Today brings more bad news from easternmost Ukraine, as Kyiv’s defenders are trying to hold on to Donetsk airport, where fighting has waxed and waned for months between Ukrainian troops and rebels, many of whom are actually Russian soldiers. Putin is pushing again around Donetsk and the airport’s brave defenders, termed Cyborgs by the Ukrainian public, may not be able to stand their ground much longer. As usual, they are dismally supplied and badly led. Never in the Russo-Ukrainian War, which started last spring, has Kyiv’s General Staff inspired much confidence, and their leadership is improving slowly, if at all, under the rigors of war.
The disorganization and corruption of too much of Ukraine’s military is no secret. Indeed, that the higher-ups are criminals who avoid battle is a near-universally held belief among the fighters who are doing the dying around Donetsk, who see senior officers, many of them hold-overs from the Yanukovych era, living in comfort far from the sound of the guns. The troops who have borne the brunt of the Russo-Ukrainian War to date are volunteers — there are more than fifty battalions of them, though some are in reality more company-sized — since the regular army is in such a lamentable state that many of its units cannot be sent into battle.
Why the Ukrainian military remains so unready after many months of promises from Kyiv that it is serious about resisting the Russians is an important question. We have heard many excuses proffered about how the military was neglected for two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, which is true but unhelpful now, when Ukraine urgently needs combat-ready forces. Courage is not lacking while battle skill clearly is.
Small wonder then that morale among Ukraine’s combat troops is low and dropping. The Azov Battalion, which is among the more proficient as well as politically radical of the volunteer units, makes no effort to hide its contempt for the politicos in Kyiv, promising to turn the guns around once the Russians are defeated. If Kyiv isn’t careful, it could easily find itself with a serious political problem on its hands, with angry volunteers feeling themselves to be defeated more by their own government than by the enemy. Here the experience of Germany’s Freikorps may offer worrisome lessons.
Moreover, the critique of many volunteers, that Kyiv is fundamentally not serious about the war, is difficult to refute. Even staunch defenders of the Ukrainian government concede that support for the combat forces is haphazard, at best, and the fighting troops would be starving and freezing without donations from private citizens eager to support “the boys.” Kyiv has just upped the draft age limit to twenty-seven, and has promised to soon add 50,000 conscripts to the hard-pressed forces.
But those troops will not be fit for frontline service for months, and if Putin decides to push harder in Ukraine’s Southeast, defenses would collapse quickly. Not to mention that calling up 50,000 draftees in a country of forty-five million citizens represents something very short of a general mobilization, and bespeaks a lack of understanding in Kyiv about the situation they actually face. The Poroshenko government is happy to raise awareness about Russian aggression, amidst unsubtle hints that they have been left in the lurch by NATO and the West, while bringing in foreign experts who are pleasing to the eye to try to repair the pathetic economy. However, Kyiv seems much less serious about actually defending the country from Putin’s aggression, substituting talk for action as a matter of policy. As for strategy on how to win the war, none can be detected.
A historical comparison illustrates how lame Poroshenko and his cronies actually are at defending Ukraine. When the First World War ended, Western Ukraine, centered on the recently Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, attempted to defend ethnic Ukrainian land (then, as now, Western Ukraine was a hotbed of nationalism). In a few months, they created an army of 100,000 troops, and managed to get three-quarters of them into battle in more than a dozen brigades. Notwithstanding a grave lack of weapons and funds, and a critical shortage of trained officers, they acquitted themselves well in battle, losing only when overwhelmed by greater numbers of much better equipped Polish forces. They did this from nearly no industrial base and a population less than one-tenth of Ukraine’s today.
To cite a more recent example that likewise puts Kyiv in a poor light, in 1991 Croatia saw fully one-third of its territory seized in a few months by Serbian rebels who were backed by Belgrade. Croatia had to create a military almost from scratch, possessing few heavy weapons, while burdened with counterintelligence problems at least as bad as Ukraine’s today. Yet by the end of 1991, by executing a true mass mobilization, Zagreb fielded an army of 150,0000 in sixty brigades, and thereby managed to blunt Belgrade’s effort to subdue Croatia by force.
Croatia stopped the Yugoslav military’s putative effort to destroy their country through sheer grit, helped by Serbian incompetence. Indeed, the Yugoslav offensive to crush Croatia was far larger than the effort Putin has made in the Donbas to date, while the epic siege of Vukovar in late 1991, which ended in Pyrrhic victory for the Serbs, was more intense than what’s going on around Donetsk now.
By early 1992, the war calmed down, front lines became more or less static, and Croatia resolved to get back the one-third of its country that had been seized by Belgrade. Zagreb understood this was a long-term project that required the building of a proper military machine. Croatia’s president, Franjo Tudjman, had many flaws, but he was a military man by background and he understood the strategic imperative. For the next three years, Croatia methodically built a new army along NATO lines, with discreet Western aid, while laying the diplomatic basis for eventual victory in what they call the Homeland War.
When the time was right, in mid-1995, as the Greater Serbia project was falling apart and NATO had tired of the antics of Slobodan Milošević, Zagreb unleashed Operation STORM in early August, the largest military operation in Europe since 1945. With lightning speed, 130,000 Croatian troops struck and within three days most of the country was back under Zagreb’s control, demoralized Serbs having folded in the face of betrayal by Belgrade. Three years after STORM, thanks to smart diplomacy, Croatia recovered all the territory it lost in 1991, setting the country on a path to membership in NATO and the European Union.
Lessons abound here for Ukraine today. In the first place, possessing competent armed forces is the critical factor; no amount of diplomacy, Western sympathy, or avid hashtagging can compensate for military power when your country is at war. If Ukraine wants to defeat Russian aggression and eventually get back the territory it has lost, the first job is making the Ukrainian military functional and big enough to matter. That remains far off at present. Talk of joining NATO or the EU until Ukraine controls every inch of its territory is a dangerous fantasy that should not be encouraged by the West.
Petro Poroshenko is well meaning but no war leader. If he cannot run the war he should step down in favor of those who can. At a minimum, Kyiv must purge the General Staff of crooks, incompetents, and Russian sympathizers. Turning to foreigners, including Ukrainians in the diaspora who possess acumen in military and security matters, is being done for the economy, why not for the armed forces? The time to evict Russian rebels from Ukrainian soil is years off but that goal will never be achieved if Kyiv does not get serious about the war soon.
There has been much complaining from some Ukrainians that NATO isn’t doing enough and I share some of that frustration. That said, Ukraine must defend itself. NATO will never go to war over the Donbas and the sooner Kyiv accepts strategic reality the better. Like Croatia in the 1990’s, NATO will provide discreet assistance with supplies, logistics, training, and intelligence, but the heavy lifting will have to be done by Ukrainians. If there are not enough Ukrainians willing to bear that burden, they will not have their own state for long.
Kyiv’s trump card, which they play poorly, is that Vladimir Putin is desperately afraid of getting embroiled in a messy, full-scale war in Ukraine. While Russia can defeat Ukraine’s military with relative ease still, occupying large chunks of Ukraine, in the face of certain resistance, would be a political and humanitarian nightmare and the Kremlin knows this.
It’s fair to point out that Russia, a vast nuclear power, is a much more formidable foe than Serbia. Yet it’s likewise fair to note that Croatia, whose experience in the 1990’s offers a template for what Kyiv must do now, has one-tenth the population of Ukraine, and even less territory. The Russo-Ukrainian War is far from over. Someday, Russian power and Moscow’s willingness to use it will wane and Putin, like Milošević, may seek to cut off bumptious rebels whom he nurtured but later finds a nuisance. Then will be the time for Ukraine’s own Operation STORM, but not before, and unless Kyiv gets serious about military matters, that day will never come.