Editor’s Note: Since 2021, the authors have worked as a research team that has visited numerous locations across Europe to observe Ukrainian troops being trained. This article analyzes the European Union’s Training Mission in Support of Ukraine (EUMAM UA) and seeks to identify its impact on the EU’s security policies.

Visiting a German Army base in the vicinity of Berlin, we watch five Ukrainian infantrymen assault a neatly arranged trench, again and again. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon, and they have been practicing this skillset for five hours that day already. Tired and hurried faces, we watch this small group of Ukrainians practice a trench assault, with an energetic German noncommissioned officer shouting out corrections and coaching the troops alongside a German soldier translating it into Ukrainian. We walk around the densely forested training site watching other similar small groups repeat the same trench assault maneuver, seeing signs of exhaustion among some as they move past the halfway mark of the required eight hours of training for the day.

This exercise is part of a forty-day basic infantry course meant to convert Ukrainian soldiers into assault teams capable of confidently taking over Russian trenches. The course constitutes the European Union Military Assistance Mission to Ukraine (EUMAM), the first ever EU training mission organized on EU territories. Since November 2022, the EU has trained over fifty-two thousand Ukrainian troops, with twenty-four EU member states providing military personnel and training modules to Ukrainian forces. EUMAM is one of three multilateral training programs for Ukrainians. Collectively, over 130,000 Ukrainians have been trained by the international community at eighty locations around the world. The US-led Joint Multinational Training Group–Ukraine (JMTG-U), including rotational US forces, has trained over nineteen thousand Ukrainians since 2022. The British-led Operation Interflex and its predecessor Operation Orbital have trained over sixty thousand Ukrainians since 2015. The disparity in the number of trained Ukrainian soldiers between the US training mission and those led by the UK and EU is a function of US prioritization of military readiness requirements, training exercises, and deployments across eastern Europe to deter Russia and reassure NATO allies.

During our travel, we visit several other training locations around Berlin. We arrive at a Bundeswehr urban training ground with modified trench systems to watch an eight-man Ukrainian trench assault team clear fifty meters of trenches. It’s a slow, tough slog, as the lead Ukrainian throws a training grenade about every two to three meters to clear each corner. The observing group of training officers share that each Ukrainian soldier should carry ten grenades for this type of an assault. In the harsh reality of the Russo-Ukrainian war, an experienced Ukrainian soldier laments that they’re lucky to have two grenades for trench clearing operations. The soldier declares they wouldn’t assault a trench without a supporting drone to surveil, allowing them to conserve grenades.

If things weren’t bad enough for Ukrainians assaulting trenches, the trainers mention that the Russians intentionally abandon booby-trapped trenches to wipe out Ukrainian assault teams. They recommend Bangalore torpedo explosives to preemptively clear Russian trenches due to the possibility of booby-trapping. In other cases, Russian forces use tunneling techniques to breach Ukrainian trenches. The trainers shrug about how to adapt their trench warfighting curriculum for these emerging trends. One says, “No doctrine or manual exists in NATO for this type of war.”

Training for a War you Haven’t Experienced

The training we observe near Berlin involves military advisors from various European countries. Training modules include Ukrainians being taught on Leopard 1A5 tanks and various infantry tactics for trench and urban warfare. We meet three US National Guard troops who are helping teach the EUMAM advanced assault sapper course. We see and talk to Ukrainian troops as young as nineteen and as old as sixty-nine. According to one German training officer, the average age of Ukrainians in training cohorts was thirty-four when training began in earnest in 2023, but in 2024 they report that the average age now varies around mid-forties.

With Kyiv recently passing a new mobilization bill, which lowers the draft age from twenty-seven to twenty-five, Ukraine will form four new infantry brigades. The addition of these soldiers couldn’t come at a better time: Russia’s assault on the city of Kharkiv with five battalions forced Ukrainian retreats in some sectors due to a lack of experienced soldiers. These Russian territorial advances and evidence that Russian forces have incorporated organizational changes and new technologies underscore the urgency of deploying more capable Ukrainian troops to counter these heightened threats. These developments have even caused NATO member states to consider sending advisors to provide training inside Ukraine.

The ultimate form and intensity of this assistance will depend upon agreements between NATO members, based on their assessments of the urgency of this mission and the risk of escalation attending the positioning of NATO member states’ personnel on Ukrainian territory. But it is worth noting that Ukraine’s supporters stand at a strategic crossroads. Growing political fatigue and a renewed Russian offensive test the credibility of Western commitments. Ukraine needs the right quantity/quality mix of equipment and properly trained personnel, as it is estimated that the Ukrainians “may have lost over 70% of their combat experienced personnel since 2022.” The American political struggle to approve the $61 billion aid package for Ukraine signals that the long-term US commitment to support Ukraine has become less certain. These developments tested Europeans.

The EU was able to partially replace US aid to ensure the training and arming of Ukrainian soldiers, but more is needed to stave off Russian offensives this summer. Results of this test are rather disheartening. Earlier this year, the EU failed to deliver a promised one million 155-millimeter artillery shells to Ukraine, failing short by almost 50 percent of the declared target. The Czech initiative to procure eight hundred thousand shells outside the EU is facing similar delays, partially due to an unwillingness of some EU member states to chip in funds. The recently unveiled European Defense Industrial Strategy and its financial leg, the European Defense Industrial Program, aimed at encouraging greater cooperation among European defense manufacturers, are yet to be approved and receive at least minimal funding.

We have found in our field visits there are numerous challenges and adaptations going on across Europe to properly train and equip Ukraine for the emerging “cyberpunk form of warfare” that “is blending old fighting styles with new technology.” Speaking to dozens of different European military advisors, we ask about how trainers keep the curriculum current as battlefield conditions in Ukraine change—something most of the trainers have never experienced firsthand. Some trainers respond that they watch open-source videos on social media on a regular basis to observe Russian and Ukrainian battlefield adaptations. Other advisors visit museums and libraries to dust off old doctrine and tactical manuals from World Wars I and II to understand how to provide appropriate techniques for trench warfare training. Most EUMAM personnel tell us that as teachers, they are now being trained by the trainees when it comes to understanding what modern warfare looks like.

There are other serious challenges in the current efforts to train Ukrainian soldiers. The most consistent among those EUMAM trainers cite are language and culture issues. We find the same is true based on our other visits with American, British, and Canadian military trainers. Some of the older German officers mention that their knowledge of East German military institutions helps them understand most of the organizational and doctrinal issues the Ukrainians face due to their shared Soviet legacies. The other common problem is a lack of Ukrainian transparency. Western trainers and apparently Ukrainian military leaders do not have adequate mechanisms to assess the effectiveness of specific training efforts, in terms of direct battlefield effects or on training efforts inside Ukraine. In other cases, Ukrainian authorities do not send soldiers that are appropriate for training programs across Europe. One Ukrainian soldier enrolled in the sapper course complains about how he was randomly thrown on a bus for this course even though he is a trained FPV (first-person view) drone operator with a year and a half of experience. These conversations are a common feature in all of our visits.

Visiting the training base for Leopard tanks, we are greeted by the Danish commanding officer that tells us all about the twelve Ukrainian tank crews his combined Danish-German unit is training. He shows us across the training compound, to include the virtual tank training facility where we observe dozens of highly motivated Ukrainian soldiers sitting at computers with Leopard gunnery wheels attached. Using an upgraded version of the commercially available Steel Beasts, we watch Ukrainian crewmembers fight enemy tanks on their digital battlefield. Elsewhere, we see the Ukrainian tank drivers receiving basic maintenance training.

As the day with the Danish commanding officer wraps up, he tells us how the Ukrainians want to integrate drones into the Leopard tank training. He laments that the six-week course is about mastering tank maneuver and tactics, and the addition of drones would further complicate Ukrainian training. However, without drones, Ukrainian soldiers, trained in Europe to quickly maneuver these tanks in formation, return home to continue using their tanks mainly as artillery. The Danish commanding officer hopes the Ukrainians will use the Leopard tank for its speed, boasting that “these tanks are meant to purr quickly across the battlefield.” Yet, this degree of maneuver has been absent from battlefields in Ukraine since the end of Ukraine’s fall 2022 counteroffensive and the onset of Russian defense in depth. Those of us who have visited Ukraine can confirm that indeed tanks are used more as fixed artillery: as these expensive pieces of equipment are vulnerable to attack from relatively cheap drones, Ukrainians are seeking to preserve Western military kit to avoid testing their allies’ generosity.

Ramifications of Training the Ukrainians

In speaking with numerous European military personnel, most admit that their own training and readiness has gone way down, as their militaries have made it their highest priority of assisting and equipping the Ukrainians. A British Army officer at Land Operations Command estimated that the UK’s landpower service had sacrificed up to 75 percent of its own training and readiness to assist the Ukrainians. Most European military personnel we speak to mention that their leaders have decided to focus largely on them teaching and equipping the Ukrainians at the expense of their own military preparedness, in part because they believe they are applying their comparative advantages in training and advising to advance the common effort to support Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression. In the early months of the Russo-Ukrainian war, some European militaries decided to sacrifice their military readiness, preparedness, training, weapons, and ammunition stocks because they believed that the United States will aid them in a crisis under the NATO Article 5 umbrella. Political uncertainty in the United States, however, is forcing Europeans to develop security policies flexible enough to either leverage US assistance or manage without it.

Several broad policy questions emerge concerning American and European security assistance as the Russo-Ukrainian War is well into its third year. First, is the EU willing to pursue its elevated security ambitions regardless of the continuity and level of US commitment going forward? Surprised with the strength of its own response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Europe is more able than at any time in recent decades able to at least fathom a greater degree of self-reliance on European defense. Yet, European security requires investment in these countries’ defense if the EU seriously plans to fulfill its military ambitions.

Second, what does EU assistance to Ukraine mean for the EU security posture? Formal EU involvement in the conflict has opened new avenues of collaboration, as the non-NATO militaries of Cyprus and Ireland contribute forces to train Ukrainians. Divisions exist: Hungary, a NATO and EU member, partially opposes EUMAM, and Austria, an EU member but non-NATO state, supports the mission but is not actively part of it. The EU parliamentary elections and elections in specific EU countries impact collaboration, a fact that is integral to Russia’s strategic calculations.

Finally, what does European strategic autonomy look like, and how does assistance to Ukraine (re)shape that concept? While visiting the EU Military Planning and Conduct Capability strategic headquarters in Brussels, it became apparent that the politics of the conflict are reshaping European unity and consensus. Some EU member states are more comfortable considering what it means for the EU to exercise strategic autonomy, outside the orbit of NATO, to more forcefully oppose Russia’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine. Other EU military staff and planners reluctantly mention that European strategic autonomy should be unified around consensus in Brussels, and not be as provocative as Paris is with its attempt at steering the EU toward confrontation with Moscow.

NATO and EU assistance to Ukraine since the 2022 invasion is reshaping Europe’s strategic environment. Europeans who previously did not have to think deeply about either their own countries’ military capacities or strategic ends find these issues unavoidable in the face of growing Russian belligerence and imperialism. Ukrainian assistance missions and collaborations are gateways for addressing these issues in tandem, as they grow out of the long-term NATO and now EU frameworks. At the same time, Ukraine’s partners must learn the right lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War, which increasingly points to needing more flexible military institutions that can quickly adapt. The training of Ukrainian forces will continue, but the bigger question is when Western militaries will start introducing lessons learned from this experience into their military doctrine, manuals, weapon systems, and tactics.

Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, PhD, (@JaharaMatisek) is a military professor in the national security affairs department at the United States Naval War College, research fellow with the European Resilience Initiative Center, and United States Department of Defense Minerva co–principal investigator for improving United States security assistance. He has published over one hundred articles and essays in peer-reviewed journals and policy-relevant outlets on strategy, warfare, and security assistance. He is a command pilot that was previously associate professor in the Military and Strategic Studies Department at the United States Air Force Academy.

Sascha E. Ostanina (@SaschaOstanina) is a policy fellow at the Berlin-based Jacques Delors Centre at the Hertie School and the codirector of the European Resilience Initiative Center. She is a political and security risk analyst, specializing in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and the South Caucasus. Previously she was an external political and security analyst with the international consulting company S&P Global and a security consultant with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Dr. William Reno is a professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Northwestern University. He has conducted fieldwork and interviews in conflict zones across Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East for over thirty years, having authored three books: Corruption and State Politics in Sierra LeoneWarlord Politics and African States, and Warfare in Independent Africa. He has published over two hundred articles in peer-reviewed journals and policy-relevant periodicals, and edited volumes on civil wars, rebels, and military assistance. He is the principal investigator for the US Department of Defense Minerva-funded program studying how the United States can improve foreign military training.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense. This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.