As we are now in a lull in Russia’s war against Ukraine that Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin began one year ago, it’s time to assess how Kyiv can do better at war-fighting. Not for want of courage, Ukraine’s efforts to defend its territory and sovereignty from Russian aggression have been failures, as I’ve explained many times. I’ve repeatedly counseled Ukraine to emulate how Croatia in 1991 lost one-third of its territory to Serbian rebels, only to regain almost all that territory through quick, decisive military operations in 1995. As a template for strategic success against a more powerful enemy at a reasonable cost in lives and treasure, Zagreb’s model from the early 1990’s cannot be improved upon.
This has been met with whining from supporters of failing President Petro Poroshenko that 1. War is hard, and 2. Russia isn’t Serbia. The latter is true, but it’s also worth noting that Ukraine is ten times Croatia’s size in population, and even more so in area. Kyiv has ample resources to conduct defensive war, it just doesn’t seem to want to. National strength and honor seem lacking to a worrisome degree. Furthermore, if Poroshenko is not up to the difficult job of saving his country from Kremlin aggression, he needs to return to the candy business without delay and make room for a leader who actually wants to fight.
Emulating Croatia today means several specific actions that must be taken, and soon. The current lull in the Russo-Ukrainian War is temporary. Since people often ask for specifics, I’m giving them to you. Here is what Ukraine must do if it wants to not lose even bigger swathes of the country to the Russians, and eventually regain the land it has already lost to Putin.
Think strategically: This means looking at a map and noting that Ukraine is a very big country by European standards. Kyiv can certainly trade space for time, and in the long run time is not on Russia’s side in this war of choice. This means halting idiotic military moves like “last stands” at places of no strategic significance like Donetsk airport and Debaltseve, where Kyiv sacrificed motivated defenders for no reason except Poroshenko, a strategic illiterate, said so. Any Russian drive to make its Novorossiya fantasy a reality must be stopped — in practical terms this means turning Mariupol into Vukovar-on-the-Azov — but this is an achievable strategic goal for Ukraine’s hard-pressed armed forces. If the Russians can be halted at Mariupol, they can be halted anywhere. If not, Ukraine is lost. Act accordingly. Zagreb won big in 1995 because it played the long game, both diplomatically and militarily. Eventually the Kremlin will tire of its noxious proxies in Eastern Ukraine: be ready to pounce when that happens.
Take intelligence seriously: At present, Kyiv cannot do much of anything in secret. Moscow’s spies, deeply embedded during the Yanukovych era, when Ukraine’s SBU was in effect a subset of Russia’s FSB, know all, or nearly so. Operational security in the Western sense hardly exists. Rigorous counterintelligence is needed without delay. This task seems daunting but, given patience and discipline, it can and must be done. In 1991, Yugoslavia’s military intelligence alone had almost 1,800 agents in Croatia — counting Belgrade’s civilian security service the true number of Serbian spies easily doubled — but Zagreb eventually won the all-important SpyWar by taking counterintelligence seriously. There are other pressing intelligence needs, especially in the area of electronic warfare, where Moscow’s dominance on the battlefield is almost total, costing Ukraine’s military many lives, and here Western aid can help significantly. But there’s not much point in giving Kyiv sensitive gear that will be passed to the Russians. Ukraine cannot win the war until it bests the Russians in espionage, and time is wasting.
Fight corruption hard: Ukraine’s fighting troops are already disgruntled by the fact that their political masters in Kyiv, to include the military’s famously corrupt generals, are living well while they are dying in misguided operations that seem doomed to fail. This is recipe for political disaster for Ukraine in the long run. The situation is so bad that Western charities supporting the military go around the General Staff and the official chain of command, which they know steal aid that is intended for the front. Ukraine’s overall corruption problem is staggering, but institutionalized theft in the defense sector must be beaten down if Ukraine wants to stop losing lives and territory to a rapacious Russia. Executions of corrupt generals and politicos, in Beijing style, pour encourager les autres, would send an indelible message. Rooting deep corruption of out of the military would have a salutary effect on the whole country. Spreading the message that corrupt officials are helping Moscow, and should be dealt with as traitors, is a necessary start.
Quantity has a quality all its own: Ukraine’s military is far too small to defend the country against Russian aggression, much less win back lost territory. In the more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s military devolved into an embarrassing morass of theft and laziness with little combat capability. This erosion of basic competence in battle has been laid bare by events around Donbas in recent months. Additionally, Ukraine’s fighting forces are simply too small to defend the country. Belated efforts to raise the active military to 250,000 troops, approved in Kyiv this week, are both unconscionably late and inadequate. Putting anything less than one percent of the country’s population in uniform, when Ukraine is at war, is frankly a joke and indicates Poroshenko wants to lose. In the second half of 1991, Croatia mobilized nearly 200,000 troops from a population of not much more than four million. That Ukraine is having a hard time coming up with a similar number of troops from a population that’s ten times Croatia’s speaks volumes about what’s wrong here.
But quality counts too: Ukraine certainly needs more troops to prevent further Russian aggression, but it also needs better troops. Some of the volunteer battalions have shown impressive grit in battle against the Russians, far more than most regular army units, and properly handled, they might form the core of Ukraine’s new, improved army. Here the Croatian model again informs. Starting from basically nothing beyond disarmed Yugoslav-era Territorial Defense structures, Zagreb built an effective three-tiered army. At the top stood seven mechanized Guards brigades, staffed with professional soldiers and equipped with the most modern weaponry the Croats possessed. They were the tip of the spear in Operation STORM, the biggest European military undertaking since 1945. At the other end were Home Defense regiments, part-time troops that were intended for mopping up duties, not high-intensity combat. The bulk of the army consisted of infantry brigades, a mix of conscripts and reservists, intended for defense and limited offensive missions. Together, this three-level system restored Croatian independence and sovereignty, making efficient use of Zagreb’s limited stocks of modern weaponry. The only thing stopping Ukraine from doing something similar is a lack of will and imagination.
To sum up, the Russo-Ukrainian War is Kyiv’s to win, if it approaches the future wisely. The last year has been one of defeat after defeat for Ukraine, sometimes needlessly. Vladimir Putin has opted for war against Russia’s vast neighbor, the second biggest country in Europe, and this is now a conflict that Russia cannot win without a massive invasion and mobilization that would be politically and economically toxic to average Russians. Therefore the initiative has passed to Kyiv, if it has the strength and honor to use it. That will require thinking strategically, turning the espionage tables on Moscow, and building the right military machine for the war at hand. All this can be done, but every day that Kyiv does not change course is a further indication that the Poroshenko government does not really want to win.