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Battle-tested Ukraine
What a Competent Ukrainian Army Means

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.

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  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I was shocked that the Ukrainian military didn’t fight when Putin took the Crimea. Now we see that I was right, and the Ukrainian’s do want to fight, it was the military leadership that weren’t fighters and needed to be pushed aside.

    • B-Sabre

      To be fair, a lot of people mocked the Administration for including MRE’s (and not much else) in their first aid package to the Ukrainians. Given the rather ramshackle state of the Ukrainian army, maybe its not surprising they needed the basics first. Being able to feed your troops in the field (or not being able to) has a drastic impact on morale.

    • Andrew Allison

      I think it’s more complicated than that. Regardless of the influence of the man behind the curtain and 30,000 Russian troops already in Crimea with the permission of the Ukrainian government, there was no armed revolt. Crimea, which had been “Ukrainian” for little more than a generation, voted for annexation. The situation in the rest of Eastern Crimea, where armed rebels have declared independence from the central government is quite different. That said, it’s unclear to me whether the initial reluctance to engage was political, lack of organization, lack of ability, or the fact that the ranks of the rebels (as opposed to their leaders) really are Ukrainians.

      • Brit in Kiev

        Andrew,
        There are some points that need correcting in your post.
        1/ The questions in the ballot on Crimea were basically-
        Do you want to join Russia now or later, there was no direct
        choice to remain Ukrainian. Consequently the majority actually
        had no option but to abstain. The ” huge majority ” was mostly
        among the minority ethnic Russian families who were shipped
        in after the Tartars were removed by Stalin in 1945.
        2/ The current “situation” is NOT in Eastern Crimea but Eastern UKRAINE.
        3/ The “situation” never was about independance, originally, but devolution
        and local self Government.
        4/ You are correct that there are some Ukrainians in the ranks but the leaders are Russian speakers backed up by ‘ Bandits’ from across
        the border

        • Andrew Allison

          Fellow Brit,
          Thanks for catching my senior moment (corrected). I’m afraid the rest is fiction. According to the Beeb, “A copy of the 16 March ballot paper – released by the Crimean parliament – appears to give voters two choices: to join Russia immediately or gain greater autonomy within Ukraine.” The assumption that the latter meant join later is unwarranted. Ethnic Russians are not a minority in Crimea, they outnumber Ukrainians almost 3-1. We could debate whether the vote in Crimea may have been more, or less, legitimate that the overthrow of the former government of Ukraine; my point is there was no armed insurrection or declaration of independence in Crimea. The situation in eastern Ukraine is an armed insurrection largely led, as I suggested, by Russians.

        • moedag

          Minority Russians? Actually they are the majority in Crimea.

  • lukelea

    “By most standards, the Ukrainian armed forces remain in a pitiful state. But they have benefited from the enlistment of thousands of volunteers”

    These wouldn’t be the right-wing nationalists who led the charge against the old regime by chance? That might explain why they “surmounted a reluctance to open fire on their own countrymen.”

    I don’t say this is true. I only wonder.

  • ShadrachSmith

    At the beginning of the conflict, the Ukrainian army couldn’t win a decent bar fight. They are now using artillery and aircraft to kill ‘rebels’.

    I see this as a bad development. The world would be a more peaceful place if Russian gets what it wants. I see no good for anybody out of powerful Ukrainian private armies sweeping aside the locals. Sad situation, getting worse.

    • B-Sabre

      “I see this as a bad development. The world would be a more peaceful place if Hitler gets what he wants.”

      There. Fixed if for you.

      • ShadrachSmith

        Fair point, there are so many things to balance. Still, I see the sitting Ukrainian government as capable of providing the people nothing but chaos. I see Russia’s flaws, I know Putin is a tyrant, but I still think that Odessa and the east would live better, more productive lives as Russians. It’s not like there will be less corruption under Kiev.

        • Andrew Allison

          It’s not up to anybody but the Ukrainians to decide, and armed revolt led by foreign nationals is not the way to do so. The eastern provinces, which have already been promised more autonomy, could vote for more, but the pro-Russians apparently don’t want to risk that. The other issue is that Ukraine is barely viable with the industrial output of the east, and if the east is lost, the inhabitants of Western Ukraine would be worse, not better off.

          • ShadrachSmith

            I have always been a Russophile, and Ukraine is the home of the Rus. That said, I have no brief for the farmers of Western Ukraine, their politics either…if you get my drift. Let us ‘save’ those we can.

            By save, I mean provide a decent life for their children. I see the government in Kiev as an obstacle to that goal. I started off cheering the Maidan Revolution. Without putting too fine a point on it, I stopped cheering.

          • Andrew Allison

            I never cheered Maidan, which resulted in catastrophe for Ukraine. To quote Wikipedia, the origins of the Rus are “much in dispute”. Before the annexation of Crimea, with it’s majority Russian population, 77.8% of the population of Ukraine was ethnic Ukrainian and just 17% Russian. It’s probably more like 80/15 today. Regardless of which, the Ukranians have the right to resolve the issues peacefully and without outside interference.

          • Brit in Kiev

            Brit in Kiev Andrew Allison • 5 minutes ago
            Andrew,
            There are some points that need correcting in your post.
            1/ The questions in the ballot on Crimea were basically-
            Do you want to join Russia now or later, there was no direct
            choice to remain Ukrainian. Consequently the majority actually
            had no option but to abstain. The ” huge majority ” was mostly
            among the minority ethnic Russian families who were shipped
            in after the Tartars were removed by Stalin in 1945.
            2/ The current “situation” is NOT in Eastern Crimea but Eastern UKRAINE.
            3/ The “situation” never was about independance, originally, but devolution
            and local self Government.
            4/ You are correct that there are some Ukrainians in the ranks but the leaders are Russian speakers backed up by ‘ Bandits’ from across
            the border

          • Andrew Allison

            This, like your comment, is a recording:
            Fellow Brit,Thanks for catching my senior moment (corrected). I’m afraid the rest is fiction. According to the Beeb, “A copy of the 16 March ballot paper – released by the Crimean parliament – appears to give voters two choices: to join Russia immediately or gain greater autonomy within Ukraine.” The assumption that the latter meant join later is unwarranted. Ethnic Russians are not a minority in Crimea, they outnumber Ukrainians almost 3-1. We could debate whether the vote in Crimea may have been more, or less, legitimate than the overthrow of the former government of Ukraine; my point is there was no armed insurrection or declaration of independence in Crimea. The situation in eastern Ukraine is an armed insurrection largely led, as I suggested, by non-Ukrainians (most Ukrainians speak Russian in addition to Ukrainian).

      • Олег Люльчак

        If you met a real sources of information, you would understand who really should be compared to Hitler. Who is shouting Nazi slogans, who leads the bombardment of cities of heavy weapons and aircraft, who call for genocide… But you did it not interesting.

  • BobSykes

    This so-called competent army let the insurgents, all of them, escape with all of their equipment and supplies, even though the insurgents were supposedly surrounded. Today there was a purge of Ukraine’s military leadership.

    Furthermore, the Ukrainian military is busily destroying the Ukraine’s industrial base, and its indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods has alienated large parts of the east. Even if the insurgents are finally defeated, which is not certain, the east will have to be under military occupation and martial law for decades. And the Ukraine’s shattered economy will make it a dependent on the US and EU for generations.

    All because the Russians offered Yanukovych got a better deal on Ukrainian debt than did the EU/IMF, The US would not tolerate that, hence the US engineered coup d’etat and the illegitimate junta..

    The most likely outcome is total economic collapse, including mass starvation, by Christmas and the installation of a Russian friendly regime in Kiev.

  • Don’t remember

    Competent army that can fight only against peaceful people

  • moedag

    “police officers killed about 100 protesters”

    Stop lying! Police officers were unarmed and they lost about 20 persons of shot wounds. It is the “protesters” and their US puppet masters who killed those people.

  • Runglishman

    Soldiers surmounted a reluctance to open fire on their own countrymen

    Oh yeah, it is very great progress: in the armed forces have recruiting killers. It is great news, if you like civil wars.

  • serge

    “But they have benefited from the enlistment of thousands of volunteers into new militias”
    The Deputy Oleg Lyashko, who participated in the formation of the battalion “Azov”, admitted that the battalion includes 50% of the convicts. The backbone of the battalion are the members of the Social-National Assembly (ie the National-Socialists, ie the Nazis). Also there are the neo-nazis of the EU. Cool Army!

    “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.”
    Ha, he created his own army, which isn’t the army of the Ukraine..
    It is illegal armed formations in the West were the reason for arming the rebels in the East. Excellent!

    “after riot police officers killed about 100 protesters last winter during civil unrest centered on Maidan”
    Although the investigation against the police officers collapsed. Yeah!

    The article is a typical example of how to create a parallel reality.

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