Ukrainian Ambassador: ‘We Are Still Way Off From Being a Leading Fighting Force’
After years of neglect and underfunding, Kiev says its military can’t beat back pro-Russian separatists without help.
On Wednesday, after a phone call between Vice President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the White House announced a new program to train 750 Ukrainian troops in the western city of Yavoriv near the Polish border.
For Ukrainian Ambassador Olexander Motsyk, the new initiative is vital not just because Kiev faces a sustained threat from Moscow-backed separatists, but because of the desperately moribund state of the Ukrainian military.
“We have essentially started from zero with our military,” Motsyk told Foreign Policy in an interview at the Ukrainian Embassy, noting that Kiev’s military problems date back to the end of the Cold War. “Even now, we are still way off from being a leading fighting force.”
After years of neglect, Ukraine’s outdated and underfunded military is being tested by separatists armed with sophisticated weaponry including T-64 tanks, BM-21 rocket launchers, and other military vehicles that the United States says were provided by Moscow — a charge the Kremlin denies. Despite the shaky cease-fire brokered in February by France and Germany, skirmishes between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists continue in eastern Ukraine, sending the death toll of a conflict that has already killed more than 6,000 people spiraling higher.
Motsyk said Washington and its allies could immediately help the country by sending in weapons, an option under fierce debate inside and outside of the White House. He said the armaments would deter the separatists and help hold the fragile truce together.
“In order to bring peace we need defensive weapons,” Motsyk said.
They may not be coming anytime soon. German officials have repeatedly warned that sending weapons to Ukraine could invite an even harsher response from Russia and lead to a further escalation of the conflict. On Tuesday, the top U.S. Army commander in Europe also emphasized the dangers of arming first and asking questions later.
“Providing weapons is not a strategy,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said. “There are great arguments for giving weapons to them to help raise the cost for the Russians. I think that is a valid argument. But saying that’s a valid argument is different from saying that this ought to be the policy.”
A number of senior Obama administration officials have hinted at a desire to send lethal weaponry to Kiev. Thus far, the White House has resisted such calls.
Even if Western weapons started flowing, Ukraine’s military would still face deep problems with troop competence, the comparatively small size of its armed forces, and the potential infiltration of its security forces and military commands by Russian intelligence operatives, a persistent problem since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
“They weren’t prepared for anything,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told FP, speaking of Ukraine’s pre-conflict readiness.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian army numbered around 700,000 troops, but by 1996, forces had dropped to about 300,000. In February 2014, on the eve of the annexation of Crimea, there were approximately 150,000 troops in the Ukrainian army, navy, and air force combined — only 5,000 of whom were battle-ready.
Ukraine has since moved to expand the size of its military through a nationwide draft, and by incorporating contract soldiers and volunteer battalions. “We always had the available personnel, but it took more than half a year to mobilize and modernize our forces. Even now, we are still way off from being a leading fighting force,” Motsyk said.
In February 2015, Kiev announced that it had grown its military forces to 200,000 troops since the start of the conflict. In 2015, the defense ministry plans to call up nearly 40,000 conscripts through the draft and to recruit 10,500 additional contract soldiers who had previously served as conscripts in the Ukrainian and Soviet militaries. Kiev has also integrated 37 territorial defense battalions into the military, with more than 7,000 soldiers. These volunteer battalions have often found themselves in the thick of heavy fighting against Russian-backed separatist militants, which means they’ve taken disproportionately high numbers of casualties.
“Ukraine would be in a much worse scenario without the volunteer fighters who went to the front lines. They bought us time to retool our military,” Motsyk said.
Kiev is also spending approximately $5 million a day to fight the war against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country, according to Motsyk, and the country plans to drastically increase defense spending from $1.8 billion in 2014 to approximately $5.5 billion in 2015, though that would still be a tiny fraction of Russia’s estimated $100-billion-per-year defense budget. While the increase may be necessary for Ukraine’s security, the war effort will continue to deplete the country’s already stretched coffers.
“We are trying to rebuild our country. But the war effort is sapping many of our financial resources,” Motsyk said.
After nearly a year of war, Kiev’s now battle-hardened military still remains very much a work in progress as it struggles to reform the holes left by endemic corruption and mismanagement.
“Corruption, properly understood, has been the major problem for the Ukrainian military,” said Herbst, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia center. “It meant they wouldn’t get the training and resources they needed.”
In August 2014, President Petro Poroshenko fired two Defense Ministry procurement directors for corruption. A case was also announced in October 2014 against several former Defense Ministry officials who purchased substandard body armor for the Ukrainian army. The officials are accused of spending $5.6 million to buy 17,080 pieces of low-quality body armor, which, according to Ukrainian media reports, have led to dozens of casualties and deaths during operations in the east. The armor was apparently incapable of withstanding a direct hit from a bullet.
This is why Ukraine’s ambassador continues to call for military aid from the United States and other Western allies, including so-called defensive weapons. “We need anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems in particular,” Motsyk said.
But a lack of formal military training still remains a major blind spot for Kiev’s forces, something that the addition of American trainers, and the 75 British soldiers already committed to training the Ukrainian military, could alleviate.
On Feb. 22, an elite British soldier who resigned to train Kiev’s forces told the U.K.’s Sunday Times that approximately six in 10 Ukrainian casualties were caused by friendly fire or from mishandling of weapons.
Reid Standish is a journalist based in Astana, Kazakhstan covering Central Asia and Eurasia for Foreign Policy and other publications. He was formerly an associate editor at FP. Twitter: @reidstan