British special forces may or may not be operating on the ground in Ukraine, according to the leaked Pentagon papers, but Ukrainian troops are certainly operating on the ground in Britain. Or rather, Ukrainian civilians are coming over here to be turned into soldiers by the British Army. In Ready For War, Stacey Dooley met the latest intake.
“Are you okay?” she asked as they disembarked for this condensed training programme (six months’ worth crammed into five weeks). “I imagine this feels overwhelming.”
Initially the encounter between the understandable need of these civilian soldiers’ to remain stoical, and the requirement of the production team to milk some human interest, felt jarring. I felt inherently protective of the volunteer combatants and wanted to tell Dooley to back off with her kindly delivered but intrusive questions.
For, as Dooley herself said: “This isn’t training on the off-chance that one day they might end up in a war zone… this is them seriously preparing themselves to be on that front line in five weeks’ time.”
Pasha (a welder in his civilian life) was keen to keep his fellow trainees spirits up. “Everyone likes to see the smiling guy… it makes them feel the same way”. Wartime morale, in short. Pasha had been living in Belgium when the Russians invaded and, despite protestations from his parents, had decided to return home and fight.
Former jeweller Artem declared he was willing to give his life “so that my child can live in a free country”, telling his girlfriend: “We’ll meet again after victory.” Dame Vera Lynn once sang about that.
As it happened, 32-year-old Artem took to soldiering like a duck to water – the water here being knee-deep as he waded through the mocked-up trenches. “I’ve found my passion,” he declared. “I feel 18 again.”
Because this sort of documentary demands some tears, the makers were fortunate to have Aliia, the interpreter who translated the trainers’ barked orders into Ukrainian (presumably without the effing and blinding). This was the umpteenth group she had overseen and then packed off to combat and, occasionally, their deaths. “You get to know their stories and about their families,” she explained. “And then you have to say goodbye to them and you know where they are going.”
You can see why the BBC loves Dooley so much – she is such a versatile presenter, whether hosting game shows like This is MY House, bothering viewers’ tear ducts with DNA Family Secrets or doing more punchy investigative reporting on stalkers or ISIS.
Like Louis Theroux, she receives star billing, and there were arguably too many shots of her empathetic responses. In the programme’s postscript, we were updated on how Pasha, Artem and co were faring back in the Ukraine – before being informed that Dooley gave birth a month after filming. Nice to know, but hardly commensurate in the circumstances.
She did break through and make some telling connections, however, and didn’t shy away from the hard questions. Asking an older recruit, Serhii, whether he would be able to take someone’s life, Serhii replied “yeah” without hesitation. To paraphrase the rest of his answer: they started it.
Their resilience while yomping through the mud and rain “deep in the English countryside” (the true location was kept secret) was impressive. Having spent the night lying in a puddle because he hadn’t adequately prepared his improvised bivouac, Artem cheerfully declared: “In the future we will fix it.”
It was the recruits’ optimism and determination that remained the overriding impression. This intake impressed in training so much that they were formed into a special brigade now fighting Russian forces in occupied regions of their homeland. We can only wish them well.