Can Kiev Regain Control of Eastern Ukraine, And Its Own Military?

April 21, 2014
Ukrainian APCs captured by pro-Russian militants in Slaviansk, April 16th | Picture via Roland Oliphant

When professional and well trained “little green men” invaded Crimea, they displayed the vast disparity in capabilities between Ukraine’s underfunded, poorly maintained and improperly led military, with Russia’s new-found confidence, the result of its modernizatsiia efforts. The Russian troops were well equipped, well trained and most importantly, well led–Putin in fact finally admitted that the “little green men” were in fact Russian troops, though he continued to deny that there were Russian forces supervising the chaos in eastern Ukraine (not to speak of the 80,000 just on the other side of the border). The Russian forces in Crimea had a clear understanding of not only their individual missions, but also of how to interact with the media and the surrounded Ukrainian troops. There were clear lines and limits imposed on them, and they knew exactly how far to go.

Meanwhile, the surrounded Ukrainian troops were left without even knowing their orders. Were they to vacate their bases? Violently resist? In the end they were left to fend for themselves with little direction until finally notified that Kiev had assented to their removal. Yet, even with this fact finally formalized, their retreat was hasty and uncoordinated, and most of them were left on their own to sort the specifics.

Last week, just as in Crimea, the Ukrainian troops mobilized to retake 10 or so towns that have been taken over by local self-defense forces—which are undoubtedly under the command and control of GRU (Russian military intelligence) and under the supervision of Spetsnaz forces (allegedly including the elite 45th Guards Reconnaissance Regiment, an elite Spetsnaz formation attached to the Airborne forces)—illustrated not just their anemic state, but an almost absence of competent leadership, both political and military.

When it became clear that the mysterious dissenters in the east were not satisfied by Kiev’s overtures of more decentralized power and remained unmoved by deadlines to vacate the captured buildings, Kiev ordered a hastily prepared and extremely uncoordinated effort to send the military in to force their removal. And despite the recent announcement that a deal had been struck to de-escalate tensions, the pro-Russian rebels remain ensconced in the cities.

Yet, the use of the military was the least-bad option for use of force available. The new government decided to use the military because of the fears that the Interior Ministry troops (VV) who are trained and equipped for these operations would not follow orders due to their questionable loyalty. It is the same fear that led to the disbanding of Berkut, the elite riot police which became infamous for their role in cracking down on the protests on the Maiden.

The operation resulted in the embarrassment of the military as many Ukrainian troops were surrounded by a few armed men and large group of civilians who taunted them and made them look like the aggressors. Many units were forced to unceremoniously remove their firing pins and return to their bases. Apparently some members from a unit from the (relatively) elite 25th airborne brigade based in Dnipropetrovsk allegedly even surrendered and switched sides.

“The army has been poorly managed and neglected for years and the quality of overall leadership is questionable,” one U.S. administration official told The Daily Beast, “We are sending them into a highly charged and complex situation which is being cleverly manipulated by Moscow.”

It became very clear very quickly that not only were the Ukrainian troops dramatically under-equipped, so much so that they had to rely on food and water donations from local residents, but that their immediate superiors and the new government in Kiev really did not have a firm grasp on the situation, nor had they presented the troops with clear objectives and rules of engagement.

Yet the military performed as well as one would expect it to after being ludicrously underfunded and demoralized in the wake of Yanukovych’s ouster and Crimea—the new government has even had to solicit donations via text and sell war bonds for emergency military funding. And with the defection of troops and the military’s unceremonious defeat at the hands of civilians, the calls about the uselessness of its military are overblown. The operation to restore control in east Ukraine, and the military as a whole, suffers from horrific leadership that fails to adequately supervise and direct it. It is hard to blame the young soldier for feeling confused and helpless when it’s increasingly evident that so are the politicians in Kiev.

Frankly, in light of this it is surprising that the military did not open fire on the unarmed civilians,  who were mingled with armed separatists, who came out to protest the troops. That the soldiers could remain so calm in the face of blinding confusion is can be taken as a sign of their ability to maintain continued control and composition, especially since Ukrainian troops firing on civilians would give the Kremlin the exact kind of condition it needs to “justify” its invasion on the grounds of protecting local civilians.

Additionally, no military, much less Ukraine’s, is designed or trained to deal with situations like the one they are facing now. Militaries are designed to fight other militaries, not to quash internal dissent and adapt to an internal policing role (all one has to do is to look at and compare the U.S.’s ease in fighting conventionally and its difficulty in changing its mandate in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact the U.S. military is not only the best equipped and trained, but also the best led, military in the world). Ukraine has about 30,000 Interior troops (VV) to do just that, but as mentioned earlier, questions about their loyalty prevented their use. And while it appears that Ukraine still maintains the loyalty of some special force units of the Interior Ministry—namely Omega, a company-sized anti-terrorist unit under the command of the Kiev region Bars (Snow Leopard) special purpose brigade—they are too small in number to be utilized alone to retake the cities that are in the hands of separatists.

What has been lost on many commentators is that despite the underfunding, the demoralization, and the poor leadership, most troops remain committed to the new government and are following what few orders they receive. It is far more impressive that there is any coherent force at all. The question remains though, for how long will their loyalty last?

That is why, if the West truly wants to help Ukraine defend itself, they should start with advising the military leadership.

There is no argument that Russia’s vastly better equipped, modernized and led military would, if that decision was made by Moscow, be able to sweep aside any Ukrainian resistance. However, despite its lackluster readiness and performance, the Ukrainian military is still following orders and remains committed to defending what is left of Ukraine’s sovereignty.