Russia Has Conquered Eastern Ukraine, But Will The West Just Let Them Have It?

September 10, 2014
A Russian flag flies from a tank belonging to Russian-backed separatists near the MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine | VADIM GHIRDA/AP

Like so many times before in the last year in Ukraine, enthusiasm has been quickly extinguished and replaced with uncertainty and fear, eradicating exuberant hope with the imposition of external interests. The prospects of signing the European Union Association Agreement were replaced by blackmail from Russia to force Ukraine not to sign, the ouster of the corrupt Yanukovych government was met with the invasion of Crimea and then parts of eastern Ukraine, and just as Ukraine’s thrown-together scramble of Army, National Guard, Interior Ministry and volunteer battalions were seemingly on the cusp of victory against Russian-backed separatists, Russian soldiers—well armed and organized—appeared alongside the insurgents, dealing Ukraine a series of significant military setbacks and potentially ending any hope of a re-unification of its territory or of obtaining a swift end to the conflict.

How could it end like this? How could a revolution that started with the hope for a new Ukraine and a break from the offensively corrupt and inept regime of Yanukovych end in the fragmentation of the country?

Although to be sure there will be much more death and killing before all is said and done. The ceasefire, once again negotiated by Ukrainian President Poroshenko at the point of a gun, is barely holding. Backed by timely injections of Russian troops (and the threat of outright Russian invasion) and fresh from a series of victories, separatist leaders still demand independence and as a result Poroshenko is already talking about giving autonomy to rebel-held eastern Ukraine while still maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity. We may be witnessing the broad strokes of the end of the conflict as Kiev may not be able to continue its war against Russia, the West just simply wants an end to the conflict because it is more concerned about domestic issues, and Russia won’t let Kiev end the conflict without de-facto surrendering control over large parts of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military has struggled to stand up to Russia since March. When Russia invaded Crimea the Ukrainian military was in a frightful state after years of financial and political mismanagement, leaving only a scattered and ineffective force, at one time numbering only 6,000 combat-ready troops according to its own defense ministry. In response a massive call went out for everything from troops to equipment and especially funding. Riding a tide of patriotism, Ukrainians answered the call. Whether joining the hastily created National Guard units or joining volunteer battalions funded by oligarchs or right wing groups with checkered pasts, Ukraine was able to form a quasi-coherent fighting force to augment its skeletonesque military. Despite their limited or even non-existent training, these units were instrumental in blunting and ultimately reversing the progress of Pro-Russian separatists in the East that were led, supported and equipped by Russia. They were able to do this against an insurgency that was as much of a thrown-together militia as the volunteer battalions themselves, riddled with coordination and leadership issues and, for the most part, outgunned by the Ukrainian military with its small-but-effective air force and stockpiles of Soviet-era artillery.

Yet, despite increasing their combat effectiveness with every passing day, the lightly-armed volunteer battalions and National Guard are no match for the Russian army which has been openly invading since the end of August. This is especially evident when analyzing the weaponry that Ukrainian forces are facing. Until recently the separatists only armor consisted of older T-64BV tanks, an upgraded version of an older Soviet designed tank that is used in large numbers by Ukrainian forces, and since it is no longer in service within the Russian military there are large stockpiles that can be easily transferred to the rebels. This gave Russia a measure of deniability by allowing the separatists to claim that the tanks were captured from current Ukrainian forces. But as the conflict reaches a new stage with hardly disguised evidence of Russian involvement the need for such deniability decreases. The presence of increasing numbers of T-72B1 tanks, far more advanced than the T-64BV, along with large amounts of not only BM-21 Grad missile batteries and artillery support but also the ammunition necessary to sustain such combat operations, indicate a marked and determined increase in Russian support for the separatists that was not present until recently.

However, it is the presence of T-72BM tanks that gives the most concern to Ukrainian forces and proves Russia’s intent in Ukraine. It is a tank that is utilized in large numbers by the Russian military and equipped with advanced armor (Kontakt-5 Explosive Reactive Armour) that will defeat most anti-armor weaponry available to Ukrainian forces. As Joseph Dempsey of the think tank IISS noted:

The introduction of the T-72BM variant provides the separatists with a more advanced platform than the previous MBTs observed, and if employed effectively in numbers represents a greater threat to Ukrainian government armour in the region.

Only regular army Ukrainian forces will have the weaponry available to stop tanks like the T-72BM, and they are too few in number and far too spread out to effectively counter the threat. They are also hampered by communication issues between the regular military and the volunteer battalions. This leaves the lightly-armed volunteer battalions dangerously exposed, outgunned and outmatched.

This mismatch in capabilities has led to calls for arming the Ukrainians by some in the West. However it is becoming increasingly clear that the West is tiring of the crisis at the same time as Russia is doubling down.

To be sure arming the Ukrainians is an easy sound bite but it is also fraught with potential complications. Many of the volunteer battalions, while nominally falling under the authority of the Interior Ministry, operate under their own banner and command; one is even accused of several human rights abuses. The issue of giving untrained and independent units heavy weaponry is decision that should never be undertaken lightly. As Daniel Kennedy of OpenDemocracy recently wrote

Providing expensive weaponry to an army that lacks training or morale can often end up with that weaponry falling into the hands of the very people you are trying to stop. Given how Russian rebels have already learned how to use anti-aircraft weapons systems they have acquired, allowing them to capture even more weaponry from Ukrainian forces seems like a dangerous prospect.

But beyond the issues of controlling who ultimately ends up with the weapons, which is a concern no matter the situation when selling arms, there is the issue of effectiveness. Ukraine has large stockpiles of Soviet-era weaponry that has and continues to be extremely effective on the battlefield. What Ukraine is struggling with is command, control and coordination issues. There are too few well trained units that effectively know how to use the weaponry called for, and the disparate nature of Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Offensive (ATO)—as the operation in the East is called—pushes its command structure to its limit. The U.S. just announced a $60 million dollar aid package of non-lethal aid to Ukraine, but military advising and support to reorganize its command structures would be worth countless flak vests and bullets.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the West doesn’t quite know what its interests are and continues to vacillate between accommodation and force in opposing and determined Kremlin. Strong EU sanctions came only belated in the face of the downing of a civilian airline, and in the face of a Russian invasion it threatens more sanctions with the caveat that they are already willing to weaken them if the ceasefire continues and Russia withdraws its troops—troops that it denies are even there other than on holiday.

Lethal aid or not, what is clear is that the threats of harsher sanctions are quickly undercut by the promises of easing them for positive Russian actions to end the conflict that they created, stocked and perpetuate. As it stands Ukraine is not able to win militarily in the East, even President Poroshenko admitted as much recently, and its ability to continue the fight is increasingly in danger as its economy continues to spiral downward. Yet even more troubling is the inability of the West to clearly define its interests and commitments to the conflict. The EU and the West need to clearly state to the Ukrainians (publicly or more importantly privately in serious conversations) what the limits of their support is along with conveying the certainty of their stance to the Russians should the West decide on a forceful—and committed—stance against Russia intervention in Ukraine.

Russia has made clear its positions on Ukraine. It has militarily backed the insurgents in eastern Ukraine, it has annexed Crimea, and it is in the process of annexing or creating a satellite state in eastern Ukraine. It’s time the West decided just where exactly it stands.