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Ukraine Hopes Russia Takes Note Of Its Air Exercises With U.S.


The United States Air Force is holding exercises in Ukraine. It's the first time that has happened since Russia's military intervention in Ukraine four years ago. Russian-backed forces are still fighting in the eastern part of the country, so Ukraine's government is hoping this exercise, called Clear Sky 2018, will remind Russia that they have powerful friends. NPR's Lucian Kim reports.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: At the Starokostiantyniv air base in Ukraine's agricultural heartland, I meet Lieutenant Colonel Rob Swertfager from the California Air National Guard. He's flying one of the seven U.S. F-15s taking part in the exercise, and he's offered to take me along. In the cockpit, we check our systems.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Warning - engine fire - left. Warning - engine fire - right.

ROB SWERTFAGER: Are you hearing all the warnings back there?

KIM: Yeah, I am.

SWERTFAGER: Yeah, that's normal.


After we've run through all the checks, we're ready to take off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Cleared for takeoff. Cables up. On the go. Left...

KIM: Plugged into the internal radio system and with your helmet on, you can barely hear the roar of the plane as it takes to the air.


KIM: For Ukraine, the presence of the U.S. Air Force and more warplanes from NATO members Poland and Romania is a huge deal. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and fomented an armed uprising in eastern Ukraine that continues to this day.

At first, the Ukrainians received Western political support in their confrontation with Russia, but now the Trump administration is supplying Ukraine with lethal weaponry. And last month, Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, was in Baltimore receiving two former U.S. Coast Guard vessels. Poroshenko also came to chat with the F-15 pilots at the exercise and asked Lieutenant Colonel Chris Ridlon whether he had flown in any of Ukraine's Soviet-era warplanes.


PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO: Have experienced to fly in our Sukhoi-27 and MiG-29?

CHRISTOPHER RIDLON: Yes, sir. I actually did dogfighting with one of your MiG-29s yesterday, and it was great training for both of us.

KIM: Major General Clay Garrison is in charge of the U.S. forces in the exercise.

CLAY GARRISON: Think about it. They're engaged in a conflict right now with a peer competitor. So they obviously have things to teach us. And plus they're flying equipment that we don't have access to in the United States.

KIM: The U.S. and its NATO allies hold dozens of exercises every year, as does Russia. But these exercises are growing in size. In September, Russia held its largest maneuver since the 1980s that included a significant Chinese contingent. And NATO is about to hold its biggest exercise since the Cold War in Norway. President Poroshenko bristles when asked if training with Americans could provoke Russia.


POROSHENKO: We are sovereign and independent states. And only Ukrainian people will decide. And we do not ask the permission from Russia what we should do on our soil.

KIM: The commander of the Ukrainian air base, Colonel Yevhen Bulatsyk, says he's happy to be hosting the Americans, though he could not have imagined this drill just a couple of years ago.

YEVHEN BULATSYK: (Through interpreter) Yesterday, I had the chance to fly in an F-15. It was quite a pleasant experience, but my Sukhoi-24 is better. That's my plane.

KIM: Back in the air with Lieutenant Colonel Swertfager, I've just experienced seven times the Earth's gravitational pull on my body.

I've lost the horizon.

SWERTFAGER: (Laughter) Woo.

KIM: Yeah, and now I think we're upside down.

SWERTFAGER: We are upside down and heading back down.

Starlord. Griffin 2-1 R2D (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Griffin 2-1...

KIM: While our mission may be coming to an end, many Ukrainians hope this is just the beginning. Ukraine's bid to join NATO is on hold for now, but the government believes exercises like this will prepare it for eventual membership in the Western alliance.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Starokostiantyniv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
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