LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Behind some of the success of Ukraine's military in its fight against Russia is a little-known U.S. initiative, an initiative built around a state National Guard. Jay Price of North Carolina Public Radio brings us this story.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The skill of the Ukraine military surprised a lot of people, but not David Baldwin. When the California National Guard adjutant general got a text from a Ukrainian colonel saying the invasion had begun, his first reaction was concern for his friends.
DAVID BALDWIN: Then also a little bit of a calmer feeling because I knew that these guys were ready for this fight and that they were going to do well.
PRICE: He knew that because for nearly 30 years, California's citizen soldiers have been helping Ukraine shape its military. And after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the guards of several other states began pitching in. They've taught sniper skills, ambush tactics, aerial combat and how to launch the Javelin missiles celebrated for destroying so many Russian tanks. They also helped Ukraine build an asset Russia doesn't have - a cadre of noncommissioned officers who know how to lead from the front lines. Troops from Ukraine and California have flown back and forth dozens of times for exercises and training. Baldwin lost count of his own visits to Ukraine after 40.
BALDWIN: Yes, we do increase actual combat capability of our partners, but what we really deliver is this notion of the United States is there to help your country. We really are coming in to help.
PRICE: The Ukrainians say that's true. Major General Borys Kremenetsky is the Ukrainian defense attache in the Washington embassy.
BORYS KREMENETSKY: This partnership help us to increase our combat capabilities and to increase the spirit of our - not only soldiers, but population at all.
PRICE: The State Partnership Program is a joint initiative between individual states and the Pentagon, but it's not just about military training. It also models values like civilian control of the military and abiding by international law for combatants. The program now partners state guards with more than 90 nations. When it started, though, it was aimed squarely at one region.
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PRICE: In 1991, as the remnants of the Soviet Union came apart, the United States saw an opportunity.
JOHN FINNEY: The Department of Defense believed that we should reach out to these nations in central and Eastern Europe who had been part of the Warsaw Pact...
PRICE: John Finney is a senior strategic adviser with the National Guard Bureau.
FINNEY: ...To help them refashion their militaries, which were, of course, developed under the Soviet Union, and prepare them for more modern military engagements and to prepare them for eventual membership in NATO.
PRICE: Finney says the Pentagon chose the National Guard for the mission because it felt that would seem less threatening to Russia. And Guard troops can build long-term relationships because, unlike regular active duty troops, they often stay with the same unit for years.
Baldwin, the California Guard adjutant general, says he's been working with Ukrainians since 1994. He's now acting as a conduit between the Pentagon and Ukraine commanders on things like battlefield intelligence and weapons needs.
BALDWIN: We can have very frank discussions about what they're asking for and what the U.S. can deliver or can't deliver. And sometimes it softens the blow, if we're giving them bad news, if it comes from me rather than from the U.S. government. And then by the same token, I can also, you know, encourage them and coach them on things that are in the realm of possibility that they can ask for.
PRICE: Baldwin is talking to his embattled counterparts regularly. In fact, the day after the invasion, he activated his emergency headquarters in Sacramento. He wanted to make sure the guard's Ukrainian partners and friends had the round-the-clock support they need.
For NPR News, I'm Jay Price.
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