Ukraine's battlefield success surprised Russia, but US troops who trained Ukrainians saw it coming, National Guard chief says
Many expected Russia's military to overwhelm Ukraine's forces when it attacked in February 2022.
Ukraine's success has been attributed in part to the skill of its noncommissioned officers.
Since 2015, US troops have trained Ukraine's NCOs to "feed initiative and make tactical decisions."
Ukraine's stiff but flexible defense in the days after Russia's invasion a year ago surprised the Russians, but US National Guard troops who trained those Ukrainians saw it coming, the head of the US National Guard said this week.
US and Ukrainian officials have emphasized the role of Ukraine's noncommissioned officers — higher-ranking enlisted troops who have not been commissioned as officers — as front-line leaders who were able to adapt and make decisions in the hectic early days of the war, contrasting their performance with that of Russian units reliant on senior officers for battlefield guidance.
After Russia's 2014 invasion, the US National Guard "worked very closely" with Ukraine's military "to identify those areas where they felt that they could really improve to prepare themselves if anything like that occurred again," US Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, adding that one of those areas "was NCO development."
US National Guard units began rotating through Ukraine in 2015 to conduct training as part of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine. "We've really focused on developing their noncommissioned officers, as well as a couple other areas that they really wanted to work on," Hokanson said of the training.
The program included sessions between US and Ukrainian NCOs to develop knowledge and skills out of the view of junior troops and officers. "You don't want to have to read from a book in front of the soldiers, so you read through and practice," an Oklahoma National Guard sergeant said in 2017.
That training fostered "a competent non-commissioned officer corps that could feed initiative and make tactical decisions based on commander's intent," like NCOs in NATO militaries, Lt. Col. Todd Hopkins, deputy commander of the Florida National Guard's 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, said in May 2022, after a training rotation.
On Tuesday, Hokanson and his senior enlisted advisor, Chief Master Sgt. Tony Whitehead, said the effect of that NCO training was visible after Russia's attack.
"When you look at the predictors when the war started, there were a lot of folks that said it would be a matter of days or weeks," Hokanson said, referring to expectations of a Russian victory. "Our Guardsmen that had trained the Ukrainians, they said not so fast, that they really felt that the training, that [the Ukrainians] had really taken it seriously, and we saw the impact."
US trainers withdrew from Ukraine on February 12, but the impact of their training was visible from afar, Whitehead said. Ukrainian NCOs "were able to lead from the front at the lowest level of supervision. That's where our NCOs really are effective because the things that our commanders empower them to do," Whitehead added.
Hokanson and Whitehead echoed Chief Master Sgt. of the Ukrainian Air Force Kostiantyn Stanislavchuk, who said in August that Ukrainian sergeants, "without waiting for instructions from the above, took the initiative" to conduct "independent, small operations" and act "independently and resourcefully."
"In this way, the [Ukrainian] defense forces are comparatively different from the enemy, where generals are forced to personally raise their subordinates to attack," Stanislavchuk said at a summit in Washington DC.
Ukrainian troops' effectiveness and Russian troops' shortcomings also surprised US intelligence agencies, which expected Russia's attack to overwhelm Ukrainian forces. US intelligence officials have acknowledged that they failed to see that Russia's military was a "hollow force."
Other factors also shaped the first few days of fighting. While Russia surprised Ukraine at the operational level, Russian troops weren't expecting to do what Moscow ordered them to do, and Ukrainian troops, many of whom had fought Russia and its proxies in the Donbas region between 2014 and 2022, "had been psychologically and practically preparing for this fight for eight years," according to a Royal United Services Institute report on the first five months of the war.
But Ukraine's performance has generated more interest in NCO training among the National Guard's other foreign partners, Hokanson said Wednesday.
"After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we had a few of our state partners reach out and say, OK, these are areas that we feel like we should probably develop as well, and we've really tailored our engagement since then to address those concerns that each of these separate countries have," Hokanson said.
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