “He emphasized in the interview that the soldiers should be trained even better. Of course, the better prepared a warrior is, the better he fights. What is wrong here? I believe that this story should be publicized.”

Another lawmaker, Volodymyr Ariev, wrote on Facebook: “This government wants to hear only what they want.”

Traumatic stress, an invisible wound, hobbles Ukrainian soldiers

Yuri Butusov, a prominent Ukrainian war reporter, said that Kupol’s troops are the ones who will suffer from his departure. Butusov expressed hope that Kupol would be reinstated and that the military leadership would be willing to hear hard truths.

“We have to defeat Russia both on the front and in our minds — and instead of shutting our mouths, we have to start thinking and acting to improve ourselves daily,” Butusov posted on Facebook.

About 100 of the 500 troops in Kupol’s battalion were killed over the last year, and 400 others were wounded, he said. The mass casualties left him responsible for new, inexperienced troops who were expected to deploy immediately despite an obvious lack of training.

In the interview, Kupol had acknowledged that his remarks could result in disciplinary measures. “As a patriot of my country, I’m worried about my country. That’s all,” he said.

“Do you know what the problem is with our commanders?” he added. “They have a narrow circle, which does not deliver bad news to them. They filter out the bad news.”

Khurshudyan reported from New York. Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv contributed to this report.

What to know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive

The latest: The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.

The fight: Ukrainian troops on Wednesday night intensified their attacks on the front line in the southeast region, according to multiple individuals in the country’s armed forces, in a significant push toward Russian-occupied territory.

The frontline: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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