March 14, 2022 - 7:00am

A cruel but underreported reality of the Ukrainian war has been the unpreparedness of the Western veterans and serving soldiers fighting in Ukraine. Taken aback by the cruel and uncompromising might of conventional warfare, there are reports that some of the Western volunteers in Zelensky’s international brigades have already returned home.

One Mercian Regiment veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, dubbed a “British Lion” by one tabloid, travelled to Ukraine to fight the Russian military, but is now back in Kidderminster after narrowly surviving one battle with Putin’s forces. He explained:

Iraq and Afghanistan was totally different. The Russians are a conventional modern army
I’ve never experienced firepower like that, I don’t think anyone of this generation ever has.
- Jason Haigh

ISAF troops’ experience of heavy explosives in Afghanistan was mostly confined to taking a fatal step on a booby-trap or when friendly forces in the air miscalculated their strafing runs. 

This experience has left Britons and other Western veterans of the recent failed Middle Eastern campaigns ill-equipped for war in Ukraine. Nothing in the Middle East campaigns compares to the overwhelming might of a conventional army replete with missiles, jets and a wanton disregard for civilian casualties; only the sacrificial zeal of the Islamists was significantly stronger than those fighting for a European land that is not their own. 

But more worryingly for the governments that are trying to prevent these have-a-go heroes from leaving for Kiev is that the unpreparedness of the unfit, sporadic groups of wannabes is not far-off the organised militaries that might be required to defend us.

In ‘The Junior Officers’ Reading Club,’ one of the standout books from the Iraq/Afghanistan generation of soldier writers, author Patrick Hennessy lamented how his 2004 Sandhurst experience focussed on the capabilities of the Russian military and Cold War tactics for European battlegrounds before he was sent to fight in the desert against guerilla extremist groups. 

In other words, nothing could truly prepare soldiers for the tasks they were being sent to achieve across the Middle East and North Africa. No amount of key leader engagement training nor doctrinal adjustment would see NATO-flagged soldiers nudging tribal societies split into Western-adjacent democracies. But governments had to try to equip their troops to do the best they possibly could, and so the training rightly shifted from a focus on open plains and heavy armour to mock-up urban spaces in sandy environments. 

There is once again a renewed need for the West’s military academies to radically prepare for the conflicts of the future. Indecipherable quotes from senior officers about “fighting cutting-edge information conflicts in the hybrid grey zone with multi-domain tactical theatre-entry formations” will need to be quashed in favour of more reliable messaging, planning and investment in armour, drones, guns and manpower.

The current British deployments in the Baltic states and Poland are by no means the envy of those in uniform — no medals, no fighting, blank rounds and the ceaseless assault of ice and snow — but they are by far the MoD’s most important job. They are an active deterrent training in the style of combat that we are seeing unfolding on the frontlines of Eastern Europe.

Allied militaries must urgently prepare for more of this warfare should Putin’s ambitions expand beyond Ukraine. If they fail to heed the warnings issued by the Kremlin’s tanks and missiles, another batch of warriors from Kidderminster might again find themselves woefully unprepared for the fight.

Charlie Peters is a writer and broadcaster from London. He has written for The Daily Telegraph and the National Review and others on a variety of topics including politics, culture and security.