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Why is Ukraine's Army So Appallingly Bad?


Russian President Vladimir Putin is celebrating Victory Day in Simferopol today, admiring the Crimean peninsula that he so winningly stole from Ukraine this spring. Not too far away, in the city of Mariupol, Ukrainian police began the holiday with a deadly gun battle with separatists. Over 100 people have died in Ukraine since May 2, and despite reports that Ukraine's "anti-terrorist operation" was successfully driving out separatists in the east, it does not look like the fighting will stop anytime soon. Victory Day celebrations in Ukraine must carry an ironic tone today, as the conflict has revealed the extent to which its armed forces were systemically mismanaged since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, leaving Ukraine almost entirely helpless to stave off the Russian invasion. Here are a few reasons why: 

Ukraine inherited the Soviet military machine when it gained independence.

At the time, that meant Ukraine had the second-largest standing army in Europe, with some 750,000 troops. But the new government couldn’t afford to keep up such a large force, and began rapidly cutting costs. Since then, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry has been “consistently downsizing to a force of about 120,000, which they thought made sense,” said Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000). When Russia invaded Crimea, Ukraine was still in the process of downsizing, and had plans to further decrease its forces to 100,000 by 2017. 

Soviet-era infrastructure remains the backbone of Ukraine’s army, which means that most military bases are located in the western part of the country, where they could fend off a NATO attack. (This map shows the relative dispersion of Ukrainian and Russian forces.) “The Ukrainian military inherited what was the Soviet military infrastructure for the Transcarpathian front. It was there to support a Soviet push across NATO’s southern flank,” said Jacob Kipp, a Eurasian Security expert at the Jamestown Foundation. After independence, there were no substantial efforts to build up the army’s defense capability in the east because, said Kipp, “Given the nature of Ukrainian politics, it was very difficult to say, ‘Okay we’re going to prepare ourselves to face a threat from Russia. There was no way you could talk about reorganizing the military to be ‘facing the Russians.’” 

Soviet weapons stockpiles remain in Ukraine, where they are secured by Ukrainian armed forces. Slovyansk, where some of the deadliest clashes of the crisis have occurred, is also the location of a stockpile of some five million Soviet-era small arms, according to the British Royal United Services Institute. “The multiple seizures of government buildings in eastern Ukraine, not just in Slavyansk but also in Konstantinovka in Donetsk Oblast are aimed to make it impossible for Ukrainian forces to fully control the territory and, in effect, to cut it off from its strategic stockpile of light arms,” researchers at the institute found. 

The Russians infiltrated all branches of the Ukrainian armed forces, experts agree.

“The Ukrainian Security Services as a whole were clearly penetrated in a very substantial way,” said Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Strategic Studies Institute. Most of the high command of the Ukrainian army also served in the Soviet army; many are more comfortable speaking Russian and, like Putin, may not think of Ukraine as distinct from Russia. "Under the leadership of such personnel, Ukrainians were trained to see Russians as friends and allies," says Leonid Polyakov, former Ukrainian deputy defense minister. Those factors made it fairly easy for the Russians to gather intelligence on the Ukrainians. “The Kremlin has been assiduous since Ukraine became independent to put its people into—and undermined the effectiveness of—all the coercive branches of the Ukrainian government: the military, the SBU, the police,” said John Herbst, former US Ambassador to Ukraine (2003-2006). Aside from parts of the military, which benefited from NATO training, “The other branches of Ukraine’s siloviky (security services) continue to remain Soviet, over-staffed, corrupt and incompetent,” writes Ukraine scholar Taras Kuzio. Ukraine’s police force consists of some 330,000 officers who patrol a population of 40 million. By comparison, Kuzio writes, the British police force consists of 135,000 officers for a population of 60 million people. 

The “sovietized” nature of Ukraine’s forces is also the reason why so many Ukrainian soldiers switched sides when the conflict in Crimea erupted. With no unifying national military tradition to rally behind, many Ukrainian forces, like the 25th airborne brigade, readily laid down arms before the Russian separatists. As a result of the Crimean invasion, which is being lavishly fêted on the streets of Moscow today, approximately 16,000 Ukrainian security personnel were absorbed into Russian forces, Global Security reports

Thanks to a dire lack of funding, the Ukrainian armed forces have no training in this type of conflict.

The tasks that they are undertaking today are not the tasks that the Soviet Army was trained for. They weren’t trained to fight terrorists,” says Kuzio. Decreasing the size of the standing army was an element of the government’s longstanding reform program to transition the armed forces into smaller, more agile, and better-trained units, and also to cut costs. But under former President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine dug itself deeper and deeper into bankruptcy, and “low defense budgets (currently about $2 billion or 1.1% of GDP) have hampered the process,” Global Security reports. (Note: according to the Kyiv Post, this year’s defense budget is $4.5 billion.) The lack of funds is why, in March, the army resorted to a text-message fundraising campaign. When Russia invaded this spring, the Ukrainian army had almost no training in confronting an internal land battle. “They were completely psychologically unready,” said Blank. “The kinds of weapons needed to handle urban warfare and counterinsurgency," Blank noted, “require a great deal of skill and sensitivity and training. If you don’t have money, you don’t do training.” 

The unpreparedness of the armed forces is also part of the reason why the U.S. has been reluctant to provide arms to the Ukrainians, sending non-lethal aid instead. “The administration has gone slow on that in part because they’re not sure they could deploy and train them on those weapons,” says Pifer. Even if the U.S. did provide Ukrainian forces with arms and ammunition, it’s questionable whether newly conscripted Ukrainian troops would be able to know how to use them. 

Ukrainian armed forces did participate in NATO peacekeeping missions in the Balkans in the '90s, “but that didn’t sharpen their sense of how to function in Ukraine,” says Kipp. “If you’re doing things with NATO, and you don’t have a lot of money, it’s easier to invest in NATO exercise than it is to invest in exercises for your own military defense.” Under Yanukovych, military cooperation with NATO was limited. Finally, Ukraine's forces have struggled to sustain the type of intelligence communications necessary to successfully counter a situation like the Russian invasion. “The problem of coordinating three different services—the national guard, the military, the SBU—is also a new equation for them,” says Kuzio. 

Internal Ukrainian politics are hampering the military’s ability to act.

Ukraine has seen an impressive turnover of defense ministers over the past several years, which hasn’t helped develop the armed forces. “You have to think about Ukrainian politics as part of this. Yulia Tymoshenko, who just got out of jail in February, wants desperately to become president of Ukraine, understands her poll numbers aren’t very good. She will do things to bolster her chances, even if that's not good for Ukraine,” says Herbst. “There are reports that, since her party is essentially running the government, they have not been keen to really unleash the official part of their armed forces.” 

Additionally, under Yanukovych, “a lot more money went to internal security services (SBU) than to the military,” says Pifer. The SBU is said to have been involved in the February sniper attacks that killed a hundred protesters on Independence Square. “These are people who are perfectly willing to fight inside, they are not particularly loved on either side,” says Kipp. Given that SBU officers are also part of Ukraine’s anti-terror operation in the east, it’s hard to tell where loyalties lie. To the new government’s credit, “The Ukrainians have been far more unwilling to have civilian casualties, and that has also held it up. If you’re going to have terrorists intermingling with civilian populations and you’re not willing to have large sums of civilian casualties, then your progress is going to be slow,” says Kuzio.