4 August 2016

Training Ukraine: Turning a Soviet Army Into a Modern Force

By Paul D. Shinkman | Senior National Security Writer
Aug. 2, 2016

YAVORIV, Ukraine – The AK-47 bullets a Ukrainian infantry platoon is using for live fire exercises on this refurbished army base were boxed in 1983. Encased in cumbersome but durable layers of plastic, cardboard and metal wrapping, they still function suitably well

That the Ukrainian military must rely on 33-year-old Soviet-era rifle rounds says a lot about how these forces fight. In many ways, they themselves are also products of a prior era that has found a new purpose in battle.

"We weren't ready for this war," says Danilo, the infantry platoon's assistant commander who asked his last name be withheld. He speaks flatly while taking a break between iterations of this exercise, the chin strap undone on the helmet he wears in his armored command vehicle. He makes exaggerated air quotes as he stresses whom he's here to learn how to kill more effectively: "We were not expecting that from our 'brothers.'"

Danilo has family from Russia, which has made the resurgent power's activities along its border with Ukraine in the last two years that much more troubling for him. His frustration is compounded by his own military's shortcomings.

In the years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the need diminished in Ukraine and elsewhere for a state-of-the-art army following Western promises it would protect these new allies in exchange for giving up their nuclear weapons, through a set of agreements known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Ukraine's military atrophied and fractured into a series of disparate brigades that the central government in Kiev is desperately trying to stitch back together, now with the help of American and NATO support.

From the Ukrainian perspective, Russia seized that opportunity to use the military it's continually improved to back pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who wish to break away, as punishment for Kiev's desire to develop closer ties with the West.

A war that settled along supposed cease-fire lines is once again ramping up, forcing added urgency on the men preparing here to return to the conflict zone.

Washington still balks at the idea of providing lethal weapons to Ukrainian partners. Instead, last year it began operating out of these firing ranges – alongside the U.K., Canada, Poland, Lithuania and Estonia – to train cadres of 500 Ukrainian troops at a time. The ultimate plan is to create enough Ukrainian instructors qualified to meet the NATO standard of training by 2020, when the NATO countries' mission is set to end and they'll turn the base over fully to the Ukrainian military.

And the irony is not lost on the Western forces that their trainees are using ammunition that was originally designed to kill them. They're learning, however, that conventional weapons are only part of the enemy's arsenal.

Danilo is particularly concerned with enemy propaganda, which has made liberating towns during his previous deployments that much more difficult. His countrymen, who have only been exposed to pro-Russian TV for months, now require convincing that defeating the separatists represents a victory.

The pro-Russian forces, believed to be backed by Moscow directly, have perfected other 21st century warfighting techniques that make their infantry movements that much more effective. Troops here say they are harassed with "reverse text messages," prompting them to lay down their arms and quit. Their enemy has also integrated drones into its fighting formations, using them to identify targets like Danilo and his men, and firing artillery much more accurately.

Each of these tactics adds to the list of battlefield realities that have strained the Ukrainians' ability to respond. That's the central focus of the training here.

Ukraine's soldiers now mirror their Western counterparts who teach, for example, that all soldiers require first-aid training, not just the medics, to improve their chances of surviving a firefight. The trainers here also try to instill authority in these front-line troops, empowering experienced sergeants and young officers to take command and adapt to problems, not simply accept the orders of faraway generals as Soviet tradition dictated.

The change is tough, and not always accepted. Four out of 5 soldiers here have some sort of combat experience, and some, such as the Ukrainian army airborne troops in the last class of trainees, believe their elite status doesn't require further instruction from Western teachers. Others see the need for reforming their fighting doctrine, particularly younger troops who did not grow up during the height of Soviet control of Ukraine.

U.S. Army instructors on this day focus on new techniques to teach new maneuvers that won't make Ukrainian formations as vulnerable to the kinds of Russian-style attacks they've faced since fighting began in 2014. They're learning not to bunch up behind the armored fighting vehicle their officers command when taking enemy fire, but instead to spread out and employ coordinated maneuvers to cover one another as they move closer to the enemy targets and destroy them.

Ukrainian soldiers in this video, tailed by their American trainers, are demonstrating a live-fire maneuver for how to respond if their armored vehicle comes under attack, or if they’re assaulting a fixed position

"It gives them a different perspective," says Brig. Gen. Peter Jones, the head of all U.S. Army infantry training headquartered at Fort Benning, Georgia, who happened to be in Ukraine and observed the exercises on this range. "It's the ability to be more survivable, more lethal, more mobile."

He cites, as do the other commanders, the proliferation of enemy targeting drones that have become ubiquitous with the fighting. In fairness, troops at the front lines and international observers say that Ukraine, too, employs drones in the war zone, despite explicit international agreements barring either side from using such technology.

The results from both the U.S. and Ukrainian perspective have been positive, but rocky. Some of the trainers privately question whether they will be able to produce the more than 300 Ukrainian instructors necessary to fit the plan of ultimately turning the whole facility back over to the local army.

The commander overseeing the training does not have doubts.

"I do believe we have the momentum, the sense of urgency and the backing. That's the main thing: the support, all the way up through the general staff and the Ministry of Defense," says Army Col. Nick Ducich.

The California National Guard officer has a unique perspective on Ukraine, having served from 2008 to 2010 in Kiev as a part of of the American government's State Partnership Program, pairing state guardsmen with troops in a foreign country. National Guard soldiers aren't forced to move on to new jobs or responsibilities in the military the way their active duty Army counterparts must, allowing those who participate in the program to build relationships over years or even decades with their foreign partner military.

Ducich recognizes some of the shortcomings of working with a post-Soviet bureaucracy.

"We know corruption is a problem in multiple sectors," Ducich says. "It has taken this conflict to really draw attention to the fact they are creating – and they are promoting this – the new Ukrainian army, one that is better educated, better paid, better taken care of."

"You hear it in the Ukrainian soldiers' voices: 'I'm protecting my motherland. It's my duty to serve my country.' I've never yet heard a Ukrainian soldier say he's doing it for the money."

Troops at the front lines of the conflict – known here as the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone or ATO – say they've benefited from learning how to work in teams and from the individual skills that help troops survive the battlefield.

"They teach well, because I'm still standing here," Ukrainian army Col. Bandar Balkovnic, deputy commander of the 128th Brigade, says with a smile. He and his forces have converted a bombed-out mining facility into a front-line post near the industrial hub of Avdiivka in Donetsk province, just a few hundred yards from separatist positions.

The 25-year army veteran was also quick to point out how much he and his comrades were able to teach the Americans, who haven't focused on tank warfare following 15 years of counterinsurgency fights in the Middle East. Balkovnic also boasts his army is the only one that has fought the Russians on the ground in decades, and he's offered insights to his American counterparts on the kind of fighting he's experienced – namely drone and electronic warfare.

"It's a very different war than we have grown up training for," says U.S. Army 1st Lt. Edward Timmis, one of the trainers at the base in Yavoriv. "These guys have a very, very real threat with the mechanized [vehicles] and people that have a lot of men to back them up with equipment."

"We came in with an expectation of the caliber of soldier we'd be training and really with the first unit, we were blown away. They were very professional soldiers, obviously very experienced. It's been humbling teaching these guys and training them."

No comments: