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The secret of Ukraine’s military success: years of NATO training

When Ukrainian National Guard Lieutenant Andriy Kulish raids Russian forces, he thanks the Canadian army.

Last summer, Canadians trained Lieutenant Kulish’s Rapid Reaction Brigade in urban warfare, field tactics and combat medicine. The exercise in western Ukraine has been one of many in recent years with troops from Canada, the United Kingdom, Romania and the California National Guard.

It was just one piece of the little-promoted efforts of the North Atlantic Alliance countries, which transformed the Ukrainian army up and down, from infantry through the Ministry of Defense to oversight in parliament. This is one of the big reasons why Ukraine’s agile fighting force surprised the world by repelling a much larger and better-equipped invading army, Ukrainians and their Western advisers say.

Through courses, exercises and exercises involving at least 10,000 troops a year for more than eight years, NATO and its members have helped the armed country move from rigid Soviet-style command structures to Western standards, where soldiers learn to think on the move.

In the confusion of Russian attackers today, Lieutenant Kulish says that his comrades-in-arms “certainly use the procedures they have learned during training with NATO.”

Western aid, although never secret, was not trumpeted to prevent Russia from being incensed. It also remained inconspicuous because it was a valuable source of information for the United States and its allies. Ukraine has been waging a shooting war with Russian-backed separatists in parts of its east for years, which means that Kyiv has deployed some of Europe’s most hardened troops. Their front-line experience has made them mushrooming for NATO training – and offered NATO commanders a window into what it would be like to fight Russia, say Western officers involved in the programs.

At the time of the Russian invasion on February 24, the training of Ukrainian forces had become so extensive that, although at least eight NATO countries participated, much of the practical training was conducted by Ukrainian instructors. For NATO commanders, this was a sign that Ukraine had internalized their teachings.

“The lesson is that support and assistance have had a significant impact for many years,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

NATO’s work in Ukraine has also been more successful than comparable Western efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The advisers attribute this to a relatively cohesive Ukrainian society and a recognized central government backed by bureaucracy, which, although often inefficient and plagued by corruption, still embodies a united state. Perhaps most importantly, after the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 by Russia and military support, Ukraine had an uprising in the east of the country, against which it had to fight a clear foreign enemy.

At the start of his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the country’s possible membership in NATO as a reason for the attack. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has since suggested that he give up this ambition. Whatever the outcome, Ukrainians and Western advisers say, Kiev forces have learned to wage war according to NATO rules, and the successes on the battlefield show it.

Ukrainian skirmish units are the spear of a completely rebuilt military facility. NATO advisers have brought new concepts to the Soviet-style Ukrainian forces, including civilian military control, professional inspectors, external auditors and logistics specialists.

NATO advisers have abandoned the emphasis on troop and arms numbers and have instilled in the concept of capacity building, where commanders set targets and ensure that they have the necessary troops and weapons to achieve them.

To advance the approach, NATO introduced the idea of ​​non-commissioned officers: experienced soldiers promoted to the rank of authority, who serve as a vital link between the highest and ground forces. NATO countries have also helped Ukraine’s military leaders adopt an approach called mission command, where seniors set combat targets and pass decision-making as far as possible in the chain of command, including to individual soldiers.

In the Soviet approach, still widely used by Russia, senior officers give orders that the infantry have little room for discussion or adaptation.

“That was a big, big difference,” says former Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk. “Reforming NCOs and mission command increases the effectiveness of your forces many times over.”

Lieutenant Kulish says the training is doubly effective because the Ukrainians know Soviet military thinking.

“The Russians use their typical tactics, which haven’t changed much since Stalin’s time,” he says. Artillery volleys come first. By contrast, Ukrainians are unpredictable and agile. “We are bringing chaos to their ranks,” he says.

Work to develop these skills began unfavorably in 2008. Russia invaded Georgia, forcing NATO to expand its membership to Ukraine and vague invitations to membership. The Alliance proposed a 70-page action plan explaining “Ukraine’s Strategic Course for Euro-Atlantic Integration,” essentially a plan for Kyiv to meet NATO’s democratic standards, including a more professional, civilian-controlled military. These efforts have received little attention. to weak support in the West and resistance within the Ukrainian army still of the Soviet type.

The Russian direction of Ukrainian forces in 2014 shook Kiev. The then President Petro Poroshenko ordered a military transformation that strengthened NATO’s efforts. Western officers turned their attention to a 150-square-mile military training facility in the town of Javoriv, ​​16 miles east of the Ukrainian border with Poland, which transformed itself into a post-communist leader within the alliance.

As a sign of how significant the Yavoriv center eventually became, Russia launched a rocket attack in mid-March, killing 35 people.

The first priority in 2014 was to help Ukrainian troops fight Russian officials in the east. NATO has launched courses in combat medicine, civil emergency planning and the fight against the Russian hybrid war, from drones to telephone hacking. Western officers have begun training Ukrainian National Guard units in modern combat tactics, prompting Ukrainian military officials to request similar training, the senior US defense official recalls.

In Kiev, government officials worked with NATO advisers to prepare for deeper changes. Advisers from the United States, the United Kingdom and other NATO countries explained that in order for the Ukrainian army to be more effective, its entire leadership had to change.

The advisers found problems at all levels, such as parallel military and civilian medical systems that required a law of parliament to cooperate, recalls retired Colonel Liam Collins, a former US Army special forces officer.

U.S. officials have repeated the Department of Defense mantras as “This is not a plan, but planning.”

When officers and bureaucrats trained in the Soviet Union resisted change, advisers tried to circumvent it, says Kristopher Reeves, a Canadian military colonel who led a training unit in his country from 2017 to 2018.

“We focused on leaders who could use our energy and multiply it,” says Colonel Reeves.

By the time he left, training courses in Yavoriv had grown from companies of 150 troops to battle groups with more than 400 troops. Ukrainians began to replace Western soldiers in leading combat simulations.

“The second best thing about fighting is learning,” Colonel Reeves says of the soldiers’ learning.

The annual exercises organized in Yavoriv by the US military, nicknamed Rapid Trident, allowed Ukrainian soldiers to train with forces from up to a dozen countries. Lieutenant Kulish, whose unit is now defending the city of Rubizhne, says skills, including explosives handling and field tactics gained in exercises since 2016, have helped his Rapid Reaction Brigade fight in the Donbas in recent years.

Soldiers spinning out of combat in the Donbas were also able to apply their experience in the exercises and often shared lessons with their mentors. Retired US Major General Timothy McGuire, who co-founded the Javoriv Center, invited Ukrainian officers in 2018 to observe major NATO exercises in Germany, where they watched the unit prepare for a defensive position.

“I wouldn’t do it that way,” commented General General McGuire of Ukraine, noting that the troops were not properly disguised, well-dispersed or buried well.

“It was great to see their awareness,” says General McGuire.

Ukrainian soldiers using Western weapons to fight in the Donbas would also report on their performance and how soldiers incorporated weapons into combat.

“It must have been a two-way street,” says Col. Collins. “No doubt we learned from them at the same time they learned from us.”

Off the battlefield, advisers for the summer sought the bureaucratic building blocks of the professional military, such as audit reports, professional development programs, and personnel control processes – “a little boring stuff,” says Colonel Reeves. commanders became meritocratic.

“Combat experience has become more important than who has the largest budget,” says Colonel Reeves. “It’s not just unicorns and rainbows, but we’ve seen their propaganda systems redesigned for the right reasons.”

The changes and civilian control brought about layers of review that exposed corruption and waste, which often angered officials and bureaucrats.

“It was a little stressful because you were constantly creating problems,” recalls Mr Zagorodnyuk, a former defense minister. The political will of Mr Poroshenko and then President Zelenský continued to move forward.

Totalitarian states do not have the authority to question what the military says, Mr. Zagorodnyuk notes: “No one in Russia has questioned the military.”

As threats from Russia increased last year, the pace of military training accelerated. British Army Maj. Bill Ross, who was in charge of British ground training in Ukraine from October to February this year, competed to get Ukrainian troops comfortable with NLAW anti-tank missiles transported by the United Kingdom. The British infantry battalion, which originally planned to instruct platoon of 40 Ukrainians, suddenly had groups of 80 soldiers from all over the country.

“We literally delivered them every three or four days, another course, another course, another course,” says Major Ross. The hope, he says, was that even if only a few hundred soldiers were directly trained, they could cascade the training. At the weekly coordination meetings in Kiev, led by the American colonel, the Ukrainians and Western allies focused their training.

The internal opposition continued throughout. When Major Ross arrived at the Zhytomyr Military Institute southwest of Kiev in October, he was initially denied access because “an individual in their organization who did not want intervention from Western troops,” he says. input.

Major Ross’ team responded to the Ukrainian Joint Forces Command, which charted a defense plan to thwart the Russian invasion. The last time he saw Ukrainian military slides outlining strategies in February, red arrows pointed to the country from all sides except the West. But the Ukrainians had a defense plan.

“It was their plan,” says Major Ross. “We helped.”

—Max Colchester and Oksana Grytsenko contributed to this article.

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