Paul Wells: 'Don’t underestimate the power that comes from the will to fight.’
Paul Wells speaks to Lt.-Col. Melanie Lake, who recently returned from training operations in Ukraine.
By: Paul Wells
I wanted to speak to somebody from Operation Unifier, the seven-year Canadian Armed Forces training mission in Ukraine, for two reasons. I knew a soldier would have particular insight into the way Russia’s invasion is playing out. And I suspected that the things Canada has been doing for seven years to prepare for this war might matter more than the things Canada has done since February to respond to it.
I’m glad a mutual acquaintance connected me to Lt.-Col. Melanie Lake, who commanded Rotation 11 of Op Unifier for six months, from March to September of 2021. She spoke to me from CFB Petawawa, where she now commands 2 Combat Engineer Regiment. “We really are the problem solvers on the battlefield,” she said of her fellow sappers, or combat engineers. “We’re really all about making sure that our forces can live, move and fight,” and making similar tasks “quite difficult for the enemy.”
Lake has had a hell of a career, as high-ranking soldiers usually have, though I cover soldiers rarely enough that I always manage to be surprised. She’s from Churchill Falls, Labrador and has a degree in chemical engineering from the Royal Military College. She served three tours in Afghanistan, including one collecting HUMINT, or human intelligence — interviewing Afghans in Kandahar for information on the insurgency. Later she led an explosives-clearance operation at Winisk, ON, way up north on Hudson Bay, where a DEW Line outpost had been shut down so quickly in the 1960s that large quantities of TNT had been left buried too close to the ground for comfort. This involved a lot of camping and trying to figure out how to explode only those parts of the landscape they wanted to explode, while trying not to explode one another. Canadian Forces Rangers worked with Lake’s team, keeping polar bears away. She really is a problem solver.
Lake confirmed both of my hunches about Op Unifier, at least in part. She sees a Ukrainian army that is performing well for specific important reasons, and a Russian army that is having serious trouble its commanders should have expected. She does think she and her colleagues in Op Unifier and other Western training missions — the United States, United Kingdom and Lithuania — can take some satisfaction in contributing to the substantial improvement of the Ukrainian defence effort since 2014. But she was careful to put a low ceiling over that effect.
“Certainly what the training missions provided have helped,” she said. “But I want to be really careful about taking credit for the performance that we’re seeing right now. We can’t teach courage. And [the Ukrainians] are showing that in spades.”
Where did training help? “The area where I think we had a really big influence is in helping them understand or institutionalize the idea of mission command. And decentralized decision-making — pushing authority and decision-making power down to lower levels. And helping them build a professional senior NCO corps. Those are things that, you know, when you look at the old Soviet system were certainly non-existent.”
Let’s unpack this. “Mission command” is a term of art in Western militaries. It holds commanders, down to quite junior levels, accountable for results while leaving them wide latitude to decide methods. How junior? “Senior NCO” refers to sergeants — career soldiers who’ve risen from the enlisted ranks and who are responsible for a section, which is between 6 and 20 soldiers. Canadian doctrine, American doctrine, NATO standards dictate that it should be routine for higher echelons to trust a section sergeant to figure out how to accomplish a task, and that’s something the Canadians have passed on to their Ukrainian colleagues.
The Russians haven’t built that trust into their system. This is an understatement. “A lot of what you’re seeing on the Russian side — you know, we keep talking about these general officers who are getting picked off, because they’re so far forward. They have no decentralized decision-making and their communication chain is breaking down. So you’ve got these generals going forward, way too far forward, trying to sort things out. And they’re just getting picked off left, right and centre. So training matters. Training matters an awful lot.”
To an Ottawa political reporter in the Trudeau era, there is a metaphor here as big as a billboard about what happens when too much decision-making is too centralized. But maybe just this once, I’ll resist the urge to jump in, more than I just did, and I’ll let Lake keep telling her story.
What else did the Canadians pass along? Lake mentioned “combined arms training.” Another term of art: using two or more parts of a complex expeditionary force to hit an enemy in more than one way at a time. Ideally you want to box the other side in, so that defending against one part of an attack makes them more vulnerable to the other part. “So how artillery supports maneuver, and having the engineers in play, and logistics, and how all of that comes together into a cohesive fight.”
But there’s also things the Canadians have learned from the Ukrainians, or simply things the Ukrainians figured out for themselves fighting nearly a decade-long Russian harassment campaign in the eastern Donbas region. Canadian soldiers don’t see combat much these days, but all soldiers plan for combat all the time, and Lake said a cultural thing about Canadians is that they mostly plan for attack. The Ukrainians, understandably, have thought a lot about defence. She was constantly impressed with “just how well they’ve done to institutionalize lessons on the importance of things like camouflage and concealment and dispersion — not bunching up where you can be a juicy artillery target with just a few rounds. In terms of Russian vulnerabilities, the Russians are not doing those things.”
When Lake’s team arrived at Combat Training Centre Yavoriv, near Lviv, in March of 2021, Op Unifier was almost six years old but just about everyone involved was stepping up their efforts: the Canadian trainers; their Ukrainian colleagues; and the Russians who were the reason for the Canadians’ presence.
About a week after Roto 11 arrived, the Russians started building up their troops on Ukraine’s borders so rapidly that security services around the world upgraded the perceived threat of Russian aggression to “imminent.” Jen Psaki, Joe Biden’s White House press secretary, started to voice concern in White House briefings. So there was a solid month there where it was quite uncertain what [the Russians] were going to do,” Lake recalls.
It was a hell of a welcome to Ukraine. “We had just hit the ground. We were a new team. A lot of our pre-deployment training had been done virtually because we were working in the COVID environment. So I didn't know my team all that well. And then when we got to Ukraine, 48 hours later, we were dispersed to 15 different locations.”
This is the joy of mission command: more than half a decade into Op Unifier, the Canadians were no longer teaching Ukrainian soldiers, one at a time, the elements of basic training. They were far past that stage, now dispersed across the country, working on a dozen elements of modern combat at once. “We were in much more of a train-the-trainer role,” she said. “Making sure we communicate using the same grid locations, like the same system to communicate your location. Making sure we have a common way of calling in fire and deconflicting airspace.”
And also, elsewhere: “A really robust medical line-of-effort teaching — getting into their medical training centre and helping develop combat medics as a trade, and tactical combat casualty care, and putting the system in place that allows them to do all of this stuff in a self-sustaining manner.”
And, elsewhere: “Things like the sniper program, reconnaissance programs, the combined arms training piece.” And, elsewhere, “a really great example of success:” Lake presided over the last meeting of the mission’s military-police training program, because the Ukrainians had developed military-police training to NATO standards, and they were now running the operation themselves, and they didn’t need the Canadians showing them the ropes any more. “That’s your goal, when you’re trying to build partner capacity,” Lake said. “To work yourself out of a job.”
These exercises in helping the Ukrainians build an empowered and decentralized military also helped the Canadians do the same. Somewhere there’s a sergeant who, under Lake’s command but without much day-to-day supervision, designed and implemented a sniper-training program. That’s going to do wonders for that sergeant’s confidence and competence on their next assignment.
But while Lake’s team was settling in to all of these tasks in all these locales, they were also wondering whether the Russians were about to invade. “So we were trying to manage and understand this threat and make decisions, under those conditions — while we were also dealing with a COVID outbreak in our own team.”
If nothing else, it discouraged the Canadians from treating the event they were training for — a full-scale Russian invasion — as a hypothetical or anything merely academic. “We were very clear from the start that we needed to be focused on the full spectrum and the worst-case scenario.”
I asked Lake what the Ukrainian countryside was like. “So much of Ukraine looks like the [Canadian] west,” she said. “Looks like the Prairies. And that was a factor in the back of our minds last spring, as we were looking at the Russian buildup: ‘God, they’d be crazy to invade at this time of year.’” The spring thaw in Ukraine, or rasputitsa, turns most of the countryside into vast expanses of mud. “I remember, back in 2009, we tried to do an exercise in Suffield in March,” in southern Alberta, not far from Medicine Hat, Lake recalled. “It just turned into a recovery exercise. You couldn’t get offroad. And even, you know, if it wasn’t a hard-path paved road, you couldn’t even move around on the roads. I think they discounted that factor on the Russian side. You can drive on a road. You can’t fight on a road. You can’t shake out and get into a dispersed formation that allows you to maneuver. And that’s proving to be quite an advantage to the defender.”
What are the defender’s other advantages? I asked Lake for two or three big lessons from all of this. She thought for nearly a minute before deciding how to answer. I’ve trimmed what she told me only a little for clarity:
“One big lesson — and this is at the broader level, not even at the military level — is how powerful hope-based communication is. That strong leadership and real, unrelenting determination in the communication coming from President Zelensky all the way down.
“Even while I was there, I was super-impressed with how all of Ukrainian society is prepared to mobilize to support their armed forces in the fight, and to support the defense. That was visible through organizations like Come Back Alive, this NGO that stood up in 2014, to help deliver equipment to front-line soldiers.
“I’m always so impressed with the remarkable integration of civil society and the military there, and how the military is willing to be reinforced by the population, from logistic support right now that Ukrainian soldiers are benefiting from. And on the contrary, that’s being denied to the Russians. You’ve got the whole population trying to work against them.
“It’s also a very powerful reminder of how difficult operating in an urban environment can be. How deliberate and overwhelming of a force package you need to have, if you’re going to try and take a defended city.
“There are so many lessons coming out of this. But the biggest one I see is, don’t underestimate the power that comes from the will to fight. That morale of your soldiers and that commitment to the cause. Those are the two things going head-to-head right now: You’ve got Ukrainians who are so committed to the cause, against Russians who don’t understand why they’re there.”
I had one last question for Lake, one she probably anticipated, because before Op Unifier she served a stint as senior staff officer to Gen. Jonathan Vance when he was Chief of the Defence Staff. It’s been a tough few years in the Canadian Forces, I said. Probably especially for women officers. How does she integrate her experience in Ukraine into everything she’s read and heard about the constant succession of sexual misconduct allegations in the Canadian military in recent years?
“I think what we did in Ukraine is the antidote to all of those negative stories,” she said. “It is Canada getting to see its military going out and wearing the flag on their shoulder. And doing work that can make all of us proud, doing work that has made Ukraine more ready for this fight. And in turn, working in partnership with another country to make ourselves better.”
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