Jamie Dettmer is the editor in charge of opinions at POLITICO Europe.
Did NATO make a mistake in training Ukraine’s counteroffensive units? Did they prepare them for the incorrect battlefield?
There is a heated argument surrounding the reasons why the counteroffensive in southeast Ukraine has not successfully reached the Sea of Azov, despite three months of intense fighting. The goal is to sever the land connection between annexed Crimea and the Russian-occupied territories in southern Ukraine.
The main focus of the three lines of attack on the Zaporizhzhia front has been progressing very slowly, leading to a lot of criticism and speculation about what went wrong, where mistakes were made, or how things could have been handled better.
However, the most fascinating ideas are originating from soldiers stationed on the front lines of Ukraine, or those who have recently returned. They blame NATO for not adequately preparing them for the current battle.
Unfortunately, Ukraine has faced criticism recently, as Western military officials have pointed out that their forces were not following the combined warfare tactics that were taught by NATO instructors earlier this year. The most significant reprimand came from Germany’s Bundeswehr in a leaked battlefield assessment in July. The report stated that the Ukrainian military was not implementing the NATO training and criticized commanders for dividing their Western-trained brigades into smaller units of only 10 to 30 soldiers for attacking enemy positions.
However, certain experienced soldiers on the front lines are now challenging this criticism by claiming that NATO’s training prepared them for the wrong type of war. They argue that the training they received was inconsistent and based on manuals that did not account for the realities of the situation in Ukraine. They believe that there was a significant gap between theory and practice, which has ultimately resulted in loss of life.
One of the individuals who has expressed disapproval of NATO’s training is Ryan O’Leary, a 10-year veteran of the US Army National Guard. O’Leary had previously served in Afghanistan and Iraq, but after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he joined the country’s foreign legion within a few days. Upon arriving, O’Leary and other volunteers from the US and UK were quickly deployed to prevent Russian units from entering Ukraine’s capital from the northern direction.
O’Leary suggests that the training for new brigades would have been more effective if it had been led by Ukrainian soldiers who have firsthand experience in combat and can share their valuable lessons to prevent others from making the same mistakes.
The training that Ukrainian military personnel received appears to have been heavily influenced by the tactics commonly used by NATO forces, particularly in counterinsurgency operations, with some elements of American-style shock and awe tactics incorporated. While the soldiers have lauded the instruction on fundamental infantry tactics, reconnaissance, and stealthy approaches to the enemy, they have also noted a lack of preparation in areas such as drone and mine detection, disposal of explosive ordnance, and defensive combat techniques.
When it comes to integrating drone warfare and how to overcome enemy drones, they received scant counsel — most likely because NATO forces have not yet caught up and adapted their own infantry training to the technology.
O’Leary is now a company commander in Ukraine’s 59th Motorized Brigade, which has been tasked with reconnaissance and trench clearing in the counteroffensive in the southeast. “NATO should focus on basic soldiering — weapon drills, movements, building LP/Ops [Listening Post/Observation Post], camo, small unit tactics & cohesion drills as an example,” he posted on social media.
In the northern region of Kharkiv, soldiers from the 32nd Separate Mechanized Brigade shared similar criticism with the Kyiv Independent. They received limited NATO training in Germany for three weeks and expressed appreciation for some of the equipment and tactics, but also voiced frustration that NATO officers did not fully grasp the challenges of warfare in Ukraine.
“A soldier named Ihor stated that a NATO infantryman feels reassured and able to make progress, knowing that there is a strong possibility of avoiding death or injury. The NATO approach to warfare involves extensive airstrikes, artillery attacks, and clearing of landmines before the infantry can advance. However, Ukraine’s military has had to adapt to a different approach due to their lack of modern warplanes, long-range missiles, and demining equipment that they had requested.”
As a result, during the initial stage of the counterattack, Ukraine experienced significant casualties among its military personnel and received heavy weaponry from Western sources. This was due to their engagement in extremely dense minefields, forcing them to alter their approach in the subsequent phase. They resorted to a more gradual strategy, utilizing small infantry groups to locate possible pathways.
According to certain Ukrainian soldiers, the training could have been more successful if experienced Ukrainian officers and non-commissioned officers who were familiar with the local geography and terrain had participated in the NATO training. Alternatively, if there had been a more rigorous training program in Ukraine before the soldiers were sent into combat.
Due to the trainers from NATO being unfamiliar with the terrain, they failed to anticipate the high frequency of small-scale combat in dense forest areas – similar to the Allied forces’ oversight of the hedgerows in northwestern France following the 1944 Normandy landings. Similarly, in the Zaporizhzhia region and other parts of southern Ukraine, Soviet agronomists had separated the land into large fields with strategically placed oak, holly, and poplar trees for wind protection.
At present, Michael Kofman, an American military analyst and director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, is among the minority who believes that there is a feasible chance of Ukrainian forces successfully penetrating Russian defenses. He notes that there has been an increase in momentum and a shift in dynamics in recent weeks. However, he also warns that war is not a simple game where outcomes can be easily predicted and gambled upon.
Some people are doubtful, saying that the high expectations and reluctance of Western countries, such as the United States under President Joe Biden, to provide advanced military weapons for the attack are partly to blame.
Ukrainian officials are blaming the West for their slow response and failure to provide the requested equipment, particularly since some requests were made immediately after the invasion. They are also frustrated by the lack of confidence in achieving the main objectives of the counteroffensive.
However, it is evident to the majority of military experts and leaders from Western countries that the counteroffensive is coming to a close, and there is limited time before the weather changes. Despite the breach of Russia’s initial defensive line at Robotyne in late August, the overall positions have not been significantly altered by the counteroffensive.
Last week in Prague, American Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Michael Carpenter emphasized the approaching challenges of the rainy season and winter, which will make military operations more challenging. He referred to this time as “crunch time.”