Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Elissa Slotkin visited Ukraine last week. Censor.NET was the only one among Ukrainian media to interview her during her visit. The U.S. is currently the largest donor of military and technical assistance to Ukraine, the volume of which has surpassed $600M since 2014. Ms. Slotkin spoke of achievements in military and defense cooperation between the U.S. and Ukraine, possibilities of interoperability between Ukraine and NATO, the U.S. stance on Russian aggression against Ukraine, and provision of lethal weapons for Ukraine by the United States.
- What is the goal of your visit to Ukraine?
- I came back to Ukraine after being here about a year ago to see where we are in the work that we’ve been doing together on the defense cooperation. And I am happy to say I really have seen progress. I was here last November and we have done a lot together to firm up the defense relationship. I’m really quite pleased, and I know the Secretary of Defense is quite pleased by it.
You know, if you just think about where we were one year ago, we’ve provided $600 million of equipment and assistance. We’ve expanded our training programs. We have had the Ministry of Defense write a Strategic Defense Bulletin, which we strongly encouraged. We’ve just had the Secretary of Defense and Minister Poltorak sign a partnership concept for our cooperation for the next five years. And then we nominated a very senior General John Abizaid to come and be the senior defense adviser to the ministry.
That is a lot of work in one year. So we feel like the relationship is on the right trajectory, and one of the things we talked about today with the ministry officials, the officials from the president’s office was we are really in a new phase of our defense relationship. It’s really gone from reacting to crisis – you know, the illegal annexation of Crimea happens, eastern Ukraine starts to become the war that it is, and we were all in a crisis mode, reacting, trying to get things to Ukraine as fast as possible, trying to help giving political support, putting the sanctions in place.
But now, two and a half years later, it’s time to expand the relationship and think bigger. Be more proactive, less reactive, and think about where we want our relationship to be over the next five and 10 years. That relationship can only get better, and it’s exciting for us because we really feel like we have the possibility of having Ukraine as a fully NATO interoperable partner within five years. That’s possible. And that’s an extremely important statement to the Russians and their decision-making. It’s an important statement to the rest of Europe. We’re proud of that and we have good partners in the Ukrainians, and I was here to recognize all that hard work on behalf of the Secretary.
- You only speak of progress and success, but do you see any problems as well?
- Nothing’s ever perfect. The United States is not perfect. But what matters is the trajectory of the relationship: is it getting better or is it getting worse or is it stuck? And it is getting better. You know, there are a lot of places in the world where the relationship is going nowhere. What’s nice is that you come here and it’s the intent. The intention of the people that we work with is positive, they want to change, they want to succeed. It’s difficult, of course.
- What are the plans for the next year in terms of military aid programs?
- The most important thing is that Ukraine has wide support in the United States, in the executive branch of the United States but also in the Congress. So while we don’t know the exact amount of money our Congress is going to give us, and even we don’t know our own budgets at the Pentagon right now, there’s such strong support that we expect that the level of assistance will be very similar to what it has been this year. There really is a strong support for Ukraine and the future of Ukraine in Washington.
- The biggest political issue for us is whether the U.S. assistance is for freezing of the conflict in the Minsk format or it will continue in the case of the Ukrainian troops’ offensive and liberation of the occupied territories?
- I think the United States has been very clear that we believe in empowering the Ukrainians for their territorial defense. That’s what we are working on. So all of the training that we do in Yavoriv, and the Special Forces’ training that we’re doing, all the equipment we provide – the radars, the Humvees, the armored ambulances, the medical equipment, the training that goes with it, the UAVs – these are things that we believe are helping Ukraine to defend itself.
I know there’s been a debate about what more to provide, and we’ve had that discussion between government to government and public to public for a long time. But we think the most important thing is that Ukraine is able to defend itself and it improves its ability to defend itself over time. That’s what we’ve been committed to doing and I think we are along the path.
- OK, but I would like to hear whether freezing of the conflict is the goal of the U.S. policy here in Ukraine. Would you say that American administration is aiming at turning this into a frozen conflict?
- Unfortunately, some European politicians want to lift the sanctions at any cost and renew their relationship with Putin at the cost of Ukraine and its territories. There are many calls in Europe to stop the war, but much weaker demands to Putin to set the occupied Ukrainian land free.
- I think the most important thing is to look at the Minsk agreements and what we are trying to do in the process of that agreement. The process of that agreement is not to allow for a frozen conflict. The process of that agreement is to fundamentally reject the idea that one country can take over another country, that one country can illegally annex another country. We reject that idea. And that’s why we are constantly calling for the full implementation of Minsk, and why we want Russia to live up to their commitments under Minsk. The goal is not to maintain a status quo for today. The goal is to say to the world and to the Russians that we will not accept aggression of one country against another, not in 2014, 2015, 2016.
So that’s not our goal. Our goal is not to accept a frozen conflict.
- What are the major goals of the military reforms here in Ukraine, on your opinion?
- As I said and as we noted in our partnership concept that we’ve just signed, we want Ukraine fully interoperable with the U.S., with Europe, with NATO in five years. That’s our goal. So in order to do that, there are a number of things that we recommend…
- Excuse me, when you say ‘interoperability,’ do you mean between the staffs or the troops?
- In five years?
- Yes, it’s ambitious but we’re Americans, we are very ambitious, so that’s our goal. It may be hard and it may take longer than that, but we believe in having ambitious goals. Look at how far we’ve come on some of the things that we’ve been working on together in just a few years. We shouldn’t accept ‘20 years,’ we should aim for five. The most important thing is there is intent in Ukraine. There’s a desire from your most senior leadership to reform.
So, on interoperability. One thing is the staffs have to communicate and understand how the other one is organized. So, within Europe, within the United States, there’s a certain way of organizing the ministry of defense that’s very common. It starts with strong civilian control of the military. We believe in that, we live by that, that’s why I’m here talking to you. Civilian control of the military is one of the most important tenets of Western military. So we believe in that and the Ukrainian government has been very supportive of this. But then there are also things like reforming of the way that Ukraine does logistics, or planning. The way you train soldiers.
One of the things that came out of our training in Yavoriv. I went to Yavoriv last year and spoke with the Ukrainian commanders there, and they were very open. One of the things they like about the American way of training is that our young, non-commissioned officers – 19, 18 – they get a lot of empowerment. They can make decisions because they are out in the field. This was something new to some of the colonels in the Ukrainian military. This is going to help Ukraine fight better. If the young people on the frontlines can be empowered to make good decisions that will have a dramatic effect on war fighting and on defense. So, interoperability is everything from organization to tactics, and that’s what we’re working for on the full program.
- Let’s speak about specific programs of cooperation, firstly, for Special Forces. Will the U.S. implement programs like the Special Operation Forces training program in Khmelnytskyi? Will there be programs for creation of new units under NATO standards of manning, training, supplying and deployment?
- I think our plans are very much on track to start up the training for the Special Operations Forces and at the new location – that is all on track. And the fundamental point there is to do small unit tactics. That’s the whole package – how you train as a unit to be more effective. I can’t speak to creation of new units. Institutional capacity and tactics – for sure, but I can’t speak to new units. I just don’t know the answer.
- What types of equipment and weapon can we receive in the upcoming months?
- I know that the big delivery this month is on night vision goggles. We will have 2,000 delivered by the end of this month. We just spoke with the chief of defense today, and they were extremely happy about the delivery of the night vision goggles because it allows on training on night operations. We’ve just delivered the armored ambulances and the training that goes with armed ambulances – five of them. And then we have another round of night vision goggles – about 3,000 - coming early in 2017.
To be honest, I am not totally familiar with the delivery schedule, but a lot of these pieces of equipment that just enable a higher level of sophistication of operations on the ground, both to care for the wounded, which is really important, but also operating at night. This is a fundamental and important capacity that we really wanted the Ukrainian military to have.
- What about budget planning for Ukrainian army and other structures – will the U.S. help us to plan the budget by the transparent U.S. standards?
- That’s one of the issues when we talk about interoperability and NATO standards. Budgeting is a huge part of that. It’s a very hard thing to do and it’s something we still struggle with, but it’s part of the reason why we nominated retired General John Abizaid to come to Ukraine because he is an expert on these types of things. He ran Central command – our biggest command, our war-fighting command – he’s the longest-serving one.
- Participation in budget drafting for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry will be Abizade’s task?
- Yes. It’s a huge part of it. For us, part of the value of having such a senior general come to Ukraine is he’s run a huge budget for central command. He’s run it during war time. He’s had to do reform during war time. He understands logistics incredibly well because he’s had to be supporting wars all over a very big region. And those are the skills that are fundamental to becoming interoperable.
You have to have strong logistics, you have to have strong budget and planning out for the future, so this is exactly why he was nominated because he is a four-star, former four-star expert in these things.
- Will the U.S. help us conduct due diligence of the situation with our National Guard and other parts of our security sector?
- What do you mean by due diligence?
- The programs of the U.S. assistance cover existing structures, while we need to create new ones. I mean we need assistance with, firstly, creation of a new concept for forces deployment, and secondly, instruments for its implementation. We need the help of the U.S. for the new quality of planning.
- Everything we’ve done most recently, two weeks ago between Minister Poltorak and Secretary Carter is about future and about helping Ukraine planning for the future, not just for today. Planning is everything from budgets, logistics, but also what is the most likely threat and how do you structure the force for the future. And we do this all the time.
- The major political issue for Ukraine is receiving lethal weapons.
- You know we’re about to go through a presidential transition. So our policy in this administration is not going to change between now and early November. But when we have a new administration – I don’t know who is going to win in the United States – but you have a new administration, and like every administration, they will review all their major policies towards the major foreign policy issues. So I know this is something very interesting to the Ukrainians, but it will have to be left up to a new administration to look at it.
Yurii Butusov, Censor.NET
Photos by Nataliia Sharomova, Censor.NET