WASHINGTON — The Ukraine Ministry of Defense, fighting a war with Russian-backed separatists in the East, has sent three battalions from its national guard to train with the US Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the western town of Lviv. The training emphasizes battlefield medicine, tactics to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and basic tasks like reacting to an ambush and clearing a building.
A third to half of the Ukrainians have served in the combat zone, where they would have gained experience their US counterparts lack. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of US Army Europe, has said the US ground forces can also learn from the Ukrainians and offered a fairly positive assessment of the Ukrainian effort.
"No Americans have been under Russian artillery or rocket fire or been on the receiving end of significant Russian electronic warfare, the jamming and collecting, for example, not tactical levels," Hodges said. "These Ukrainians have, and so it has been interesting to hear what they have learned. I have been extremely proud of how well the training is going."
In late July, the training paused to accommodate Exercise Rapid Trident, which included 1,800 personnel from 18 countries at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv, Ukraine.
Q. Analysts have characterized Ukrainian forces as ill-equipped. What's your assessment?
A. First, I have been very impressed with the earnestness of the Ukrainian military to fix their institutional shortcomings and to improve their capabilities.
I saw something [at Rapid Trident] that was very compelling. The chief of the Ukrainian Army, Lt. Gen. [Anatoliy] Pushnyakov — this is during the DV [distinguished visitors] day, when you have all of these various senior visitors in there. Frankly, people don't tend to ask really hard questions because they do not want to embarrass a general officer from another country with a difficult question. Here you had the chief of the Ukrainian Army, and he brought five officers who had recently served at the front. Each officer stood in front of this group of people from 18 countries and described their experiences and lessons learned. It was very impressive and something that blew out all of the stereotypes of their technical capability, their willingness to do critical self-analysis and to talk about it in public. It was one of the most professional things I have ever seen of any army. They were very candid, showing "we were not prepared to do this, but here is how we adapted," and particularly said the Russians have provided so much artillery, so much electronic warfare and UAVs all over the place. The Ukrainians have had to adapt in terms of their communications, their avoid-and-detection and their ability to respond to the Russians and the Russian-supported rebels.
Q. Has corruption at the Ministry of Defense, currently or in the past, been a factor?
A.Ukraine used to have one of the largest defense industries in Europe and one of the largest militaries in Europe, but under the Yanukovych and Shevchenko regimes, there was so much corruption that I think the institutions were probably hollowed out. You had vehicles but you did not have parts or fuel, and even the recruiting stations were shut down. What I have seen under President [Petro] Poroshenko is an attempt to address that and fix that because without a strong institution, you cannot put a quality unit in the field. You have to have a ministry and an institutional army that can recruit, train, provide equipment, provide spare parts, do maintenance, training ammunition, make sure you are going to get paid on time, barracks installations — that is all hard work. I am seeing a very strong effort to do that.
I met a Ukrainian member of the Rada [Ukraine's parliament] who is interested in making sure that the Rada has oversight of the military. The fact that the Rada is looking for legislative oversight, I think, is an indicator of what the Ukraine is trying to do in terms of transparency. I am not trying to oversell them or sugarcoat, but these are the indicators that I see during my interactions with them. It is a level of transparency that you would expect to see with the United States.
Q. Where do you see the most pressing need for the Ukrainian military to modernize or reform?
A. For the institutional Army to continue to produce the officers and NCOs — to generate the formations. Last year when we did Rapid Trident, they would not pull any of the units out of the front to do the exercise because they thought they had to have everybody there. So the only people that they provided were cadets and military candidates. This year they had a battalion. Then they pulled out three MoI battalions to train, and now they are going to pull out five Army battalions to train beginning in November — another sign of professionalism that you recognize that even during conflict, you still have to conduct training and re-training.
The Russians have put so much ammunition and so much rocket and artillery, Russian command and control, Russian intelligence. They are jamming all the [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] UAVs. It makes it impossible for OSCE to do its job on the Russian side of the line of contact for the Minsk Agreement. The border between Eastern Ukraine and Russia is wide open and completely unmonitored. Even with all of that, the Ukrainians, it looks to me, have been able to stop any further serious expansion by the rebels, and there is still continuous fighting that is going on along that line. I do not know how this going to play out there over the next two or three months.
Q. Do you hear from the Ukrainians what kind of weapons or non-lethal aid they would want?
A. The way that process normally works is that it goes from the nation, through the embassy, up to the US government. They have talked about UAVs and weapon systems, counter-fire radar, secure communications, those kind of things, continued medical support. I think the actual list is probably public.
For me, with the lethal aid, the US policy is what it is, and so my job is to make whatever the policy is as effective as possible. That means making sure that we are providing the best possible training, and looking for everything that we can do that is in accordance with policy that helps Ukrainians protect themselves and defend their country.
This is not happening in a vacuum. What is happening in the Ukraine is not the issue. The issue is what Russia is doing. So even though Ukraine is not a NATO country, what happens there does impact the EU, it does impact NATO because it is about Russia and the security environment in Europe. So the US, correctly, is going to formulate and implement policy, taking into consideration the views of other European countries. We want to see the Minsk Agreement work, which is why it is so frustrating that the Russians will not allow OSCE, of which they are a member, to do its monitoring mission, which came out of the agreement.
Maintaining alliance unity is very important here. The EU maintaining the sanctions is very important, and I think Germany has done a great job providing leadership here. These are paramount, so whether or not to provide weapons is not a strategy. I am not saying it is wrong or right, but that is not a strategy. That is a step in a strategy, and we need to think through how do we — EU and NATO — what do we want the environment to look like in Europe.
Q. And what's the answer?
A. I think we all want Russia to come back into the international community. Russia has an important role to play in many places, but nobody thinks it is OK to use force to change the internationally recognized sovereignty of European countries, and the Ukraine is a European country everybody recognized, including Russia. It is only Ukrainians that have died with an EU flag in their hand; they have made their European choice.
Q. I have heard Ukrainian defense officials say theirs is the war of the future. Can you talk about that and the electronic warfare [EW] situation?
A. When I was there about a month ago, I had noncommissioned officers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade telling me how impressed they were with the skill and experience of so many of the Ukrainians who have been under Russian artillery rocket fire, and been on the receiving end of electronic jamming and collection and so on.
We have provided them with the lightweight counter-mortar radar, and they were very, very effective in employing that. In fact, they used it in ways that we had not used it ourselves, and discovered that it made it more effective than I think we knew was possible. Of course, the Russians immediately started targeting it because they realized the Ukrainians had a capability that was helping them.
They are very professional, they have a lot of officers that are well trained, and they clearly have the technical [ability] to employ any monitoring equipment. If they say the Ukraine would not know how to use the [AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder] radar, that is an absolute myth. They would have no problem and could be trained on it very quickly.
Q. What has the US learned from the Ukrainians?
A.What we have learned from them is what it is like, the amount of jamming capability from distance as well as types that the Russians have employed. The Russians continue to develop their conventional, high-end, electronic warfare capability. It is something that we used to do but over the last 10 years or so have been focused on the terrorism, counter-insurgency, and that sort of signals intelligence, while the Russians continued further down the road of high-powered jamming. They can bring down UAVs; they can make it difficult to communicate. So that is something that we have an opportunity to learn from them. Now that UAVs are ubiquitous, it changes a little bit how you avoid detection from the enemy so you do not get hit with their long-range rocket and long-range artillery.
Then the amount that the Russians have invested in Kaliningrad and Crimea: They have the potential completely to deny access up into the Baltic Sea and into the Black Sea, and they can touch about 90 percent of the Black Sea with anti-ship missiles and the Baltic Sea the same thing. They have already exercised one time, putting an Iskander missile into Kaliningrad. So there is a lot of capability — artillery, rockets, anti-ship, troops, air defense — in Kaliningrad and in Crimea. That is a real concern.
Q. Do you expect any new Joint Urgent Operational Needs statements like the Army's request to up-gun the Stryker?
A. We are going to keep looking at all of our capabilities. The Army has regionally aligned forces, which enables rotational forces. We are going to have a brigade's worth of equipment on the ground, forward, in what we call European Activities Sets so that the heavy brigade comes over and draws equipment, trains with it throughout the year.
So we will keep looking at our capabilities, but also our allies. I mean all of our allies are growing — the Germans and the Dutch are increasing their tank forces again. All three Baltic countries are increasing. Poland is serious about it. Really, this is not just the US; several countries in the alliance are increasing, taking on more of a share of the burden. I am very encouraged by it. Even though each country might have a slightly different view of what Russia is doing, everybody recognizes that the alliance has to stick together and be ready.