Ukraine-California relations show value of National Guard program | Item
WASHINGTON — When Russia invaded Ukraine with more than 150,000 troops on Feb. 24, most people — especially Russian President Vladimir Putin — expected a Russian ride.
The men and women of the California National Guard knew better.
The California National Guard has had a close working relationship with the Ukrainian Army and Ukrainian National Guard since 1993.
California Guardsmen have taught the Ukrainian Army, trained with them, shared successes and failures with them, and become good friends over the past 29 years.
It all helps now that the country is under attack.
This happened as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program.
First, a bit of history. After the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917, Ukraine remained independent until 1920, when Russian Communists conquered the country. It became part of the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1991. The three most notable aspects of Soviet rule were two Moscow-induced famines in the 1920s and 1930s that killed an estimated 8 million Ukrainians and World War II world, which killed 8 million more.
In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine declared its independence. The Cold War was over.
Ukrainians had two opinions: some wanted to stay aligned with Russia, while most Ukrainians wanted to reach out to the West.
Jump to 1993 when Ukraine became a founding member of the United States National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program along with Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania , North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Each country was associated with a state and Ukraine with California.
The program was based on an American suggestion to NATO. It began as an effort to help former Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations reform their armies along Western lines, National Guard Bureau officials said in the background. The program had many goals, including helping nations become more interoperable with NATO forces, helping partners become more transparent in military affairs, and, perhaps most importantly, helping nations know how a army operates in a democracy.
As the program began in Europe, it spread to the United States Southern Command and then to the rest of the combatant commands. In US Africa Command, some of the state partnerships predate the creation of the command itself.
Today, 93 nations are associated with Guard organizations from all 50 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia.
U.S. officials felt pairing with state National Guardsmen made more sense than pairing with active duty forces, a National Guard official said. First, the militaries of these countries had missions more closely aligned with the National Guard than those of active duty forces. These service members could be called upon to assist in disasters and humanitarian crises, much like National Guard personnel help with hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and even snowstorms. Military partners often worked closely with law enforcement in a way that mirrored what National Guard troops sometimes do on state duty.
Officials also believed National Guard units were more stable, meaning personnel were not reassigned every three years. Members of the State Guards could remain in place for an entire career. This allowed state and partner military personnel to bond in a personal way, the official said. “When you pick up the phone to call, you know the person on the other end of the line,” he said.
Trust between the military has grown with many partner service members coming to military schools in the United States.
But it was more. Trust was also boosted when partner militaries deployed with US formations in the Balkans. Trust was further cemented when the partners fought alongside US service members in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since the program began, there have been many instances where officers have grown up together – they have met as lieutenants and captains and followed each other through the ranks.
When Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, Adjutant General of California, joined the California National Guard in 1984, he and his wife hosted a Ukrainian family in California for training under the program.
Those contacts survived the ups and downs of politics in Europe and the United States, he said.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, experts felt that the Ukrainian military was not up to the task. “Because we work so closely with the Ukrainian military, we always thought the West underestimated them, and the National Guard of Ukraine as well,” Baldwin said in a recent interview. “We knew they had radically improved their ability to make Western-style military decisions. I was impressed, however, with their ability at the national level to overcome some of the challenges that we thought they still had in terms of logistics and command control.
The Ukrainians also demonstrated interagency cooperation. “I think the best story is with their air force,” the general said. “Our fighter pilots have been telling everyone for years that the Ukrainian Air Force is pretty good. And all the while a lot of other people in the West were laughing at them.
“Well, the proof is in the pudding,” he said. “Their Air Force is way better than everyone thought except the California Air National Guard, who knew these guys were pretty good.”
The air over Ukraine is still disputed, more than three weeks after the invasion began.
Baldwin said the Ukrainian army’s training effort is truly a team effort. California Guardsmen worked alongside NATO trainers and active-duty force trainers, especially after Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed Crimea.
The Ukrainian government has resolutely turned towards the West and training has taken on a new importance. The Ukrainians were very receptive. Prior to 2014, the California Guard sent a few dozen trainers to Ukraine at a time. After the Russian invasion, this engagement numbered in the hundreds and the training accelerated.
It’s more than just teaching infantry tactics, Baldwin said, although Ukrainian soldiers have demonstrated the ability to fire and move.
At training areas in Ukraine and California, the Army Guard and California Air Guard worked to develop Ukrainian capabilities. If they lacked the capacity, Baldwin worked with National Guard units in the United States to ensure that Ukrainian servicemen received the training they needed.
It was more than a small unit tactic, he said. Guardsmen worked in logistics and sustainment – the lifeblood of any army. They worked to establish and build a corps of Ukrainian NCOs. They helped train staff officers to defend against and launch cyber operations.
Guards even worked at Ukrainian army headquarters to establish command and control procedures and help build a joint operations center modeled on what the US military would have. The guards helped them “reorganize the way their staffs are organized at the general staff and the defense ministry”, he said. “We even integrated (Ukrainian) staff officers as our staff.”
Baldwin visited Ukraine in November and spoke with Ukrainian military leaders about the worrying buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders. “At the time, they kind of knew it was going to happen, but they didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “It was only in January that the highest Ukrainian leaders began [to] recognize that this might be a possibility.
Ukrainian leaders then began to talk about the specific needs they would have if Russia invaded. “They came a day or two after predicting when the invasion was coming,” he said. “But through this partnership and our ability to have candid discussions about what they needed at the eleventh hour to prepare, I [hope] it helped them a lot to prepare and do well during the first hours of the invasion.
Baldwin said that within half an hour of the Russian invasion, he began receiving calls from senior Ukrainian leaders. “The first calls were, ‘Hey, we’re under attack,’ then the calls that night were, ‘Here’s the help we desperately need,'” he said.
Early calls were for more Stingers, Javelins and other anti-tank weapons, he said.
“Within 24 hours, we had a pretty comprehensive list of all their military equipment needs – both lethal and non-lethal,” the general said.
The California Guard set up their joint operations center and they saw the same things their Ukrainian partners were showing in kyiv. Baldwin forwarded the request to U.S. European Command and the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs.
“Now there are many formal liaison systems and mechanisms and means of communication,” he said. “But senior leaders always reach out when they have something urgent. It’s just a product of our relationships. Because a lot of these guys who are generals at the top of their organizations, I’ve known them for eight or ten years. So we have very close personal relationships, and they trust us because they know us.
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