I n Ukraine’s so-called Anti-Terrorist-Operation ( ATO) zone, in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, soldiers are fighting a war of attrition. Along the 250-kilometre front line, regular shelling and firefights feed a war that has killed 10,000, wounded 21,000, and displaced 3 million people.
More than 1,000 kilometres away, near the western city of Lviv, 200 Canadian military trainers are advising Ukrainian forces, helping to turn their Soviet-era military into a modern fighting force compatible with NATO standards. Canadian soldiers are strictly forbidden from entering the ATO zone, so they rely on first-hand accounts from the troops rotating in and out of the front line. Though Canada’s mission, named Operation UNIFIER, is strictly non-combative, there’s no doubt that Ukrainian soldiers are being trained to take lives, and save them, with greater skill. “We’re making them into proper warriors,” states Major Mike Dullege, second in command. So far, more than 3,000 Ukrainians have gone through training. These photos, taken over the last two weeks, document Canada’s military operations in western Ukraine and follow Ukrainian troops into the ATO zone.
At the firing range of a Soviet-era army base, Canadian trainers look over a Personal Weapons Test, in which soldiers work through increasingly difficult “quick aim and shoot” positions. When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Western soldiers would never have entered the country, let alone ventured into a training camp. But Ukraine has taken part in NATO exercises since 1999, when it began to distance itself from Russia.
Ukraine’s 28th Mechanized Brigade refines its rifle skills. Before Operation UNIFIER, a Ukrainian cadet used to receive only three weeks of basic training before going to fight. “We give them weeks more of training in combat medicine, manoeuvres, weapons firing, and disposal of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs),” says Major Dullege.
Afghanistan informs much of what the Canadians teach. “You can’t have an army in the field for ten years and not have that influence its fighting techniques,” says Major Andy Mitton, a Canadian Afghanistan veteran who oversees Small Team Training in Ukraine. “We left with invaluable lessons in insurgent combat, IED disarmament, and medical practices—exactly what the Ukrainians need now.”
This soldier’s uniform bears the shoulder insignia of Canada’s Operation UNIFIER. As Ukraine attempts to improve its beleaguered, poorly equipped army, its military budget has more than doubled since the war began: it now stands at more than 4 billion USD. Three years after the crisis claimed its first casualties, and two years after a little-respected ceasefire, the need for NATO’s training mission is only increasing.
A soldier of the 28th Mechanized Brigade participates in military training. If Kiev is to hold the front line—and possibly take back separatists’ occupied territories—training from its Canadian, American, British, and Polish counterparts is invaluable. Major Dullege says his ultimate objective is to “leave professional soldiers behind.” “I pissed away ten months and lots of tax dollars training guys in Afghanistan who didn’t care and contributed nothing when we left,” he says. “I won’t see another Afghanistan here.”
A first-aid dummy brought by the Canadian team lies ready for combat medicine training. The mannequin has detailed anatomic features, and it wears body armour so that medics can understand the challenges that come with treating wounded soldiers who might need to be lifted, turned, and carried away.
A Canadian doctor instructs two Ukrainian soldiers on how to clear airways of blood and tissue. Through a translator, the doctor instructs: “You need to scoop out any teeth and flesh. That’s what makes them choke.”
Basic medical infrastructure is lacking in most Ukrainian units. “We still need to get the medics a standardized kit,” says Major Carlo Rossi, the surgeon for Operation UNIFIER, “so that there is no confusion in the field about what supplies they are carrying.”
When the Soviet system collapsed, Ukraine’s medical services became so impoverished that there were no paramedics in the country for twenty-five years—which means none in the military, either. “Eighteen months ago, a severed leg was a death sentence in this war,” says Rossi. “We don’t need them to be doctors, but now soldiers can offer first responder treatments that save lives.”
Elena Kramarevskaya, twenty-three, is a combat medic with the Ukrainian Marines, serving in the ATO zone. From her front-line position, a war-torn home in the Soviet-era resort town of Shyrokyne, she tends to sick and wounded soldiers.
Kramarevskaya walks along the front line to visit troops needing fresh medical supplies. The kit she carries in her backpack, which lacks the standardization that Canadian trainers are trying to implement, is a mix of donated medicine and equipment from various countries.
Ukrainian troops in Shyrokyne find shelter in the ruins of old homes, which protect them from the harsh winter and frequent artillery strikes. Ukrainian fears of an empowered Russia during the Trump presidency were realised last month, when renewed separatist attacks resulted in forty civilian and military deaths.
A Ukrainian marine holds a grenade launcher from the ruins of a Soviet-era sanatorium near the port city of Mariupol. As combat continues in the region, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are killed and maimed by artillery strikes and IEDs, which are rigged to explode alongside roads and in the ruins of villages.
Sasha V. sits with his wife Katya in Kiev’s military hospital while receiving treatment for injuries sustained when he stepped on an IED. Sasha was drafted into the war and forced to leave his job as a math teacher. He was blinded and lost his left leg in the blast.
Anna S. lights a candle in the shrine to her son, Vassily, who was killed late last year by an artillery strike at the age of twenty-three. He had been serving with the Ukrainian Marines in Shyrokyne.