How Canada Learns From Ukrainian Soldiers’ Experiences of War
Since Operation UNIFIER's launch in 2015, Canadian soldiers have trained over 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Cote recently told UATV about the challenges, results and future aims of the mission — including how Canada can learn from the experience of Ukrainian troops who have fought in the Donbas
It was outstanding. It was a collaboration, it was very good. I learned a lot, and so did the rest of the team. We were getting a lot out of the interaction. We feel that we’ve achieved something, some of the aims that were developed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the National Guard, especially with the opening of training centers like Shyrokyne in the South of the country, study as well for the National Guards. We’re very happy about that.
How do you measure the success of the operation UNIFIER?
Well, you’ve just mentioned the measure of success, which is the actual number of people we’ve trained. Success could also be defined in how the training we deliver has a lasting impact on the capacity of the Ukrainian security forces. And I am very proud of a couple of achievements we’ve had, with regards to the training of non-commission officers, where recently the General Staff issued orders to facilitate the professionalization of the non-commissioned officers. And the same thing in the military police training that has moved further to professionalization and systematization of the training.
Do you have measurable targets that need to be met by 2020?
The General Staff has come up with a number of target dates for a number of initiatives. And now I have yet to fully develop it and figure out what that means. But yes, we do have lines of efforts that are already defined, along which we’re progressing.
I recently visited the military base in Desna where a number of Canadian soldiers are stationed, which is near Kyiv. It seemed to me that there were fewer Canadian instructors on the ground compared to previous years. Is that correct? And in what other ways has the operation Unifier changed over the years?
That’s actually is the measure of success. The fact that we can withdraw some troops from one location, actually means that the particular location is doing well. And that the Ukrainians are taking over, are taking the lead of their training, and they are able to produce that enduring quality over time, which allows me to redistribute people to other places. And as I mentioned, we are currently training Ukrainian instructors down in Shyrokyne. We have increased our contribution to the National Guard of Ukraine as well, both in [the villages of] Zolochiv and in Stare. So it’s normal [when] we are a little more distributed around the country than in previous years, and progress in certain lines of operation has allowed that.
During my visit, I was told that high-level command structures in Canada and Ukraine have established a line of contact now. There’s more cooperation on a structural level between the two countries and between the two militaries. Why is this important?
Well, it is critical if we want to achieve enduring change in Ukraine, that the tactical training we deliver is anchored into an institution that can actually take advantage of that training through ensuring the career progression of Ukrainian soldiers, through systematizing the training, so making sure that the training from one iteration to the other, will always produce the same level of quality at the end. So that is why that engagement at the institutional level is critical to success.
Hundreds of Canadian soldiers have been stationed in Ukraine with every new rotation, nearly 200 troops coming to the country, and this means that the Canadian soldiers have direct contact with Ukrainian soldiers who have real battlefield experience, who have come back from the frontline in Donbas, and who’ve been fighting Russian-led forces. Why is this battlefield experience useful for the Canadian military personnel?
From the Canadian perspective, it just makes us better and more pertinent, because this is a very high-intensity war that has been fought in the East of Ukraine. So it gives us that exposure to what I would say, the sharp end of the war in the 21st century. From a typically UNIFIER perspective, from security force capacity building — what the Ukrainians tell us is precious because it enables us to make the training more pertinent, to make sure we integrate the lessons they learn into the training so that we make sure that the training remains pertinent and upraised to the latest developments.
So, the Canadian military is now training based on something of being learned in Ukraine?
To some extent, yes.
So what sort of role do Canadian reservists play it the operation UNIFIER? In terms of combining their military experience with other skills, used outside the army, talking about the Canadian reservists.
They are an integral part of the Task Force. The same way that in Canada. Like we would talk about one force. Integration is a big word, a flavor of the day, and that’s perfect. The reservists actually bring a lot to the Task Force, and I’ll take two examples. The first one: I have a captain in Stare working with the NGU [National Guard of Ukraine] and in the civilian life he’s a policeman. So he’s now working with the law enforcement, an organization that’s got law enforcement. And he can bring that experience that he has in his civilian life. I have another reservist who’s down in Shyrokyne, who’s got a background in civilian engineering and project management. And he is now in the training center that is trained to develop its capacity in all fronts: infrastructure, finance, training, methodology, and he brings that expertise that he has. My public affairs officer, I mention him because he got me here, is actually a teacher in communications in the civilian world. So, he brings that depth that we would not have, or we would have in a different way if it was another person.
Let’s talk about your day-to-day life. What is a typical day for you look like?
First of all, I have to say that we do so many different things across so many locations, that depending on who you ask on operation UNIFIER, you will always get a different answer. For me, my job, in addition to commanding the Task Force: of all the task of managing personnel, ensuring the control of operations, the management of resources… What I do in terms of outside engagement, is about facilitating the work of my subordinates. It’s making sure that I enable them through my daily interactions with the Ukrainians. So I’m in so many different meetings that I’m giving a day. For example, this morning I was with multinational partners on a meeting, so the US, UK, Lithuania were there, along with the Ukrainians, Sweden was also present… I’m hoping I’m not forgetting anybody. That lasted for about two hours. Then I moved over to the National Guard of Ukraine for another engagement. Now I’m here, after that I’m moving to another engagement, flying back to my main headquarters tonight, for another series of meetings tomorrow. So that’s what my day looks like.
We were speaking before the interview, and you mentioned that you would like to come back to Ukraine, but as a tourist.
Absolutely. This is an outstanding place to be, and actually it’s been one of my big phrases since the beginning is that it’s amazing to be deployed in a military operation in a country where I would like to come back. And bring my family. This is a sentiment I shared across the Task Force. I’ve heard a number of my soldiers saying the same thing, and just yesterday, when I was asking, a number of them, one of my teams, that’s in Vasylkiv — what is gonna be the one thing you’re taking back to Canada? And I was expecting something of a military nature — no! What they’re bringing back is the time when they went fishing with the Ukrainian soldier that they met and they became friends. So that’s the feeling we have, leaving Ukraine.
Well, then I’ll turn this question on you. What is the one thing that you’ll be taking away after you leave Ukraine?
On the military side it will be, I think, those achievements I was talking about, regarding the non commissioned officers, regarding the military police. What I will take away is also that spark that I see sometimes when I speak with Ukrainian soldiers, where… I have that feeling as I’m talking, as I’m watching the training: “Okay, this person got it”. That little twitch, that little smile, when you feel, you know that they’ve learned something. That’s what makes that difference. Another thing I’m gonna get back on the more personal front — is that feeling of closeness, that proximity between Canada and Ukraine. I had never realized how similar the two countries are, how similar the cultures are, how much we share common experience. So I’m taking that back with me.