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2016 report may be key to Ukraine's fierce resistance

2016 report may be key to Ukraine’s fierce resistance

A 2016 U.S. Army assessment of Ukrainian military units that had participated in a U.S-led multinational training program identified key weaknesses in Ukraine’s ability to combat Russian forces and their separatist allies occupying parts of the country’s eastern Donbas region, and who were then waging a grinding war of attrition against Ukrainian troops there.

At the time, the Ukrainians’ battlefield intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities were being stymied by Russian forces’ superior “networked air defense and electronic warfare resources,” according to the report.

The assessment concluded that the “training exposed the immediate needs” in the Ukrainian forces for things like repair parts, vehicle modernization, night-vision goggles, noncommissioned officer development and a new playbook for countering Russian warfare.

“Without effective reform, the Ukrainians remain vulnerable even in a static defense posture while continuing to yield night operations to the enemy,” warned the report.

The now shuttered training program covered a wide range of the aspects of warfare, including weapons handling, ammunition accountability, counter-drone surveillance, minefield clearing, mortar and sniper training, battlefield medical treatment and radio jamming. Ukrainian graduates of the U.S.-military-led program praised its modules on sniper operations, coordinates-finding techniques and first aid, among other elements, but worried about the lack of night-vision equipment, weapon-locating radar systems and even quality tents, according to the 2016 U.S. military assessment, obtained by Yahoo News.

The assessment was disseminated within the U.S. military and to U.S. intelligence agencies in late 2016. The following year, as Donald Trump’s new administration began calibrating its Ukraine policies and aid, the report was “widely circulated” across the government, according to a senior military intelligence official.

The 55-page report was the first major unclassified assessment of Ukraine’s military capabilities and the U.S.-led multinational training program, according to the official. It helped spur more overt, as well as covert, assistance to Ukraine, according to the military official.

The 2016 report contained interviews with members of the first Ukrainian battalion that had received training provided by the U.S. and allied forces and had subsequently returned to the eastern frontlines. That training, military officials say, helped prepare Ukrainian forces for Russia’s full-scale invasion this year.

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By interviewing Ukrainian troops with battlefield experience against Russian forces and their separatist allies, the report also provided the U.S. with valuable intelligence on Moscow’s military tactics that could be shared broadly, according to the official.

“You can’t have everything hidden in the black budget,” said the senior military intelligence official, referring to the government’s secret appropriations for covert operations and intelligence programs. “You have to have something you can show people. This is that.”

Although the assessment long precedes the massive influx of Western material support provided to the Ukrainians since Russia’s invasion last month, it identifies key gaps in Ukrainian military capabilities that Kyiv’s allies still appear to be trying to fill.

According to the 2016 report, pro-Russian forces were flying drones at altitudes higher than where Ukrainian forces could destroy them, “exploit[ing] the gap in Ukrainian air defense systems.” Since the Russian invasion, however, the Biden administration has sent at least 1,400 Stinger antiaircraft systems, which are capable of downing drones and other aircraft at higher altitudes.

The U.S. has also sent counter-drone and counter-artillery radar systems to Ukraine, and Canada has provided night-vision equipment. Poland has provided Ukraine with reconnaissance drones.

The U.S. has given Ukraine over $3 billion in military assistance since 2014, with $2 billion in aid committed since the start of the Biden administration.

The 2016 “Lessons Learned” assessment, based on interviews conducted by the U.S. Army Europe Inspector General’s Office, was produced by the Army’s since-disbanded Asymmetric Warfare Group and sought to take stock of the training program, known as the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U). The program trained roughly 27,000 Ukrainian soldiers between its inception in 2015 and its suspension in February 2022.

The program was based at the Yavoriv training center in far-western Ukraine. Russia launched a missile strike on the facility on March 14, killing at least 35.

The publicly acknowledged training program was launched after Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014; in the same period, Moscow-backed troops also initiated a secessionist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Yahoo News previously reported that, in response, the CIA began a covert training program for Ukrainian paramilitaries and intelligence personnel at an undisclosed facility in the southern United States, as well as on the Ukrainian frontlines.

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The military’s public, multinational training program, meanwhile, “adjusted in size, scope and scenario as the Ukrainian Armed Forces progressed in its combat training center development plan, and as the Ukrainian security forces program continued to grow and expand its institutional- and national-level development and training,” Maj. Scott Kuhn, the media division chief for U.S. Army Europe and Africa Public Affairs, told Yahoo News.

The Ukrainians overwhelmingly lauded the program’s sniper training. It was “fantastic,” one Ukrainian platoon leader told his U.S. interlocutors, adding that it was the most important aspect of the program. Ukrainian forces subsequently used the sniper training every day, the Ukrainian deputy commander interviewed by U.S. officials said.

Ukrainian officials also praised the training they received in the NATO-standard coordinate-location system, known as the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS), which they said Russian forces and their separatist allies were unschooled in, according to the report.

Using MGRS, Ukrainian forces were able to discuss some operational matters over unencrypted radio channels, as even interception of these communications by pro-Russian forces would not give away sensitive information. Ukrainian forces were using MGRS “to confuse the Russians on the radio,” the battalion’s deputy commander is quoted as telling the U.S. military officials conducting the assessment.

The U.S.-trained Ukrainian forces also clearly identified materiel, like anti-weapon radar systems, which the report said was in short supply and could help them in their battles in Donbas.

More — and better-quality — night-vision equipment was key, according to the Ukrainian interviewees. Soldiers working at night also needed “red dot” gun sights, said the deputy commander. “We can see their movement but can’t shoot them because we can’t see where we are shooting,” said the official.

Another Ukrainian military official decried the lack of mundane things like office supplies. Others were generally pessimistic about the overall state of Ukraine’s arsenal. “It would be really nice if you know you are getting equipment and it works and you can shoot and stop shooting when you want, not when equipment wants to do it,” said a company commander. Indeed, said one interviewee, some Ukrainian soldiers were using tents dating “from the Second World War.”

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The report also detailed the Russians’ advantage in air defenses and electronic warfare, which made it difficult for Ukrainian forces to send aircraft or drones over separatist-held territory.

In the absence of certain types of technical surveillance capabilities, the Ukrainians relied on a network of undercover intelligence officers behind enemy lines in Donbas to provide them with information in the comments sections of social media platforms, according to the report.

Russian agencies were also adept at conducting information warfare against Ukrainian forces, per the report. Russian intelligence operatives sent intimidating texts and phone calls to Ukrainian soldiers on the frontlines, as well as to their families.

Pro-Russian forces created detailed dossiers, with pictures and biographical information on Ukrainian frontline soldiers, advertising bounties for killing them. These bounties were posted alongside disinformation claiming that Ukrainian soldiers were “eating babies” and other falsehoods, according to the report.

There was also some humor contained in the assessment. Asked by the U.S. team whether there was any difference in the quality of the training by the various NATO countries participating in the program, a Ukrainian soldier responded that while “Americans are a little better,” Canadians “try to be friendlier” but were “more boring.”

But even by 2016, the dark turn that the coming war would take had made itself apparent.

“Every unit tries to capture a Chechen because they carry cash,” said a Ukrainian soldier, according to the report. “The units like to capture trophies. Every recon unit is trying to capture at least one Chechen for money and trophies.”

As the conflict in eastern Ukraine continued to simmer, the report chronicled its idiosyncrasies.

“When the separatists are getting drunk,” said the Ukrainian deputy commander, “we receive more artillery fire.”