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Nato summit looks different from Ukraine’s trenches

Ukraine has about 1 million people under arms, including soldiers in the army and national guard and militarised police units
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Col Vitaly Tsyba, an infantry commander in the Ukrainian army, was too busy on Tuesday to follow news of the Nato summit.

Bearded and grimy, he had returned to a base after several days in combat and learned of the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where President Joe Biden and other Western leaders are debating plans to strengthen the alliance to counter Russia.

Tsyba had some ideas for them.

“They should understand how the enemy behaves, how he attacks, how he defends, how his logistics work,” Tsyba said of Nato member states. “All this is gained from experience. It’s not in a textbook. But we understand it. This is our reality. We have this experience.”

Ukraine, a beneficiary of vast quantities of military aid from the United States and other nations in Nato, has applied to join the mutual-defence alliance. Biden has said that Ukraine is not yet ready, and that it cannot be admitted while at war, since that would bring Nato directly into the conflict.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged the timing issue, but he demands a clear timeline for joining. Ukrainian officials hold that their country would be a valuable addition to Nato, given the extensive combat experience of the Ukrainian army.

In Kyiv’s counteroffensive underway in southern Ukraine this summer, brigades that fought continually for more than a year have advanced farther than those newly trained and armed by Nato countries. Of course, many factors might account for the differing paces of the units, such as terrain or the density of Russian minefields and defensive lines.

Still, Ukrainian soldiers interviewed emphasised the value of combat experience in fighting the Russians.

“This theory has a right to exist,” said Maj Nazariy Tofan, an artillery commander.

He, like Tsyba, serves in Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, which is among Ukraine’s most battle-hardened units. The brigade has so far advanced farther than others in the counteroffensive and is breaking through a second line of Russian defences after reclaiming several villages and crossing about 5 miles of minefields.

Yet the brigade is fighting without the Western weaponry, such as German Leopard tanks and American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, provided specifically to aid Ukraine’s counterattack this summer. Some soldiers were trained in Britain last year, but the brigade was not among those trained in Europe this year before the counteroffensive.

Soldiers in the brigade fought in the southern city of Mariupol when it was surrounded in the first months of the war and in the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east before joining the counteroffensive in the south last month.

The brigade is equipped with American M113 armoured personnel carriers, American Javelin anti-tank missiles and other Western weaponry.

More would certainly be welcome, said Tofan, who commands batteries of Soviet legacy 122 mm howitzers. They are less accurate and pack less of a punch than Western artillery systems, he said.

“There should be less talk and more aid,” Tofan said, in an interview under a grape arbor in a house he is quartering in some distance back from the front line.

Ukraine has about 1 million people under arms, including soldiers in the army and national guard and militarised police units. Over a year and four months of fighting, the Ukrainian army has defeated Russia in three previous counteroffensives, north of Kyiv and in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, and is emerging as a powerful force that could reshape the security landscape in Eastern Europe.

“If you have combat knowledge, you know what to do quickly and effectively,” Tofan said. “Knowledge in books and knowledge in combat are very different things.” - The New York Times

Andrew E Kramer

The writer is the New York Times bureau chief in Kyiv

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