From an undisclosed forest training base Foreign Editor David Pratt reports on the preparations to bolster Ukraine’s army with new recruits alongside a coming offensive described by some as the war’s potential equivalent of D-Day. All photographs by David Pratt

For reasons of security, he prefers only to be known by his call sign, “Uncle”. In many ways it’s an appropriate epithet, suggesting as it does a close relative, which to the men under his command that’s almost what he is.

Fifty-two years old and a veteran of frontline combat who earlier this year was wounded in action and is now unable to return to the line, Uncle is a hard taskmaster.

As one of the military instructors preparing new recruits for Ukraine’s bloody battlefields across the country against their Russian foes, he has to be.

Uncle’s job, in theory at least, is simple enough. It’s about preparing his men, many of them “citizen soldiers” from otherwise ordinary backgrounds to be ready to kill the enemy – and keep themselves alive while doing so.

Not since the Second World War has Europe seen such intense fighting, much of it at very close quarters. It’s a theatre of combat where the skills of the average infantryman are put to the ultimate test.


David Pratt in Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers undergoing tactical battlefield training


This is often fought out in trench warfare across Ukraine’s seemingly endless plains and forests, or in devastated urban environments like the eastern city of Bakhmut where because of the slaughter going on it has become known as the “meat grinder”.

It’s a hugely physically and mentally demanding environment that here in a woodland clearing, somewhere in Kyiv Oblast province, Uncle and his fellow instructors are trying to replicate.

It’s a hot, spring afternoon, and by way of example, Uncle hurls himself across an assault course comprised of monkey bars and tightropes before dropping to the ground a few minutes later into a firing position with a telescopic rifle.

It’s an impressive physical performance for someone of his age laden with heavy body armour, ammunition clips and a large sniper rifle strapped across his back. If the lingering troubles of his past wounds are a hindrance, they don’t in the least show and the mainly much younger recruits that follow in Uncle’s wake are hard pressed to match his fitness.

Rigorous regime

Five lung-searing times the recruits go through this rigorous regime, their chests heaving like spent swimmers from the exertion. All the while Uncle barks commands and criticisms at them.

Some are also ordered to practise pulling imaginary wounded comrades out from under fire into cover, while others are instructed to self-evacuate after applying a tourniquet to a fictious badly-bleeding arm or leg wound.

Such self-administered tourniquets, preventing what combat medics call “bleeding out”, have saved many a life on Ukraine’s frontlines.


David Pratt in Ukraine

A demining instruction session


I asked Uncle about the men and women who come forward for such a demanding training programme.

“Now people of all ages and backgrounds are training,” he tells me. “You can’t live your life on a mobile phone, you can’t just watch the news on TV. When your country is attacked by a powerful enemy, then even if you are not called you should start training yourself – that’s why not only military personnel undergo training at this base,” he explains.

Uncle himself was an early recruit in the fight against Russia. It was back in 2014 that he signed up for the armed forces. “I passed initial training and went to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at that time but the war then, from 2014 to 2017, and the war from 2022 until now, has a lot of differences. It used to be more like a special operation

with small groups fighting, and there wasn’t as much heavy weaponry,” he says of those early days when Ukraine responded to pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow who began to seize territory in the east of the country.

Fast-forward to today and it’s a new generation of recruits that find themselves here at the base learning the skills of warfare.

Elsewhere across Ukraine, thousands of other mainly young Ukrainian men and women are undergoing the same preparations for the onslaught ahead as part of a much-anticipated counteroffensive that some say could prove to be Ukraine’s equivalent of D-Day in this current war.


David Pratt in Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers practice the evacuation of a wounded comrade under fire


Nobody, short of those at the top of Ukraine’s political and military corridors of power, knows exactly when or where this potentially decisive offensive will take place, but everybody senses it’s coming – and sooner rather than later.

After more than 14 months of tough fighting, maintaining combat effectiveness has become a key challenge for Ukraine’s armed forces. It’s only to be expected that any military engaged in the “churn” of such intense combat for such a prolonged period as that of Ukraine’s is bound to experience a reduction in effectiveness as the most experienced soldiers are killed or wounded, and replaced with fresh recruits.

With more than 120,000 of Ukraine’s professional, well-trained forces lost over the last year, for some time now the race has been on to ready their replacements among whom many are mobilised “citizen soldiers” like those training under instructors like Uncle.

Russian casualties

RUSSIA, of course, faces similar and arguably greater problems. Its own military is estimated to have suffered over 200,000 casualties and is filled with mobilised soldiers, many of whom are effectively enticed by financial incentives, press-ganged, or recruited from among Russia’s convict population.

The result is little motivation to fight and poor or often collapsed morale, as has been reported lately among some Russian frontline troops around Bakhmut.

Back on the woodland training base, Uncle’s men are also simulating attacks on fixed enemy positions just as their battle-hardened comrades in arms have been doing in real time in Bakhmut, Kherson and other live frontlines.

After throwing smoke grenades into the long grass, the recruit soldiers advance under “covering fire”.

In a nearby network of trenches currently standing empty, training also takes place readying soldiers for the yard-by-yard war of attrition that has become such a grisly hallmark of this conflict to date.

“Some of the men have had low-level roles in defence in Ukraine but as many as 80% of those who arrive have no military experience at all and have certainly never fired a weapon in anger,” Uncle explains.

New recruits are rarely thrown into the most fiercely contested battles, their commanders instead insisting that their main task is to stay alive, watch, learn and listen from more experienced comrades.

It’s an altogether different approach from that of their Russian enemies whose captured soldiers tell of mobiks – as their recruits are known in Russian slang – thrown into the “zero line”, often resulting in terrible casualties.


David Pratt in Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers operate a drone above the forest canopy during training


On average, this Ukrainian base houses between 400-500 recruits who live in tents. What facilities there are include cold-water showers – the aim being to have conditions as close to living in the “field” as possible.

Some 5,000 recruits pass through the training schedule at the base monthly, with most receiving three weeks’ basic training.

Other more seasoned soldiers also come and go, undergoing specialist or “refresher” training that includes combat medicine, demining skills, and that other skill set of drone warfare, the use of which has become unprecedented in the Ukraine-Russia war.

Adjacent to some tents, a cluster of recruits gathers around another instructor who points one by one to the grenades, “butterfly” anti-personnel mines, much larger tank mines, and booby-trap devices that lie before him.

“These are all common on the battlefield, especially this,” the instructor explains, pointing to the small plastic munition so called because of its asymmetric wings that give it the appearance of a butterfly.

“Scattered on the ground from the air, they maim so many of our guys on the frontline, so recognise and remember its shape,” the instructor warns the recruits.

Landmine danger

ACROSS Ukraine’s vast expanse, it is estimated that there are about 174,000 square kilometres which are contaminated by landmines, but on the frontlines especially they are used to both defend positions and slow down advancing forces like those that the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive would involve in considerable numbers.

But if mines are ubiquitous in this conflict then drones are even more so. “This war is a war of drones, they are the super-weapon here,” was how Anton Gerashchenko, one of Ukraine’s foremost security experts and adviser to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, last year summed up the role these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) play on Ukraine’s battlefields.

At the training base where recruits come from every walk of life including taxi drivers, academics, computer programmers and artists, a former film cameraman-turned-drone operator demonstrates the remarkable versatility that even tiny consumer drones have brought to the frontline.

From a small clearing he and another soldier launch a DVI Mavic 3 T drone up through the forest canopy, the faint buzzing sound the only indication of its presence. There is something mesmerising about its versatility as it is manoeuvred among the trees.


David Pratt in Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers take cover during tactical battlefield training


The drones’ functions vary greatly, from reconnaissance missions to guided missile attacks. They can also vary in size and capabilities from repurposed commercial drones, such as the DJI Mavic 3, which costs less than $2,000 and is mainly used for surveillance purposes, to combat drones such as the Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 which requires a runway and is controlled by an aircrew in a ground control station.

On the battlefield, the smaller Mavic 3s have become formidable assets and threats to both Ukrainian and Russian troops on the ground, many of the drones rigged for surveillance or with grenades and other explosive devices that are dropped into trenches and emplacements, and even down the open hatches of advancing tanks and armour vehicles such is the skill and accuracy of their operators.

It is no exaggeration to say that in the trench battles and shell-pocked, corpse-ridden swathes of no man’s land that resembles the landscape of the First World War, today’s drones bring a whole new dimension to warfare.

The reliance on these drones as a tactical technology continues to exponentially increase for both sides

as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues into its 14th month – and they are certain to play a vital role in the forthcoming offensive.

Vital skills

IT’S not surprising, then, that the skills needed to operate them in a military capacity are a key component of the training carried out at the base, according to another instructor codenamed “Stepan” who, like his colleague Uncle, also wears a facemask to maintain his anonymity.

“Drones are everywhere on the frontlines today – it’s hard to imagine what warfare was like before their use,” Stepan says as we stand in the forest clearing, the Mavic 3 buzzing above our heads. I ask him what he thinks of the many social media posts that often graphically show captured footage of drones “hunting down” individual Russian soldiers in the trenches or when cut off from their lines or units.

“I admit it can be difficult to watch, but much of the footage is released as part of psychological operations (Psyops) – it helps break down the morale of the enemy and strengthens that of our own soldiers who know our drones are busy targeting the enemy,” Stepan replies.


David Pratt in Ukraine

A soldier practices putting a tourniquet on his arm while ‘under fire’


Such is the widespread use of drones on the battlefield that rarely a day passes when such footage does not appear on social media, turning the conflict in Ukraine into what one commentator described as the first “bystander war”.

But in the coming weeks, as the counteroffensive gets fully under way, there will be no time for any bystanders on the battlefield. Before leaving the base, I asked Uncle where he saw the direction of the war and the Ukrainian counteroffensive heading in the coming months.

“To tell you the truth, the counteroffensive began on February 24, 2022, from the very first moment Russian bombs fell on our country and Russian troops invaded our land and it has not stopped for a single day,” he replies, as nearby on the training ground another batch of recruits learn how to kill the enemy and stay alive.