The annual U.S.-Ukraine meetings constitute a high-level forum, Espinas said, in which senior officials from both countries can discuss key aspects of their defense relationship. Michael Coulter, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, and Valerii Ivashchenko, acting first deputy defense minister and head of the Ukrainian delegation, attended this year’s conference.
Ukraine is an eastern European country of about 46 million people. It declared independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian government has plans to downsize its armed forces while modernizing its military’s force structure, Espinas said. Another part of Ukraine’s military modernization program, he said, includes the establishment of professional, all-volunteer armed forces.
“Our support of their defense-reform efforts and Ukraine’s aspirations for NATO membership and interoperability with NATO forces all take place in the context of supporting a key partner” in the region, said Espinas, the country director for Ukraine, Belarus and the Black Sea for international security affairs’ European and NATO policy directorate.
Ukraine is the only non-NATO country participating in all NATO operations, Espinas said, noting Ukrainian troops are engaged in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ukrainian troops also participate in United Nations peacekeeping missions, such as in Kosovo in the Balkans.
“Ukraine is a key partner of the United States and a key player in regional security, and it underscores the importance of having a professional military that is interoperable with NATO and capable of meeting their country’s needs,” Espinas said.
American military officials interface with their Ukrainian counterparts at several levels, from the Ministry of Defense, to the General Staff, down to individual units, Espinas said.
“We have advisors helping them with their efforts to develop a professional noncommissioned officer corps. We have Ukrainian officers coming to our military schools. We are working closely at the general staff and tactical level, as well,” Espinas said. Ukrainian, U.S., and some other nations’ armed forces also participate in combined military exercises, he said.
Some Ukrainian officers attend U.S. military schools, such as the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., Espinas said. The War College prepares selected senior officers and civilians for increased rank and responsibilities.
“They can see — up close and personal — how we operate, and that has an effect when these officers graduate from our schools [and] go back to their armed forces to later become key leaders,” Espinas said. Two Ukrainian officers who had attended the Army War College later attained general-officer rank, he said.
“So, there’s a very robust set of activities,” Espinas said, “all of which support Ukraine’s strategic goals of advancing their Euro-Atlantic integration and developing interoperability with NATO.”
The annual bilateral meetings are held in turn in Washington, California and Ukraine.
Ukraine participates with the California National Guard in the State Partnership Program. Ukrainian military members have traveled to California to participate in disaster-relief exercises with the Guard, and California Guardsmen have deployed to Ukraine for anti-terror exercises.