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US General Breedlove on Ukrainian Army and Its Perspectives of Joining NATO
21 November, 2019
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Ukraine is undergoing a process of developing transparency, anti-corruption measures and democratic values, said General Philip Breedlove in an interview with Hromadske. Those developments are an important step on the path to joining NATO. However, Ukraine’s military forces still need improvement, Breedlove noted. The force that new member state is bringing to NATO should be, first of all, compatible with existing NATO structures.

The general advised Ukrainian military chiefs to sit back and think of what sort of military the country needs now. The news of U.S. selling Ukraine Javelin anti-tank missiles already had its impact, said Breedlove. The simple fact of having Javelins can cause large Soviet armored vehicles and tanks to withdraw from the area where they might be affected.

However, getting new military equipment is not enough, Breedlove warns, for all former Soviet armed forces, and the most important and primary task should be to lose that mentality. When speaking about the Russian army, the general admitted that it is smart and adaptive. He referred to the improvements Russia’s military has made since the war in Georgia in 2008. On the other hand, NATO no longer has accurate intelligence with regards to the operational and tactical level of Russian troops since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

General Breedlove, my starting question would be more general: you recently talked to the head of Ukrainian institute for Strategic Studies and he used to be the deputy head of the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council and he was asked when will Ukraine be joining NATO, and what is needed. He answered “When Ukraine would strengthen the security of NATO rather than making it weaker.” So to you, how can Ukraine strengthen the alliance?

Just remember, I am a military man and so my questions are typically more oriented towards national security, but this question is actually bigger than just national security. We have brought in to NATO many nations that have little or small contributions in forms of actual military forces, but they are important to NATO for a number of reasons, geopolitically sometimes and also geostrategically other times: their location, etc. Ukraine is a large, important nation. Ukraine’s military is a large and important military. And Ukraine’s location in the world is incredibly important. Just at the conference you and I were just attending, remember all the discussions about Black Sea and about geostrategic importance of the Black Sea and the flow of commerce freely in and out of the Black Sea and the ability to protect one’s country’s business in the Black Sea. These are all very important. So Ukraine, I think, is already started on the way to many of the things that NATO is looking for. Clearly all of the democratic reform illuminating the corruption and the things that western nations, NATO nations want as part of our values system – those are important. And if Ukraine was a large nation with strong Western democratic values, that is a strength all in itself. The continuing process of developing all these transparencies, anti-corruption measures and democratic values made you a strong nation all by itself. You already have literally an army that has been tested in fire. And yes, your military forces still need to make improvements. And that was a large part of what we offered in our suggestions: is how the West, or the United States could better help Ukraine in developing these military capabilities. But one thing that we do ask of all nations that come to be a part of NATO, a big part of the process of earning that and the things you have to do when you receive a membership action plan to accomplish, many of those are military and they are to establish that interoperability with NATO forces. Can you speak the languages of NATO? Can you employ the tactics, techniques and procedures that NATO employs? Is your equipment compatible to the radios, to communicate with NATO radios, etc, etc, etc. So a big part of this strengthening NATO is bringing a force that is either large or small, but is compatible with NATO and is able to fight alongside NATO.  I like to give an example of few non-NATO allies. One of the most important non-NATO allies we have, to a certain degree non-allies is Sweden, Finland and others. These stations exercise with us, train with us, buy equipment and work the equipment in order to have complete interoperability and then are available to be a part of our endeavors. Even some non-allies work really, really hard to build that interoperability. That is what I am talking about. 

So in the report which was provided by Friends of Ukraine Network, these are priority recommendation for assessing Ukraine in the coming years. There are some particular recommendations on NATO, what NATO could do. What are your, as a former NATO insider… what are they? And to what extent can NATO really implement them?

To a certain degree, all the NATO allies have all the same capabilities that the United States has. We have made some specific recommendations about the ability to monitor the seas and then weapons that could be used if needed to be to control the seas and protect Ukraine’s capabilities in people and ships. We have made some recommendations about surveillance radars for the air. And then there are missiles that were suggested that both the U.S. and NATO can bring. To the degree that our recommendations -- as you read at the very top -- to give Ukraine the ability to protect itself, to raise the cost on any occupying force or to raise the cost on any invading force, these defensive very capable lethal weapons. Those are available from all nations of NATO and we actually listed some air defense capabilities that other European allies have, as well as some that the United States have.

So in Ukraine we celebrate, of course, the fact that the Ukrainian sailors had been freed from the Russians. Still there is the whole issue of the Kerch Strait and is a huge question for national security. What would you say on the more or less similar case that we know that the Azov Sea de facto is occupied by Russia. So it's quite risky for Ukraine to get there, looking into the previous example. Still there is no way Ukrainian ships don't go to the Port of Mariupol because Ukraine can't not have the military presence or any presence in the Azov Sea. So whereas the politicians said that the military should give advice on how to make it, so as a military, how do you think this operation could be carried out as this presence is needed? But you know sending another group of the sailors to be captured after what had happened looks quite questionable case for society.

READ MORE: Russia Fires on Ukrainian Ship in the Kerch Strait

Well, the first thing I would say is why would we look to Ukraine to do this by themselves. There are many navies of the great nations of the world, a large part of their mission is to maintain freedom of navigation in all the international waters of the world. And so do we see the sea of Azov as an international body of water, one that is shared by more than one nation? I think the answer to that is “yes” because – as you have pointed out – Mariupol and at least one other of your ports are very important, and your commerce depends on the ability to use those ports. And so – I think – as was suggested in our conference by one of your lawmakers from the [Verkhovna] Rada that this is something that needs to be addressed. And the whole idea of more constant presence, of more international navies in the Black Sea around Kerch, and other places, is important, I think, because we all have an interest in you being able to freely navigate those waters in order to do commerce with the rest of the world. That commerce then results in more capability for your nation to meet its own internal financial goals.

So to clarify how this operation should be carried out and how feasible it is because with the other actions it's quite difficult to imagine there would be other foreign ships sprinkle supporting Ukrainian navy as Ukraine isn't, for instance, a member of NATO. So it's hard to imagine.

Yeah. So let's take the example of this – the Somali pirates, the pirates off the coast of the Horn of Africa, not a NATO nation, right? And much of the ships that sail around the Horn of Africa, not NATO ships, not NATO countries. But this problem with the Somali pirates got so bad that the European Union and NATO came together and put an operation on the land primarily by the European Union and on the sea almost completely by NATO that eliminated the problem of the Somali pirates. So there is precedence for NATO to help non-NATO nations. And so, I think, the idea, the toughest part, and what you might really be getting at, is how does Ukraine reach out to the rest of the world NATO or maybe E.U. or others to say this freedom of navigation is important to you, just like it's important to us, and we're having an international problem with a bordering country in keeping the freedom of maneuvering in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait. And so if then, politically the nations decide to do it, I can guarantee you that the military planners know how to plan it.

But I know that you're military, you are not currently representing NATO but the previous experience of Ukraine shows that this action is very hard to make it because especially you have the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, and in the Azov Sea. And any time there are any American vessels coming to the Black Sea there is news, the escalation, there are concerns, things like that. I see some reluctance getting closer to the Russian borders and also the borders of the occupied Crimea.

Yeah, I would have to argue with you a little bit. Say now, seven or eight years ago I've been retired for three years and then I was in place for three years. So let's say seven or eight years ago before we had very little presence in the Black Sea. And when these problems or challenges in the Black Sea came up, not just the Black Sea but in the Mediterranean as well, the United States Navy and the United States military made a decision to put four of our newest, most capable most lethal destroyers into Rota Spain in order to be permanently present in the Mediterranean and present periodically in the Black Sea. And ever since those destroyers have been brought in to NATO, they’re U.S. contributions to NATO, these destroyers have come into the Black Sea and sailed. Yes there's lots of controversy because the ships are sailing in waters that we recognize as international waters, but the Russians see as waters too close to Crimea. So I think we're already doing what you said and I think that the question that we had in that in the meeting and the answer that I tried to give is that the United States alone cannot have a permanent everyday presence in the Black Sea. We're already doing a periodic presence which is quite often using the four very capable destroyers. But what we need to do is encourage and organize NATO to consider to be there during the times when the United States is not.

READ MORE: The Meaning of the Sea of Azov for Ukraine

US Navy ship USS Porter DDG 78 at a port in the Southern Ukrainian city of Odesa as part of the Sea Breeze multinational military exercises on July 9, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Himanov / UNIAN

And what would be the role and what can be the role? Or why it's not sometimes played, or it is, of Turkey as another strong power in the Black Sea and a NATO member?

Turkey is incredibly important, incredibly important for a lot of reasons. First, the Montreux Convention, the transit of ships through, into and out of the Black Sea. Turkey has been a responsible player for many years. Sometimes we want more, and they say no because they’re responsible owner of the Montreux Convention. But Turkey is important first because it controls access to the Black Sea and we need to have a fair, impartial arbiter of the Montreux Convention. Second, Turkey is a major sea power in the Black Sea. It has a capable navy and that navy could be a big part of guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the Black Sea. Third, of course, you see now Turkey and Russia are talking more. One would ask that that conversation include that the Black Sea should be open to free navigation for all parties. So Turkey is really important for a lot of reasons and then we should look to them to be leaders in conversations with Russia to ensure the free use of all the seas for Ukraine.

Equipment-wise I remember the word javelin had become known to many Ukrainians who never heard that before the war, as some very important equipment to Ukraine had a chance to get. And in terms of the navy, what could be that and to what extent – in order to – in case there is any operation or something that Ukraine may protect itself in the sea, in the Black Sea and in the Azov Sea, what should they be? Whether there are any chances for Ukraine to get it either to buy it, or to get it from the partners. 

So as you see in our report, the first step to understanding how to control the sea is understanding what's on the sea. So we have proposed those radars that would be able to give the Ukraine military and the Ukraine Navy a vision of what's happening out there to know to see when there are Russians there, or others, and to understand the possible threat situation etc, etc. Second, once you can see what's out there then if you need to, you could target it. And so also proposed in this proposal in front of you are those coastal defense cruise missiles that allow you then once you can see a target, to target it with a missile. Why are those the first step? Because remember they can be on duty 24/7, all the time.  Ships don't sail all the time. They sail sometimes, they're back in port other times, they're on training sometimes, they're on duty sometimes and so ships are periodic and they come and go but radars and missiles are on duty all the time and can be placed strategically to allow a country to see into, and if necessary, fire into its waters if challenged. So that's why that's our first. You are really asking how would you change the ships and what would you do with the ships etc. As you know there are two ships in America now being refurbished that have been offered to, and Ukraine has now become very serious about getting them commissioned and moving along. So it's important for Ukraine. And I would never tell a sovereign nation how to do their job but it's important for Ukraine to sit back and look at their navy and determine: is this what we need? Do we need big capital ships or do we need smaller very well equipped firepower capable coastal defense boats? What is that we need? And I think that's something that NATO should sit down with Ukraine and talk about. We have made some points in our report.

READ MORE: What US Javelins Mean for Ukraine in War with Russia

And how would you describe, at this moment when there is no political discussion, the importance of those things like Javelins for instance at this stage because you know there is sometimes hype: we need to get them, we need to get them and then we got them and nobody talks about it.

Well, as you saw in the meeting, some believe the Javelin has already had an impact. Just because you have Javelin, large Soviet armored vehicles – tanks have moved back out of the area where they might be affected. So Javelin has already had an impact. What does Javelin mean? It's just like some of these other things that we have proposed. A future invader or a future occupier or a current occupier of your territory has to now face a very capable anti-armor weapon. That changes their calculus. It changes how much force they need, how they use the force. Because they know that if they expose their very important armored vehicles to that capability, that they'll lose those things.

Javelin anti-tank missile systems are tested on the Ukrainian ground on May 22, 2018. Photo: Mykhailo Palinchak / POOL / UNIAN

We have now a new minister of defense, a civilian, real civilian, not a former general who has become a civilian, and at the same time we have a lot of encouragement – from you as well – about how to improve the Ukrainian army. However, we honestly know that still a lot of things had been done and that the issue is not about the equipment. It's about reorganization of the army. It is up to the sovereign nation to decide, but what would be your critical advice to the new minister of defense, for instance, and also for us as the people who are looking at what the government is doing, and now our task is to keep people accountable to look at what could be done better. What is at this stage most important for Ukrainian army to do? The army of the country that definitely wants to become a NATO member.

So I've said this before in Ukraine, and it sounds a little bit harsh but I'll say it again here, in Ukraine. For all armies that used to be Soviet, the most important and first task is to lose that mentality. We don't fight like, think like, or grow up like, or get promoted like, the way it used to be done. The new think of how an army fights, how it supplies itself, how it provides for precision support either by artillery or by aircraft or by sea. These are all new concepts that are very-very different and I find that actually the hardest in former Soviet spaces. The first battle is in the mind, not in the gear or the training. One has to determine that we're no longer going to think in Soviet terms. We're no longer going to promote people in Soviet terms. We're no longer going to plan and practice and supply in Soviet terms, and now we have to think more like Western, precise shoot and scoot, maneuver to contact, fire etc.. These are very different concepts.

READ MORE: This Ain’t 2014 Anymore  The Transformation of Ukraine’s Military

Can you provide an example? Because for some people it is just normal so they don't know that it's Soviet.

Well, for instance, how someone gets promoted in a more Soviet-style army might be very different than how someone gets promoted in a Western kind of army. And how one grows up and is trained. For instance, I'm a real believer – in fact during my time as the SACEUR, (Supreme Allied Commander of Europe – ed.) we made a strong push in all of NATO to increase the responsibility and training of our non-commissioned officers, NCOs. The fact that on the battlefield it's really the NCOs who lead the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines as they fight and the officers are working at a different level, a more operational level and directing that battle. And I think it's a huge strength that all around the world people come to our NCO Academies in the West, and not just the United States but other Western nations, to learn what non-commissioned officers do and how much flexibility they lend to the battlefield. Some nations have officers doing tasks, that we in the West have NCOs doing because they are capable of doing. The second thing I would say is: most Western nations have made their way to professional armies. We don't really use conscripts anymore. We think it's best to bring on a young woman who is very skilled at something, train her, motivate her, make it easy for her to have a family and stay in the military longer so that we grow experience rather than three years gone, retrain, three years, gone, and we never get past a certain capability, whereas if we keep that soldier for 15 years they get better and better and better and better for those 15 years. So this ability to think in terms of a professional army that is well educated, respects its enlisted people, and maintains them and provides for their families so that they'll stay in. That's a real mind shift. 

General Philip Breedlove speaks to Hromadske on September 11, 2019. Photo: hromadske

How would you assess the Russian army? As we heard different things because sometimes you have a stereotype about this lousy, not very professional old Soviet… There are others who said that they didn't mention how, for instance, some platoons are organized, reorganized. And these things that happened and they could be very mobile.

I've said more than once in many venues that the Russian army is smart, and it's adaptive. And if we sit back and think that they're not, then we're going to be in trouble. And I like to walk through what we saw and how we saw the Russian military perform in Georgia in 2008. Of course, they won that issue. They won it basically on size and numbers, because initially in that conflict, they had a lot of trouble with air defense, a lot of trouble with other fire support capabilities, and so the bottom line is they won it, but they won it on size and numbers and not on skill and capabilities. But they learnt from that and when they went into and invaded Crimea they had already made a lot of changes, very sophisticated use of electronic warfare, very sophisticated use of cyber capabilities, smart operations in cutting lines of communications, etc., etc. So a lot of the problems that they had in Georgia, they had fixed when they went into Crimea. But in Crimea still some things didn’t go so well. They wanted to hide the fact that they were there. Remember the little green men, and remember they said they were not Russian, right up until they said, well, yeah they are Russian, but they are on vacation and they volunteered to come here on holiday, if you remember when their leadership said that. So there were still things that didn’t go totally right in Crimea. When they invaded Donbas, they were even better. And one of the things the whole world saw, and in fact your soldiers have been teaching us about, is their new abilities in very capable kill chains when they tie the surveillance of their RPAs – remotely piloted aircrafts, UAVs or drones, whatever you want to call them – when they tie that drone and what the drone was seeing rapidly back to the Grad rocket system, artillery rocket system. And then were firing pretty accurately aimed Grad rockets driven by the UAVs. So these were causing horrible losses in the Ukrainian military in the first year, year and a half, this new system that the Russians had developed. We have been doing this for a long time, we have learned how to do it best actually in Afghanistan, finding small groups of Taliban or others and targeting them with our RPAs and then bringing very precise fire. So we have been doing it for 20 years, but the Russians now – again – are learning, and they’re adapted, and we need to respect that. They have been able to build this kill chain that took a terrible toll on Ukrainian soldiers, in fact, I am told almost an entire battalion of Ukrainian soldiers taken off the battlefield in the battle for Debaltseve by this kill chain initiated, that I am talking about. So the bottom line is they got better in every conflict, and even got better going in to Syria.

Do you remember the day when Russia occupied Crimea and how you learned about that, and what did you think in your position as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe?

So my greatest disappointment both then, and to a certain degree in the Donbas as well, is that, during the Cold War, we in the West had a very complete, very detailed set of intelligence capabilities and apparatus that were focused on Russia and we understood the tactical situation very well and we were keeping up with the first operational maneuver group… But what happened then? The Wall fell; the Soviet Union came apart, and we took our eyes off of Russia. In some reasons, we are good, we started fighting, we had a war in Iraq, we had another war in Iraq and then we had a war in Afghanistan. And we diverted a lot of that intelligence capability off of Russia on to where our soldiers were fighting and we lost contact with the operational and tactical level of Russian troops. We still kept good intelligence on their nuclear troops, but we lost contact. So we were surprised. We had an idea that something was up, a couple of days before we saw that they were really massing forces, but we were operationally surprised. In 20 years before, we would have known where every of those battalions were and where they were headed.

Armed Russian military men without insignia block a Ukrainian military base in Perevalne village, near Simferopol, Ukraine on March 2, 2014. Photo: EPA/ALEXEY FURMAN

So what did you think then when you got to know the news because it is major case where the international…?

We have lived in a time of relative peace in Europe, you know. For 70 years, NATO had sort of kept the peace in Europe. We had a few issues and we worked through those issues, but a large world war style fighting in Europe has been over for 70 years, and what we did not expect is that a major nation like Russia would use its military to change internationally recognized borders. Russia used its military to change Crimea from Ukraine to Russia. Now we don’t accept that, we don’t acknowledge it, but Russia is occupying Crimea. And then, as you know, several months, once again Russia put its military forces on the border and used its military to invade Ukraine. So this is surprising. We thought that military power to change internationally recognized borders by large responsible world powers was off the table. And we learned that for Russia it is not off the table. 

There was a military in Crimea who used to run for some particular time – the Ukraine-NATO group, a retired officer who was the head of the center on how to change the Ukrainian military and navy, a huge advocate for NATO in Sevastopol, which is very hard. And I talked to him the last time and asked what is your major takeaway of the war, of these five years? “I found that NATO is a paper tiger.” What would you say to a person like that, a retired Ukrainian military man who spent his decades explaining the NATO to people in Ukrainian army in Crimea.

So let me understand what you’re saying. This officer is saying that NATO is a paper tiger. I don’t know this gentleman, thank him for his service and his military, and his service on behalf of NATO. I would respectfully say I have a very different opinion. NATO is not only a military organization, but it is a political organization. And when the political part of NATO says go do something, it is not a paper tiger. If you look at what happened in Kosovo, if you look at what happened to the Somali pirates, if you look at what happened to the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was a great military operation, maybe not a great political operation. If you look at what happened in Libya, when the political leadership of NATO says go and do, it is not a paper tiger.

READ MORE: Euromaidan, Crimea, and Donbas: How Ukraine Has Changed Over Past 5 Years

I am just thinking of this person, who is probably your age as well and still stays in Crimea in this very difficult… and has probably the right to be disappointed for something. Still the one question on this topic and I want then to go to Minsk shortly. Still a lot of Ukrainian public back then was quite unsure why it takes so many days to recognize that there are Russian troops.

We knew Russian troops were in Crimea from the minute they crossed the line.

And in the Donbas?

Yes. Now remember that NATO is an alliance, of now 29 nations, and NATO does not say anything until all 29 nations agree to it. That is how that works. Trust me, we knew who these guys were from the very beginning.

So you didn’t need another evidence? You as the military there, you knew...

There were nations who did not accept the intelligence that was provided, we knew who they were.

General Philip Breedlove speaks to Hromadske on September 11, 2019. Photo: hromadske

We shortly talked about Minsk agreements, so what is your attitude, how it should be? What can Ukraine do with that? Because also it was signed in the moment of battle of Debaltseve, where again Russian troops were on the Ukrainian soil and I guess you also knew they were there.

Absolutely. Rather than cast back to that moment, what I would just say is that while there are people that are working very hard, I understand, to try to use Minsk in the Normandy format to move forward, we are not moving forward. We are just not moving forward, it is not working. Remember that the ultimate goal of Minsk is to restore the internationally recognized border of Ukraine back to Ukraine. Do you think we have made any progress on that? I don’t think we have made any progress on that. I don’t fault those who are doing their thing; I just think it is going to take a different kind of emphasis and possibly more nations involved at the table to try to move those negotiations forward. And I will stop there, that’s a very political question which I will dodge.

Sure, then I would ask the other things. How is the withdrawal taking place? Because now there is a military part of it, the Ukrainian troops are supposed to withdraw and they are withdrawn from the line and there is a particular distance in the case of Minsk agreements but yes, they are shelled. So what we should do in this way?  Because there are those who say we can’t not answer, we are shelled, we have losses still.

First thing is that I would back away from just that and I would say the most important thing you can do is to make sure the rest of the world understand that there is still a hot war. You still have a Russian supplied organized capability that is opposing Ukrainian capability and the world doesn’t see it that way. The world doesn’t see that we still have hot conflict going on there. That is why I don’t think the world is particularly outraged, and not putting the effort that we might want to see, into separating this. A huge part of this problem would go away if we restored the internationally recognized border of Ukraine to Ukraine, wouldn’t it? If Ukraine was in charge of the border and everything that goes across the border this would be a smaller problem.

What is your view on peacekeeping mission in the Donbas?

You’re talking about the OSCE or what…?

The point at this stage, there is no formula. Before Ukraine was arguing and asking UN peacekeeping forces, then later we heard that it could be a very different format. Like there are different kinds of forces which could be not directly UN, but could be backed by UN or something like that. What do you think is important in this new type of conflict, knowing the terrain, and knowing the tricks and traps the peacekeepers can get as they got in the Balkans, for instance.

It would be a huge mission, an absolutely huge mission to try to go in and do peacekeeping. I don’t even want to go there. That’s a long conversation about how that would have to look. I have never been in charge of a peacekeeping mission – other than what we see in Kosovo right now. I think, like I said before, goodness begins when the country of Ukraine controls the border of Ukraine. All goodness, I think, begins then. 

READ MORE: Ukraine’s “Invisible” Volunteer Fighters

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Natalia Smolentceva