2023 Federal Employee of the Year

Laura K. Cooper and The Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Policy team

Created the structure for a nimble, meaningful response by the U.S. and its allies to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s unprovoked aggression and deliver military supplies at an unprecedented pace.

What began in late 2021 as increasingly urgent conversations about supplies, in a small Defense Department office headed by Laura Cooper, by spring had become an organized process involving dozens of nations working together to amass those supplies and other security assistance for Ukraine’s defense against Russia.  

When Russia launched its unprovoked attack in February 2022, Cooper and her Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Policy team, or RUE, along with countless partners, scoured the globe and searched within the U.S. military for donations of anti-aircraft systems, armored personnel carriers and other war supplies as well as ambulances, medical kits, winter clothing and more, for both the Ukrainian military and civilians.  

These deliveries, “combined with the skill and will of Ukraine, have proven to be the operational and strategic battlefield game changer against Russia, which thought it would occupy and control Ukraine within days,” according to Kelly Magsamen, chief of staff to the defense secretary.  

In a major triumph, more than $35 billion of “critical capabilities” had been delivered to Ukraine as of April, shoring up its defenses during “the most consequential international security crisis since World War II,” Magsamen added.  

Bringing together more than 50 countries to deliver military supplies  

By spring 2022, the RUE team, led by Cooper, along with Nate Adler, RUE’s principal director, had created a structure for routinely bringing together the defense ministers of 50-plus countries, and other partners, to work on supplying Ukraine. Cooper helps Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin lead this Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which coordinates which countries will provide Ukraine with a wide range of critical items such as a radar system, a defensive interceptor missile or other equipment.  

“It’s an exceptional example … for cooperation with partners in various areas,” said Borys Kremenetskyi, the defense attaché of Ukraine to the U.S. “Cooper and her team work day and night talking to other countries about what capabilities they can share.”   

Cooper and the RUE team—policy counterparts to colleagues serving the Joint Chiefs of Staff—also developed a cross-departmental working group within Defense, with both civilian and military participants, to ensure recommendations for the secretary reflected consensus. Every two weeks, the group develops assistance packages for Austin and then the president to approve. “It’s a pretty grueling pace,” Cooper said.  

It is also a complicated process, sending assistance packages that can be worth billions of dollars, at that unprecedented pace, Adler said. In a nearly whole-of-DOD effort, the capabilities required by Ukraine must be assessed for readiness and technology security implications, collected, paid for, moved, picked up and transported by Ukrainian partners into an active war zone. Following transfer, a critically important monitoring and accountability effort begins. 

In the past, Cooper said, “We never had more than a few hundred million dollars for Ukraine … and here we realized we just had to scale up in a way that was kind of unimaginable, but we just launched in.” 

Keeping all parties informed  

To keep Defense group meetings moving, Cooper and her team provide information on the pros and cons of different capabilities ahead of time to participants from the military, the budget office, legislative affairs and elsewhere. Preparing for and constantly collaborating with many partner offices in advance markedly speeds meetings that otherwise could involve answering numerous questions about what is in the assistance package. 

Ukraine has also benefited from the work Cooper and the RUE team have been doing to get the country trained and ready ever since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014. “She’s an institution here and has been in this job for a long time and has seen the arc of history,” Adler said. Among other reform efforts since 2014, Ukraine has moved away from a Soviet-style military to one more like the U.S. military’s structure. 

Kremenetskyi said years of advice and hard work by Cooper and the RUE team are clear. “How we are fighting shows this defense reform,” he said.  

“No one actually in the world was ready for this scale of warfare,” Kremenetskyi said, and yet Ukraine has persevered more than a year later. “It’s a story which will be described in the future by historians.”