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German mission to train Ukrainians forges ahead

February 27, 2024

Western powers have the military gear and the know-how, but after two years of war, Ukrainians have the actual combat experience. At a German training site for Ukrainian troops, that has created a unique dynamic.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Ukraine's ambassador to Germany Oleksiy Makeev surrounded by German and Ukrainian soldiers at the German military training facility in Klietz.
President Steinmeier, Defense Minister Pistorius and Ukraine's ambassador to Germany Makeev paid a visit to a training session for Ukrainian forcesImage: William Noah Glucroft/DW

Far from any battlefield, German and Ukrainian soldiers gathered in a wooded clearing near Klietz, a town in Germany's central-eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, looked ready for war. Long rifles and heavy gear dangled from their bodies as they posed for the cameras in front of tanks and other heavy weapons on the forest's soft, mossy ground. 

Hiding under helmets and obscured by balaclavas added to the foreboding scene, which fortunately for the noncombatants present was a staged one. The troops were there, on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to greet VIPs. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Ukraine's ambassador to Germany Oleksiy Makeev were paying a visit to this Bundeswehr base, a two-hour drive west of Berlin, that participates in a European Union mission to train Ukrainian forces. 

At first glance, the choreographed presentation of military might, which included a live-fire tank maneuver and equipment repair demonstration, could gloss over a major difference between the two countries' armies. The most recent experience Germans have fighting a major war was eight decades ago, when they started World War II. During the Cold War, a much-feared armed confrontation with the Soviet Union was trained for, but never happened. 

Steinmeier visits Ukrainian troops training near Berlin

Student becomes teacher 

That leaves the Ukrainians as the only people in living memory who know how to fight a land war in Europe against an invading Russian army. While the Germans are teaching tactics they have never had to put into practice, many of the Ukrainian trainees are fresh off the frontlines. 

When the training program ends, the Germans will return to their barracks; the Ukrainians will return to the fight. 

Soldiers were not permitted to speak to the media during the visit, but the senior German officer on site for the event told DW that the gulf between theory and practice is a constant presence. 

"We take into account the fact that we do things very differently — we use systems very differently — because ideas about how, let's say, war-fighting was before the Ukraine war were certainly different from how they are today," Major General Stefan Lüth, the deputy chief of the Bundeswehr's Joint Support and Enabling Service (SKB), said. 

"The exchange is important," he added. While Ukrainian trainees learn NATO-standard methods on the weapons that Germany and others have provided, the German trainers absorb, vicariously, the bitter lessons of actual combat. Widespread drone use and previously unforeseen supply-chain vulnerabilities, for example, are forcing Western war planners to give their assumptions a second look. 

"[The Ukrainians] experience how things are right now, and you can learn from that," Lüth said. 

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Military mission amid political headwinds 

The European Union Military Assistance Mission Ukraine (EUMAM) is in its second year. Germany and Poland have assumed the bulk of responsibility, though most EU members and some third countries participate in some way. According to EU data, 10,000 Ukrainian troops have been trained so far, and officials aim to cycle a total of 30,000 through the program by the end of 2024. 

The United States and the United Kingdom run additional training programs of their own. 

That kind of on-the-ground commitment appears to be steadily diverging from support at higher levels. In Washington, Berlin and Brussels, keeping the promise of "as long as it takes" is running into the stumbling block of domestic politics. With the US barreling towards elections in November, Republicans in Congress are digging in their heels over Ukraine aid. 

In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz regularly touts his government's new bilateral security agreement with Ukraine and its leading position, in absolute numbers, in financial assistance, but it has been pushing to lower its share to an EU fund. The day before the Steinmeier-Pistorius troop visit, the government's legislative majority voted down an opposition resolution explicitly calling for the shipment of Taurus cruise missiles. 

Scholz has most recently justified his Taurus refusal with fears of escalation, saying that using the weapon would require direct German participation in target selection. 

At the EU level, the goal of delivering one million artillery shells by March is far off track, as member states put domestic production desires ahead of snapping up existing stock around the world. 

"Ukraine can certainly win," US historian Timothy Snyder, told the German daily, taz. "The problem is not the Ukrainians. The problem is us — Europe and North America," he said.

On Monday the French government, which has also been criticized for paltry contributions to Ukraine's defense, hastily organized a high-level meeting among allies in Paris in hopes of reenergizing the Euro-Atlantic community behind Ukraine. President Emmanuel Macron made headlines by leaving the door open to an eventual European troop presence in Ukraine. 

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The consequences of inaction

Public opinion appears to have caught onto the lethargic messaging. More people across the EU favor pushing for peace over pressing on to recapture territory lost to Russia, according to a new poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Germany lines up almost exactly with that average — 41% to 32%, respectively. 

Ukraine's staunchest supporters denounce any negotiation as a capitulation to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a threat to European security. However fuzzy their vision of "victory" may be, "defeat" presents a much clearer picture. 

"People tend to describe the situation as a stalemate. In fact, it's not. Along the sections of the frontline Russian troops have been able to very slowly, gradually, keep advancing forward," András Rácz, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said in a media briefing in Berlin last week. 

Chipping away at Ukrainian forces has led to calls to shift to an "active defense," which means ensuring Ukraine can hold the line until it is strong enough to make another offensive push. That would require more, as well as more advanced, weapons that Ukraine's biggest arms suppliers have denied or delayed. 

It also requires ongoing training on how to use them. Where that takes place, on rural military bases far from the cosmopolitan capitals that are home to policy debates, the troops charged with sending Ukrainians back to war with new skills go about their orders without much thought to the politics that shape them. 

"This is an important task here that is making a contribution. It certainly does not solve everything, but it actively supports Ukraine," Maj. Gen. Lüth said, adding that it's the job of pundits and policymakers to make the case for a mission. It's the military's to carry it out. 

"In this regard, I don't see a problem with the politics evolving," he said. 

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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