Ukraine’s military seems to be getting into shape. Since the end of the ceasefire last week, Kiev’s forces routed the rebels on the border and retook the important city of Slovyansk over the weekend. This is a dramatic improvement from its woebegone condition at the time of the Russian annexation of Crimea, as the New York Times reports:
By most standards, the Ukrainian armed forces remain in a pitiful state. But they have benefited from the enlistment of thousands of volunteers into new militias, financial donations by ordinary citizens — including a Kiev Internet-technology entrepreneur who raised $35,000 and built a surveillance drone — and an aggressive push to repair and upgrade armored personnel carriers and other equipment.
There has also been aid from abroad. The United States has sent $23 million in security assistance since March, including $5 million for night-vision goggles, body armor, communications equipment and food.
But even more important, experts said, was a reorganization of the chain of command and a crucial psychological shift: Soldiers surmounted a reluctance to open fire on their own countrymen, a serious issue after riot police officers killed about 100 protesters last winter during civil unrest centered on Maidan, the main square in Kiev.
As we noted over the weekend, the recent successes of the newly strengthened military could put Putin in a tight spot: forced either to increase support to the nationalist rebels and trigger more sanctions, or to incur damage to his public image if these defeats continue.
Ukraine still faces the challenge that has eluded it for 25 years —the challenge of building an effective state and a sustainable economy. Victory on the battlefield, however, could be a hopeful sign. War is the mother of states, and the efforts required to create and sustain a winning army deepen the capabilities that Ukraine’s authorities will need if they are serious about state-building.
That all said, this bit of good news is not necessarily an unalloyed good. In a passage buried toward the end of the article, the NYT notes in passing:
[Kiev’s] military was so underfinanced that the government issued a plea for donations from citizens. Some of the country’s richest businessmen used their personal fortunes to create militias that are now effectively part of a new national guard.
That’s almost an understatement. As we noted back in June, just one Ukrainian businessman from Dnipropetrovsk is paying as much as $10 million per month to maintain a militia that is one third the size of Kiev’s total forces.
When the dust settles in Ukraine, the state will likely be stengthened by the experience of building and standing up a relatively competent and professional military in such a short time. But which interests will control that military, and by extension those institutions, is still an open question.