A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 17, 2023

European Training Of Ukrainian Soldiers Updated To Reflect War's New Realities

NATO promised to train 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers but has actually now trained over 35,000. The initial training has adapted to the reality Ukrainians face on the ground, which means more emphasis on drone threats and on how to survive in the trenches. 

And, as Ukraine now has the most experienced army in Europe - and possibly the world - they are providing useful lessons to their American, French, German and British trainers. JL

Laura Kayali reports in Politico:

NATO training has been adapted for the warfare Ukrainians face against Russians. Ukrainians praise Western instruction on infantry tactics, but said NATO methods assume air superiority - which the Ukrainians don’t have. One addition is the extensive use of drones and a bigger emphasis on awareness of threats from the sky to reflect the reality Ukrainians face. As Ukraine has the most combat experience of any force in the West, some teaching now goes in the opposite direction: Ukrainians say French trenches are too wide, that gardening boots are more suitable than military footwear and give advice on how to best use grenades.

Chain-smoking Ukrainians tote French-made assault rifles as they hunker down in a newly conquered village to prepare for a counterattack.

But this isn't a firefight in eastern Ukraine. Rather, it's a mock village in rural France where the Ukrainian troops are being trained by the French military, who are acting the role of the enemy.

On a cold and sunny November day, the Ukrainians — both volunteers and draftees — are in the fourth and final week of training in a French military camp, part of a 48-hour exercise to put into practice what they’ve learned over the past month.

From 5.30 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week, the French have been teaching their Ukrainian counterparts the skills of storming trenches and infantry fighting, including combat in urban and forest areas. The brief, as described by French officers: “To make them more lethal and harder to kill.”

Back home, Ukrainians will return to a battlefield that has become, in the words of Ukraine's top general, bogged down in World War I-style trench warfare.

The hope is that Western tactics can help Ukraine break the stalemate.

But the training isn't just French troops instructing Ukrainians. The course was adapted in response to Ukrainian criticism that it wasn't well suited for the type of warfare they'll face against the Russians. And as Ukraine probably has the most combat experience of any force in the West, some of the teaching now goes in the opposite direction.

“The program is not set in stone, we have integrated those criticisms in the training preparation, which is greenlit by the Ukrainians,” said Lieutenant Colonel Even, the chief training officer, who could only be identified by his first name for security reasons.

One addition is the extensive use of drones to reflect the reality of what the Ukrainians will face back home.


France pledged to train 7,000 Ukrainians this year in both France and Poland through the European Union Military Assistance Mission Ukraine (EUMAM).

The location of the French camp — visited by reporters, including from POLITICO — can't be disclosed for security reasons, nor can the number of Ukrainians being trained. Ukrainian authorities did not want their citizens to be interviewed during the press visit, also for security reasons, French military officials said. 

Air surveillance

Over the summer, Ukrainians described Western training as partly unfit for the war they’re fighting. While they praised instruction on infantry tactics and trenches, they said a problem is that NATO methods assume air superiority — which the Ukrainians don’t have. 

French counteroffensive in a mock village to train Ukrainians | Laura Kayali

While the French claim that adapting to the criticism didn't require massive changes because the programs have always been flexible, they’re now putting a bigger emphasis on awareness of threats coming from the sky. 

“Drone crews fly above to get them used to air surveillance,” said Captain Xavier, one of the instructors. French trainers also use artillery and grenades to simulate air strikes and to see how the Ukrainians react to (mock) wounded soldiers. 

In one of the scenarios, Ukrainians equipped with smoke bombs and French FAMAS assault rifles firing blanks had to take a muddy trench and secure it against an enemy attack.In another one, they were tasked with conquering and keeping a mock village. The key reflex the French are teaching is to get off the streets and into shelter as fast as possible, said Captain Rémi, who was monitoring the urban warfare training. “The street means death.” 

On the mock battlefields, female translators — the only women around — follow the troops to explain instructions. 

Besides military tactics, Ukraine asked France to prepare future soldiers to endure harsh battlefield conditions and operate in cold, noisy environments while sleep deprived, the French officers said. Dead animal carcasses are scattered in trenches to get Ukrainians used to the smell of death. French troops launched surprise nighttime attacks. 

France pledged to train 7,000 Ukrainians this year in both France and Poland through the European Union Military Assistance Mission Ukraine (EUMAM) | Eric Cabanis/AFP via Getty Images

“When they’ll arrive at the front, there's bound to be a shock, and my role is to limit that shock,” said Captain Xavier. 

Learning lessons

Tutoring Ukrainian soldiers is costing France about €300 million, according to a parliament report. But the French army is benefiting as well. “It's in our interest, the units get training too and it contributes to their preparation, it's a win-win situation," said Lieutenant Colonel Even.

French instructors are also getting valuable feedback from trainees with battlefield experience — something they can use to prepare France for high-intensity warfare.


For a long time, French training focused on counterinsurgency — useful in places like Mali and Afghanistan. The war in Ukraine has changed that. 

“Everyone's going back to the trenches,” said Lieutenant Colonel Erwan, who runs the camp, adding that the French have delved back into doctrines from the two world wars and that trenches built for the Ukrainians in the exercises are then re-used to train French troops. “We're realizing that tomorrow's war is also about that, and these are skills we need to master once again.”

The life-and-death struggle in Ukraine gives the students some valuable tips for their instructors. The Ukrainians said the French practice trenches are too wide, that gardening boots are more suitable than military footwear and have given advice on how to best use grenades. 

That kind of intense training creates bonds — something the French officers are on the watch for.

They have forbidden trainers and trainees from exchanging phone numbers — for security reasons, but also because French soldiers have in the past become too emotionally invested and shaken when their former trainees were killed on the battlefield. 

When the session ends, “it’s time to cut ties,” said Captain Xavier, “otherwise, when we’ll find out that someone has died, we'll wonder what we did wrong.”


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