“Stand by,” shouts a former US Marine. “Threat!” comes the next call, and a volley of gunfire reverberates around a disused quarry, in a Ukrainian hillside, just a few miles from the war’s frontline.
Dust thrown up by the bullets mixes with the men’s sweat in the 30-degree heat. “That’s not the gun,” the trainer says, picking out a frustrated-looking man who had pierced a target five meters away with tiny holes. “You put the view in a different spot every time.”
In the heart of the Donbas, a group of eight highly experienced Western ex-servicemen conduct intensive 10-day training for 40 new Ukrainian recruits taken straight from the fighting.
As the battle for eastern Ukraine progresses, soldiers in the Donbas have suffered heavy casualties in a brutal artillery battle. Ukraine’s professional armed forces, which have been defending the Eastern Front since 2014, are severely depleted. Since February 24, new recruits have been pouring into the front lines, many with shockingly little training.
The recruits on the course have a patchwork of equipment: different weapons, equipment and body armor of varying quality. The men are between their early 20s and mid 50s and have all shapes, sizes and levels of fitness.
One in ten were in the military before the war, and they had very little formal training, explains Andy Milburn, founder of the Mozart Group, a new private security firm tasked with training Ukrainian soldiers.
Milburn, a retired Marine Corps colonel who spent 31 years in the U.S. military, assembled expert volunteers to train civilians who fought in the Kiev Civil Defense as they defended their capital. Now based in Donbas, the Mozart group is made up of 20 to 30 volunteers from the US, UK, Ireland and other western countries.
The Mozart group’s name was coined by its members as an ironic musical reference to the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian paramilitary organization often described as Vladimir Putin’s private army. Milburn says he was initially “a little ambivalent about using the name”, but that it has “now caught on as a brand”.
Since 2014, the Wagner Group has been active in precarious, low-income countries, including Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic, protecting Russian interests with little regard for human rights or international law.
“I didn’t want to be associated with or compared to the Wagner group. We are not a counterpart to the Wagner Group; what we do is quite different,” says Milburn.
The Mozart group, largely funded by US private donors and made up of carefully screened recruits, also provides humanitarian aid, including sanitation products and food, to frontline cities, and removes vulnerable people from high-risk areas of combat.
Ukrainian soldiers receive five- or 10-day crash courses in basic weapons handling, marksmanship, fire and maneuvers and battlefield tactics that should ideally take six months to complete. The trainers have taught thousands of troops through two interpreters to talk to recruits, which Milburn says isn’t enough for the job, but they’ve struggled to find people with the necessary skills.
“I have yet to fight on the front lines, but we have manned positions that have been shelled and hit by missile strikes,” a 42-year-old soldier who identified himself only by his call sign Bison told the Guardian during target practice, dressed in a second-hand British camouflage tunic. with a Union Jack badge stitched to the sleeve.
Bison, a mechanical engineer from Dnipro, bought a shotgun after the war broke out to do some target practice and now works as a platoon medic. “I did a week of tactical medical course after a serious cycling accident during the Covid lockdown. I told them and they made me a doctor,” he says with a smile and a medical kit attached to his bulletproof vest.
That’s more than most medics, according to Dathan, a former advanced paramedic who served in the Irish army for 23 years in Syria and Kosovo, among others, and joined the Mozart Group in May.
“You ask medics what their qualifications are and they say, ‘Well, I got this bag and now I’m the medic,'” Dathan says.
“Only one of this group of 40 had their gun zeroed before training started,” Milburn says as he walks through the undergrowth to the makeshift training area. Zeroing a weapon means aligning the sights so you can aim accurately at a target. “That’s the first thing you do,” Milburn says.
Ukrainian troops are being trained close to the front lines because their commanders cannot risk having their soldiers away from the battlefield for too long in case the Russians try to advance. Ideally, these groups would train 100 to 120 men at a time, but they can’t afford to take them out of their positions, Milburn says.
“It’s the other way around: you don’t fight first and then come back to be trained,” Dathan agrees. “The Ukrainian government is not saying that most of their military is not properly trained. But they are trying to fight the Russians who are fortunately also untrained.”
“That’s how it must have been in World War I,” Alex (not his real name) says, speaking to The Guardian by phone from Bulgaria. Alex is a former British soldier who took a break but said he planned to come back to help permanently.
“They are men of 36, 37 years and four months ago these guys were taxi drivers or farmers. None of them want to join the army, but they say our country has been invaded. What do you expect us to do? Great respect for them. But it’s pretty sad to be honest,” says Alex.
But what the troops lack in experience, they make up for with enthusiasm and determination. “They are cheerful, they listen, they are attentive and most of all they have a great sense of humor,” says Milburn as she oversees the training.
“They don’t complain, they take it all in and give 100%,” Dathan agrees.
Tiger, a 22-year-old soldier who studied law in Dnipro when the war started, says he is now completing his final year of distance education as he prepares to fight.
Mozart’s members are eager to break away from the influx of war tourists and would-be combatants who tell stories at the outset of the conflict in Kiev and prop up hotel bars in expensive new military outfits. “It’s dangerous,” Alex says. “You could injure or kill yourself or someone else – and it damages relations between Westerners and Ukrainians.”
The trainers say they joined the Mozart group to become “combat multipliers”, saying it made sense to train hundreds of Ukrainians rather than risk being killed quickly in the fighting. The UK government’s website says those who travel “to fight or to help others involved in the war” could face persecution upon returning to the UK.
From conversations with Ukrainian troops and commanders, Alex and Milburn agree that US and Western weapon systems and military equipment are not being used or distributed correctly due to the lack of training and skills of Ukrainians.
“They’re not deploying the weapons,” said Alex, who specialized and trained in the use of Javelins and NLAWs, high-tech US and British anti-tank weapons during his seven-and-a-half years with the British Army, whose use proved crucial in Ukraine’s success in pushing Russia out of Kiev in March.
Alex says he understands from conversations with commanders that without proper training, the $178,000 Javelins systems are being misused or obsolete, with advanced sight batteries depleting before the missiles are fired. “They don’t get the training they need,” Alex says.
At the end of the marksmanship lesson, the troops gather for a briefing and question and answer session. “Where should the metal plates best be placed in our armor?” a man asks, and the trainer gives a demo as the men listen intently. “I’m calming down as I get more training,” Bison says when asked if he was worried about going to the front line.
Nestor, a 26-year-old Ukrainian soldier also from Dnipro, one of the few who had fought in the Donbas since 2014, went back to their firing range with Rob, the former US Marine, to get some more tips on switching magazines once the debriefing was over. “These instructors are amazing, it’s so detailed regardless of your experience level,” Nestor says. Of the 15 friends Nestor has lost to conflict in the conflict since 2014, 10 have died this year.
Although they have provided weapons and training abroad, the US, UK, EU and other Western allies have not sent troops to Ukraine for fear the conflict escalates into war between Russia and NATO. However, Andy Milburn would like to have more contact with the US government.
When asked if he shares intelligence with the US, he replies, “That’s kinda the easy part” — explaining that the US government is concerned that if they fund Mozart, the group could turn into a private military contractor who gets involved in the fighting itself.
If one of the Mozart group’s volunteers becomes involved in the fighting, they are no longer part of the Mozart group, Milburn explains. “There is a very clear line.”