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LONDON — They come to the U.K. in their thousands — Ukrainians from every walk of life, in urgent need of military training to protect their homeland.
From lawyers to bricklayers, they are flown in from across Ukraine. The aim is to turn the new recruits into soldiers in just five weeks, providing basic military skills — infantry tactics; weapons handling; patroling; first aid; evacuation — before they return to fight on the frontline.
Since June, the U.K. has trained nearly 5,000 Ukrainian early recruits under Operation Interflex, a program that aims to support 10,000 new soldiers within a year across a network of British training camps. Interflex is the successor to a longer-running British program, Operation Orbital, which trained up more than 22,000 Ukrainians between 2015 — shortly after Russia’s initial occupation of Crimea — and May of this year.
Now in its third iteration, Interflex has been repeatedly redrawn to Ukraine’s evolving military needs. The scheme has been deemed sufficiently effective that more than half a dozen military allies — Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Lithuania, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand — have all sent trainers to the U.K. to accelerate its delivery.
Andriy Yermak, senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was clear this week that Ukraine needs “a massive training and joint manoeuvre programme” with Western allies. Britain says it stands ready to go further, with Defense Secretary Ben Wallace confident London has “a lot more capacity” to offer.
“We set a target of 10,000 troops — but through this pipeline, I envisage that we will continue to train as many as are sent by Ukraine,” he told the U.K. parliament last week. “We are already seeing this make a difference to the combat effectiveness of Ukraine.”
On the other side of the English Channel, the picture is very different.
France — western Europe’s other great military power — has decided against launching a mass training scheme of Ukrainian soldiers, an adviser to the French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu said, in line with French President Emmanuel Macron’s “wish to remain a ‘balancing power.’”
According to official French government figures, France has trained a grand total of 40 Ukrainian soldiers since the war began, chiefly on the use of French Caesar self-propelled guns.
“Emmanuel Macron was very clear — Ukraine will and must win, but Russia must not be humiliated,” the adviser said. “Our line is to show our solidarity with Ukraine to help her towards victory — but if not, to be able to play a role when the conflict stops.”
The adviser said France has chosen a more discreet approach to supporting Ukraine, citing Macron’s negotiations on protecting Zaporizhzhya, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, as an example of the role France can play.
The official also hinted that other “specialized” French-led training might be taking place in the shadows.
“The U.K. has chosen to forge ahead with basic training. We are doing more specialized training,” he said. “We are not going to tell you everything that we do.”
It’s certainly true that “a lack of transparency” over French activity is obstructing informed judgements over what France is actually doing, according to a researcher working in a French military institution.
“Everything is classified,” complained the researcher, who wished to remain anonymous. “In France, we don’t know what’s happening … Even the strategy behind it, it’s not clear. We don’t know whether it is political, or the army — or whether training programs will be launched later,” he said.
The retired French colonel and military consultant, Michel Goya, has no doubt France’s position on training is a straight political choice.
“We could have done the same thing [as the British],” he said. “We could have welcomed Ukrainians in camps across France and turned them into soldiers. We’ve done this before with African soldiers.”
But retired French general Jérôme Pellistrandi said French forces are also caught up in overseas deployments in the Sahel and the Middle East, and so are less able to host large-scale training programs back home.
“There an issue of what forces are available right now. [The British] have fewer overseas commitments than the French. So we have aimed for quality, not quantity, when it comes to military training,” said Pellistrandi.
Certainly, there is no indication of Paris changing course in the short term.
French officials said France will take part in an EU-level military training program being set up by Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief envoy, but those discussions remain at an early stage.
“This is ‘classic EU’ in terms of speed,” said Ed Arnold, research fellow for European security at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank. “This isn’t a very difficult decision for the EU, but it’s taking a little bit of time. Those EU members who joined the U.K. framework probably did it out of expediency.”
Ukraine’s training needs are enormous, and the British initiative by itself won’t be enough to satisfy demand, according to a military official working for a Western ally involved in training.
Specialist training is already taking place in some European countries such as Poland, where Ukrainian troops are being trained to use anti-aircraft defense missiles donated by the British government. In July, the Polish government said it was ready to invite the Ukrainian military for anti-mining training. Details of these missions, however, are kept as secret as possible due to security concerns.
There have also been discreet talks about the prospect of NATO setting up its own training framework — but some allies are wary such a scheme could give wings to the Kremlin’s claim that NATO isn’t merely a defensive alliance.
The Western military official quoted above said that over time, allies should consolidate and simplify the training schemes available. But he expressed skepticism over any prospect of a merger between the successful British scheme and an eventual EU-led training program, given the state of relations following Brexit.
Speaking off the record, a French minister insisted there was “no reluctance” in Paris to coordinating training efforts with the U.K.
Despite its recent military breakthroughs, Ukraine’s army — still considerably smaller than that of Russia — is in desperate need for more troops and precision weapons to make up the difference.
Ukraine also needs to hone its offensive warfare skills, having spent eight years focused on defending its territory from further Russian advances.
Under the British scheme, Ukrainians are already being trained on urban warfare — skills needed to retake key cities such as Kherson or Melitopol while causing minimal destruction. At a site in Kent, they are learning modern combat techniques in the same built-up areas where the British Army trained for deployment in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the Ukrainians make further progress into Russian-held territory, they will also need training on how to tackle Russian fortifications such as minefields, and help with strategies to achieve air dominance, a Western official said.
Re-training an army to become a successful attacking force could take at least a year, the adviser added.
“It’s like asking the goalkeeper to become the attacker,” he said. “Going from being Schmeichel to Messi — that’s a long way.”