Exercise Sea Breeze is one of many elements of the cooperation program between NATO and the Armed Forces of Ukraine. During this year’s edition, over 30 ships, including heavily equipped US destroyers, operated in the Black Sea.
Port of Odessa. A berthing ship becomes a target of attack. Terrorists attach small magnetic mines to the hull. The explosives are traced and neutralized by Polish engineer divers. This scenario is only one of a whole series of episodes that made up Exercise Sea Breeze 2021. The maneuvers were organized by the USA and Ukraine. A total of 5,000 soldiers from 32 countries, mainly NATO member states, took part in the exercise. Over 30 vessels went out to sea, including heavily armed US destroyers (USS Laboon) and British destroyers (HMS Defender), as well as frigates from Turkey (TCG Barbaros) and Italy (ITS Virginio Fasan). There were also 40 machines in the air – starting with Bayraktar UCAVs, through V-22 Osprey VTOL aircraft, to Eurofighter Typhoon fighters. Although the history of Sea Breeze goes back to 1997, it had never before seen such an extensive amount of engaged forces. “We want to show the world that the Black Sea is an open area, accessible to everyone,” emphasized Capt (N) Kyle Gantt, Deputy Commodore of Destroyer Squadron 60 of the US Navy.
Poland was represented by the seamen from the engineer-diver group of the 12th Minesweeper Squadron, a sub-unit of the 8th Coastal Defense Flotilla (8th CDF) in Świnoujście. “This is our first time on Sea Breeze,” said WO (N) Michał Jodłoski. “The diving itself feels a bit different than in the Baltic Sea. Higher salinity makes it harder to dive, but when you reach a certain depth, it’s easier to swim,” he said. Such differences are not a problem for an experienced diver. “During Sea Breeze, we executed tasks in the open sea, in the wet dock, and on land,” explains SLt (N) Piotr Bruski, commander of the engineer-diver group of the 12th Minesweeper Squadron. “In the dock, we looked for IEDs using a remotely controlled Expert robot and neutralized them,” explains the officer.
Exercise Sea Breeze helped Polish soldiers to gain new experience, but they also played the role of mentors. “The training base for Ukrainian divers used to be in Crimea, taken over by the Russians. Now they are slowly rebuilding it according to NATO standards. They are planning to base the training system on Polish instructions. They even use Polish equipment, for example diving suits,” emphasizes Jodłoski. Sea Breeze is one of many elements of an extensive cooperation program between NATO and the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Breakthrough after Annexation
The aggressive policy of the Kremlin and the annexation of Crimea clearly exposed Ukraine’s military weakness, although its armed forces have been trying to approach NATO for many years. In 1991, Ukraine became a member of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) and soon after that joined the Partnership for Peace program. In 1997, a Charter on a Distinctive Partnership was signed, a NATO Liaison Office (NLO) was established in Kyiv, and Ukraine opened its representative office at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Ukrainian soldiers began to train with NATO forces and take part in foreign missions – in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Not everything went smoothly, though. This is how James Green, the former head of the NATO Liaison Office in Ukraine, summarized the 20 years of distinctive partnership in NATO Review: “Ukrainian institutions often proved to be a weak transmitter of the knowledge and know-how gained from the cooperation with the Alliance. Ukrainian military units trained according to Partnership for Peace standards, but their basic instructions remained unchanged. It often happened that a unit was formed only to be sent to a particular operation, and later the troops went back to their mother units.”
A turning point in mutual relations turned out to be the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. Tightening the cooperation with Ukraine was discussed by NATO state leaders in 2014 during the Newport Summit, and two years later, during the Warsaw Summit, a Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine was endorsed. It covered areas such as counseling, education and training, as well as transformation of the security and defense sector. The Alliance promised to strengthen the Ukrainian army in the field of logistics, communications, cyber security or rehabilitation of wounded serviceman and women.
The Polish Armed Forces have been cooperating with the Ukrainian army for many years, and all the undertaken initiatives have had one objective – to implement NATO standards in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. A perfect example of integrating the two armies is Exercise Rapid Trident, organized since 2006 within the frame of the Partnership for Peace program. The detachments that have exercised with Ukrainian soldiers include, for instance, troops of the 6th Airborne Brigade. The year 2015 saw the start of cooperation between non-commissioned officers from both states – within the frame of DEEP Ukraine (Defense Education Enhancement Program), several dozen Ukrainian soldiers trained at the Land Forces NCO Academy in Poznań. They got familiar with the Polish NCO training system and learned how to organize classes according to NATO standards.
A year earlier, on the initiative of Ukraine, cooperation between doctors from the two states began. It involves trainings for psychologists, psychotherapists and medical staff, who help soldiers and civilians harmed as a result of the fights in Donbas. The meetings are mainly focused on diagnostics and therapy of stress-related, post-traumatic and other disorders connected to combat stress.
LITPOLUKRBRIG is an important item in the Polish-Ukrainian cooperation agenda – it is an international brigade made up of Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian troops. The headquarters located in Lublin coordinate 4,000 troops who on a daily basis are stationed in their mother units. Last year, the brigade was subordinated to the 18th Mechanized Division for training purposes. “Some of our units work for the benefit of LITPOLUKRBRIG – an engineer battalion, self-propelled and anti-aircraft artillery squadrons, a mechanized battalion and a command battalion,” explains Maj Przemysław Lipczyński, a spokesman for the 18th Mechanized Division. Squadron and brigade officers had already cooperated during Wkra staff training, and now they are preparing for Wydra command and staff exercise, which is to check the brigade’s ability to plan, organize and conduct tactical operations. In July, the soldiers went together to Yavoriv in Ukraine to take part in Exercise Three Swords. Poles are regular guests at the local training ground. The first rotation of the Polish Task Force, made up of 28 soldiers of the 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade, went there in mid-2016. They formed a part of the Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine (JMTG-U) and trained their hosts together with Americans, Canadians and Brits.
After a two-month mission, the Rifles were replaced by the paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Brigade, who trained their Ukrainian counterparts in areas such as masking, patrolling, or defense and attack techniques. They cooperated with a unit that left several weeks later to reinforce the front line. The 16th rotation was mainly made up of troops of the 6th Airborne Battalion in Gliwice and the 1st Tank Battalion in Żurawica. “We generally focused on advising platoon and company commanders of the OPFOR [opposing force] battalion, whose role is to play enemy forces for the training detachments,” says Maj Jan Rosiek, the commander of the rotation.
At the end of May 2021, the 17th rotation of Polish soldiers came to Yavoriv. The contingent includes mainly troops of the 19th Mechanized Brigade. “We are working with the Ukrainian OPFOR battalion. We organize classes on battlefield medicine, mechanized and motorized forces tactics. We also present the ways in which scouts operate,” enumerates Maj Piotr Zieliński, the commander of the Polish Task Force. “We base on the Ukrainian troops training program, but we also share our knowledge, present solutions and methods of operation used in NATO. The benefit is mutual. Among the trainees there are also soldiers with battle front experience. Having contact with them is an interesting lesson for us,” adds the officer.
Polish special operations troops from, i.a., the Commando Military Unit (JWK) and the Special Forces Component Command, have been working with Ukrainian commandos for several years now. Their duties are a mystery, but they do not execute any operational tasks, they only train Ukrainians in shooting, special forces tactics and battlefield medicine.
Alliance of Bigger Opportunities
NATO’s support is a result of simple logic: strong Ukraine is a good buffer against Russia’s imperialistic ambitions. Experts confirm that since the annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian army has changed drastically. It is much better organized, trained and armed. Soldiers have received new rifles, armored vehicles, Bayraktar TB-2 drones, and the modernization of T-64 tanks is soon to begin.
However, authorities in Kiev keep saying it is not enough. They want to join NATO. “The reforms alone cannot stop Russia,” said recently Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky. In June last year, NATO granted Ukraine the status of Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Only six states, including Sweden and Finland, have obtained this status. It is yet another step tightening the cooperation between NATO and Ukraine. However, the way to full membership still seems to be long.
Three Questions to Rajmund T. Andrzejczak
At the end of June, you met in Cracow with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ruslan Khomchak. What was the reason behind that visit and what did the talks concern?
My contacts with Gen Ruslan Khomchak are very intensive. In 2020, after Poland took over the presidency in the Visegrad Group, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine took part in talks in the V4 format on my initiative. This year, I formally invited Ruslan Khomchak to the Visegrad Group Chiefs of Defense Meeting in Cracow, which will summarize the presidency.
During the visit of the Ukrainian partner, we also had a meeting during which we exchanged opinions on, for instance, the future use of the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade. I took the opportunity to emphasize how important a partner Ukraine is to Poland, and to assure him about my full support for the process of integrating the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the North Atlantic Alliance.
We not only talked about the security situation in the region, but also about potential threats to NATO’s eastern flank, caused by the aggressive behavior of the Russian Federation, and the political situation in Belarus. We also discussed the experience of using the NSM [Naval Strike Missile] system by the Naval Missile Unit, whose main task is to destroy or neutralize enemy surface vessels, protect sea routes, main naval bases, regions suitable for assault landing, as well as important military facilities and critical infrastructure.
The Polish Armed Forces have supported the Armed Forces of Ukraine in implementing NATO procedures for several years now. What is your assessment of the cooperation? Is it going to be continued?
The Armed Forces of Ukraine are our most important partner outside NATO and our bilateral military cooperation is a priority to us. We will continue to support Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations and provide practical assistance to its armed forces in the process of adjusting to NATO standards.
We consistently engage in projects that support the introduction of reforms in the Ukrainian security sector, both in the bilateral and multilateral dimension. By transferring our knowledge and experience from the transformation period, we also support the process of building effective structures in Ukraine. It is worth to emphasize the crucial role of joint exercises, which significantly increase interoperability of forces, and the ongoing cooperation, involving, for example, special operations forces.
How will the capabilities of the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade develop? How can its potential be used on NATO’s eastern flank?
LITPOLUKRBRIG is an exceptionally valuable initiative, aimed to integrate the Armed Forces of Ukraine with NATO member states. There are many perspectives for developing this form of cooperation, and the states involved, i.e. Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, are discussing such perspectives. For the time being, using LITPOLUKRBRIG as a contributor to the NATO Response Force, EU combat groups, UN operations or a regional analytical center is the most probable scenario.
It must be emphasized, however, that each mentioned form of cooperation within the initiative brings measurable benefits – it sends a clear signal to the world regarding the direction chosen by Ukraine and shows that NATO states are ready to support these aspirations.
Gen Rajmund T. Andrzejczak is the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces.
autor zdjęć: US Navy, 8 FOW, 1 WBPanc