The California National Guard’s two State Partnership Program (SPP) nations, Nigeria and Ukraine, could be facetiously dubbed “Hot and Hotter.”
But this one’s no comedy. While Nigeria festers with internal strife and Boko Haram’s brand of Islamic terrorism—and the 163rd Attack Wing offers sorely needed military expertise (see Connected Countries Part I: Nigeria in the March 10 edition of The Beacon)—Ukraine suffered revolution from within as well as invasion by the neighboring Russian Federation and the annexation of Crimea, as recently as 2014.
Ukraine may have been a target “because it’s not a NATO partner,” says Lt. Col. John, who leads the 163rd Attack Wing’s efforts. “They had a leader that wanted to join NATO, and that was perceived as a threat as too close to Russia’s borders. They funneled resources into an insurgency. They took subs, infrastructure—a seaport.”
“I think under [Russian President Vladimir] Putin they would like to return to the Cold War mentality, where they were more respected and revered around the world,” says Lt. Col. John, who also serves as an officer in the 160th Attack Squadron.
In January, Lt. Col. John said, “the Wing is looking for an event to jump start the partnership in the next four to six months.”
According to Army Maj. Alexys Scott, the Wing may not have to wait long. Scott heads up California’s SPP as the Security Cooperation Branch Chief, while serving in the J5 directorate at Joint Forces Headquarters in Sacramento. He’s been an integral part of the Ukrainian partnership, off and on, since 2006, including a tour as a Bilateral Affairs officer under United State European Command (UECOM) as recently as 2013-2016, years of turbulence and anxiety.
“Ukraine is very welcoming towards Americans, towards Europeans, towards moving west,” Scott says. “That’s not to say that the whole country is that way. But the area we are authorized to engage in feels that way.”
The relatively friendly territory lies west of the Dnieper River; anything east is off limits for military activity or security assistance, Scott says. “We, as the U.S., don’t want to appear to be encroaching toward the border.”
But that proscribed area of operations is new, as recent as the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, Scott says. “It hasn’t affected our partnership. We just have limitations,” Scott insists. “In fact, it has increased our engagement with our partner nation. And they are happy to engage.”
Scott points out that an upcoming California Army National Guard “training engagement” in Lviv, near the Polish border, is beginning a full second-year rotation, unabated by current events. “It’s your basic ‘Shoot, move, communicate,’ NATO-style, how we do things,” Scott explains.
As to the future efforts of the 163rd Attack Wing, Scott says: “I would think there is an opportunity to engage with blue (with Air). Obviously, not in the sense of flying jets and drilling holes in the sky, but logistics. Because Ukraine does have an air force. Sooner or later, Ukraine will learn how we do joint operations and we hope they will be able to incorporate, tie in with each other. But at this point they’re still in the crawl phase of being able to do their own joint exercises and operations.”
Indeed, as of 2014, after years of chronic underinvestment, only 80 Ukrainian Air Force aircraft—a mix of Sukhoi Su-25 and Su-27 fighters and Su-24 bombers, Mil Mi-24 Hinds, MiG-29s—were considered airworthy, per an RIA Novosti estimate. Ukraine lost aircraft to Russian capture, despite having not engaged them in battle, during the annexation of Crimea. Military expenditures have ratcheted up from 2013-16, from .97 percent to 3.8 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, an indicator of the looming storm. The Ministry of Defense ordered 68 Soviet-era Tu-141 unmanned aerial vehicles to be taken out of mothballs and restored in an attempt to shore up reconnaissance, according to Medium journalist Robert Beckhusen. Despite their limitations, the Ukrainian Air Force is engaging the ongoing insurgency in Donbass.
“All of our way forward is decided by a multinational joint commission. And there are subcommittees in all disciplines. The governing body provides the way ahead,” Scott explains. “The overarching theme is the restoration of the Ministry of Defense so it’s more in line to engage in future exercises and training. The SPP supplements, or augments, if you will, one of those subcommittee’s plans.”
To that effect, two- to four-man subject matter expert teams constantly rotate from California to the Ukraine. “I think it’s going great,” Scott avers. “In the beginning, when everything was hitting the fan, there was a lot of uncertainty, and not just for the SPP, which is just one sliver of the whole combatant command and Department of Defense mil-to-mil engagement.”
“When Euromaidan happened, EUCOM put a pause on everything for about six months,” Scott recalls. “Everybody put the brakes on. Since then, it’s going well. We understand our left-right limits. We keep engaging. There’s plenty of opportunity.”
That includes the annual Rapid Trident regional command post and field-training exercise as well as the second year of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, involving 40 or more CAANG soldiers to provide ground training to Ministry of Defense battalions.
“We’re getting our good name out there,” Scott concludes. “Everybody wins from this experience.”
*For security reasons, some last names were omitted from this story.