For nearly 18 months, the United States and its allies have shored up Ukraine with advanced weapons and ammunition. Early on, a policy office deep in the Pentagon coordinated efforts to enlist more than 50 countries to gather up not only weapons, but also medical supplies, ambulances and clothing. Laura Cooper is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, or RUE. For her work in to help Ukraine, she’s a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program, orchestrated by the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service. She is the latest of Federal Drive with Tom Temin‘s weekly guests who are Sammies finalists.
Tom Temin And this was called the RUE before the Russian Ukraine situation, correct? This office?
Laura Cooper Yes, absolutely. This office has existed for years and years working on Russia, working on building partnerships with Ukraine and a number of other countries of Eurasia.
Tom Temin All right. And when the invasion happened and it became the policy of Congress and of the administration to help Ukraine with various supplies, what did you do? How did you get started and how does it fall to your office, of all places, to coordinate all of this?
Laura Cooper Well, it’s important to note that I have a team that includes people who have long been working to support Ukraine in building its armed forces so that it could defend itself against Russian aggression. Russia invaded the first time in 2014, and so we have been assisting the Ukrainians ever since. But the scale and scope of the challenge that was presented by Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion on February 24th of 2022 really presented an unprecedented challenge. While before the large scale invasion, we had been supporting Ukraine with roughly $300 million a year in security assistance, equipment and training. Suddenly, we were supporting Ukraine with billions of dollars of assistance and we had to keep ahead of the battlefield to provide Ukraine with what it needed, when it needed it, and anticipate what would be most helpful in pushing back against Russian aggression. So we stood up an entirely new system for supporting decisions on security assistance. And Secretary Austin, the secretary of Defense, took a day to day oversight role in leading not just the United States effort, but really in leading an international effort to support Ukraine. So we developed an in-house effort to develop these packages very rapidly, involving hundreds of people across the department in the decision making process, but on a very rapid basis. And then we developed an international effort called the Ukraine Defense Contact Group that brings together 50 defense ministers every single month to consider what are Ukraine’s most urgent needs and then to coordinate assistance.
Tom Temin Yeah, So it sounds like you have got people around the world almost on speed dial to discuss these things.
Laura Cooper We do indeed. Whether it’s our allies in Australia or our many NATO allies in Europe, we are in regular contact with countries all around the world and we’re obviously in regular contact with the Ukrainians. So we’re talking to the Ukrainians every day and we’re inviting the Ukrainians to these Ukraine defense contact group meetings to explain what they need and to talk about the battlefield situation and be able to enlist the support of all these countries. So we share these battlefield requirements with countries around the world, and then we ensure that there aren’t gaps in what Ukraine needs so that the U.S. and all of our allies and partners can help them down to the minute.
Tom Temin And how do you thread the needle between what Congress and the administration may have authorized just to make an extreme example of if Ukraine said, well, we’d like to have a squadron of F-35s? Well, nobody said they could have that, and that’s not being paid for and so on. Yet they do have specific requirements of military gear. How does it work to decide what it is they specifically get, given what Congress authorizes and what the administration agrees to.
Laura Cooper With every assistance package, with every decision, we are looking at, first and foremost, what does Ukraine need right now and can we get it to them and enable them to use it very quickly? In some cases, there are equipment items that we know they need. We know they can make use of, but they don’t have the training. So we embark on training programs to enable them to make best use of this assistance. We did this, for example, with the M777 artillery system, the Howitzers that we provided. We recognized in the spring of 2022 that the battlefield was changing and it was evolving from something that required a lot of anti-tank weapons to something that required a lot of artillery systems. So we got out ahead of it. We identified that requirement. And we set up a training program for the Ukrainians. We did the same thing with the HIMAR system, which has been so helpful in being able to provide a longer range targeting of Russian positions. But you can’t do that with everything. You know, some systems require a lot of time to train on because they’re very sophisticated. That’s certainly true of a lot of aircraft. And also you have to consider availability. You know, we have been drawing down a lot of equipment through this presidential drawdown authority. So taking it right from U.S. stocks, we’re asking allies and partners to take right from their stocks. And you can certainly do that with some items. But you get to a point where you run out of equipment. And we certainly have to maintain supplies for our own forces for any contingencies that might emerge that would require them to have this capability. So then you get into procurement, and we do have a really vigorous procurement system. It’s under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, where we go out and purchase or encouraged Defense industry to build equipment for Ukraine. But that’s a longer timeline. And so we always have to balance these questions of capability requirements and then the timeliness of what we can provide.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Laura Cooper. She’s deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals Program. And give us a sense of what else besides some of these sophisticated weapons systems that is going there. Your citation mentioned blankets and winter clothing and this kind of thing also besides weapons and ordnance?
Laura Cooper Well, I think starting with the winter clothing item, I think this was one where certainly the U.S. did provide some military grade winter clothing. You can imagine it is very cold on the battlefield in the middle of winter in Ukraine. And you want the Ukrainian armed forces to be outfitted with kit that protects them and enables them to continue to fight. But it actually was the allies that provided some of the most impressive winter clothing and gear that helped the Ukrainians through the winter. We had several of our our Canadian allies and our Nordic allies that, as you can imagine, have pretty exceptional winter gear and really dug deep into their stocks to make sure that the Ukrainians had what they needed. Another really important item that we have provided from the United States and other countries as well are ambulances, and that includes armored ambulances so that injured Ukrainian forces can be taken right from the battlefield to medical care, saving lives. And so I’m really proud of the ambulances and armored ambulances that we and others have been able to provide, just as an example.
Tom Temin And what’s it like in the office? I mean, you’re involved day by day in a kinetic and dynamic situation both over there and frankly, over here with what people are debating and so forth, what Congress is thinking about, what the administration is talking about. So how do you maintain that level of pace? What’s it like day to day?
Laura Cooper Well, I will say the pace is not easy. It is brisk sometimes I would say grueling, start very, very early. We provide the secretary with his 6:30 a.m. morning report every day. And you do have people here rather late as well. But I think the thing to emphasize is just how motivated and dedicated and really talented this crew is. You know, I am a longtime Pentagon civil servant. I actually was in the Pentagon on 9/11. So I have seen over my years of service amazing dedication and motivation. But I will tell you, I have never seen anything like this. Every day people come in to the office and whether they’re working on a spreadsheet that is delineating all of the costs of various equipment items for the next package, or they’re on the phone early in the morning with allies in Europe or late in the evening with allies in the Indo-Pacific. They are motivated because they know this is historic and what they are doing is going to have a lasting impact on international security, that if we don’t help Ukraine to succeed, if we don’t stand up to this egregious act of aggression and violence and brutality by Russia, then we will be living in a very dark world. And so my team is very motivated and very determined