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Long term military mentorship to Ukraine, founded in trust: the California-Ukraine State Partnership Program

U.S. Soldiers with the California Army National Guard and the Oklahoma Army National Guard render salutes during the official opening ceremony for Rapid Trident 17 on Sept. 11, 2017, at the International Peacekeeping Security Center in Yavoriv, Ukraine. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Article by: Mark Temnycky

November 2020 marked the seven-year anniversary of the Euromaidan protests and the Russian military invasion into eastern Ukraine. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region has resulted in the displacement of 1.5 million people and the deaths of over 14,000.

Despite the hardships caused by the Russian incursion, Ukraine persevered by containing these invaders to the occupied regions in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s success is in part thanks to the international community, including that of the United States.

American assistance to this Eastern European state is no secret as the US-Ukraine relationship dominated headlines earlier this year. Since the start of the Donbas conflict in 2014, the US has provided Ukraine with $1.5 billion in military assistance. This American aid, however, has been questioned by some political pundits, policy analysts, and high-ranking government officials. Their arguments spanned from Ukraine being a corrupt country to how American assistance could escalate the Donbas conflict.

Unbeknownst to the critics of this aid, the US does not simply throw financial assistance to Ukraine in the hopes that it will magically help reform the country. Instead, American aid to the Eastern European state is delivered in various forms, such as educational initiatives, reform programs, and military exercises.

An example of sustained support to Ukraine is the California-Ukraine State Partnership Program.

The California-Ukraine State Partnership Program

Established in 1993, the US Department of Defense, in conjunction with the US Department of State, launched the State Partnership Program, or SPP. The SPP’s goal was to assist the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet states in their democracy efforts and reform their defense forces following the Soviet Union’s collapse. The SPP has since expanded beyond Europe, where there are now 89 programs worldwide.

To support these program objectives, US National Guard units are paired with various countries around the world. These American National Guard units are then charged to oversee the success of these SPPs.

Ukraine was one of the first recipients of this program. According to Lt. Col. Robert Swertfager, a former Director of the California-Ukraine SPP, the Eastern European state was paired with California due to its “similar agricultural output, long coastlines, and large tech[nology] sectors.”

“California and Ukraine have [been] extremely cooperative” over the past three decades, said Lt. Col. Swertfager in an interview with the US Air Force’s 144th Fighter Wing. “The more [the United States] can increase Ukraine’s ability to interoperate with other nations, the more secure the region becomes for both Ukraine and its neighbors.”

Throughout this 27-year-old relationship, the California National Guard conducted regular military-to-military engagements with the Ukrainians, and these training exercises have established an element of trust between both parties.

When asked about the California-Ukraine SPP, a spokesperson from the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, DC underlined that “the Ukrainian government appreciates America’s robust and unwavering support of Ukraine, its sovereignty, and its territorial integrity, as well as [America’s] assistance with the implementation of comprehensive reforms” in Ukraine. The spokesperson also emphasized that “it is a priority for Kyiv to further develop and strengthen this strategic partnership between the United States and Ukraine.”

The success of this relationship could help “the US and Ukraine proceed to more ambitious goals in this security domain,” added another spokesperson.

The formation of this particular SPP has helped Ukraine improve its defense capabilities, thus developing it into a valuable strategic partner for the West.

For example, NATO military exercise Operation Rapid Trident “contributed to Ukraine’s continued defense modernization to US standardization.”

Meanwhile, Operation Clear Sky, a NATO military exercise hosted by the Ukrainian Air Force, influenced the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense to implement substantial changes to Ukraine’s military doctrine.

In other words, the work of the California-Ukraine SPP has led to significant defense reforms in Ukraine, and it has helped Ukraine’s ability to interoperate with the West.

Rapid Trident 2020

YAVORIV, Ukraine — Sgt. Richard Lacombe, a Soldier from US Army Europe’s Charlie Co., 173rd Airborne Brigade shows Ukrainian National Guard Soldiers the proper procedures for operating an M4 rifle during situational training exercise lanes at Rapid Trident 2014. (US Army photo by Spc. Joshua Leonard)

Despite the complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the California-Ukraine SPP still remains active. In September 2020, members of the American and Ukrainian National Guard gathered to participate in the annual multinational Rapid Trident training exercise. This two-week operation was hosted near Yavoriv, Ukraine.

“Rapid Trident 2020 demonstrate[d] the strength of Ukraine’s strategic partnership with the US and others, and [Ukraine’s] commitment to enhanced readiness,” the US Embassy in Kyiv stated.

Over 4,000 military personnel participated in this year’s multinational operation.

“During these [annual] exercises, the Californians and Ukrainians collaborate to complete their objectives,” said Col. Andrii Ordynovych of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “This cooperation leads to the division of tasks, which multiplies their probabilities of success.”


The California-Ukraine SPP, however, is not without challenges. For example, language barriers between American and Ukrainian military personnel have led to miscommunications, but both parties have overcome these hurdles. Attempts to reduce future issues are demonstrated by Ukraine’s efforts to incorporate language interoperability while conducting various military training exercises.

Second, while the Ukrainians made strides toward improving their military capabilities, other avenues of success have been difficult to measure as specific guidelines do not exist. Nonetheless, some benefits are difficult to quantify, such as the long-term personal relationships formed from the partnership.

The intangible results include trust between both parties. Mutual learning extends beyond military systems and operations, and service members gain an understanding of each other’s history, cultures, and traditions. These personal interactions are invaluable as it promotes the continuing transformation and democratization of Ukraine.

Finally, funding for the SPP appears to be minimal on the macro level.

According to a Pentagon comptroller report, only $22.8 million was allocated to the SPP in fiscal year 2019. This figure, however, excludes funds received from the various National Guard units and the United States Combatant Commands (in the case of the California-Ukraine SPP, the United States European Command provides additional funding for this program).

Thus, despite the claims of some critics, American aid is not simply thrown to foreign governments. Instead, these resources provide for developmental opportunities, such as the SPP.

Overall, the California-Ukraine SPP is one of the many ways in which the US provides foreign military assistance to Ukraine. The program denotes California’s commitment toward Ukraine’s success, and the Eastern European state has made strides toward reforming its military.

The SPP has demonstrated the importance of the partnerships the US has established with its allies throughout the world. This has helped countries develop their own democracies and defensive capabilities. Through the sustained mentoring provided by American National Guard units to the California-Ukraine SPP, and with Ukraine’s willingness and desire to modernize its defense capabilities, the Eastern European state has demonstrated it has what it takes to become an important strategic partner on the European continent.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist who covers Eastern Europe and its impact on US and European foreign policy and national security. His articles have been published by the Atlantic Council, the Wilson Center, the Center for European Policy Analysis, Forbes, and the Diplomatic Courier.

Photo credit: Anatoli Photograffi



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