Since early March, volunteers and ordinary civilians have been taught in Western Ukraine to combat the enemy and to defend their cities as guerilla fighters.
Andrii Balon, the founder of the Rekrut training center, told how he and his friends created a center for appropriate training of civilians and how the Ukrainians can prepare for mobilization, life under conditions of active combat, and guerilla war.
Andrii Balon, the founder of the Rekrut training center
Why did you decide to create the Rekrut training center for civilian Ukrainians?
When the full-scale war started and it lay ahead, how strong the enemy was, and how prepared we were to resist, there came the idea of creating a training center for civilians to make them capable of resisting the enemy by all means. Maybe even under conditions of occupation. This center was created in a small town in the west of Ukraine, the Lviv region.
As early as March 4, 2022, the center became fully operational.
It was about the end of February when the first foreign instructors came, who then saw themselves as combatants and wanted to go to war — these were experienced fighters who had fought in other wars or conflicts around the world. We offered them an alternative. The first one to come was Aaron, a U.K. citizen who served on seven U.N. missions.
He said he had two options: he wanted to either go fight for Ukraine against the enemy or be more useful because he had experience as an instructor. It was then that I had the idea to engage professional military instructors, and we were focused on civilians.
How was the center established, and who teaches there?
I went to the mayor, and he agreed, so we defined certain locations as training bases and began to create the first basic training course there, which we developed together with our British instructor.
Some other guys joined later: these were foreign instructors, namely two Americans, and then a Pole, an instructor from New Zealand — he was a junior officer and also a combat veteran. Then the Canadians came, who had already fought in our Foreign Legion as combatants.
Our instructors are very tough and interesting. The New Zealander has 6 years of missions all over the world behind him and a unique scouting experience. Pavel, the Pole, can teach not only modern combat but also medieval one: he’s a champion in historical fencing in knight armor, one of the few who beat the Russians. Our instructors have a truly Cossack spirit and enthusiasm, in addition to their high professionalism and expert knowledge of the war.
After we had engaged such instructors, we began to recruit groups of volunteers, all those who joined volunteer units. In that district, there were seven volunteer formations of different towns and villages. These men and women instantly formed a queue several weeks long.
Can civilian Ukrainians sign up for your training?
Certainly! Civilians, conscripts, and even experienced servicemen come to train with us. At first, it wasn’t so, because training conscripts was a priority. Soon after the center was created, general mobilization started, and even those who came to us as volunteers (members of volunteer formations of territorial communities) were drafted after some time. First, we had a basic course, then an advanced course, and many of those who completed the basic course came back and said that part of them had gone to their units, and maybe someone even went to the frontline later.
As a result, we understood that our knowledge and training material were also useful for conscripts. After that, I went to the garrison commander, to the recruitment center, and to other military units in the territory of the district and said: guys, if you’re interested, we can train your people too, because you have a lot of recruits with no knowledge. They totally agreed, and after that, we began training the military too.
When they were sent officially, they came to us for these three-day training sessions, and so we had a period when we had only groups of the military. As a result, we simply rejected civilians who wanted to sign up, because we understood that teaching the military basic skills was a priority.
At a certain point, we understood that besides the military, there were very systematic and tenacious volunteers who also strive for constant training, and so we decided that nothing prevented us from creating mixed groups. They were partly civilians and partly military.
Then we understood that it was quality that mattered, not quantity. We decided that we needed to make ourselves known somehow, but with certain elements of secrecy so that we don’t attract much attention. At the initial stage, excessive publicity could also have been dangerous for us. Sabotage groups were operating, and the enemy could do us harm. Moreover, there were constantly military people with us.
That’s why we used different locations for training, we had a separate lecture room in a completely inconspicuous place, a separate training ground, a spare lecture room, and one more training ground, and we held training there, changing our routes every time. For the first two months, we worked with no days off. Then the military established their own training, and civilians became our priority.
How many civilians do you train and how much does it cost?
We have hundreds of trainees. People come to us from all over Ukraine: the whole West, the farthest being Sumy, and also from Kyiv and Kropyvnytskyi. And for everyone, it was free because the local government and volunteers were helping us.
We wanted to become a hub where everyone who’s not indifferent, who feels the strength to train and take arms to defend Ukraine, can come and obtain basic knowledge.
What specifically do you teach in the center?
First, we always have an initial questionnaire to know the experience everyone has, be it tactical medicine, handling of weapons, shooting on a training ground, in a shooting gallery, or, for example, as a hunter. What arms does one have experience with? Who can be a commander of a squad or platoon?
After the questionnaire, we always start with the theory, and in the first place, the rules of war and the Geneva Conventions.
From the beginning, we tried to form our basic training course to NATO standards. A deep explanation of the regulatory framework and the Geneva Conventions, their purpose, and the advantages they give made the trainees aware that Ukraine is fighting with honor. This is what makes us different from the Russians. We want the whole civilized world to see that we are part of them.
All lectures and practical training are given in English with an interpreter. Why? It’s because we noticed that all our trainees were very tolerant due to the fact that a foreigner deliberately came to us to help us fight the enemy, the Russians, by using his best knowledge. So they were standing and teaching every day from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. We found a very good military interpreter who is very knowledgeable about the material.
So, the first introductory lecture is about the Geneva Conventions, and the whole course is structured as follows: the first day is for theoretical material, then tactical medicine, the tactics of handling weapons, assembling and disassembling firearms.
In addition to tactical medicine, we also teach the tactics of working in the field, i. e. in pairs, in fours, in platoons, the tactics of shooting, but in theory, using mockups, the right way to choose clothes and equip oneself, and military hygiene. These are those basic things that help a person survive in the first place, including ways to avoid fire and how to behave under enemy fire.
When we had just launched the training, we thought of guerrilla warfare, so we also taught how to make Molotov cocktails and throw them without hurting oneself. To give this training, my assistant and I personally selected people and divided them into "sabotage groups". We weren’t sure back then if the enemy would manage to conquer us so that we would have to wage a guerrilla war under occupation. After all, these skills will come in handy for anyone, because you can throw different things.
All this knowledge is packed into systematic lectures that are given in a lecture room on day one, and the trainees can handle weapons already on the first day, and the next two days, the second and the third, are field training.
That is, we go to the training ground, randomly divide people for different exercises into pairs and platoons, and everyone works with instructors. Our field training course, which is practical training, is given by a minimum of four instructors so that every squad can receive maximum attention from an instructor. And one general instructor ensures overall coordination as a master sergeant.
This way, during these three days, civilians get a complete understanding of what it’s like to be drafted, how to behave, and what is going on. But later, we got feedback from the guys who completed our three-day course and proceeded with training, for example, in our training centers. So they said: during three days with you, we learned what is taught elsewhere during two weeks.
Do you mean it was faster?
It was faster, it was more concise and more concrete. What did we have for it? We had full combat gear since we understood how important it was for everyone to feel what it was to be drafted and wear full gear: from bulletproof vest to helmet, with a belt, chest rig, pouches, and a mockup of a real assault rifle, which we also bought, with a replaceable magazine, and these mockups can even shoot airsoft pellets.
All these immersive real-life experiences, as our trainees said, helped them feel at ease when they were already in real military units. They understood that, in a very short period of time, they had completed a recruit training course.
And this is essentially what we aimed for. We wanted to give them the initial knowledge they needed to not be afraid of military service, of being in a military unit, or in combat.
What skills are mandatory for a Ukrainian civilian who may not want to enlist? After all, we live in a country where war can last for years or start again in a couple of years.
The first thing we’ve determined is tactical medicine. That is, full-fledged first aid and tactical medicine, and also the ways to retreat from the battlefield or a combat zone and save your brother in arms, this was what we taught.
From the beginning, we received full military medical kits with all kinds of tourniquets, and we have drilled the trainees in working with tourniquets in our class since then.
Besides tourniquets, we had special military stretchers, and we even showed how to evacuate a wounded person from a battlefield when you have no stretchers.
We also teach what can be used when you have no special medical equipment, how to make an improvised tourniquet, how to stop bleeding, and how to cover open wounds.
Then, when everyone was in full gear, we showed how to evacuate while in gear. Whether it is correct to pull on the bulletproof vest or on the plate carrier, how to turn over a wounded person, and how they should lie while evacuated from the battlefield. And we explained how these things — one tactical move, one pull, or one turn — can save a life.
As for civilians, we taught them to save their lives, even when they are only under threat of being wounded, how to avoid fire when there’s fighting in the city, what to do, where you shouldn't go, and so on.
So we explained all those things illustratively, and there’s a video, which we prepared specially for this and devoted time to showing it. We tried to illustrate all the most typical examples from real life. The training was rather more practical than academic.
And after that, when you know how to save your life and save your brothers in arms, we start teaching to take the enemy’s lives. Even civilians need to know it because we’re not supposed to live quietly under occupation, whatever putins may think. But it’s not what you can tell in a few words.
What do you think about the prospects of universal military training? Is it feasible on a nationwide scale and what approaches should be taken?
I am deeply convinced that this is a top priority issue, and it should be addressed now, even in the time of war, active combat, and defense of our Ukraine, country, and people. Be it the central government, local governments, or in cooperation with civil society, I’m convinced that we all should train, no exceptions.
First, we need to realize that in order to survive, we need to fight, and in order to fight, we need to know how to fight, and to know it, we must get trained. Training must be integrated into all areas of our social life, not only the military and, say, volunteer formations of territorial communities.
As the first stage, we need to have it in the near future at the level of a government policy or some individual regional programs in secondary schools. I mean, each and every senior student must have basic military training.
Who must ensure this? We have relevant ministries, which should be working in synergy now to develop such a program. If they aren't able to do it, then they should at least make a request to the local governments. I’m sure that the model we developed as a center is more than enough to show how everyone concerned can be trained within a single settlement.
The local government can allocate quite a small amount of funding for this, just to provide means of subsistence for instructors, provide premises, which can be equipped for training, and provide for a mandatory military training assembly in the curricula, where students will have immediate experience with the military.
What’s the purpose? First, it’s patriotic education; second, it’s learning; and third, it helps realize that military training is honorable and vital for all who feel they’re warriors. You don’t have to be a professional serviceman to feel that you’re a warrior. I think such immersion could be the first step.
The second step, or stage, is universal training for civilians. It should not be mandated but popularized through training centers where they can satisfy their ambitions or requests. I’m sure our civil society is very conscientious and patriotic.
Today we don’t have a systematic basis for such training, therefore the government must intervene and at least provide the place where such centers could be created or give some resources, so to say, to active citizens who can organize such training.
The main thing here is, obviously, not the place but the realization of local governments that this is absolutely necessary and adequate, and even the Armed Forces themselves are interested in it. That’s because the more trained and motivated civilians we have, the more reserve there is for the army, and the less active mobilization work is needed since there will always be queues of volunteers.
As far as I know, there are queues already. I can’t understand why they chase unmotivated conscripts.
I agree. It has such a Soviet spirit, and I think these are very inadequate measures when they chase people and it turns into some show of giving call-up letters. I understand that not everyone can be a warrior, but it’s probably the responsibility of statesmen to create a system where any citizen of Ukraine can decide whether they are prepared and willing to serve, or whether they don’t need it.
Duty is a very good thing; there should be duties, and I support it because this is what a civilized democratic civil society is based on — a balance between rights and duties. But if we don’t have a system where people can satisfy their needs to train and become warriors or candidates for warriors, we won’t succeed.
That’s why I believe that we should have such systems and training centers where people could get trained on a paying basis by professional instructors from among our military who had combat experience back in 2014 or at this next stage of our war with Russia — these guys are most motivated to share the experience.
These can be both kinds of recruitment centers and psychological relief centers for the guys where they can go either as veterans or during rotations. Because they understand that such training is an element of what makes up our army.
And the third stage is training centers in the territorial defense force, which should cooperate with those training centers for civilians because volunteer formations of territorial communities, who are an active reserve for territorial defense, continuously train in these centers.
And thus we will have an orderly hierarchy and a system of training centers, which can completely satisfy both the needs of society and the need of the government to have a permanent reserve of those who want to defend the country.
We can also reassure all Ukrainians that we have enough of those who want to defend Ukraine and that workers of recruitment centers chasing people to give them call-up letters aren’t our main recruitment method.
And we’ll also have people with a 100% different level of motivation, at least those who come from the middle stage. I understand that youth from schools is a long view, and I hope it won’t happen to them.
But they need to know that there’s military service, a job to protect Ukraine, our Motherland, and the second stage can satisfy the need to create a personnel reserve for the Armed Forces. This is the way to create an ideal situation where the Ukrainians will be able to defend themselves against any enemy.