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U.S.-Ukraine Military Relations and the Value of Interoperability

Authored by Mr. Leonid I. Polyakov. | December 2004

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From the earliest times of its post-Soviet independence, Ukraine has been open to security cooperation with the United States. In the beginning, there were significant differences in political, security and even bureaucratic cultures between the two countries, which formed some obstacles to building bridges quickly. Many of these obstacles remain, especially in the political dimension of relations between the two countries. But in the absence of their former ideological differences and united by common interests in preserving international peace and fighting terrorism, Ukraine and the United States have established constructive and mutually beneficial military cooperation.

The United States has been interested in engaging post-Soviet Ukraine in security cooperation and clearly articulated what it wanted to achieve from this cooperation. It was in U.S. interests to have a strong, independent, stable, and democratic Ukraine as a partner in Eastern Europe. Guided by such a vision, the United States consistently has demonstrated initiative in supporting Ukraine in building its national military by engaging it in peacetime military to-military contacts. The Ukrainian government unhesitatingly accepted U.S. leadership in bilateral military cooperation, which has provided it with an opportunity to learn useful approaches to defense reform, raised Ukraine?s international prestige, and strengthened the country?s position vis-à-vis the pressure for regional influence exerted by its neighbor (and regional dominant power), Russia.

Bilateral programs of military contacts with the United States have become the largest among Ukraine?s many international military cooperation programs. Since 1992 bilateral military cooperation has improved in terms of quality and substance, and set the stage for preparation, execution, and support of actual U.S.-Ukraine combined operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Iraq. These combined deployments have demonstrated that the years of cooperation were not in vain; Ukrainians have proven their ability to be a reliable and capable peacekeeping combat force.

However, as this monograph suggests, despite steady improvement in bilateral cooperation, developing full interoperability between the Ukrainian and U.S. militaries beyond joint peacekeeping is not yet a realistic possibility. At a time when full combat interoperability is beyond reach for even the closest U.S. allies, the experience of previous U.S.-Ukraine partnership shows that the most logical and realistic option is to promote and further improve tactical interoperability for low intensity conflict: peacekeeping, peace-building, and humanitarian assistance. More ambitious goals are far beyond Ukraine?s current financial capabilities, and are restrained by the country?s inability to qualify politically and economically for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership soon.

This monograph consists of four parts. Part I presents a strategic context for U.S.-Ukrainian military cooperation and provides general data on the history and current state of security relations between Ukraine and the United States. Part II focuses on the development and improvement of cooperative mechanisms for bilateral military contacts. Part III provides data and analysis of peacetime military engagement and discusses important lessons learned. Part IV examines Ukraine?s practical cooperation with the U.S. military in operations in Kosovo and Iraq?operations where cooperation continues today.

In sum, U.S.-Ukrainian military cooperation has created a reasonable foundation for limited joint and combined action, with the United States helping Ukraine to build a noticeable cooperative capability. This capability currently is being adjusted in Iraq and other places. The potential remains for even greater cooperation, if necessary improvements are made.

The United States should not be expected to carry the burden of the future international peace and security agenda alone. In exercising its leadership, the United States will have to rely on ad hoc coalitions as often as it will rely on its closest allies. Ukrainian troops, though not among the closest U.S. allies, are a likely partner of the U.S. military in future contingencies. Thus the success of U.S. future engagements could depend on how the two countries act today to build their interoperability.

The history and lessons of U.S.-Ukrainian military cooperation may be of interest to scholars in post-Cold War East European security affairs, and to operational planners and practitioners who are creating and/or participating in a coalition force including the United States, Ukraine, and/or other post-Soviet or post-totalitarian states.


The principal U.S. approach to cooperation with Ukraine, a post-Soviet nation with long and complex history, has consistently been to help in building a stable, prosperous democracy that can become a viable economic and security partner to the West. An important role in these efforts belongs to military cooperation: within the bilateral military-to-military contacts programs, within NATO partnership events, and through the practical accomplishment of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

In the course of 13 years of cooperation, Ukraine and the United States have gone through periods of cautious rapprochement, inflated expectations of ?strategic partnership,? and sober reevaluation. Ukraine?s recent ambitious declaration of intent to become a NATO member was welcomed by the United States, although cautiously, given that Ukraine has not been very successful in building a firm democratic foundation and conducting defense reform.

Although the search for the most appropriate political modus vivendi for bilateral relations still continues, the military dimension of the relations between two countries has always remained cooperative. Most important is that in the military sphere there are no insurmountable ideological, geopolitical, or cultural differences between Ukraine and the United States. The history of military cooperation has proven that, despite Ukraine?s many political and economic problems, as well as those of a cultural and military nature (bureaucracy and over-centralization, Soviet legacy of equipment and doctrine), certain core interests provide firm ground on which to continue mutually advantageous military cooperation. These core interests are, at their most basic, U.S. willingness to support the preservation of Ukraine?s independence as a key to regional security and Ukrainian willingness to cooperate with the United States in fighting terrorism and preserving international peace.

The two countries have developed elaborate cooperative mechanisms, which permit rather effective implementation of joint events. The Ukrainian military appears genuinely to be interested in this cooperation, is generally technically and intellectually capable, but is still a rather long way from compatibility with U.S. cultural and doctrinal standards. But if we consider the starting point, the results are impressive.

At the start of their cooperation, there was practically no ground to talk about interoperability in the traditional sense between U.S. and Ukrainian (post-Soviet) militaries.70 But 13 years of military cooperation have allowed for achieving certain limited progress in major interoperability areas between the U.S. and Ukrainian militaries. As a result, the relationship has grown from simple peacetime engagement to conducting successful combined peacekeeping operations.

As has happened so far, it is exactly in the area of peacekeeping where the United States has needed?and will continue to need?the Ukrainian military the most. Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq have shown that the United States is capable of winning regional wars without decisive support from its allies. But these campaigns also have proved that the United States has significant limits in providing for post-conflict resolution (peacekeeping and peace-building) without support from allies, even those as distant as Ukraine. This is very important, since no war can be considered victorious if the post-war situation deviates too far from prewar objectives.

For the United States, the experience of military cooperation with Ukraine has proved that U.S. military contact programs and peacetime engagement are a good way to understand the people with whom you are engaging, and evaluating whether they are ?really on your side.? Quite likely, this experience also proved for the United States an already known classical virtue of coalitions: they allow smaller nations to feel important, while they allow stronger nations to consider that others share the burden.

For Ukraine, military cooperation with the United States has provided many opportunities for expediting reforms in the security sector. Unfortunately, Ukraine has not been very successful in using these opportunities. In particular, this is the result of the lack of strong political direction and sufficient funding, compounded by the failure of Ukraine?s military to introduce a system to process the lessons learned effectively. To alleviate partly the impact of Ukrainian problems, the country could have done better in developing its own ?U.S. specialists? to take some of the burden off the United States; that is, to train enough ?plug and play? liaison officers.

If, for the sake of comparison, a third party?for example, new NATO member and Ukraine?s neighbor, Poland?is used as an indicator, the general conclusion would be that Ukrainians, as a fighting force, are not more deficient than Poles. Rather, Ukrainians are less interoperable in terms of language, doctrine, and equipment. However, Ukraine has some unique capabilities it can provide, such as airlift, missile/space, radars, tanks, CBR-testing and protection equipment, and other high-tech possibilities.

Ukraine, indeed, has a lot of assets potentially to contribute to combined operations with the United States, but the challenge still remains how better to make them interoperable. In answer, the results of this study generally point to the need for a two-tier approach to interoperability: the first tier being continued efforts to develop compatible capabilities for the low intensity conflict (peacekeeping); the second tier being the identification and improvement of complementary?ratherthan comparable? capabilities for high intensity conflict.

At this moment, however, because of the number of political and security reasons indicated above, in practical terms it is relevant to speak primarily about the value of interoperability in the low intensity conflict. To ensure continued success, more systemic approach to U.S.-Ukraine military relations should be recommended.

First, given the total domination of the Army agenda in bilateral military programs, consider shifting from the current practice of appointing the U.S. Defense Attaché in Kiev from the U.S. Air Force to more relevant and logical representation?from the U.S. Army. For the same reason, Army program events should become undisputed priorities of the Program of Bilateral U.S.-Ukraine Military Cooperation.

Second, in order to develop a stable, long-term capability for deploying interoperable Ukrainian units, a lot has already been done and is currently planned to be done. But additional efforts are still needed. These are:

  • Developing effective Ukrainian ?lessons learned? systems, in which interoperability issues should be included in regular review of operations, training, and doctrine.
  • Initiating the comprehensive and systemic adaptation of Ukrainian manuals, headquarters? techniques, and leadership styles to U.S. and NATO models.
  • Supporting Ukrainians in adapting wargaming techniques to provide for interoperability at the strategic-operational levels.
  • Providing more focused support to the Ukrainian side in training operational officers capable of pursuing inter-operability issues. To this end, establish the permanent placement of the U.S. instructors at the special courses for the officers of multinational staffs within the National Defense Academy of Ukraine.
  • Selecting and training Ukrainian instructors for Ukraine?s National Academy of Defense and other relevant training facilities in view of their contribution to building inter-operability.
  • Helping transition from the current Ukrainian practice of creating ad hoc units for missions abroad to deploying regular units, first of all, from Rapid Reaction Forces.
  • Providing targeted support in equipping Ukrainian Rapid Reaction Forces with interoperable command, control, and communication equipment.
  • Focusing joint training exercises on actual units, which will deploy out of country.

Third, recognizing that success of Ukraine?s efforts in reforming its military, particularly in increased interoperability, depends to a significant extent on success of wider governance reform. Ukraine should consider more targeted efforts in training Ukrainian defense experts from the staffs of the Parliament, the Cabinet of Ministers, Administration of the President, National Security and Defense Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Finance, etc.

As proved by the experience of practical missions together in peacekeeping, human and intellectual factors (an understanding of each others? national and military cultures, common language) are more important than technical systems. Thus for low intensity conflict, ?operational interoperability? (similar doctrines, planning methods, training, and basic doctrinal/cultural understandings) appears to be more important than ?technical interoperability.? But by deploying a brigade to Iraq, Ukraine has raised the level of its cooperation to a new height, which will, in turn, be a new test to the value of peacetime military cooperation. If, despite all conceivable political and military problems, this new level of cooperation is successful, it might open the door for partnership beyond peacekeeping.

Thus, there are grounds to think that options for greater interoperability for higher-intensity operations should be considered as well. This analysis proves that the opportunities are there?but for these to materialize, both countries? militaries will need to continue efforts to further strengthen the common capabilities and bonds that U.S.-Ukraine military cooperation has already helped to build.

Overall, U.S.-Ukrainian military cooperation has developed more slowly and less efficiently than most U.S. participants have expected. But given the magnitude of the nation-building challenge for Ukraine, it could be assessed as a qualified success. This cooperation has brought tangible results for both sides, as well as valuable lessons for modern relations between the United States and post-totalitarian states.


70. Ralph Peters, Letter to the author, October 24, 2003.The [U.S. and Soviet prior to 1991] systems were so profoundly different that the only interoperability basis is simply that all are soldiers, with some shared general knowledge and purpose, subject to discipline, etc. But the functional systems and approaches to leadership and personnel management are profoundly different. . . . I just do not see any doctrinal common ground, whatsoever. . . as regards the present situation. I expect a great many lessons have been learned, on both sides, from interoperability requirements in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.