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The British military is giving Ukrainian civilians a crash course in soldiering

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ukraine says it needs more of just about everything to fight Russia - precision-guided rockets, tanks and training for its soldiers. The U.K. has provided more military instruction than nearly any other country. It's put nearly 6,000 Ukrainian civilians through basic training on British soil. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the story.

(CROSSTALK)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It doesn't look like the sweeping wheat fields and vast blue skies of Ukraine, but for now, the rolling hills here in southern England will have to do. Ukrainian trainees in body armor and camouflage race to sandbags and fire at metal targets.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LANGFITT: A heavy machine gun fires overhead...

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE)

LANGFITT: ...As an armored fighting vehicle roars back and forth. The trainees study everything from weapons handling and assault tactics to treating battlefield injuries and clearing enemy trenches. One new soldier, a rangy engineer nicknamed Panda, says live fire exercises like this will help prepare him for the fight back home.

PANDA: (Through interpreter) The most important thing that the British side gave to us was learning how to look after your psychological state and build your psychological defense for when you have to go onto the battlefield. We learn through hearing things like explosions that are happening around. We learn how to not fear them anymore, like when we were civilians.

LANGFITT: Panda wears an olive-green facemask to hide his identity. Ukrainian army has insisted the soldiers remain anonymous. The trainees come from all walks of life. They included a lawyer, a builder and a dance choreographer. Turning ordinary people into soldiers is crucial for Ukraine, which, despite recent gains, remains outnumbered on the battlefield. These aspiring soldiers have come to England because training large numbers of people back home is too dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Waves of Russian missiles have pounded a military training base close to Ukraine's western border near Poland.

LANGFITT: That attack in early March killed at least 35 people. Here, the atmosphere is far more relaxed. Trainers teach in open fields. Standing next to an easel overlooking a herd of cattle, a British soldier quizzes the trainees on Russian weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Anyone remember what caliber of rockets this fires?

LANGFITT: He displays photos of tanks and armored fighting vehicles, trying to help his students identify friend and foe on the battlefield. The trainer says it helps to know where the engine is located in each vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Looking at thermal sites, some vehicles are going to look harder to identify than others.

LANGFITT: In other words, know the engine location, know the vehicle. One of the hardest things for soldiers to master is marksmanship. Suren Ball, a warrant officer Class 2, explains.

SUREN BALL: We'd had mixed results to start off with. But we got them to a standard, eventually, purely because of coaching. From what I know, they haven't handled weapons before.

LANGFITT: Ball says a key was giving soldiers one-on-one attention. He adds that trainees were eventually able to hit the target around 80% of the time from various firing positions. In the United Kingdom, all new soldiers typically go through a 14-week basic training course, but the British are giving the Ukrainians just five weeks. When I asked a trainer about this, a military press officer intervened.

And if you could have them for more time, how much extra time would you like with them?

UNIDENTIFIED PRESS OFFICER: He won't answer that question.

LANGFITT: Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED PRESS OFFICER: 'Cause it's subjective.

LANGFITT: It's subjective?

UNIDENTIFIED PRESS OFFICER: Mmm hmm. It's not our decision.

LANGFITT: Indeed, it's the choice of the Ukrainian military, which remains desperate to get new troops onto the battlefield, to replenish the many thousands who've already died or been injured. One veteran Ukrainian soldier told me he thinks new recruits still need at least 10 weeks of training. But, he added, in this reality, it's a race against time.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, in southern England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.