A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 18, 2022

As Kherson Awaits, Foreign Veterans Train Ukrainian Troops With New Urgency

Recapturing territory from the Russians is going to be hard and will often involve brutal urban street fighting. 

Foreign trainers, including many Americans, are helping prepare Ukrainian troops for the task ahead. JL 

Yaroslav Trofimov reports in the Wall Street Journal:

While Ukraine has mobilized several hundred thousand men to replenish the ranks, the biggest problem it faces today is how to train these civilians for brutal combat against a better-armed and more numerous foe. This battalion is training to reclaim the nearby city of Kherson. Ukraine suffers from a shortage of trainers, because experienced troops are needed on the front. An important part of the training is to teach American infantry tactics to surprise the Russians, who expect the Ukrainians to follow the same Soviet doctrine as they do. For Russia, these trainers represent a priority target.

Clad in mismatched fatigues, Ukrainian Marine recruits sprawled on the grass, cocking their assault rifles and aiming at targets. Then, to the surprise of their American instructors, one by one they started squeezing the trigger.

“Cease fire!” yelled Steven Tomberlin, 62, a retired police officer from Colorado overseeing this part of the training. “Until I give the command. You. Do. Not. Do. Anything.” When the firing resumed, bullets hit the dirt berm, often far off the mark.

“Most of these people have just been mobilized. They were electricians or tractor drivers yesterday, and many have never held a weapon in their hands,” said Sr. Lt. Anton Solohub, a deputy commander of this Ukrainian Marine battalion, as he watched the first day of a crash course provided by a group of mostly American veterans.

“These instructors have promised that they will turn my men into some kind of special force in 10 days,” Lt. Solohub mused. “Let’s see.”


Europe’s bloodiest war since 1945 has chewed through tens of thousands of troops on both sides, annihilating entire brigades. While Ukraine has mobilized several hundred thousand men to replenish the ranks, the biggest problem it faces today is how to train these erstwhile civilians for the brutal combat against a better-armed and more numerous foe—especially as Kyiv seeks to regain occupied land.

Ukraine’s military suffers from a severe shortage of qualified trainers, because experienced combat troops are needed on the front lines. The active-duty soldiers from the U.K., U.S. and Canada who used to conduct training missions here were pulled out in February, and a new training program on British soil can take up only some of the slack.

That’s where volunteers like Mr. Tomberlin, who used to train Afghan commandos, come in.

The trainers are among the thousands of Westerners who flocked to Ukraine after President Volodymyr Zelensky announced in the first days of the war that the country would welcome anyone willing to fight for its independence. Many joined the new International Legion, which has since suffered significant casualties in combat. Several of these Western fighters have been captured by Russia and several others killed.

Older, more experienced volunteers like Mr. Tomberlin felt that they would be far more useful imparting their knowledge to Ukrainian recruits than sitting in a trench—an assessment shared by senior Ukrainian commanders. “Here, there is such a hunger for what we are offering,” said Mr. Tomberlin, who has already trained some 270 Ukrainian troops. “These guys will be better prepared than 75% of the Ukrainian army.”

The unit Mr. Tomberlin joined calls itself the Mobile Assault Training Group, or MATG. It includes around a dozen Americans, plus a few Britons, Canadians and Israelis, assisted by Ukrainian translators and support staff.

The group’s members flew to Ukraine on their own dime, drawn by televised images of destruction, and banded together through informal connections here in Mykolaiv, a southern Ukrainian city that the Russian military failed to capture in March. Mykolaiv remains a dangerous place, subject to daily shelling and rocket barrages.

While the U.S. government advises all American citizens to leave Ukraine, it doesn’t impose penalties on those who travel here to help the Ukrainian military.

“I’ve had a lot of Ukrainian soldiers tell me that this is the most meaningful thing they have done in their lives, and I tell them the same,” said one of the MATG trainers, Brian Bentley, 29, a former U.S. Marine who was planning to take a police academy course in Detroit but decided to come to Ukraine instead.

For Russia, these trainers represent a priority target. MATG’s leader, Bradley Crawford, who retired from the U.S. Army infantry as a sergeant first class, says his details were found in the phone of a Russian hit-squad member recently captured in Mykolaiv. A Russian missile hit near the house where he was staying last month, causing him some burns and other minor injuries.

“The Russians, they sure don’t like us being here,” said the 39-year-old Mr. Crawford, an Iraq war veteran from Ohio who has been here since April and who wears a uniform with Ukrainian and American flag patches.

The fierce nature of the war turns his Ukrainian students into quick learners, he adds. “They have no choice and time is not on their side,” said Mr. Crawford. “In Afghanistan and Iraq, we did have dangers, but here we are sending these guys to full kinetic warfare, not some kind of counterinsurgency.”

Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, to which the recruits here belong, was deployed in the Azov Sea city of Mariupol when the war began, and was quickly encircled. It has essentially ceased to exist, with roughly a thousand Marines killed, wounded or captured, according to officials in Kyiv, after months of some of the most intense urban combat in recent military history. Created anew, this battalion of several hundred troops and the rest of the 36th brigade are training for a new mission: to reclaim the nearby city of Kherson, the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russia managed to seize since the Feb. 24 invasion.

The new battalion commander, Capt. Oleksandr Buntov, and many of his men are originally from Kherson. The captain has managed to smuggle out his family, but some other Marines still have spouses, children or parents living under Russian occupation.

“My motivation is ironclad: to liberate my home,” Capt. Buntov said. “I know it will be hard, and this is why we are getting prepared—and why we need these instructors to teach here. Urban close-quarters combat is the hardest kind of combat, no matter how long you train, and offense is much harder than defense.”

Capt. Buntov and the battalion’s other senior leaders are battle-hardened officers, but most of their junior commanders are as fresh to the military as the bulk of the recruits. On a recent day, retired U.S. Army Capt. Jim Lee schooled some of the unit’s lieutenants in how to plan an urban mission in a city like Kherson, with printouts of maps and assault plans.

“We are starting with the fundamentals here,” said Mr. Lee, who was studying for a master’s degree in Poland and got involved in efforts to help Ukrainian refugees when the war began.

One of the newly baked platoon leaders, Lt. Vitaly, who like most Ukrainian soldiers isn’t allowed to disclose his full name, is a 42-year-old prosecutor who, back in college, enrolled in Ukraine’s equivalent of ROTC. He went through a 40-day Ukrainian officer training course after the war began. “I am learning the military science from scratch. Everything is new,” he admitted, taking a cigarette break from Mr. Lee’s instruction. “The Russian plan is to push ahead without care for casualties. In our army, the main value is the life and health of a soldier. That is why we need to learn how to outsmart the enemy.”

An important part of the training is to teach American infantry tactics to surprise and befuddle the Russians, who expect the Ukrainians to follow the same Soviet doctrine as they do, American instructors say.In a typical course here in the countryside near Mykolaiv, the foreign instructors train two separate 32-man platoons, pitting them against each other in a final exercise. The first platoon’s leader, Lt. Maksym, 38, was an accountant in the Ukrainian-controlled Donbas until June. “I am not a military man, actually quite far from it, and I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” he said as he furrowed his brows, trying to absorb the trainers’ instructions.

The other leader, Lt. Ihor, 32, a broad-shouldered Odessa merchant marine engineer with a shaved head, seemed more comfortable in his new role. “It’s not that different from the ship. It’s hot, there’s close quarters, you work all the time and there is no time for rest,” he joked. Neither man had seen battle.

By day four of the training, the Marines in the two platoons had learned how to handle their weapons and administer first aid. Now they were on to more complicated tasks. Lt. Maksym’s men plucked branches and leaves from nearby fields, with one of them constructing an impressive wreath of flowers on his head, and concealed themselves in the bushes to practice an ambush on their instructors. One of the trainers, American-born former Israeli paratrooper Taylor Bridges, dutifully fell on the ground once the Ukrainian Marines shouted “pam, pam, pam” to imitate gunfire. He winced as the men turned him over and searched his body for documents and weapons.

On the walk back, tensions within the platoon appeared. Mitya, a veteran Marine who wore a Soviet-style blue-and-white striped shirt and refused to don a helmet, came up to Mr. Crawford to complain about being bossed around by a newbie lieutenant. Most of Mitya’s comrades died in combat on the Mykolaiv front in the past five months, he said, and he had been sent to the battalion after falling out with his previous commander. “All these people giving me orders, where have they been all this time?” he said. Mr. Crawford listened politely.

Lt. Ihor’s platoon, meanwhile, practiced operations to seize a building—in this case the battalion’s temporary headquarters in a village in the Mykolaiv region. Fearful of the Russian missiles that often strike such facilities, many Marines pitched tents under trees nearby, refusing to overnight in the building. The Marines picked an avenue of approach and raced up the staircase, with the last man of the team swinging his rifle to protect the rear. At lunch afterward, the lieutenant was happy. “These are guys who have never held weapons in their hands, and by now they’ve learned how to clear buildings,” he said. The battalion commander, Capt. Buntov, was also satisfied. “Sweat now spares blood later,” he said.

For the final exercise on day 10, the two platoons gathered in a forest of pines and wild acacia trees, and set up two field headquarters at opposite ends of the area. One platoon wore green armbands, another blue, and the instructors yellow. The mission of Lt. Maksym’s platoon was to prepare an ambush along the dirt road fringed by the forest on one side and a field of chest-high sunflowers on the other. Since not every trooper had been issued a helmet, the two teams agreed not to wear them, to maintain fair play.

“The nature of the war here is that the enemy will have superior firepower and as many or more men than you, but you will nevertheless be tasked to attack them,” Mr. Tomberlin prepped the men.

Unwilling to wait for his lieutenant’s instructions, Mitya rapidly climbed a tree and announced he would be on the lookout for the enemy. “Macaw, there are no bananas up that tree,” another Marine jeered. “Come down, monkey.” Once Lt. Maksym finally set up an ambush, the first two members of the enemy patrol—including Lt. Ihor—were quickly eliminated. It was a major success.

Still, Lt. Maksym didn’t move or give orders. “Lieutenant, you’ve killed two of their men, what next?” an impatient Mr. Crawford urged him. An interpreter mistranslated it as the other platoon killing two of Lt. Maksym’s scouts.

“Well, I guess that’s it, we’ve lost,” he sighed resigned. As Lt. Maksym vacillated, the remainder of the other platoon rallied its forces and counterattacked. “This lieutenant’s indecision has just cost the lives of an entire squad,” Mr. Crawford muttered.

When the roles changed, Lt. Ihor asked Mr. Tomberlin how creative his men could be. One of his Marines, a bare-chested native of Kherson who had smuggled himself from Russian-occupied territories so that he could join the Ukrainian military, proposed using dummies with uniforms, helmets and a couple of guns to distract the enemy’s attention—while hiding the actual ambush inside the sunflower field. “That’s a great idea,” Mr. Tomberlin nodded. As they walked through bushes to pick the perfect ambush site, a couple of other Marines, both named Vova, seemed more interested in examining the maturing sunflower pods, picking out and tasting the seeds.

“It’s going to be a great harvest this year,” one of them said. Both men had come from the countryside of Ukraine’s central Khmelnytskyi region. “Only the farm boys get drafted. Have you seen anyone from the big cities here,” the younger Vova complained. So far, the highlights of his military career consisted of surviving a Russian missile attack on his barracks near Lviv in western Ukraine, and another on his barracks in Mykolaiv. “We’re farmers, we’re not really warriors,” he said.

Noticing the disturbed sunflower pods, Mr. Tomberlin didn’t hide his anger. “What is this, who has done this? Something like this will give away your position.”


All throughout the day, distant thuds of Russian shelling could be heard from Mykolaiv. Then, at dusk, one of the instructors yelled into the radio that he could see two rockets heading in his direction. “Switch off your phones, turn off your lights,” Mr. Tomberlin shouted. A concentration of cellphones could be spotted by Russian electronic warfare systems and used for targeting. A Ukrainian air defense battery several miles away fired off three missiles that blasted into the starry sky.

Lt. Ihor had planned a complex maneuver with three sections that were meant to communicate by phone messages. Without the phones, he had to revise the plan. The entire platoon set off on a long hike through the fields, aiming to seize Lt. Maksym’s headquarters from an unexpected direction.

In the darkness, American instructors strained their eyes, warily scanning the sky for potential Russian drones. “There is this one, it’s definitely moving and shaking from the wind,” said one. “No, no, I think it’s a satellite,” said another.

Then, they noticed a bright light just above the tree line. “It’s definitely not a star. I can see it moving toward us, slowly,” one said. Five minutes later, it wasn’t clear whether it had moved. Capt. Lee switched on his smartphone and pointed at the unidentified celestial object with an app.

“It’s Saturn!” he exclaimed.

Shortly after midnight, Lt. Ihor’s platoon maneuvered around a strip of forest and sneaked up on the base of the rival platoon from the rear. Even from the distance of a few dozen yards, his men could be spotted only with night-vision goggles.

“Bang bang bang,” the Marines shouted as they threw imaginary grenades into their rivals’ command post. “You’re dead, you’re dead, and you’re dead too,” Mr. Tomberlin told the surprised victims.

“They’ve done pretty well, huh,” he said, clicking his tongue as the Ukrainian Marines turned in for the night in the forest. While the tactics could be improved, he added, the men now formed an actual fighting unit.


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