Army’s Bilateral affairs position in Ukraine a demanding, dynamic mission
(Note: This story originally appeared on Defense Department websites in 2016).
By Will Martin
Maj. Alexys Scott speaks in a deliberate manner that betrays his background as an Army officer. His sentences are unhurried, his gestures so intentional they seem calculated
to mirror his words.
But when conversation turns to the Euromaidan, the civil unrest that rocked Ukraine shortly after Scott’s arrival in Kyiv in 2013 as chief of the U.S. Bilateral Affairs Office, his words carry a more pressing, visceral tone.
“Is this a combat situation, now?” Scott remembers asking himself as his wife and two children evacuated from Kyiv to the care of the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland. “It was a long period of eight months where you lived day to day, week to week, when you didn’t know if you were going to get evacuated.”
The Cal Guard dispatched Scott to Kyiv as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. Under the program, each state’s National Guard partners with the armed forces of one or two nations. Through the sharing of best practices and combined training, the nations’ personnel work toward shared security objectives. The California National Guard began a partnership with Nigeria in 2006, but its deepest ties are to Ukraine, with which the Cal Guard first partnered in 1993 in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall.
“There was a little concern,” said Scott, of the decision to uproot his family and move to Ukraine. “For all intents and purposes, we were going to live in Eastern Europe in a country intertwined with Russia.”
His concern turned to outright distress after Nov. 21, 2013, when droves of protesters swarmed to Kyiv’s Independence Square to call for Ukraine’s integration with Europe and away from Russia. For several months, the Euromaidan protests cascaded between democratic euphoria and episodes of violent response from then-president Viktor Yanukovych. A Russian empathizer, Yanukovych unleashed Berkut police forces, hired thugs and snipers on the protesters, leading to hundreds of injuries and as many
as 100 killings.
“The stress level was high,” remembers Scott, who witnessed Euromaidan evolve into the Ukrainian “Revolution of Dignity,” a movement that ended with Yanukovych’s resignation and self-imposed exile to Russia in February 2014 and the election later that year of a pro-European Ukrainian government.
Having weathered a baptism by fire in his first year as a Bilateral Affairs Officer (BAO), Scott quickly found himself again immersed in geopolitical tension when pro-Russian armed forces invaded and seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Unfortunately for Scott, the tension did not end with the Euromaidan or Russia’s unlawful annexation and claim to the Crimean Peninsula, but continued with a third act of internal conflict when Russian-backed separatists launched attempts at destabilizing Ukraine through armed conflict in the Donbas region (Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia).
The Donbas conflict continues today, dubbed by the Ukrainian Government as the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). To date, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in
the ATO (including the 298 passengers on downed Malaysian Airline Flight 17) and at least 20,000 more wounded.
Even amid the stirring of revolution and violent conflict, though, Scott welcomes the dynamic tension inherent to his position. Having previously served as a BAO in Guatemala, he embraces opportunities to plunge himself in the intricacies of international development and policy.
“This job provides insight at the strategic level. There are some very fascinating conversations you are privy to,” said Scott. “You get to see strategic unification of allies. That’s what’s the great value … you could grow up to be an O-6 in the Guard or U.S. Army and not see this.”
Scott’s “bread and butter” is the coordination of “mil-to-mil engagements,” ensuring Ukrainian and U.S. forces are afforded an abundance of opportunities to better each other through dialogue and training. Between exercises, the interaction of subject matter experts, VIP visits and planning conferences, Scott said a typical year can involve as
many as 90 events.
“It has a quasi-deployment feel just because of how engaged you’re required to be,” he said. As the BAO, Scott leads a multi-national team which includes two operations officers, a defense liaison and a humanitarian assistant.
Among them is Dima Moskalenko, a college-educated linguist and lieutenant in the Ukrainian military reserve. Equal parts operations officer, translator, driver and all-around organizational glue, Moskalenko has served along side the California National Guard for more than a dozen years. And at 36 years old, he speaks in an earthy yet sage fashion, one cultivated from witnessing his country’s near-constant revolution and regime change.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, I was in Czechoslovakia [as part of a student-exchange program] … My host family tells me ‘Your country doesn’t exist anymore,’” said
Moskalenko. “I asked, ‘Is Kyiv still there? Yes? OK, every thing will be OK.’”
Since witnessing the birth of an independent Ukraine as a young teen, Moskalenko, a Kyiv native, has vacillated between frustration and idealism regarding his nation’s future.
“Ukraine had a unique chance in 2004 during the Orange Revolution, but the leadership was weak. We wasted 10 years,” he said. “[But] it is a positive process, for sure. It takes longer than we all want [but] Ukraine is a very young country. We’re not mature yet; just as young people make foolish mistakes, so does a young country.
“Maybe not in our lifetime, but definitely in our kids’ life time, we will truly have rule of law. It won’t matter who your father is, what car you drive – the law will be the same for everyone.”
Moskalenko’s energy and competence have been a welcome asset to Scott, who in addition to facing a high operational tempo navigates hierarchal challenges in Kyiv. In short, he gets pulled in a lot of directions.
“The BAO has to serve multiple agencies – Combatant Command, Department of State, California National Guard, civilian agencies – and you have to be smart enough to balance that. Sometimes the entities don’t get along as well as you’d like and you’re aware of that. You try to get them in the same room to get a mutual outcome that helps security assistance and cooperation move forward,” Scott said. “Whoever is in this role has to understand these sensitivities… you quickly realize this is a mini-representation of the U.S. government.”
But as a California guardsman, Scott is perhaps most keenly aware of his responsibilities to those who instilled trust in him back home.
“You understand and are keenly aware that you are a representative of the California National Guard and the responsibility you have with that,” he said. “Much like the president puts his faith in the ambassador at that level, faith and trust is put in you as the Bilateral Affairs Officer by the adjutant general, and you only get one shot.”