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I Commanded U.S. Army Europe. Here’s What I Saw in the Russian and Ukrainian Armies.

The two armies at war today couldn’t be more different.
April 11, 2022
I Commanded U.S. Army Europe. Here’s What I Saw in the Russian and Ukrainian Armies.
A member of the Ukrainian special forces is seen in silhouette as he stands while a gas station burns after Russian attacks in the city of Kharkiv on March 30, 2022, during Russia's invasion launched on Ukraine. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP) (Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

In March 2011, I began a new posting as the Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army, in command of all U.S. Army forces stationed in various countries throughout Europe. It was a dream job as it was in that command – in a different time and under much different circumstances – that I had begun my career 36 years earlier as a 2nd lieutenant platoon leader, leading tanks on patrols of the then-West German border. Back then, it was our job to defend against the Soviet hordes.

But by 2011, things had changed. The size of the U.S. Army in Europe had shrunk dramatically from the quarter-million soldiers stationed there during the Cold War, and it would shrink even more during my two years in command. The Warsaw Pact countries who had been our foes during the Cold War were now our NATO allies and sovereign partners, and there was no border wall splitting Germany in two. Countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and others had transformed their governments and their militaries since the early 1990s, and a few of them were even fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Over the course of nearly four decades, I spent a lot of time either engaging or working with the two armies now engaged in a bitter struggle in Ukraine. I met their leaders, observed their maneuvers, and watched their development closely either up close or through reading intelligence reports. Strangely, one memory that stands out had more to do with trumpets and rim-shots than tanks and rifles.

“The Ukrainians—they got it going on!”

It was an event I witnessed secondhand—a visit by our U.S. Army Europe band to Moscow. I had been back in the United States when, according to the band’s director, “America’s Musical Ambassadors in Europe” had “rocked Red Square in six performances.” Russia had invited military bands from a half-dozen countries to perform modern music from their respective countries, and soldiers’ from our European Army band had knocked-em-dead with a Michael Jackson medley outside the Kremlin.

A very young sergeant, a trumpet player, confirmed to me that the Red Square concert had been a smashing success. When I pressed her for more details, she offered that the Russian musicians “were good, but they really weren’t very impressive. They weren’t really soldiers; they were musicians dressed like soldiers. And their leadership. . . well, we wouldn’t allow leaders like them in our Army. I wasn’t impressed.” I asked which countries had impressed her. “Germany was really good, and France performed some great music. But the Ukrainians—those soldiers really got it going on!”

What can you learn about a military from its band? Usually, not much. But putting on great performance requires some of the same skills as conducting a military operation. It requires recruiting the right people with the right talents (and many militaries, including the American military, use bands as a recruiting tool). It requires equipping those people with the right technology—often highly specialized—so they can do their job. It requires training those people to work together to perform complicated tasks with impeccable timing. It requires developing young leaders, managing logistics, and maintaining high morale. The sergeant I spoke to observed that what came through in the Ukrainians’ performance is that they wanted to be there, they wanted to be great, and their leaders were inspirational.

An interesting anecdote from an army bandsman. In the military, stories like these are called “war stories”—and as often as not, they aren’t about war or combat. War stories are parables, and like much of military life, they’re sometimes about finding purpose—even profundity—in the mundane.

My war stories about the Russian and Ukrainian militaries are also anecdotes, with no associated metrics or figures, but they give indications of what I’ve seen of the performance of two armies now facing each other on the battlefield. My experiences observing or participating in exercises, personal engagements, and training aren’t meant to explain, much less predict, what’s going on in Ukraine as that nation’s military fights its Russian foe. But I like to think they offer a little depth and color about who the people fighting in Ukraine are.

First Impressions

In 1994, I was a Lieutenant Colonel squadron commander at Fort Knox, Kentucky, leading a unit of about 1000 people helping others learn to be tankers. One day, my regimental commander called and asked if my passport was valid—the Pentagon had done a file search of all lieutenant colonels looking for those who were current commanders of tank units, who had experience in Europe, and who were veterans of Desert Storm. My name popped up, so I’d be going to Russia for two weeks to see the potential for an initiative called Partnership for Peace. President Clinton had suggested NATO find ways to cooperate with Russia and former Warsaw Pact countries, and this visit would help start that program.

I traveled to Russia with a civilian Russian expert from the State Department, a brigadier general from the Army Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, and a few staffers from the Defense Department. Another battalion commander and I were potted plants on this trip because the Russians wanted to talk to American “subject matter experts” on U.S. tanks and U.S. command and control methods. That was fine by us. Our itinerary had us visiting Russian armor and signal units, going into Russian military barracks, observing Russian units on firing ranges and conducting exercises, and climbing on military vehicles displayed in motor pools near Moscow. Our job was to stay quiet, observe, and take lots of mental notes.

The Russian barracks were spartan, with twenty beds lined up in a large room similar to what the U.S. Army had during World War II. The food in their mess halls was terrible. The Russian “training and exercises” we observed were not opportunities to improve capabilities or skills, but rote demonstrations, with little opportunity for maneuver or imagination. The military college classroom where a group of middle- and senior-ranking officers conducted a regimental map exercise was rudimentary, with young soldiers manning radio-telephones relaying orders to imaginary units in some imaginary field location. On the motor pool visit, I was able to crawl into a T-80 tank—it was cramped, dirty, and in poor repair—and even fire a few rounds in a very primitive simulator.

The only truly impressive and surprising part of the tour was when we walked through a “secret” field museum that had tanks from all the armies in the world—including several from the United States. The Russians had somehow managed to obtain an M1 Abrams tank (probably from one of their allies in the Middle East), and we all believed the reason they allowed us into this facility was to show us they had our most modern armor.

We then visited our host unit’s motor pool, stationed just outside Moscow. By that time, the Russian regimental commander and I had become friendly, and as he walked us toward the display of vehicles, he proclaimed that I was lucky to be one of the few Americans to see a Russian T-72 up close. With tongue firmly in cheek, I told the translator to tell the colonel that having fought in Desert Storm, I had seen many T-72s—but none of them still had the turret attached. The interpreter hesitated and asked me if I really wanted to say that to his colonel. Nodding my head, I watched my new friend’s face turn red, but then transition to a slight grin. “Those were the export versions we gave the Iraqis.”

At the end of the visit, our State Department colleague asked us to record our observations, focusing on what struck us about leadership, equipment, training, facilities, and capabilities. I remember saying the Russian Army was “all show and no go.” While I knew the Russian tankers had experienced battlefield trauma during their final days in Afghanistan and were more recently dealing with the dissolution of the Soviet empire, to include firing a tank round at their own Parliament a year earlier, I came away from my first formal exchange with the Russian Army doubtful they were the ten-foot-tall behemoth we thought them to be.

My first experience with Ukraine’s army a decade later was not much different. In 2004, I was the assistant division commander of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. Our unit was in the midst of completing a 12-month combat tour when the Shia irredentist Muqtada al-Sadr began a popular uprising in the Iraqi capital. A large percentage of our 30,000-soldier unit had already redeployed to Germany, but Secretary Rumsfeld believed it was appropriate we recall those forces and move south to Wasit Province to counter Sadr in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Al-Kut. The Sadr uprising started just as Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian forces were departing Wasit. Al-Kut was the area of operation for the Ukrainian contingent and one of our tasks was to relieve them.

Al-Kut was a mess, as were the Ukrainian units responsible for it. The Ukrainian soldiers were undisciplined and poorly trained, their combat vehicles were in terrible shape, the officers and appointed sergeants appeared corrupt, and there were even indicators that some of the Ukrainian contingent were selling old Iraqi artillery rounds to the insurgents for their roadside bombs. The Ukrainian-trained Iraqi border forces were in terrible shape and organized crime in the area was rampant. We found Ukraine’s soldiers rarely if ever conducted patrols off base. All of the soldiers in our unit that took over for the Ukrainian force immediately formed a negative opinion about the readiness of Ukraine’s army—me included.

When our unit finally redeployed to Germany after an additional three months in Iraq, I left the job as the assistant division commander and started a new posting as commander of the Army’s training center in Germany. One of my tasks was to ensure a U.S. National Guard unit received the right kind of training as it prepared to deploy with the Kosovo peacekeeping force, aka KFOR, a multinational force under a German commander whom I knew well. I had the opportunity to ask him about the challenges he was facing with his multinational force. He specifically mentioned that the Ukrainian Army unit in KFOR was undisciplined, poorly trained, and had corrupt officers (he claimed a few had established a scheme for siphoning gas out of military vehicles and selling it on the black market in Pristina). His comments only reinforced my bias formed in Iraq, and I remembered thinking that the Ukrainian Army would have a hard time shaking off the ill-effects of their recent connection to the Soviet Union.

Over the next several years, my observations of both Russian and Ukrainian armies would change. One for the worse, one for the better.

Different Directions

The next year, I had another new assignment: Moving from the Training Center at Grafenwoehr in southern Germany to a new job as the G3, or deputy chief of staff for operations at U.S. Army Europe Headquarters in Heidelberg. The G3 is responsible for contingency (read: war) plans, operations, training, resources, deployment of forces, and—a major facet of our European mission—engaging with all 49 countries on the continent.

The engagement element of the portfolio was time-consuming but extremely interesting. The U.S. Army Europe commander relayed to me those American commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan were not happy with the state of training of units from European allies and partners that were reinforcing their ranks—especially those from our Eastern European partners. Since the Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was about two-thirds U.S. forces and one-third allied forces, my commander wanted us to find ways to better train allied armies for that mission before they began their deployment.

We offered pre-deployment training opportunities to all the contributing nations, but we focused on the forces coming from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Ukraine. The training we offered consisted of classroom schooling, training events, and shared exercises. Our Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Academy, where young soldiers were trained in leadership and small unit tactics, was expanded, and opened to allies, and soon that leadership course included more young sergeants from allied nations than Americans. The exercise program also expanded, and U.S. Army Europe “co-hosted” multinational training events. Soon, at places like Drawsko-Pomorski in Poland, Cincu in Romania, Krtsanisi in Georgia, Novo Selo in Bulgaria, and Yavoriv in Ukraine, the multinational training and exercises were in full swing.

The Poles and Romanians had energetic support from their governments and their military leadership on these transformational efforts; those two governments realized early on that they could use these opportunities to transform their armies and train their soldiers. Ukraine’s government voiced some initial interest, and Ukrainian generals seemed supportive, but there was less initial energy from Kyiv. Corruption in Ukraine’s bureaucracies prevented more early cooperation with the U.S. military.

While Russia was not a contributing nation to ISAF, we still offered the Russian Army opportunities to participate in many of our outreach programs. Our NCO Academy offered to allow the same number of Russian soldiers into each class as every other country. Russia accepted the invitation, but with conditions. They would send three of their “common soldiers” (their term), but they wanted a “senior officer” to also attend all classes and training events with them. They also wanted separate barracks for their soldiers instead of a “common barracks space with soldiers from other nations.” Finally, they would not adhere to the requirement only to send soldiers who could speak and read English (with so many languages represented, it was impossible to translate everything for everyone). While I was adamantly against acquiescing to these requests, my commander disagreed. The preparation for the Russian arrival was onerous, and their soldiers seemed much more interested in going to the post exchange—the subsidized on-base general store—than in learning leadership and tactical skills. We didn’t invite them back, and the Russian military never made any inquiries about returning.

While U.S. Army Europe was expanding our multinational outreach programs, the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group in Europe also began ramping up training for allied and partner special operations forces. The training the Green Berets led over more than a decade, working with foreign armies on unconventional warfare tactics, training of host-nation armies and civilians for resistance activities—targeting key enemy elements, gathering information, and protection of facilities and supply chains—was instrumental in the counterinsurgencies we were fighting together. These programs also became a building block for how to counter any enemy conventional offensive. The U.S. Air Force Europe provided analogous opportunities to multinational air forces, and those participating nations, including Ukraine, received training in advanced fighter techniques, the intricacies of close air support for ground troops, and suppression of enemy air defense.

The Russian Army

After another 15-month tour commanding the 1st Armored Division in Iraq during the early part of the “surge,” I was back in the United States training soldiers when Army Chief of Staff George Casey informed me of my next assignment: return to Europe to command the organization I loved. A few weeks before I left for Germany, Casey called again to invite me to dinner at his quarters in Washington. Colonel-General (corresponding to an American lieutenant general) Aleksandr Streitsov, commander of the Russian Ground Forces, was in our capital, and the Chief wanted me to meet him.

The dinner was pleasant and engaging. Not surprisingly, Streitsov knew I had been previously assigned to Europe and that I had been to his country several times. Through an interpreter, he proclaimed he had never visited Germany, which I perceived as a hint. I invited him to our Headquarters in Heidelberg and told him we could spend a few days traveling around the U.S. Army Europe footprint. This was, after all, part of our continuing effort, before the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas, to foster better relations with our competitor in Europe. Streitsov accepted the offer and then provided some dates when he could visit. Things were moving fast.

The agenda the U.S. Army Europe staff developed for Streitsov’s visit was purposely vague and flexible, based on my guidance. Although I was the “new guy,” I also knew the intricacies of the command well from experience. Unlike my previous visits to Russia, I had no intent to stage any training demonstrations, and I didn’t want him to see carefully orchestrated displays at pre-arranged locations. Instead, the goal was to show this Russian general that we were transparent and prepared to show him any of our units. Streitsov examined the menu of events we presented, then picked a few locations and training opportunities of interest. Our helicopter crews filed a flight plan across Germany, and we were on our way.

Over two days, we visited several units in training—a tank range, a helicopter gunnery, and a small unit maneuver. Also on the agenda were a barracks, where we were escorted not by a commander, but by a savvy first sergeant and command sergeant major, and a housing area, where Streitsov talked to several military spouses and visited a Department of Defense elementary school. At the end of the second day, he spied a store where soldiers buy uniforms, boots, and other items and asked to stop by. For the next two hours, he talked with the German civilian who ran the place and was amazed by the connection between the German work force and the American soldiers. He was also shocked by the number and types of combat boots for sale.

Later, as we waited at the airfield for his flight home, it was just the two of us and an interpreter. Obviously impressed by what he had seen, he was particularly amazed by the competency of the junior officers and sergeants. Hesitating, he posed a simple question: “What contributes to your success in preparing these young men and women to lead and fight?” I responded that it was partly due to our inculcation of our seven Army values—loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage (LDRSHIP)—and our constant leadership training at all levels of professional schooling. But in any good unit, the personal example of young commanders and NCOs, who set high standards and then personally trained their soldiers to meet them, made the difference. He mused: “I’m wondering if we could create that kind of culture in the Russian Army?”

A few months later, Streitsov sent me an invitation to Russia for a reciprocal exchange. The itinerary his staff sent to me had specified visits to the famed Frunze and Voroshilov Military Academies in Moscow and the opportunity to observe units conducting drills and exercises at different field locations. The visits didn’t look at all like spontaneous drop-ins I had offered him.

After landing in Moscow, but before meeting with Streitsov, our small group had preliminary meetings with the Moscow Embassy. My old friend, neighbor, and former U.S. Army Europe teammate Brigadier General Peter Zwack, who was serving as the Defense Attaché in Moscow, confirmed much of the detailed classified intelligence I had read in preparation for the visit. He confirmed that Putin was attempting to expand his influence in Europe and Africa, and the Russian Army, while still substantive in quantity, continued to decline in capability and quality. My subsequent visits to the schools and units Streitsov chose reinforced these conclusions. The classroom discussions were sophomoric, and the units in training were going through the motions of their scripts with no true training value or combined arms interaction—infantry, armor, artillery, air, and resupply all trained separately. It appeared Colonel-General Streitsov had not attempted to change the culture of the Russian Army or had failed. There were also rumors of his upcoming retirement.

Streitsov was replaced in April 2012 by Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin, who had commanded Russian forces in the Second Chechnya War. Soon after the announcement, we invited Chirkin to join all the ground force commanders of the 49 European nations at an annual meeting hosted by U.S. Army Europe. This Conference of European Armies (CEA) was an extremely popular event where all the army chiefs of Europe openly shared concerns about security issues, army force organization and modernization, deployment issues, lessons learned from their ISAF rotations, and multinational training opportunities. My personal note on the invite told Chirkin he would be the first Russian to attend this event, and that he would be interested to hear what other Europeans nations were doing. He accepted the invitation.

This was the last CEA I would attend as the commander of U.S. Army Europe, as it was planned for October and my retirement was scheduled for December. In a bilateral discussion, Chirkin told me he found the sessions fascinating, frank, and transparent. He was active in this exchange, and he promised to send his forces to take part in future training events. I later learned Chirkin did not keep his promises, partially because Putin fired him in December 2013. He had been convicted on bribery charges (accused of taking a bribe from a subordinate officer who asked for help in getting a Moscow apartment from the Defense Ministry), stripped of his rank and most of his state awards, and sentenced to five years in a labor colony. I never found out if he actually committed the crimes, or what he did to get them noticed.

The Ukrainian Army

During my assignment as commander of U.S. Army Europe, I also spent a significant amount of time with the Ukrainian Army and was amazed as I watched them grow in professionalism and effectiveness.

My Ukrainian counterpart during that time was Colonel-General Henadii Vorobyov, the Chief of the Ukrainian Ground Forces (CGF). Henadii (as he demanded I call him) was a true field soldier. He had grown up in the Soviet Army and started his career in a Soviet motorized rifle regiment in the steppes and marshes of the Transbaikal in Russia’s Far East. He graduated from the Frunze Academy at about the same time Ukraine gained its independence as a nation. From 1993 until I met him, he served in various units in Ukraine, rising to command a division and then a corps before being named CGF. He loved to tell stories about his experience as a soldier, and while he was normally quiet and reserved, he would come alive whenever he was with the troops. Our first meeting was at Ukraine’s Yavoriv training area when I was visiting our 173rd Airborne Brigade during a bilateral training event with Ukraine’s 25th Airborne Brigade.

After shaking my hand, Henadii started talking about the state of his army and his plans for the future while paratroopers dropped around us. He thought this exercise was the best he had seen in his first year as CGF, and he felt his army had made great strides in the last several years at building a professional force and developing a core of career sergeants. He thought our NCO Academy at Grafenwoehr had been instrumental in developing the young leaders he was seeing make a difference in Ukrainian units, and he immediately asked if there was a way to get more slots for his soldiers at the course. During a later visit to our headquarters in Germany, he asked for a one-on-one meeting with Command Sergeant Major Dave Davenport, the top NCO in Europe, about how the Ukrainians could plan to train and educate their senior sergeants.

Henadii was closely tracking the combat activity of his soldiers and units serving in the Balkans as part of KFOR and in eastern Afghanistan as part of the Polish Brigade. He outlined an innovative plan to improve his junior officer corps and complained about the low quality of his senior officers. In a one-on-one discussion over beer, he confessed that his senior officers were his biggest problem, and he needed to find a way to replace the corrupt generals who were “Russian-trained” and too close to Ukraine’s older politicians. Again, he asked if I could help him get more young colonels into the exchange program at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. That question gave me the idea to design and execute a “mini-war college,” which we offered to high-potential allied and partner colonels at our U.S. training center in southern Germany.

We were together dozens of times at either Yavoriv and Kyiv, or at Grafenwoehr and Heidelberg. Right before retiring, I presented Colonel-General Vorobyov with the U.S. Legion of Merit, an award only a select group of multinational colleagues achieved. Henadii was the only non-NATO awardee approved by the Secretary of the Army.

After My Time

Colonel-General Vorobyov and I lost contact with each other after I retired in 2013 and he retired in 2014. But I did receive a note from Ukraine’s ambassador telling me that my friend had defended a doctoral dissertation entitled “Creation and Development of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” His document was the basis for the Ukrainian government’s white paper on the future of Ukraine’s army. A year after his retirement, Henadii was called back into service to be the President of Ukraine’s National Defense University (their war college, for senior colonels and junior generals), and he served there for over a year. He died of a heart attack on February 11, 2017, and I recently heard that Ukraine honored him by naming the street in front of their war college after him.

The Ukrainian Training Center at Yavoriv also saw massive changes starting in 2014, likely driven as much by the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbas as by Vorobyov’s vision. In April 2015, elements of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade stationed in Italy again deployed to Yavoriv and established an ongoing operational program called “Fearless Guardian.” The program was progressive, training everything from individual soldier skills to battalion-level operations, all based on lessons learned from the eastern and southern Ukrainian combat zones. The increasing energy at Yavoriv showed the need for a permanent enhanced training center, modeled after the U.S. Army’s training programs in the United States and Germany. In December 2015, U.S. Army Europe formally established Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine (JMTG-U), where a multi-national team of Americans, Poles, Canadians, Lithuanians, and Brits began training Ukrainian battalions as combined arms teams. Command Sergeant Major Davenport sent me a note a few years ago saying Ukraine had formally established an NCO corps, with standardized training and leadership requirements. Henadii’s vision had become a reality, accelerated by the urgencies of the Russian existential threat.

As for the Russians, their recent battlefield failures—their staged maneuvers, lack of leadership development, absence of a logistics plan to support operations, inability to coordinate and conduct air-ground-sea joint operations and continued use of conscript soldiers in critical missions—all indicate a larger failure to modernize their army. Just as Russia and Ukraine followed different political courses over the past 30 years, so did their armies, and it shows. While Ukraine’s democracy is still addressing issues of government corruption, those violations pale in significance and scope to the embezzlement, graft, and corruption of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, his predecessor Anatoly Serdyukov, and Vladimir Putin himself. Colonel-General Chirkin had, if nothing else, proved that he was acting in line with the role models in his senior leadership.

My experiences with the Russian and Ukrainian armies over the two decades reminded me of a passage from Jean Larteguy’s The Centurions. In a moment of frustration, a French officer summarizes the two purposes an army can serve:

I’d like [France] to have two armies: one for display with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, staffs, distinguished and doddering Generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their General’s bowel movements or their Colonel’s piles, an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country. The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage uniforms, who would not be put on display, but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.

For all their bellicose rhetoric and Victory Day parades on Red Square, I sometimes wonder if Putin and Shoygu know the difference between the two types of armies. The Ukrainians sure do.

Mark Hertling

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling (Ret.) (@MarkHertling) was commander of U.S. Army Europe from 2011-2012. He also commanded 1st Armored Division in Germany and Multinational Division-North during the surge in Iraq from 2007-2009.