At a former paintball park in west Ukraine, Canadian, British and American military instructors were putting two dozen recruits through a warm-up drill.
“Breathe!” a US army veteran told the trainees, who lay prone in the ankle-high grass, aiming their AK-47 rifles at the treeline.
“Keep your fingers on those triggers!”
The instructors were members of the Wolverines, a group started by international veterans who have been quietly operating 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 appearing on social media.
Speculation soon spread that it was a nod to the 1984 Cold War classic Red Dawnabout Colorado teens who use their high school mascot’s name as a calling card as they fight off a Soviet invasion of the United States.
Who was marking up Russian army wreckage 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 writing “Wolverines” on Russian armour was indeed inspired by Red Dawnand said they had screened the movie for Ukrainian trainees and encouraged them to mark up Russian tanks.
“The people that we’ve trained, they’ve gone out. Some of these guys, we give them cans of spray paint and teach them how to write it in English before they go. We also have people embedded with them,” an American instructor said.
“The reason that we tag the tanks is to draw references for the West to see that we are here. They are well aware of the movie. But also this has an impact on the psychology of the Russians. They know we’re here … that the world has united against them.”
The group’s shoulder patch also references the film. It’s taken from a scene in which a Wolverine rebel stands on a hill hoisting an assault rifle above his head with one arm.
“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 not disclosing the Ukrainian city where the training occurred.
The tale of underestimated underdogs defending their country from a Russian occupation force was on point in today’s Ukraine, he added.
“I can’t think of anything more perfect than that,” he said. “It’s a clear presentation of how young motivated people, not professional soldiers, can step up to the plate and knock it out of the park. You don’t need massive armies.”
Aside from posting on social media accounts, the Wolverines have refrained from speaking publicly. But almost three months into the conflict, they said it was time to come out of the shadows to explain who they were and clear up any misperceptions.
According to the American instructor, the Wolverines began even before the Russian invasion as a plan to ready Ukrainians for guerrilla warfare, but work got really underway after the country came under attack in February.
One of the shoulder patches he wore depicted the red-and-black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist paramilitary group that fought Poland, the Soviets and Nazis in the 1940s and ’50s.
Although revered by many Ukrainians, the group and its leader Stepan Bandera are divisive as a result of their temporary alliance with Nazi Germany, something President Vladimir Putin has exploited to justify his attack on his neighbour.
In addition to depicting 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.
Unpaid and self-financed combat veterans, they are citizens of 20 countries, he said. While not part of the international legion of the armed forces, he said they had the full approval of the Ukrainian authorities.
“We are not some radical faction of volunteers running around here like cowboys. We have used the appropriate channels for all of this, getting our instructors the proper paperwork through the ministry of defense,” the American said.
To date, about 6,000 members of Ukraine’s civil defense and armed forces have been trained, he said, and 250 of those have become Wolverines themselves, and wear the group’s shoulder patch.
Canadian Wolverines have been “leading the way in a big way,” alongside volunteers from Australia, New Zealand, Germany and more than a dozen other countries, the American said.
On a sunny morning this week, the training class gathered at a downtown school and boarded a bus that took them out of the city to an overgrown dirt tract surrounded by birch trees 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 laying flat.
Soon they were out of breath, and an instructor told them to get used to it, that they would soon be in a better shape than the enemy troops. “The Russians are lazy,” he said.
The day’s first lesson was about the escalation of force. An instructor who went by the name Shaman walked them through what to do when they were approached at a checkpoint.
Instead of shooting, they should order the person to stop, identify themself and explain their business. “You want a commanding voice,” he said. “You don’t want to sound like a pushover.”
As he spoke, a female recruit with a blonde ponytail took her phone out of her camouflage pants to answer a call. She spoke in a whispered voice, dealing with an unknown emergency, a reminder that these were ordinary Ukrainians who had paused their day-to-day lives to defend their country.
Among the instructors was a Ukrainian-born British citizen who had arrived three days after Moscow launched its invasion on Feb. 24. He joined the Wolverines to help expel the Russian army.
He said he had undergone military training in the Soviet Union as a youth. “We need to win the war,” said the London resident, whose name Global News is not using for security reasons.
The Ukrainian military was good but could be better, he said. He believed the courses had helped develop the army’s skills. “We are a big part of the war, and we’re moving in the right direction.”
After a water break, the recruits gathered for the day’s final training exercise. The instructors said they were to practice getting a “high-value target” out of a building.
They set off down the road and regrouped to make a plan. Once they were ready, a reconnaissance team advanced, followed by a second group providing cover fire.
The rescue team emerged from the woods, bent low with their rifles, and entered the red brick building. “Start clearing rooms, find your target,” their instructor yelled, coaching 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’ve got him, get him out,” the instructor said.
Observing from outside was “Nomad,” a Wolverines instructor and US Army veteran originally arrived from Penticton, BC, who said he in Ukraine in late March.
“It’s an international operation,” he said of the training program, which he felt was a more effective use of foreign veterans than sending them to the frontlines to fight.
Associating Ukraine with Red Dawn had been an effective way to bring a spotlight to the war and get people talking about it, said the dual Canadian-American citizen.
“It’s something to inspire people,” he said of the tank tagging campaign that has drawn so much attention. “People see it, they know we’re here, they know they’re not alone.”