When California Adjutant General Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin joined the California National Guard in 1984, he and his wife hosted a Ukrainian family in California for training under the program.
Those contacts survived the ups and downs of politics in Europe and the United States, he said.
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,” he 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. Prior to 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 and 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 imbedded (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, I [hope] it very much helped them prepare, and to do so well in the opening hours of the invasion.”
Baldwin said that within half an hour of the Russian invasion, he began getting calls from Ukrainian senior leaders. “The first calls were, ‘Hey, we’re under attack,’ and then the calls through that night were ‘Here’s the help that we desperately need,'” he said.
The first calls were for more Stingers, Javelins and other anti-tank weapons, he said. “Within 24 hours, we had a pretty comprehensive list of all of their requirements for military equipment — both lethal and non-lethal,” the general said.
The California Guard stood up their Joint Operations Center and they were seeing the same things their Ukrainians partners were posting in Kyiv. Baldwin passed the request to U.S. European Command and the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.
“Now there are a lot of formal liaison systems and mechanisms and ways to communicate,” he said. “But the senior leaders still reach out when they have something urgent. That’s just a product of our relationships. Because a lot of these guys that are generals at the top of their organizations, I’ve known for eight or 10 years. So, we have very close personal relationships, and they trust us because they know us.”