EXCLUSIVE: Ukraine’s ‘wolverines’ come out of the shadows – National

At a former paintball park in western Ukraine, Canadian, British and American military instructors put two dozen recruits through a warm-up drill.

“Breathe!” a US Army veteran told the trainees, who were lying in the grass at ankle height, pointing their AK-47 rifles at the treeline.

“Keep your fingers on those triggers!”

The instructors were members of the Wolverines, a group created by international veterans who operate quietly in Ukraine.

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The Wolverines became a mysterious part of the war last month when photos showing their name spray-painted on destroyed Russian tanks began to appear on social media.

Speculation quickly spread that it was a nod to the 1984 Cold War classic Red Dawnabout Colorado teenagers who use the name of their high school mascot as their calling card as they fight off a Soviet invasion of the United States.

Old Soviet tank with Wolverines spray painted on the side.

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Who marked the wreckage of the Russian army in Ukraine, however, remained unknown.

But key members of the Wolverines gave Global News exclusive access to their training camp this week and said they were responsible.

They acknowledged that the writing of “Wolverines” on the Russian armor was indeed inspired by Red Dawnand said they screened the film for Ukrainian trainees and encouraged them to mark Russian tanks.

“The people we trained have come out. Some of these guys, we give them cans of spray paint and teach them how to write it in English before we leave. We also have people integrated with them,” said an American instructor.

“The reason we label the tanks is to draw references so the West can see we’re here. They know the movie well. But it also impacts the psychology of the Russians. They know we’re here… that the world has united against them.

The band’s crest also references the film. It’s taken from a scene in which a rebel Wolverine stands on a hill hoisting an assault rifle above his head with one arm.

An American Wolverines founder wears the band’s crest on his chest during a training camp in western Ukraine.

Stewart Bell/Global News

“Everybody Loves Red Dawn“said the American instructor, a former US Army infantryman who said he co-founded the Wolverines.

Global News is withholding his name for security reasons and also does not disclose the Ukrainian city where the training took place.

The story of underappreciated underdogs defending their country against an occupying Russian force was relevant in today’s Ukraine, he added.

“I can’t imagine anything more perfect than that,” he said. “It’s a clear presentation of how motivated young people, not professional soldiers, can step in and stand out. You don’t need massive armies.

Ukrainians training at a camp under the supervision of Wolverines instructors, May 16, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

In addition to posting to social media accounts, the Wolverines have refrained from speaking publicly. But nearly three months into the conflict, they said it was time to come out of the shadows to explain who they were and dispel any misconceptions.

According to the American instructor, the Wolverines started even before the Russian invasion as a plan to prepare Ukrainians for guerrilla warfare, but the work really started after the country was attacked in February.

One of the patches on his shoulders depicted the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist paramilitary group that fought Poland, the Soviets and the Nazis in the 1940s and 1950s.

Although revered by many Ukrainians, the group and its leader Stepan Bandera are divisive over their temporary alliance with Nazi Germany, which President Vladimir Putin has exploited to justify his attack on his neighbour.

As well as describing Ukraine as overrun by Nazis, Moscow has also repeatedly alleged that foreign “mercenaries” were fighting in the country, but the American said the Wolverines were all volunteers.

Ukrainians trained by Canadian, British and American Wolverines instructors, May 16, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

Unpaid, self-funded veterans, they are citizens of 20 countries, he said. Although he is not part of the International Legion of Armed Forces, he said they have the full approval of the Ukrainian authorities.

“We are not a radical faction of volunteers running around here like cowboys. We used the appropriate channels for all of this, sending our instructors the appropriate documents through the Department of Defense,” the American said.

To date, around 6,000 members of Ukraine’s Civil Defense and Armed Forces have been trained, he said, and 250 of them have become Wolverines themselves and wear the band’s crest.

The Canadian Wolverines have “led the way in a big way”, alongside volunteers from Australia, New Zealand, Germany and more than a dozen other countries, the American said.

Wolverines instructors train Ukrainians, May 16, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

training day

On a sunny morning this week, the training class gathered at a downtown school and boarded a bus that took them out of town to an overgrown dirt field surrounded by birches and empty buildings.

They lined up facing their foreign instructors, who put them through a tactical warm-up that had them swinging their rifles in unison while standing, kneeling, and prone.

Soon they were out of breath, and an instructor told them to get used to it, they would soon be in better shape than the enemy troops. “Russians are lazy,” he said.

The first lesson of the day was about escalating strength. An instructor named Shaman explained to them what to do when they were approached at a checkpoint.

Instead of shooting, they should order the person to stop, identify themselves and explain their case. “You want an authoritative voice,” he said. “You don’t want to look like child’s play.”

A Wolverines instructor shows off his shoulder patch, a tribute to the movie Red Dawn, on May 16, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

As he spoke, a rookie with a blonde ponytail pulled his phone out of his camouflage pants to answer a call. She spoke in a whispered voice, dealing with an unknown emergency, recalling that these were ordinary Ukrainians who had interrupted their daily lives to defend their country.

Among the instructors was a British citizen of Ukrainian descent who had arrived three days after the February 24 invasion of Moscow was launched. He joined the Wolverines to help drive out the Russian army.

He said he received military training in the Soviet Union as a young man. “We have to win the war,” said the London resident, whose name Global News does not use for security reasons.

The Ukrainian army was good but could be better, he said. He believed that the courses had helped develop the skills of the army. “We are a big part of the war, and we are moving in the right direction.”

A Wolverines instructor from British Columbia at training camp, May 16, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

Lowering

After a break in the water, the recruits gathered for the final training exercise of the day. Instructors said they had to practice pulling a “high-value target” out of a building.

They set off on the road and regroup to make a plan. Once they were ready, a reconnaissance team moved forward, followed by a second group providing covering fire.

The rescue team emerged from the woods, ducked down with their guns, and entered the red brick building. “Start clearing the halls, find your target,” their instructor shouted, leading him from outside.

When they found their target in an upstairs room, he told them not to shoot, that he was not an enemy soldier. “Come on, you got it, get it out,” said the instructor.

Ukrainian trainees practice storming a Wolverines camp building on May 16, 2022.

Stewart Bell/Global News

The outside observer was “Nomad,” a Wolverines instructor and U.S. Army veteran from Penticton, British Columbia, who said he arrived in Ukraine in late March.

“It’s an international operation,” he said of the training program, which he said was a more effective use of foreign veterans than sending them to the front line to fight.

Associate Ukraine with Red Dawn had been an effective way to shine the spotlight on the war and get people talking about it, the Canadian-American dual citizen said.

“It’s something that inspires people,” he said of the tank labeling campaign that got so much attention. “People see it, they know we’re here, they know they’re not alone.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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