Reports indicate President Volodymyr Zelensky may visit the United States sometime later this year. Whenever that visit comes it will be important for Ukraine and for the new president, and it has the potential to be a watershed moment for U.S.-Ukraine relations.
First and foremost it would seem Zelensky will want to separate the past from the future. The past was rejected by some 72% of the people of Ukraine and the President clearly wants to demonstrate that he represents a new approach in governance but is also forward thinking when it comes to U.S.-Ukraine relations.
When he visits Washington it is critically important to understand the issue of timing and schedules of the officials he plans to meet. In short he needs to have the entire American government in town and August particularly is not known to be a good time due to the annual Congressional recess and Executive Branch vacations.
And, based upon reports concerning Zelensky’s recent trip to Canada there are lessons to be learned. It is important that the President have his team in place so when he travels to Washington his delegation is expressing his agenda, views, and vision for where he wants to take Ukraine.
Regardless of when the visit happens, Zelensky needs to make sure ahead of time that he has strategic “asks” – asks that have been negotiated in advance so that when the trip occurs things are certain to be accomplished, even if other issues are open for discussion among the delegations.
Before he arrives, however, there are a few things perhaps worth noting that have relevance in U.S.-Ukraine relations – namely that the most important military relationship Ukraine has in the world today is with the United States. During his Canadian visit, Zelensky said the best way for the people of Ukraine to gain security is to join the European Union quickly, and for the Ukrainian armed forces to adjust to NATO norms so Ukraine can move toward membership.
Both are highly admirable goals and hopefully Zelensky will be able pursue these steps but pushing the idea of NATO membership is not necessarily going to fall on receptive ears in Washington. NATO membership remains popular in Ukraine as a recent poll by UNIAN has 60 percent of the population firmly supporting the idea. At the same time it has become a cliché term in Ukraine used to woo voters. But Washington has not seen any serious effort toward membership by the Ukrainian military. President Zelenskyy first needs to get his military in reform mode and demonstrate it is serious about joining NATO by doing something profoundly easy – learn English.
NATO’s language is English and military officers who speak English improve communications with NATO and the U.S. The ability to speak English at the senior levels also will reflect a change in mentality distancing Ukraine’s military from its Soviet mindset. Ukraine’s public declarations about joining NATO do not match reality; no post-Soviet state has gained membership unless its senior military officers, including it’s Minister of Defense, speak English. Ukrainian generals and senior command level officers sorely lack this skill betraying the very norms President Zelenskyy spoke of in Canada.
Before joining NATO, the Czech Republic, like Ukraine, wanted a genuine relationship with NATO and to achieve this goal it set out a timetable for its military whereby within two years all its generals and officers would learn English, and pass an exam demonstrating their proficiency in English. If they failed after one year of study they would get a second chance to try to pass the exam, all at taxpayer’s expense. Within two years, the Czech Republic proved it was serious. Five years after Maidan Ukraine has shown it is not serious.
Aside from speaking English, receiving a Western military education is another important path to NATO where Ukraine is sorely lagging.
Sadly, Ukraine has not fully utilized the opportunities at its disposal to send military officers to study in the United States. Indeed, according to some observers the number of Ukrainian officers studying in the U.S. can be measured in a handful, not in the hundreds even though the opportunity is available.
Despite 28 years of independence, only one senior Ukrainian military officer currently serving at the senior command level in Ukraine has received a military education in the United States – and that person is General Mykhailo Zabrodsky, the current commander of the Ukrainian Airborne Forces who graduated from the U.S. Command and General Staff College whose graduates are often referred to as Jedi Knights. Zabrodsky is one of those “Jedi knights” and according to Phil Karber, a noted expert on the Ukrainian military at the Potomac Foundation, conducted one of the few military successes of the war in Donbas in 2014. Often referred to as “the raid” a deep operation behind Russian lines, Zabrodsky modeled his attack after Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley during the American Civil War.
Today Zabrodsky is using his American military education to build the Ukrainian airborne forces turning it into one of the best parts of the Ukrainian army. One can only imagine if Ukraine had another dozen Zabrodskys in its senior command structures trained in the U.S. who could utilize their American military education the way he has.
Partnerships involve more than one participant and while the United States and the West may be guilty of not doing as much as they could and should to meet obligations to Ukraine, the reality is that Ukraine has not taken advantage of many opportunities provided by the United Sates.
The Trump Administration clearly has shown it is committed to Ukraine’s defense and security by allowing it to purchase one of America’s most sophisticated weapons – the Javelin anti-tank missiles. This was an important decision. However, Ukraine must avoid the temptation of thinking sophisticated weaponry will solve the challenge posed by VlPutin’s Russia.
Ukraine must invest in the human capital necessary to build a modern army and become the envy of NATO not the other way around. One American trained general like Zabrodsky is worth a hundred Javelins. Ukraine desperately needs new Western-trained leaders who are ready to abandon the Soviet mindset and distance Ukraine from its Soviet past.
Before Ukraine can aspire even to non-NATO status it must become the envy of NATO, not the other way around. It must focus on capitalizing on what the U.S. has given it in terms of the access to our most prized military education opportunities for any true path to joining NATO. Like Zabrodsky, Ukraine’s military leaders need to abandon the Soviet mindset.
There are encouraging signs the Zelinsky administration recognizes the mixed messages of the past and is acting to correct them. Doing so will strengthen not only Ukraine but U.S.-Ukraine relations and help it achieve its goal of one day joining NATO by sending not one, but hundreds of military officers to the U.S. to receive their education.
Glen E. Howard is the president of The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. Robert A. McConnell is coordinator of external relations for the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network.