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NATO-trained Ukrainian troops contribute to offensive to push out Russian forces

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine is finally getting the F-16 fighter jets it has been asking for. It's unclear how many jets NATO allies will be sending, but getting them on the battlefield will not be swift. Flying them requires months of training. But NATO forces have been working with Ukrainian troops in Western Europe for months now already, teaching them how to use NATO military gear and to fight according to NATO tactics. NPR's Kyiv correspondent Joanna Kakissis and producer Polina Lytvynova report on what these soldiers have learned.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So it's just rained, and the camp is pretty muddy, kind of like quicksand. Whoa. We're walking now to one of the Bradley armored personnel carriers. And Oleksandr is going to show it to us.

Oleksandr is a soldier and mechanic, and he wouldn't give his full name for security reasons. When the U.S. promised the Bradleys to Ukraine, Oleksandr was sent to the Netherlands, where NATO experts taught him to repair them. Now he's stationed at a Bradley repair camp not far from the front line.

OLEKSANDR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He says he repaired one in just two hours. Those he can't fix go to Poland. Bradleys are often mistaken for tanks, but they have less weaponry. They hold a three-person crew and six soldiers.

OLEKSANDR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

POLINA LYTVYNOVA, BYLINE: "Each Bradley, after repair, has a final test. We never give it back before testing."

OLEKSANDR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: The most important thing, he says, is that if the Bradley's crew drives over a mine, it's OK. They survive. Ukraine's 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade is the only one using Bradleys. A commander in one of the brigade's companies - he gives his call sign as Hans - contrasts the Bradleys with the Soviet-era vehicles the Ukrainians usually use.

HANS: (Through interpreter) In Soviet vehicles, there would 100% be much greater losses.

KAKISSIS: Hans has just come in from the front line. We meet him at a camp where other soldiers are staying. He's 25 with freckles and a beard, and he speaks carefully. Before the war, he was a lawyer. He learned about Bradleys and NATO battlefield strategy earlier this year in Grafenwoehr, a U.S. training base in Germany.

HANS: (Through interpreter) When we were training, we were shown various ways of evacuating wounded comrades. And it helps during shelling because we already know what to do next.

KAKISSIS: But he admits that not everything has worked. The training did not consider how many mines the Russians would plant on the southern front. And, he says, Russian troops are very determined to destroy Western vehicles like the Bradleys with direct missile hits.

HANS: (Through interpreter) The enemy, when they see through drones or reconnaissance that a vehicle is damaged or knocked down, they concentrate all their forces on finishing it off. And they make it as difficult as possible for us to evacuate.

KAKISSIS: When the counteroffensive started, he said he put pressure on himself to move quickly. Now he has other priorities.

HANS: (Through interpreter) We understand that lives are the most important to save because you won't get very far in battle without enough people.

KAKISSIS: At the same location near an overgrown garden, we meet Oleksii Reva.

OLEKSII REVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He's a famous comedian in Ukraine. Before the war, Reva and his identical twin brother hosted a popular comedy sketch show called "Mama Is Laughing."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAMA IS LAUGHING")

REVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Now the twins are in the 47th Brigade together, working in the personnel department. They studied personnel management at the U.S. training base in Germany.

REVA: (Through interpreter) Many people, even within the armed forces, do not understand how important high-quality and accurate personnel accounting is. Who is wounded? Who is motivated? The tasks we perform depend on having a precise accounting of that.

KAKISSIS: Reva says there are more than 5,000 people in the brigade, with 30 in the personnel department. He says everyone counts the months separated from their families. His wife and 8-year-old son are in Poland.

How long has it been since you've seen your family?

REVA: (Through interpreter) It's been seven months.

KAKISSIS: Reva holds back tears and changes the subject. He says he and his brother sometimes do stand-up comedy for the troops.

REVA: (Through interpreter) You have to find some way to pull yourself out of this emotional abyss. There's lots of dark humor, but we have a rule. We never joke about losses.

KAKISSIS: At a busy park in the city of Zaporizhzhia, we meet one of the brigade's medics, who is 29 and goes by the call sign Harvest.

HARVEST: (Through interpreter) I've seen so many shrapnel wounds, lots of ruptured eardrums, severed limbs.

KAKISSIS: Harvest was an emergency room doctor before the war and trained with NATO medics in Germany. He learned how to use new bandages and tourniquets.

HARVEST: (Through interpreter) They also taught us to use anything we had in front of us, like a rag, a branch, anything.

KAKISSIS: He says he often treats injuries caused by shrapnel and landmines stacked on top of each other.

HARVEST: (Through interpreter) We call them sandwiches. A medic who was with me in Germany was blown up by mines while trying to help evacuate his comrades. One leg was barely saved. The other had to be amputated.

KAKISSIS: Harvest also saw what happened when a Russian anti-tank missile hit a Bradley commanded by a close friend, Moto.

HARVEST: (Through interpreter) His entire crew were like Superman. They destroyed tanks. They destroyed enemy infantry. But several anti-tank missiles hit the Bradley, and it caught fire.

KAKISSIS: When Moto was pulled out of the Bradley, Harvest saw right away that he was dying.

HARVEST: (Through interpreter) He was always cheerful, never depressed, even living out here in the woods. He could get himself out of any situation. But when I saw him there, I knew that was it. I still remember the warmth of his blood and that his eyes were just staring straight ahead. Those eyes - well, they just...

KAKISSIS: The doctor turns away to wipe his eyes and pull himself together. The NATO trainees are headed back to the front line.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBIN GUTHRIE AND HAROLD BUDD'S "GAZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.