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.

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. 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 there 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.  

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.

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Some are also ordered to practice ­pulling ­imaginary wounded comrades from out under fire into cover, while others are instructed to self-evacuate after applying a tourniquet to a fictitious 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.  

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.  

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.

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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. Russia too 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, pressganged, 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 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.

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“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 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.

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 5000 recruits pass through the training schedule at the base monthly with most receiving three weeks of basic training.

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

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

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“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.  

Across Ukraine’s vast expanse, it’s ­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 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 tiny 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. Manoeuvring it among the trees, there is something mesmerising about its versatility.  

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 $2000 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 the drone operators.  

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It is no exaggeration to say that in the trench battles and shell-pocked, corpse-ridden swaths 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 drones as a tactical technology continues to exponentially increase for both sides as the war in Ukraine continues into its 14th month and are certain to play a vital role in the forthcoming offensive.

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 somewhere above our heads.

I ask him what he thinks of the many ­social media posts, especially on ­Twitter, 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 by way of explanation

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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 ­recently 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.