Ukraine's older recruits await help from younger fighters

By Anna Voitenko

DONETSK REGION, Ukraine (Reuters) - Huddling in the dark with his automatic rifle, 50-year-old Ukrainian soldier "Bell" said he wished more of his younger compatriots would join the fight against Russia's invasion.

Facing a bigger and better equipped enemy, Ukrainian forces are heavily reliant on older soldiers like him to defend the country against relentless Russian assaults.

"They should understand that no one other than us and them will do this," he said at a training ground in eastern Ukraine, identifying himself by his call sign.

Ukraine is under pressure to call up more troops as the 27-month-old war grinds on and fewer volunteers line up than in the first months of the war.

Authorities recently tightened mobilisation rules and lowered the draft age to 25. Men up to 60-years-old are eligible for call-up. Some Ukrainian officials have estimated the average age of the Ukrainian soldier is more than 40-years-old.

Reuters was granted access to a training session of the 33rd Mechanised Brigade in the Donetsk region, where Moscow's forces are slowly advancing in several areas.

Troops were being instructed in a variety of skills, ranging from trench-clearing to operating truck-mounted machine guns. Some had been mobilised while others had joined up.

The brigade's chief sergeant, call sign Deputy, said many of the men currently training are over 50 years-old but that they are more motivated than younger troops.

"They understand why they're here: for the sake of their kids and grandchildren," said Deputy, 44.

Moscow, having seized the initiative after a failed Kyiv counteroffensive last year, is gradually making inroads that could threaten key cities and roads in the east.

Ukrainian officials say they want a full withdrawal of Russian troops and to regain all of their internationally recognised territory - a task many experts said will be difficult as the war grinds on and saps more resources.

Another commander in the 33rd Brigade, call sign Canada, 40, said older troops could be trained to hold defensive positions as Ukraine seeks to build up its forces.

"But if it's about performing other combat duties - assaulting fields, trenches, returning our land - then of course we need younger boys who are more resilient," he said.

Ukraine's call-up effort has been bolstered by government and military PR campaigns aimed at attracting more volunteers by offering candidates a choice of where and how to serve.

Bell, the 50-year-old infantryman, appealed to compatriots with families.

"The need to be defended now, not whenever you're given a draft notice."

(Reporting by Anna Voitenko; Writing by Dan Peleschuk; Editing by Angus MacSwan)