The Thin Sunflower Line was Girded with a decade of Training from the U.S.
The media would have you think that the Ukrainians have only been able to run circles around the Russian juggernaut due to Western military aid, which is partly true but should be expanded upon.
The aid in question is usually chalked up to lots of modern anti-tank weapons and low-level surface-to-air assets. In other words, Javelins, and Stingers. But the thing is, you can’t just drop off some pallets of missiles and call it a day. There had to be a doctrinal change as well.
The Soviets have long had a top-down approach to military command, as, going back to the Russian Civil War, they had no effective professional NCO corps as we know it in the West. Today’s Russian Army is much the same, with their small force of “contract” NCOs more akin to warrant officers in NATO militaries or the old “Tech Sergent” concept of WWII. They are technicians, not leaders. This is fine if you have the muscle to push it, the battlefield is linear, and the commo is constant between upper command and the lowest Ivan in the field. War on an industrial scale with a few managers directing thousands of worker drones with the bare minimum of training for their siloed job. Sure, it is inefficient, but it worked if you had enough bodies.
You also have to have senior officers leading from the front– which leads to a lot of dead senior officers. Of note, the Russians have lost at least five generals in combat in as many weeks.
The Ukrainian military, evolved as it was from the old Soviet model, used much the same concept and, when pitted against the Russians in 2013-14 over the Crimea et. al had their clock cleaned as the Russians when big-time asymmetric with irregular forces (“little green men”) that the rigid proto-Soviet Ukrainians couldn’t adapt to counter in time.
Since 2014, the Ukrainians have been schooled extensively in decentralized Western Mission Command (using U.S./UK terms) or Auftrag (German) tactics, which is essentially the opposite of the old Soviet doctrine. Essentially, you give your unit an objective and turn them loose, with the local commanders on the job down to the fireteam level figuring out the best way to crack the nut, so to speak, while giving them access to fires and intel support to keep them going. The theory is that these “bottom-up” battlefield decisions are more free-flowing, less prone to interruption in the case of decapitated leadership nodes, and able to maintain momentum.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Liam Collins, a career Green Beret who helped train and reform Ukraine’s military, said that it has turned from a “decrepit” state that “wasn’t effective at the tactical level” into a force more ready to fend off Russian advances in major Ukrainian cities. He speaks to the Mission Command concept in the below video.
To illustrate just how much training has been going on, keep in mind that Ukraine was the first country in the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, pairing that country with the California Air and Army National Guard which involved both California units traveling to Ukraine to train and hosting Ukrainians in the U.S.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, most pundits believed the Ukrainian military was not up to the task. “Because we work closely with the Ukrainian army, we always thought that the West underestimated them, and the National Guard of Ukraine also,” California Adjutant General Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin said in a recent interview. “We knew that they had radically improved their ability to do kind of Western-style military decision making. I have been impressed though, with their ability at the national level, to work through some of the challenges we thought they still had in terms of logistics and command control.”
The Ukrainians have also demonstrated interagency cooperation. “I think the best story is with their Air Force,” the general said. “Our fighter pilots have been telling everyone for years that the Ukrainian Air Force is pretty good. And in the meantime, a lot of other people in the West were pooh-poohing them.”
“Well, the proof is in the pudding,” he continued. “Their Air Force is a lot better than everyone thought except for the California Air National Guard who knew that these guys were pretty good.”
The air over Ukraine is still contested, more than three weeks after the invasion began.
Baldwin said the effort to train the Ukrainian military is really a team effort. California Guardsmen worked alongside NATO trainers and trainers from the active-duty forces — especially after Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed Crimea.
Ukraine’s government turned decisively to the West, and the training took on new importance. Ukrainians were very receptive. Before 2014, the California Guard would send a few dozen trainers at a time to Ukraine. After the Russian invasion, this commitment numbered in the hundreds and training accelerated.
This is more than simply teaching infantry tactics, Baldwin said, although Ukrainian soldiers demonstrated the ability to move, shoot and move.
In training areas in Ukraine and California, the Army Guard and Air Guard in California worked to develop Ukrainian capabilities. If they didn’t have the capability, Baldwin worked with National Guard units around the United States to make sure Ukrainian service members got the training they needed.
It was more than small unit tactics, he said. The Guardsmen worked in logistics and sustainment — the lifeblood of any military. They worked to establish and build a Ukrainian NCO corps. They helped train staff officers in defending against and launching cyber operations.
Guardsmen even worked in the headquarters of the Ukrainian military to establish command and control procedures and help build a Joint Operations Center modeled on what the United States military would have. Guardsmen helped them “reorganize the way that their staffs are organized at the General Staff and at the Ministry of Defense,” he said. “We even embedded (Ukrainian) staff officers as members of our staff.”
Baldwin went to Ukraine in November 2021 and discussed with Ukrainian military leaders the disturbing build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders. “At the time, they kind of knew that it was coming, but they didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “It wasn’t until January that the most senior Ukrainian leaders started to recognize that this could be a possibility.”
Ukrainian leaders then began talking about specific needs they would have if Russia invaded. “They came within a day or two of predicting when the invasion was going to come,” he said. “But because of that partnership, and our ability to have frank discussions about what they needed in the 11th hour to get ready, it very much helped them prepare, and to do so well in the opening hours of the invasion.”
Last November, the DOD upped the training mission by dispatching 160 members of the Florida National Guard under the banner of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, part of Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, to kick the mission into overdrive.
Termed Task Force Gator, they were pulled out in mid-February just before the Russians crossed the line, cutting short what was planned to be a 9-to-12-month deployment. They took over from a similar unit from the Washington National Guard’s 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, known as Task Force Raven.
The force also worked hand-in-hand with NATO training teams from Canada and the UK.
CIA Clandestine Services officers and contract personnel, many of which are former SF types with years of experience under their belt, have also reportedly been on the ground in Ukraine as well.