‘We’re only holding back the Russians with crowdfunded drones’, says Ukraine commander

Kurylenko sits indoors wearing camouflage gear
Lt Col Kurylenko is a senior commander in the Ukrainian military

Ukraine is only holding back a Russian breakthrough with drones paid for by volunteers, as Western arms supplies run out, one of Kyiv’s top military commanders has said.

Lieutenant Colonel Pavlo Kurylenko, a commander of a separate special purpose battalion, said he believes that the lack of Western-supplied weaponry was “horrible” and front line units were relying on donations or sourcing drones themselves.

He warned that Russia was preparing a massive offensive for this summer and said that, without fresh deliveries of aid, Ukrainian troops would soon have to fall back to the Dnipro River.

“The only thing preventing Russia’s breakthrough on all fronts is FPV (first-person) drones, 90 per cent of which are being provided by volunteers or military divisions themselves,”  Lt Col Kurylenko told The Telegraph in an interview at the end of February at a military base outside of Kyiv.

“A year ago it was a ‘bad situation’. Today the situation with shells and gear is just horrible,” said the commander, one of the so-called “Cyborgs” who fought off Kremlin forces in the battle for Donetsk airport.

Leaning forward in his chair in an office decorated with captured Russian assault rifles, Lt Col Kurylenko placed his handgun on the table and thumped his fist as he explained the struggles of his men.

A map and weapons on the wall of Pavlo Kurylenko's office
A map and weapons on the wall of Pavlo Kurylenko's office

Kurylenko is honest about the disparity between the amount of ammunition his men receives and the enemy, often Russian mortar teams have three times as many projectiles as his troops.

“Imagine: a column of Russian hardwear comes at you. They attack. If we shoot at them with a mortar, the next day we will have just machine guns to fire at the next column of tanks...”

Across the nearly 1,000-mile front, Ukrainian soldiers are locked in a brutal war of attrition as Russia brings its superior firepower and manpower to bear.

Fighting when outnumbered is not new to Lt Col Kurylenko. In 2014, he defended Donetsk airport against Russian separatist forces in a 100-day battle that created the legend of Cyborg Ukrainian soldiers who would never give up.

“Since the very beginning in 2014, until today, we have always encountered overwhelming forces in infantry, artillery and equipment,” he said.

“I participated in the battle of Donetsk Airport … I heard stories that it was compared to the battle of Stalingrad. It looks to me as a childish fight now, compared to what is happening today. I can’t say that the Russians are fighting better or worse.”

One way to overcome superior numbers, he said, is through better training – an area where Ukraine’s allies and friends can help.

A major pillar of allied support to Ukraine has been the training of Ukrainian soldiers by Nato-standard militaries. In January, James Heappey, the Armed Forces minister, revealed that more than 34,000 Ukrainian troops had been trained by the UK since June 2022.

The advantages of training abroad are manifold. Ukrainian soldiers can practise and learn new drills in safety, without being targeted by Russian drones and missiles. They can also benefit from world-class instruction and absorb the latest battlefield tactics from the most powerful armies in the world.

Much of the training is hugely appreciated but there are some issues that Lt Col Kurylenko is eager to address.

First, only a relatively small number of Ukrainian troops actually benefit from it. Lt Col Kurylenko’s brigade has sent more than 400 men for training, 75 of whom he commands. Crucial time is wasted, he said.

“We don’t manage it effectively. For instance, it took my soldiers 41 days, 29 of which they used for actual training.

“The trip itself, getting equipped and deployed, took 12 days. That’s half of the total period of training. We are already losing time here.”

Some soldiers treat the weeks away from Ukraine – often their first break for years – as a time to relax. “Those soldiers who go abroad for training look at it as some sort of holiday period,” Lt Col Kurylenko said.

Soldiers in a trench
Ukrainian soldiers training with the Norwegian Home Guard in Norway last year - Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

The relatively brief training is insufficient for more advanced or complex roles. To train a “stormtrooper”, a soldier who can work in an assault group to capture and hold an enemy trench, needs far more resources.

“It is simply impossible,” said Lt Col Kurylenko. “Two weeks is not enough for a soldier to even believe in the fact that he has already become a stormtrooper.”

He argues the West should base military trainers in Ukraine – an idea floated by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, but which sparked a backlash among Nato allies.

“It will speed up the whole process a lot. We will save time for logistics or programme planning. We can select people on the ground based on an understanding of their capabilities – if they are better able to operate artillery, join the infantry, become a stormtrooper or an anti-tank specialist.”

‘Don’t worry – we will survive’

Lt Col Kurylenko added: “Don’t you worry, we will survive anyway. The question is how hard it’s going to be.”

Then there is the more fundamental problem of a gap between the Nato training and the way in which the war in Ukraine is actually being fought.

In Nato’s teaching, there is an assumption that the top-of-the-range kit needed to fight like a Nato army is readily available to Ukrainian troops. However, even at the height of Western weapons deliveries, that was not the case, Lt Col Kurylenko said.

“When we speak about the Nato approach, it implies huge amounts of gear to be applied. However, it doesn’t imply the scenario when such weapons are absent. Here the Nato approach doesn’t have any other plan for a manoeuvre,” he explained.

For Lt Col Kurylenko, at the heart of Soviet strategy is the idea that soldiers start in a defensive posture, and only gradually move to the offensive; the shift being underwritten by superior manpower and artillery. It is costly, bloody but effective, he said.

Nato on the other hand is, in a sense, more proactive, with the emphasis on manoeuvrability and a standpoint that looks to gather data and then move forward to assault. “Both strategies have huge drawbacks,” said Lt Col Kurylenko.

To illustrate his point, he gives the example of Ukraine’s loss of the town of Avdiivka in Donbas earlier this year. Hundreds were killed and many captured as Russian forces finally overran the besieged hold-out.

“When we were in Avdiivka the last time, 45-70 guided aerial bombs were dropped there. Not a single division would endure that many attacks if it had worked according to Nato standards, since Nato doctrine doesn’t [involve] digging trenches.”

A lack of sophisticated kit

The answer, for Kurylenko, is to develop a third way, suited to the Ukrainian military as it actually is – with a lack of sophisticated kit and unwilling to spend the lives of its soldiers as wantonly as Russia. Specialisation of a soldier’s role would be key.

“Right now we have a special operations battalion with a rifle regiment standing right next to it and a para and stormtroopers battalion behind them both and all three of them implement the same tasks. I am 100 per cent sure we will abandon such a doctrine soon.”

In the future “a soldier would clearly perform just a specific range of tasks and won’t be a Jack-of-all-trades – an engineer, a sniper, a machine-gunner or a cook”, said Lt Col Kurylenko.

Lt Col Kurylenko’s predictions for the coming year are bleak and predicated on Western aid that is non-existent or late to arrive.

“We will be assaulted by a full-scale and overpowering offensive. Closer to the summer, Russian forces will be ready to attack the area on the junction of the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions and try to advance in the direction from the Kharkiv to Poltava regions.

“After that, the battle line will be extended and the depth of the frontline will get bigger as well. We will be able to break their logistic routes so they won’t be able to prevail even overpowering our forces.

“This line will freeze along the Dnipro river and we will lose the territory of Ukraine right up to the Dnipro.”

Much depends on the West

The travails of the Ukrainian army are reversible, said Lt Col Kurylenko, but much does depend on the West.

His gratitude for the support so far, from government’s to volunteers, is evident, but there is also frustration at the slow pace of aid.

“This so-called crucial moment which is unfolding at the moment has been artificially created by our western partners,” he said.

“I don’t really know what our partners consider as their minimum and maximum goals. I won’t say they don’t have [them], I just don’t know what [they are].”

“When we call each other friends and partners ready to help each other, we can’t assist with one thing, and then refrain from helping with the other one.

“If all of us as a coalition are fighting against our common enemy, we either keep beating it together or we just say ‘bye’ to each other and go home.

“Partnership implies assistance even in the hardest times. To go ahead towards victory mutual assistance is vital and should be supported by actions, not just by words,” said Lt Col Kurylenko.

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