A top Pentagon official with oversight of Ukraine policy told VOA Thursday there is a “heightened urgency” for advanced training of Ukrainian forces, as the Pentagon announced that the U.S. will expand the number of Ukrainian troops it trains each month.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Laura Cooper told VOA that “it’s a completely different ballgame” in terms of the skills of Ukrainian forces today compared to when the U.S. first began training Ukrainian forces after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.
Pentagon press secretary, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, told reporters earlier Thursday that starting in January, the U.S. would increase its military combat training to larger, battalion-size Ukrainian units in Germany each month on “advanced battlefield tactics” including live-fire exercises.
“The winter is going to be a very dynamic time. I think some people think about the winter as a time to rest and refit, but we don’t see any sign that the Ukrainians are going to hold up, and we certainly would expect that the Russians may try to also advance,” Cooper said, speaking exclusively to VOA.
The U.S. has provided Ukraine with billions of dollars of military support, including air defense weapons ranging from Stingers, which are portable on foot, to the larger National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), which can provide air defense against short- to medium-range targets.
Cooper would not confirm VOA’s reporting from U.S. officials this week that the United States is preparing to send the Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine to help shoot down incoming Russian missiles.
“But I can affirm air defense is our top priority, and we are looking at a number of ways in which we can support Ukraine and its air defense needs. NASAMS was one piece of that,” she said, adding that U.S. assistance has evolved to meet new battlefield needs.
Cooper also confirmed that the U.S. had sent Ukraine parts from an S-300 system to maintain their air defense abilities before NASAMS were in place.
“Last spring, we were sending the Ukrainians spare parts to keep their S-300 systems up and running. But with the NASAM systems, this is a really premier Western capability that the Ukrainians right off the bat have been able to operate incredibly effectively against Russian missile threats, and also Russian UAS threats,” she said, using an abbreviation for “unmanned aircraft systems,” referring to drones.
The U.S. helped convince Slovakia to provide a complete S-330 system to Ukrainian forces in April, and in turn provided Slovakia with a Patriot missile system.
The U.S. currently is not planning to provide Ukraine with long-range precision munitions such as Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) guided missiles for their artillery rocket launchers. To date, the U.S has sent Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) munitions to use in these launchers. ATACMS have a range of about 300 kilometers, while GMLRS have a range of about 90 kilometers.
“At this point, we see the GMLRS as being highly effective at reaching the vast, vast array of targets that Ukraine needs to hit. So we’re sticking with the GMLRS at this point,” she told VOA.
On Russian tactics in Ukraine, Cooper said Moscow was essentially throwing their forces “into the meat grinder without regard for the very high casualties that they’re facing.”
A full transcript of the interview is below:
VOA: I want to start by chatting about the recent announcement about the additional training facility going on in Germany of the Ukrainian forces. So, it sounds to me, as somebody who has covered the training at Yavoriv training grounds in Ukraine, it sounds like it’s the same type of training that the U.S. was doing before the war broke out, is that what’s going to be happening here essentially?
Cooper: Well, I think it is important to see this training as part of this continuum of training, and it’s great that you got to witness what we were doing at Yavoriv, along with some of our allies after 2014. But at the same time, obviously, the context is so very different today. I mean, since February 24, we have done so much intense training of Ukrainians on specialized weapon systems. This is the United States but also allies across multiple countries in Europe. We now have a really robust training program that the British are leading in the U.K. That’s individual training, and so what they are doing is enabling these new recruits and new soldiers to be able to have the proficiency they need to operate, and then that is combining with not just what the U.S. will be doing with this battalion-level combined arms training, but also what the EU and other allies are doing. So, you see the EU has its collective training program that is launching, along with several EU countries, including Germany and Poland. What’s important about all of these different efforts is to know that they are all linked together and coordinated. And that’s a role that commander of EUCOM [European Command] is playing in ensuring that we’re all latched up in support of Ukraine.
VOA: Got it. So similar training, heightened urgency is kind of what I hear from you?
Cooper: Heightened urgency, and also, you know, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are in a different place. Their proficiency on the battlefield is amazing. When we think about where we started with them in 2014, and where they are today in their capability, in their ability to push back on these Russian invaders. It’s a completely different ballgame.
VOA: Let’s talk about some of the $19 billion-plus in military assistance that has been given to Ukraine since the start of this war. What do you find has been the most effective weapon that the Pentagon has provided to Ukraine?
Cooper: I think it’s very hard to name one particular weapon because as the battlefield has evolved, we have been evolving our assistance to provide what the Ukrainians need when they need it. So, in those very early days after February 24, when you saw the Russians attacking on multiple axes, I would say that the Javelin and the Stinger were both capabilities that were absolutely critical in enabling the Ukrainians to repel that initial advance and kind of freeze Russian forces in their tracks, but later as the battlefield evolved to be more of an artillery fight in the east, it really was the HIMARS system and before that, our M777 howitzers that played a really decisive role.
VOA: Let’s talk about the HIMARS since you mentioned them—for our audience, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket systems. The U.S. has provided GMLRS rockets with a range of about 90 kilometers, 55 miles, so far. But there have been Ukrainians that want something longer-range, like the ATACMS. Is the Pentagon taking a serious look at providing that, and do you foresee that being something that is added in the Ukrainian packages of military aid in the future?
Cooper: So, we think it’s important to note that we are always looking at Ukrainian battlefield needs, and we are always evaluating what are the best capabilities to provide them so that they can meet their operational requirements. At this point, we see the GMLRS as being highly effective at reaching the vast, vast array of targets that Ukraine needs to hit. So, we’re sticking with the GMLRS at this point.
VOA: But some would argue, and I was speaking with Lieutenant General Ben Hodges [Retired], who was the former commander of U.S. Army, and he was pointing out that the ATACMS, with a 300-kilometer range, could allow the Ukrainians to hit major areas in Crimea on that peninsula that they cannot hit with the GMLRS. So, what’s your response to that? Is that not a capability that is considered the priority at this point, what’s the real reason for not providing that?
Cooper: So, you can’t just look at the one capability. There are other capabilities that the Ukrainians have available to them to reach other targets, and I think you’ve seen actually, strikes in Crimea, you’ve seen strikes in the Black Sea for that matter, with a range of capabilities. So, again, I would say, we believe that the capabilities we have provided to Ukraine enable them to reach the vast majority of targets that they need to, that they need to hit to meet their operational goals.
VOA: As I’ve been speaking with people about the long-range precision capability, you hear two different arguments. There is one, there’s a concern that Russia will see that as a further escalation, and that Russia will respond to this further escalation. And then there’s the other side that feels like the long-range precision munitions are needed because Russia has so far had a sanctuary on its territory and that the Ukrainians, with the exception of what we’ve seen over the last few days, have not targeted any of their military or civilian capabilities. Where do you fall in the spectrum personally or where do you see that argument?
Cooper: Well, I think it’s important to not be in the theoretical on the theoretical targets and the theoretical responses and focus really on what the Ukrainians need on the battlefield. And what you’re seeing is their focus quite recently, it was Kherson, where they had a very effective advance and pushed the Russians back. We saw them up in Kharkiv, and now we see them in eastern Ukraine, fighting fiercely against Russian advances in Bakhmut. And we look at what capabilities do they need for these particular operational situations, and what capabilities are they using? And again, I would say that the HIMARS have been incredibly effective with the GMLRS at taking out key Russian command and control points, key Russian logistics nodes, and enabling the Ukrainians to not just hold their ground, but actually to advance.
VOA: The British defense minister, I think, just recently said that he was open-minded to providing more longer-range weapon systems. How does the secretary feel about this? How do you feel about this or are you keeping an open mind about this moving forward as you talk with Ukrainians about what they need?
Cooper: Looking across all capabilities, we’re always looking at what the Ukrainians need, and we always have an open mind about what that might be.
VOA: So, yes, you are also like-minded.
Cooper: We are always open minded about capability needs for the gradients.
VOA: So, I want to talk to you about something that Ukraine’s foreign minister said this month. He said that Russia’s ability to launch a major offensive might be restored in late January or February, in that timeline. Is the U.S. concerned about this possibility also, and what is the Pentagon trying to do to prevent that?
Cooper: So, we’re always vigilant and looking at where Russia might next seek to push forward where what you know, operations they might be contemplating. The winter is going to be a very dynamic time. I think some people think about the winter as a time to rest and refit. But we don’t see any sign that the Ukrainians are going to hold up and we certainly would expect that the Russians may try to also advance. The thing about the Russian situation right now, though, to keep in mind, is the very poor state of their forces. You’re dealing with many forces that were hastily mobilized, received very little training, are very poorly equipped, and their morale is incredibly low. So even though we’ll be very vigilant, and we’ll be looking to support the Ukrainians with all of their capability needs, we also are cognizant that the Russians are struggling.
VOA: Let’s talk about that a little more. They have had setback after setback on the battlefield. So, you foresee that the Russians, as long as the Ukrainians keep bringing the fight to them, that they will not be able to regroup and relaunch – is that what I’m hearing? Explain kind of where you see the Russians in the future as this goes, because we know now that they’re, they’re in a dire situation with low morale, or do you see this projecting to January?
Cooper: Well, I think you have to look at two pieces of this. One is their brutal and devastating attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. Clearly, the Russians have resorted to this tactic out of desperation, and out of complete apathy, for human rights for civilian rights and for global opinion. Yet they seem to keep up with this tactic. And so, I think we can foresee that Russia will continue to try to intimidate the Ukrainian civilian population and the Ukrainian government into you know, some sort of submission. That’s not going to happen. I think the Ukrainians will stand firm, they will improve their resilience with all of the deliveries of both electrical equipment, but also of air defense equipment from the United States and allies. At the same time, the other prong of what Russia’s strategy has been is to kind of push forward with their forces in attempting to eke out additional territorial games. I would certainly see them trying to continue to do this, but this is where their weaknesses in, you know, the strength of their forces, the morale of their forces, the capabilities that they have, will really be a hindrance, but the way Russia fights is different from how any of our allied militaries or the Ukrainians fight, they really are throwing their forces, throwing their individuals into the meat grinder without regard for the very high casualties that they’re facing.
VOA: Let’s talk about the ability of the Ukrainian forces to defend the Ukrainian population. Right now, the U.S. just helped provide two NASAMS to Ukraine. These are the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems. And can you tell us a little bit about the success of those? What have they been doing? I heard from one analyst that it’s like 35 attempts, 35 successful hits. Just talk about what you’re hearing from the battlefield.
Cooper: Sure. And again, I want to put the NASAMS in a larger context of air defense because we’re looking across the board at how we can enable Ukrainian air defense, and so, even way back last spring, we were sending the Ukrainians spare parts to keep their S-300 systems up and running. But with the NASAM systems, this is a really premier Western capability that the Ukrainians right off the bat have been able to operate incredibly effectively against Russian missile threats, and also Russian UAS threats. So, we’ve seen them be very successful in the last several waves of attacks, where again, Russia is trying to target Ukraine’s energy grid, but they’re failing.
VOA: And Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has recently raised the concern that they’re still not fully capable of protecting themselves against the ballistic missiles, that is Skander ballistic missiles. And that is where we have heard and two U.S. officials have told VOA that the Pentagon is preparing to send Patriot missiles or Patriot missile batteries, to Ukraine to help with that, can you confirm that that is something that the Pentagon is preparing to do?
Cooper: I don’t have any announcements for you on new air defense capabilities right now, but I can affirm air defense is our top priority and we are looking at a number of ways in which we can support Ukraine and its air defense needs. NASAMS was one piece of that. We’re also talking with allies, and we’ve had tremendous support from allies in bringing capability to Ukraine. Whether you’re talking about Germany’s IRIS-T system or the fact that a host of allies have been providing the AMRAAM missiles that the NASAMS units are firing.
VOA: C-RAMs also could be another option. Is that something that the Pentagon is considering?
Cooper: I don’t have anything, anything to offer on that.
VOA: Okay, and so, let me tell our audience, it’s not kind of in the weeds about weapon systems. Can you just explain, should a Patriot missile battery come to Ukraine? Can you talk about what that would provide? Explain to our audience the difference that this capability could provide over some of the other ones that have already been given.
Cooper: Well, I’m not a technical expert to be able to get into details of different systems, but I think I can tell your listeners that air defense is not about one system in one point. Air defense is about having layers of systems that can target the range of threats, whether it’s these Iranian UAVs that Russia has purchased that are menacing Ukraine cities, or it’s these you know, cruise missiles coming from land from air or from sea, you have to have this layered approach with multiple systems, protecting at multiple points around the country.
VOA: Since you mentioned Iran, what can you tell us about what Iran is continuing to provide Russia. They have so far denied that they have provided Russia weapons, but we can see in the debris that there are Iranian drones being used. So, what’s the latest update on how much they’ve provided and what they’ve provided?
Cooper: So, every one of those Iranian UAS that menaces Ukraine skies is another capability that Russia would not have had if Iran had not come to Russia’s assistance. Iran can’t deny this. We’ve seen in fact in terms of the damage due to UAS and the Ukrainians have plenty of eyewitness accounts, where we see them bravely shooting these out of the sky, even with machine guns that we’ve provided them, so Iran does continue to source the Russian military with these UAVs. And we know that the relationship between Iran and Russia has grown significantly through the duration of the war in Ukraine.
VOA: Have you seen Russia at all be able to replenish some of the things that it has lost? Or are they really severely depleted at this point?
Cooper: I think we’ve seen Russian defense industry is on its back heels. U.S. and allied export controls have helped starve the materials that Russian defense industry relies upon. At the same time, I know Russia is, they’re trying to find additional sources they’re trying to find ways to produce or acquire. But right now, we know they’re in trouble because their two friends that they’re turning to appear to be Iran and North Korea, and they lack other suppliers.
VOA: And still no support from China at this point that you’ve seen?
Cooper: I don’t have any information on support from China.
VOA: Okay. And then I wanted to ask you just more about the weapons that the U.S. has been providing. One of the things we haven’t seen yet are fighter jets. Is that under consideration and if not, why not?
Cooper: Again, the full range of capabilities are under consideration, and we’re open to, but our focus has really been on what can Ukrainians use now? And we know that they need air defense now. So, we’re very focused on that. We know they need fires, long-range fires, artillery, including HIMARS and ammunition to support them. We know they need armored vehicles to move around. So, these are the kinds of capabilities that we’ve been very, very focused on. And for the air domain, we’ve been focused on UAS that they can field very quickly and effectively to inflict damage on Russian positions. With aircraft, that certainly is something that the Ukrainians have shown a proficiency to operate, their MiGs have been in the fight and so we’ve decided to further enable their MiGs, and that’s where these HARM missiles that we’ve provided them, which anti-radiation missiles that we’ve provided Ukraine have come into play. We’ve also provided a lot of spare parts to help keep those MiGs flying. And that’s all about enabling the capability that can be used immediately, as opposed to capabilities that would take a lot of training and have a lot of work on maintenance and sustainment.
VOA: And that is something that critics have said a Patriot would take. As I understand it, it would take at least six months to train somebody to use the Patriot. It took several months for the NASAMS, correct? It took at least a couple months.
Cooper: Honestly, I don’t recall exactly how long it took. But I mean for most of the Western air defense systems, there is a real significant training challenge. But you know, we’re looking at this for all the systems we provide to Ukraine. We make sure that we have the capability. We have the training to go with it. And we have the maintenance and sustainment capability to go with it so that you know when we make this commitment, they know it’s a commitment to a full system.
VOA: You mentioned armored vehicles, and the U.S. has provided the Russian armored vehicles. But to date, I haven’t seen any M1A1 Abrams being provided to Ukraine, which some people would say could significantly give them an advantage on the battlefield. Is that something that the United States would send? And that’s another question – why hasn’t the United States sent an American-made M1A1 Abrams to this fight yet?
Cooper: So again, we’re looking at what they need right now and what they can use right now. And so, we have provided a number of armored vehicles of a variety, everything from armored Humvees to 113s, and these are APCs that have enabled the Ukrainians in their counteroffensive operations to maneuver in a protected way. So that is something that we have prioritized, and they have successfully used. For tanks, we’ve prioritized helping refurbish or incentivize donations of Soviet-type tanks because we’ve seen the Ukrainians use these very, very effectively. We know they can be deployed immediately and the maintenance and sustainment of them is relatively straightforward. And Ukrainians are very capable of doing it. Something like a Western-style tank would take a much longer time period, not just to train on but a much more complex and challenging maintenance and sustainment system, not something that could happen in the immediate future.
VOA: And then I finally want to talk about the potential threats coming out of Russia. Ukraine is in many ways, for the West, a battle for democracy, a battle for sovereignty, not allowing somebody to come in and bully another sovereign nation. But the looming threat is the nuclear threat. However, we’re 10 months in now, and there has been talk, irresponsible talk the Pentagon has said, but no action, where do you see Russia standing on the nuclear threat? Do you think that that is still a very real threat? Or are you on the side where a lot of analysts are, that say they have no tactical advantage on the battlefield? And so, at this point, they do not think Russia would use nuclear weapons.
Cooper: So, I will tell you, this is something we watch every day, literally every single day. We are paying attention to the Russian nuclear enterprise. And looking to see if there are any signs that they are mobilizing or moving forward with any kind of heightened state of readiness or ultimately strike. We see no signs that Russia is doing anything unusual with their nuclear enterprise. But we keep monitoring that. In terms of Russian intentions. It’s hard. It’s hard to see inside [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s mind, certainly, but what we have seen out of Moscow on nuclear issues is really a lot of irresponsible saber-rattling designed to intimidate but not linked to any specific actions.
VOA: There will be a new Congress. Do you foresee the aid that the U.S. is providing Ukraine to change at all? And should the Ukrainians be expecting a new aid package soon?
Cooper: So, I have had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of incredible congressional bipartisan support for Ukraine. And it really has been a partnership with the U.S. Congress. I foresee continued very strong support from the U.S. Congress. Of course, it’s a dialogue. It’s a process where we hold ourselves accountable to the U.S. Congress for the assistance that they are appropriating, but I foresee strong support. And everything that I hear from members of Congress is that they want the Ukrainians to have the capabilities they need when they need it. So, we’re unified in that.
VOA: So, can you tell Ukrainians watching VOA, that this administration will remain committed to them for as long as it takes and for as long as they need to remain in this war?
Cooper: I have heard it from every U.S. leader, whether it’s [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin or President [Joe] Biden himself. We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes.