National Guard March_2015 : Page 16
On the Front O Lines The State Partnership Program is fundamental to U.S. efforts to contain Russian adventurism, and for many of those involved, the effort is highly personal BY RON JENSEN N A RECENT SOJOURN TO UKRAINE , one of two dozen or more Lt. Col. Rob Swert-fager has made over the last 13 years, the Cali-fornia Air National Guard pilot was told a story over dinner that left him shaken. One of the people at his table was a navigator in the Ukrainian air force. On a mission to airdrop supplies to troops fighting the Russia-backed separatist effort in the eastern part of the country, the navigator’s aircraft was fatally crippled by a ground-fired missile. “The pilots could not control the aircraft and get out of the air-plane,” Swertfager says in his retelling of the story he heard in Janu-ary. “They basically kept the airplane stable while the three other crewmembers parachuted to safety.” The two pilots were killed when the airplane crashed. “It’s like something I used to see out of a World War II movie, but this is real,” he says. “I mean, I’m talking to the guy in the cockpit who saw those two pilots alive for the last time. It kicks you right in the stomach. It’s heartbreaking. These are real people going through a real crisis.” Russian President Vladimir Putin 16 NATIONAL GUARD MARCH 2015 WWW . NGAUS . ORG |
On the Front Lines
The State Partnership Program is fundamental to U.S. efforts to contain Russian adventurism, and for many of those involved, the effort is highly personal
ON A RECENT SOJOURN TO UKRAINE, one of two dozen or more Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager has made over the last 13 years, the California Air National Guard pilot was told a story over dinner that left him shaken.
One of the people at his table was a navigator in the Ukrainian air force. On a mission to airdrop supplies to troops fighting the Russia-backed separatist effort in the eastern part of the country, the navigator’s aircraft was fatally crippled by a ground-fired missile.
“The pilots could not control the aircraft and get out of the airplane,” Swertfager says in his retelling of the story he heard in January. “They basically kept the airplane stable while the three other crewmembers parachuted to safety.”
The two pilots were killed when the airplane crashed.
“It’s like something I used to see out of a World War II movie, but this is real,” he says. “I mean, I’m talking to the guy in the cockpit who saw those two pilots alive for the last time. It kicks you right in the stomach. It’s heartbreaking. These are real people going through a real crisis.”
More than 6,000 miles separate Ukraine and California. But the California National Guard maintains a front-row seat to the chaos and horror taking place along the Eastern European country’s border with Russia. The state and the country have been paired in the Guard’s State Partnership Program (SPP) since 1993, the year the program was established.
“When the conflict started, it became quite emotional for us because our partners who we’ve been working with all these years are engaged in a pretty bitter struggle,” says Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, the California adjutant general. “It’s heart wrenching. We have the professional commitment as partners, but there’s also a personal bond that you develop when you deal with friends from your partner nation over the years.”
It is common in the program for the states and the nations to cultivate something beyond a military partnership. The training efforts and exercises become reunions, social affairs nearly as important as the professional undertakings.
“When I roll into Ukraine with my team,” says Swertfager, the safety officer for the 144th Fighter Wing, “more times than not, I have a familiar face on the other side of the table.”
Those relationships personalize the violence there. Lt. Col. Jon Siepmann, the SPP director for California, says he follows the news from Ukraine closely, wondering if he will recognize a name.
He did hear news of one high-ranking officer he met during an exercise a few years earlier. The man commanded a brigade in the ongoing conflict and was awarded his country’s highest medal for valor.
“This is someone I worked directly for,” Siepmann says. “I’m talking about a friend, someone I care about and someone whose capabilities I know and respect.”
Baldwin says, “We have had senior officers in the Ukrainian National Guard who we’ve met with one day and the next day they are off to the eastern front and they get killed. That tears at you a bit, but it’s part of the business.”
The violence in Ukraine has its roots in events that gave birth to the partnership program. Dominoes began to fall with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Soviet Union soon broke apart and Ukraine and other countries that had spent decades as part of the Soviet Union or under its domination declared their independence.
SPP was designed to provide interested countries with the know how to liberate their militaries from the Soviet model with a goal of civilian control. The process to do this would be professional and personal exchanges.
The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all former Soviet republics, were the first partner nations, but Ukraine and nearly every other country (map page 19) that had been behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain soon climbed aboard. The nations were anxious to look to the West, still fearful of the Russian bear prowling their eastern doorsteps. Most of the countries, although not Ukraine, have joined NATO.
Viktor Yanukovych was elected Ukraine’s president in 2010. He turned the nation’s interests back to Russia, setting off in November 2013 protests by those who wanted greater attachment to Europe. Yanukovych fled the country amid the uprising in February 2014.
The large ethnic-Russian minority population in eastern Ukraine, which was unhappy with the turn toward Western Europe, initiated a separatist movement with support from Russia, although Russian President Vladimir Putin denies involvement despite clear evidence of Russian troops and materiel in Ukraine. Estimates are that up to 6,000 have been killed in the fighting.
In the tumult, Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. The peninsula’s majority population is Russian and many favored joining the Russian Federation. But the annexation is not recognized by Ukraine or most of the international community, including the United Nations.
The greatest concern now is the unrest in eastern Ukraine. Despite a shaky cease-fire agreement, the situation remains “very, very violent. Kinetic,” says Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR). “It’s very dangerous.”
When the separatist effort began a year ago, U.S. European Command (EUCOM) quickly moved to reassure other nations, sending members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Vicenza, Italy, to the Baltic countries, where it is feared Putin may look next, and Poland in what is called Operation Atlantic Resolve. In an interview with National Guard, Hodges says the relationships those countries have with the Guard smoothed the path for that move.
“Until Operation Atlantic Resolve started, there was no extended presence of the Army in the Baltics,” he says, other than that provided by Maryland in Estonia, Michigan in Latvia and Pennsylvania in Lithuania.
“There is a kind of shared understanding between America and our allies that was already in place,” he says, making the move of the paratroopers from Italy much easier.
Hodges likes to quote his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell Jr., who described SPP’s benefit by saying, “You can’t surge trust.”
EUCOM is the combatant command that oversees SPP in Europe, and states take their cues from the leadership in Stuttgart, Germany. Mostly, the command has asked the states to continue what they’ve been doing, but perhaps do it more often.
Atlantic Resolve has evolved into a series of exercises and events that demonstrate the commitment of the United States to the region and maintains a “persistent presence,” in EUCOM’s vernacular. Most of the training is done by EUCOM and USAREUR, but the Guard provides capability and the critical familiarity.
“We see ourselves in the [California Guard] as not just partners with Ukraine, but as force providers for EUCOM,” Baldwin says. “And to the degree that it can, EUCOM has integrated the National Guard into all of their efforts and has brought us in California in as full fledged partners.”
Baldwin is part of a joint commission formed at EUCOM that includes representatives from the command and Ukraine. EUCOM, too, has invited adjutants general to join a meeting of regional defense chiefs.
“The EUCOM senior leadership is wildly supportive of the State Partnership Program,” Baldwin says. “They see the intrinsic value. They see the strategic effect and they engage us where we can. We expect if funding becomes available, we’ll be asked to do yet more to help in Ukraine and throughout the rest of EUCOM’s [area of operations].”
The concern, of course, is Putin’s intentions.
“There is a deep sense of concern among the [former] Eastern Bloc countries that Russia would tempt fate and cross their borders again,” says retired Maj. Gen. Wesley E. Craig, who was the Pennsylvania adjutant general from 2011 until January of this year.
Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Vadnais, the Michigan adjutant general, says the Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine rattled his partners in Latvia.
“While the whole Crimean thing is going down, the Russians are probing their border with air and sea and just acting provocatively,” he says. “So, obviously, the Latvians are very concerned, as are the Lithuanians and Estonians, as to what was the Russians’ intent.”
Putin has not been shy about making his presence known. Within the last year, several incidents have been described as Russian provocation and not all of them involved its neighbors. In April, a Russian fighter jet flew low and close to the American destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, in the Black Sea. Great Britain has monitored Russian military aircraft flying close enough to British air space to disrupt civil aviation.
In December, a Russian military aircraft flew close to a Swedish airliner. Last month, the air-traffic control tower in Dublin delayed one flight and altered the route of another because Russian bombers were flying along the Irish coast with their transponders turned off to avoid detection. There are more examples.
Still, no one is certain of Putin’s aims. Is it simply provocation for provocation’s sake or are his goals larger? He is a former KGB agent weaned on the Cold War. His foreign forays may be an attempt to divert attention from his troubles at home with a sinking economy. Putin seems not to care what the world thinks.
So the concern in the Baltics is justified. All three countries have large ethnic-Russian minority populations, which Putin could use as a pretext for adventurism in the region.
“I’d be worried, too,” Vadnais says, “if I had Russia and Putin on my immediate border.”
It’s not lost on Vadnais or anyone involved that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. “The question would be, had Ukraine been part of NATO, would Russia have done what it did?” he says. “Probably not.”
The treaty that binds NATO’s 28 members includes Article 5, which says an attack on one is an attack on all. “Obviously, NATO membership is significant and means something,” Vadnais says.
Soon after the incursion started in Ukraine, Vadnais received a call from the Latvian chief of defense forces. Vadnais was in the country a week later.
“We were scheduled to deploy a unit in June [for an exercise called Saber Strike],” he says. “We ended up accelerating that deployment and actually got them in country by 1 May. We had an advance team in in mid-April. We moved right out with the support of EUCOM and the National Guard Bureau.”
He has been to Latvia four times already this year.
“We’re doing anything and everything that we can do to support General [Philip M.] Breedlove’s intent, which is the persistent presence,” he says, referring to the EUCOM commander. “This is personal for us. This is more than a partnership. We consider them part of our family. We very much wanted to play a role.”
Their relationship, like others between the Guard and nations in Eastern Europe, was forged not only over time but on the battlefield. Between November 2008 and December 2010, Latvian troops deployed with Michigan Army Guard soldiers to Afghanistan three times to help mentor Afghan forces.
Two Latvian troops were killed in a firefight at Combat Outpost Bari Alai in May 2009. Today, framed pictures of Sgt. Voldemars Ansevics and Cpl. Andrejs Merkuservs hang along with 21 Michigan Army Guard soldiers in the Hall of Heroes at the joint-force headquarters in Lansing, Mich. All of them died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Vadnais says Michigan Guardsmen have been in Latvia “almost continually” since the trouble began, helping to repair a NATO air base and developing an unmanned aerial vehicle program, among other tasks. A Michigan Guard artillery battery is going later this month.
“The interesting thing is, when problems occur—the heat is on— where was the point of contact? It was with the Michigan National Guard. I think that says it all,” he says.
Craig recalls, “When the Ukraine thing started, we were contacted by the National Guard Bureau and told, ‘Look, reach out to your chiefs of defense. See if there is anything we can do to make them feel better, provide reassurance, additional training.’ So we did.”
The state sent two Stryker platoons from the 56th Stryker Bri- gade instead of one to Latvia to take part in Saber Strike last year, along with two aircraft from the 193rd Special Operations Wing.
“We about doubled our presence at their request,” Craig says. “And also, to be frank, we wanted to be sure that everybody got the message.”
Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, the Maryland adjutant general, says the state is busy fulfilling its preplanned missions.
“We have not really increased our activities as a result of what is going on in Ukraine,” she says. “Our activities are really very, very focused on our strategic priorities that we set up at the beginning of the year with Estonia.
The Illinois Guard has one of the program’s strongest partnerships. The state and Poland average between 25 and 30 events annually, says Maj. Gen. Daniel M. Krumrei, the adjutant general. Last year, those events included a chemical and biological exercise in June and an exercise called Anaconda Saber in October. Illinois troops will take part in Saber Strike in June.
“More than ever, the point of the State Partnership Program is to project the combatant commander’s goals and objectives in the theater,” he says. “As his goals and objectives may change because of Ukraine, then our support may change as we’re asked to participate.”
In the Republic of Georgia, the Georgia Guard is doing nothing directly related to the events in Ukraine, says Lt. Col. Jason Ellington, the SPP director for the state, but those events do have a familiar theme for Georgians. That is, he says, occupation by Russia.
In 2008, Russian troops occupied part of the country to help separatists in an their effort to break off from Georgia. Russia remains in that part of the country and Georgia considers it an illegal occupation.
Ellington says events in Ukraine “did not push us to have more engagement. But what it did was make sure we did not cut back engagements. The message [from EUCOM] was, don’t stop doing what you’re doing.”
He has been to Georgia 10 times in the last year, he says, as the state works with the country to create a military police force more in line with NATO, among other things.
“The thing that they requested was a greater presence, more boots on the ground if that was possible,”
USAREUR’s Hodges couldn’t be more clear in his desire to have the Guard’s participation.
“I want to see as much effort by the states as their budgets and opportunities will allow,” he says.
He does ask, however, that the states maintain contact with the U.S. commands in Europe as they plan their efforts.
“I want to make sure that it’s targeted at something that will give the best strategic effect,” he says.
He says he is inviting adjutants general to let him know how he can make it more attractive for them to participate.
“I need SPP. It’s very helpful,” he says. “The door is always open.”
As long as troubles continue in eastern Ukraine, Baldwin and his troops will be heavily involved. Either he or members of his staff have been traveling to Ukraine at least once a month. On their calendar is an exercise to provide combat lifesaver and casualty evacuation training, skills that are particularly useful these days.
“It’s a lot of time spent with our partners and seeing their frustration and challenges as they prosecute this conflict while trying to take on some of the areas that they want to improve their military,” he says. “Historically, we would be training them for disaster response.We’ve worked with them as they were preparing troops to go into Iraq. And, of course, we have a peacekeeping capability. Once the conflict started, a lot of training that they’re requesting is focused on improving their capability to deal with the active insurgency that they have in the eastern part of their country.”
When they finish the training, he says, “the Ukrainians rotate right back into combat to apply those lessons learned.”
Read the full article at http://www.nationalguardmagazine.com/article/On++the+Front+Lines/1958078/250606/article.html.