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Training Ukrainian troops in the U.S. signals major ambitions

The United States has long held an ambitious vision of how training foreign troops can advance its own foreign policy

Ukrainian soldiers take a break from fighting on the outskirts of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Saturday. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Jan. 10, the Pentagon announced that it would begin training Ukrainian soldiers on the Patriot missile system at Fort Sill, Okla., representing the latest high-water mark of U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine. The move complements President Biden’s decision last month to begin the transfer of the missile defense system, which Kyiv has long lobbied for.

But history reveals the move is even more significant than that — it’s a true inflection point in the American relationship with Ukraine, even though the United States has deployed advisers abroad for years to train Ukrainian forces.

Dating to the 1950s, the American government has brought foreign soldiers to train in the United States to achieve practical military objectives. But it has also had far more grandiose objectives for such programs, aiming to shape the next generation of foreign political and military leaders, as well as ensuring U.S. influence abroad. The results have been mixed, in part because this training has also often heightened foreign expectations for U.S. military aid, which don’t always match American political realities. The Ukrainian soldiers headed to Oklahoma, therefore, are merely the latest actors in a decades-long production of U.S. global military assistance, and they signal that the American commitment to Ukraine will only deepen in the years to come.

Non-Americans have attended and graduated from U.S. military schools since the 19th century, but the system of international military training as we know it today is rooted in the American response to the Korean War.

Faced with the need to rapidly rebuild a South Korean military shattered by the opening months of the conflict, the U.S. government paid for thousands of South Korean soldiers to receive advanced training and education in the United States, referred to as Zone of the Interior (ZI) training. U.S. officials hoped that these soldiers and officers would become a nucleus of military professionalism and technical expertise, who could dramatically help improve South Korean military performance.

U.S. officials reasoned that slotting these trainees into preexisting American institutions could produce better soldiers than those educated at either U.S. training grounds overseas or at the relatively underdeveloped academies of their own countries. Additionally, the U.S. government saw an added bonus to ZI training. It presented an opportunity to encourage friendships between ordinary Americans and foreign trainees, and to expose foreign soldiers to positive features of the American way of life.

From a military standpoint, the initiative produced promising initial returns.

U.S. commanders praised the improved qualities and effectiveness of early Korean graduates of U.S. schools during the war. Many of the initial trainees who returned from the U.S. leapfrogged up the ranks, some occupying influential posts as leaders in South Korea’s military school system.

The program’s early successes encouraged the Eisenhower administration to expand ZI training. Between 1950 and 1960, nearly 100,000 foreign soldiers came to the United States, studying at institutions ranging from the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga., to the Naval War College in Rhode Island. Some personnel arrived to receive training in operating specific equipment, while others took classes in leadership and command skills, but all were exposed to an American way of war.

By the end of the 1950s, the Pentagon had seized upon the powerful presumption that the next generation of the world’s military elite could pass through the halls of American schools — developing an emotional investment in the United States along the way. U.S.-trained foreign soldiers might return home and agitate for a deeper relationship with the United States. Crucially at the height of the Cold War, that would include choosing American materiel over Soviet alternatives. The Eisenhower administration also envisioned that some of these trainees would go on to have prominent careers, now with a new predisposition to cooperate with the U.S. government.

But these aspirations proved naive. American officials didn’t recognize that the soldiers participating in the program would have their own expectations and goals. Upon returning to their home countries, American-trained graduates anticipated receiving continued American military aid and weapons. When they didn’t receive it, tensions spilled over. In 1955, for example, a South Korean major nearly assassinated top-ranking U.S. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, claiming he was motivated by his frustration with the lack of U.S. military aid to Korea. In the 1970s, South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee — who reportedly had a desultory experience attending Fort Sill as an artillery officer in 1954 — sought to obtain nuclear weapons in response to U.S. plans to withdraw its troops.

This complicated relationship between donor and recipient underscored the limits of ZI training as a form of cultural diplomacy. Foreign soldiers who trained in the United States had their own nationalist intentions, and whatever relationships and affinities they developed during their time in the United States paled in comparison to these goals. Further, the umbilical cord of training and assistance between their countries and the United States meant that pressure could travel both ways.

During the Vietnam War, the struggles of initial groups of South Vietnamese soldiers who received conventional U.S.-based training to combat Viet Cong guerrilla tactics called into question the efficacy of such military education.

The debacle in Vietnam ended up prompting Congress to reimagine U.S. military aid, adopting the present-day system of International Military Education & Training (IMET). IMET became structurally divorced from military aid, which was politically unpopular in the aftermath of Vietnam, and was designed to give Congress clearer budgetary oversight over foreign national training in the United States. Nevertheless, IMET remained substantively the same as the ZI training which preceded it, and retained the lofty goals of its original architects. The Defense Department continued to list mutual understanding, greater rapport, interoperability and stronger alliances as IMET objectives.

But instead of achieving these lofty goals, in the decades since, IMET labored under criticism, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s as a number of U.S.-trained officers went on to commit human rights abuses or lead coups against civilian governments.

Even so, these episodes did not dash the program’s popularity with both the Pentagon and its participants. Soldiers from around the world prize the U.S. professional military education and advanced technical training they receive, while Defense officials still see IMET as a “critical long-term investment” with “low-cost, highly effective component of U.S. security assistance.”

Bringing Ukrainian soldiers to Fort Sill to join the estimated 22,000 foreign military students who receive training in the United States every year is simply the latest chapter in this history. This backstory reveals that American officials are hoping to signal the elevated interconnectedness between the United States and Ukraine, and to ensure that the next cadre of Ukrainian political and military leaders will be favorably aligned with the United States.

Yet, the history of ZI training indicates that these goals will be difficult to achieve. The Ukrainian graduates of Fort Sill’s special course on the Patriot missile system will return to a conflict that probably will be a protracted war of attrition. They have their own agendas and beliefs and will look to the United States to provide continued support, which may run counter to shifting American political will and budgetary concerns.

Even so, they won’t be the last to receive such education. Driven by the same array of possible long-term payoffs that justified the transport of thousands of South Korean soldiers to the United States amid the Korean War, the Pentagon probably will look to IMET as the tool to achieve such sweeping ambitions among the Armed Forces of Ukraine.