A spring rain falls in large drops on the courtyard of a holiday camp in the forest around Dnipro, one of the main cities in eastern Ukraine. Wisely seated on wooden benches, about fifty soldiers listen religiously to their military instructor perched on a platform. In front of him, spread out on stage, an impressive arsenal of machine guns and rocket launchers.

“Once you know how to use these weapons, I encourage you to learn how to drive an armored vehicle. It will happen that you come across Russian equipment during an offensive. If you don’t know how to use it, believe me, you’ll be biting your fingers,” the man says gravely.

After learning the basics of heavy caliber shooting, the soldiers move on to the first aid workshop. “If punctured, the femoral artery can cause you to lose all your blood in less than three minutes,” warns another instructor, showing a diagram of the blood system. So if you are hit in the leg, you have a few seconds to apply a tourniquet and squeeze as hard as possible. »

Facing him, the mines of the new recruits are as tense as they are concentrated. A month ago, each of them belonged to civilian life. In a few weeks, they will find themselves at the forefront of the worst conflict that Europe has known since the Second World War.

“I was mobilized at the end of February. It was not a surprise, I knew this moment was going to come eventually,” sighs 37-year-old metalworker Serhii sadly.

Next to him, his friend Roman, a coal miner in his thirties, is also looking down. “I’m not naive, if we’re here, it’s to participate in the next counter-offensive, he anticipates, looking worried. I dread the moment when I will find myself facing the Russians, I do not know if my legs will carry me. »

That morning, social networks are buzzing with an unbearable video showing a militiaman from the paramilitary group Wagner beheading a captured Ukrainian soldier with a knife. Almost all of the soldiers in the boot camp have seen the footage. “It’s unbearable, but it strengthens my will to win. Watching this horror, I thought of my wife and daughter. Those opposite are monsters from whom I must protect them. All Ukrainians must do the same,” insists Mykhailo, 30, a construction worker trying his hand at using an anti-tank rocket launcher.

Not all soldiers in training are in their prime. Since the establishment of martial law on February 24, 2022, all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 can be mobilized, with the exception of students, invalids and fathers of families. A pool in which the army of Kyiv must draw more every day in order to compensate for the immense losses caused by a year of high intensity war. According to a US military estimate from last November, nearly 100,000 Ukrainians had been killed or injured since the Russian invasion began on February 24, 2022.

On the Russian side, this figure would be twice as high. And the bloody Battle of Bakhmout, which peaked in violence over the winter, should have pushed the counters up even further. “I couldn’t bear to see so many young men die, so I volunteered. I also wanted to make my wife and daughter proud,” says Oleksandr, a 55-year-old shopkeeper whose face is contorted with sadness.

After a short meal break of vegetable soup, stale bread and pork fat, it was time for practical work. Future soldiers are ordered to don their combat gear and head to a forest adjacent to the camp. Instructors lurking in the ferns await them there to simulate an ambush by the Russian army.

As their students pass, they unleash a deluge of grenade explosions, Kalashnikov fire and smoke bombs.

“Everyone take cover, get out of here!” shouts Dmytro, the officer in charge of operations. Attempting to maintain their composure despite the chaos, the recruits scatter, applying the tactics learned earlier. On their heels, the instructors let no mistakes pass. “Get down you idiot, you’re going to get shot in the head!” shouts an over-armed colossus as he lands a series of rifle butt blows on the helmet of a student flattened on the ground, looking terrified. “Evacuate the wounded, and faster than that!” shouts another officer, unleashing a burst of Kalashnikovs. Three breathless infantrymen throw themselves on one of their comrades lying on the ground, pretending to be inanimate, feel him in order to detect a possible haemorrhage, then exfiltrate him with difficulty towards the interior of a military camp surrounded by high walls.

The detonations cease, the atmosphere relaxes. The exercise is over. In sweat, the twenty budding soldiers take off their helmets, light a cigarette and throw a few well-felt jokes at each other. “Say, you, remind me not to be in your unit,” one of them laughs at another, who stumbled earlier. The laughter is sincere, but the looks struggle to hide the anguish tormenting each of these men.

Before long, bullets and grenades will no longer be blanks. The bleeding will become very real. And real flesh-and-blood enemies will replace the instructors. Placed slightly behind, they judge the performance of their students.

“Whatever they are taught here, what awaits them in the trenches is very different,” adds his colleague Roman, a 30-year-old firefighter who joined the army when the invasion began. “When you face death, panic overtakes you. You understand that at any moment it will be dark and you will never see those you love again. It is impossible to reproduce this feeling in training. For Kyiv’s new soldiers, the terrible moment of truth is fast approaching. The Ukrainian army should soon launch its counter-offensive.

Number of Ukrainians killed or injured since the start of the Russian invasion, as of November 2022

Izyum region, Ukraine – This Sunday in April is a day off for the helicopter squadron of the Ukrainian army’s 12th aviation brigade. Forced rest. “Military Intelligence has just notified us that the Russians have discovered the location of our airbase. So we’re grounded,” plagued Ivan, a 28-year-old pilot with blue eyes and a red beard.

Caught off guard, the small team of airmen, mechanics and pyrotechnicians had to urgently evacuate their equipment further back from the Eastern Front, in the Izioum region. Installed since the day before in a house abandoned by its owners, they are feverishly awaiting the order to set off again.

“Normally, we fly two or three sorties a day in support of our ground forces. These are very dangerous missions, because we have to fly to the front line at low altitude so as not to be detected by enemy radars,” says Yaroslav, 22, a pilot whose pimply face still clashes. with its hundreds of hours of flight in combat zone.

“Vulnerable” is a weak word. During these few seconds perched at altitude, before diving towards the ground to regain speed and flee in the opposite direction, the helicopters of Yaroslav and Ivan suddenly become visible for several tens of kilometers around. They are then ideal targets for enemy portable missile launchers, formidable laser-guided weapons that can be fired from anywhere by an infantryman.

“About one in four times we are targeted by such weapons. A wave of adrenaline then rises in your brain and commands you to lose altitude as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, we suffered a lot of losses,” sighs Yaroslav, nearly 15% of his fellow pilots from the academy of pilots have already been mowed down in mid-flight.

Some don’t even have armor.

“Before the war, we had Mi-8 transport helicopters and Mi-24 assault helicopters. But the more Mi-24s are destroyed, the more we have to convert transport helicopters for combat by attaching rocket launchers to the fuselage. The structure of the device is not made to face danger,” complains Ivan, who climbs aboard these flying coffins almost every day.

The situation is not much better on the Russian side. Yet equipped with powerful Ka-52 combat helicopters, more recent and modern than their old Ukrainian competitors, the Moscow army also suffered heavy losses in the air. Again, hand-held missile launchers are the main culprits.

“The fragility of the helicopter as a weapon of war is confirmed by this conflict, including on the Russian side, whose airborne assaults were failures, deciphers Xavier Tytelman, former aviator in the French army and editor-in-chief of the journal Air

Fighters on both sides struggled with the same problems: powerful anti-aircraft batteries coupled with stealth infantry got the better of most Soviet-built fighters.

Pending possible deliveries of Western aircraft – which is not on the agenda despite Kyiv’s insistence to its allies – the Ukrainian sky therefore remains a kind of no man’s land where no one can reach to take advantage. The counter-offensive will therefore see the new Leopard and Challenger tanks enter the scene. The Ukrainian pilots, for their part, will remain condemned to watch the spectacle from the rear.