Ukraine’s military is stronger than believed. Here’s what it needs to win.

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By Alan Chin
February 16, 2015


Members of the Ukrainian armed forces ride on a military vehicle near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 16, 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

“The hour of Europe has dawned.”

So said a prominent European leader about tense negotiations to end a war that threatened to tear peace and prosperity apart. But those words didn’t come from either German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Francois Hollande after they emerged from an all-nighter with Presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko of Russia and Ukraine, respectively, clutching a hard-won ceasefire in hand.

Without the ink being quite dry on the Minsk agreement, all parties are quick to stress how delicate and fraught enforcing its terms will be; fighting actually intensified in the hours before the truce began at midnight Sunday and has not abated, at least in one place along the line. Ukraine wanted an immediate end to the shooting, but as Russian-backed separatist (and Russian) forces closed in on the strategic town of Debaltseve, Putin demanded — and got — the delay of a few days to give his side a pre-truce chance to increase their gains.

Up to 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers are fighting in the exposed salient; surrounding and defeating them — or forcing their surrender — would be a significant victory for the separatists. Conversely, for Ukraine, holding out effectively or counterattacking would preserve its positions and, more importantly, soldiers’ morale.

Conventional wisdom thus suggests that Ukrainians are in a desperate predicament, and that the Russian behemoth is an unstoppable steamroller. Because they believe that a military solution is hopeless, Merkel and Hollande’s frantic diplomacy was partly a dissent against President Barack Obama’s public debate to arm Ukraine with “lethal defensive aid.”

But in fact, the war may be less of a mismatch than it first seems, at least in some ways. Mark Hiznay, senior researcher in the Arms Division for Human Rights Watch, said, “We’d like both sides to refrain from using cluster munitions,” as the organization has documented. “There is lots of old Soviet ammunition stored in Ukraine,” he explained, accessible to all parties, and that “massive firepower is being used in a way that negatively impacts civilians; firepower that is simple to use, indiscriminate and disproportional.” Ukraine, like its Russian opponents, has no shortage of artillery, rockets and tanks — the old, heavy metal weapons of 20th- century mechanized warfare.

Unlike Ukraine’s, the Russian army has improved in the past few years. As Carlotta Gall, writer and New York Times journalist who has covered many Russian and American wars, observed, “the Russian artillery was devastating, really accurate. You could see the craters in the fields, the bracketing. Nearly a hundred Ukrainian tanks were smashed at the Battle of Ilovaisk. The Russian columns had new weapons and were spic and span.”

However, she added, “They are still way behind the high-tech U.S. Army. I am comparing them to their units in Chechnya 20 years ago, when the Soviet Union had just collapsed and they were a shambles, and so were brutal and thuggish as well. Ukraine is in that position now — an army that has not seen any investment since independence, drunk sometimes and poorly led; the volunteers are separate. Whereas, clearly, the Russian army special forces have had some investment.”

Those volunteers are key. More than 50 territorial defense battalions, with more than 7,000 volunteer soldiers, have been formed in the past year, from scratch. As often as not, they are the infantry at the front. And the civilian effort goes further. Even regular Ukrainian army units are supplied with food and equipment from donors, in the absence of proper government logistics.

Weak compared to Putin’s Russia, certainly. But the national awakening evident in Ukraine’s volunteer battalions is of a quality hard to imagine in Western Europe or the United States today. For it’s not only the flowering of patriotic rhetoric, but also of citizens in large numbers picking up arms and actually risking — and losing — their lives. Like the Kurds of Iraq, the Ukrainian volunteers are pro-Western and wonder why the West doesn’t help them more, rather than deride their chances with “realism.”

Some of the volunteers, such as the Azov Battalion, have been accused of ties to right-wing and fascist movements, accusations that the Russians are quick to amplify but have some truth to them, nonetheless. Regardless of ideology and the long-term danger to Ukrainian civil society, a broad spectrum of Ukrainian society is now united to fight the war.

The American plan to provide arms, on hold in light of the new armistice agreement, might be exactly what Ukraine needs if the bloodletting flares anew. Not tanks or cannon, of which Ukraine has plenty, but high-technology items that would give light infantry the ability to blunt or stop a Russian or Russian-backed attack. The list is specific: antitank missiles, drones and radars that can locate incoming artillery fire.

“Their sense of belief is amazingly strong,” Gall said. “If armed and organized, they will put up a big fight. They have deep conviction.” The Pentagon agrees, having just announced that U.S. soldiers will start training Ukrainians in March, regardless of whether or not the weapons will be a graduation gift.

Just as critically, Ukraine received an International Monetary Fund bailout of $17.5 billion, to be paid out over the next four years, to rebuild and support its shattered economy. That, and if oil prices continue to stagnate and hollow out Russian wealth, and if American weapons arrive if the ceasefire fails, might be the margin of error for Ukraine to emerge successfully from war and collapse in the long term. That’s a lot of ifs, but ultimately not as impractical as some may believe.

And what about the “hour of Europe?” Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, was speaking for the European Union when it thought it had defused the breakup of Yugoslavia peacefully in 1991. Around 50 people had been killed in fighting at that point, and Western Europe believed it had nipped war in the bud. At least 150,000 more would die all across the former Yugoslavia in the next 10 years. A year into this conflict, there are more than 5,000 dead in Ukraine. This time, nobody dares claim that it is the hour of anything.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misquoted Jacques Poos in the first paragraph.
Ukraine&[HASHTAG]#8217[/HASHTAG];s military is stronger than believed. Here&[HASHTAG]#8217[/HASHTAG];s what it needs to win.
 
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I can see the rebels becoming a bit overconfident and spreading themselves thin in order to capture more ground. This would be a perfect opportunity for the Ukrainian army to not only create proper defensive positions, but also take advantage of the rebel weakness and take them out. Of course, this relies on Russia stopping further armaments and supplies being provided.

All in all, one should never underestimate a Slav's ability to reign terror via guerrilla tactics.
 
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The Ukrainian government was obviously unprepared for the uprising. No one saw the rebellion coming. The rebels had planned it for years and it's apparent in the way they operate. Another thing the government was unprepared for was Russia's direct but covert involvement. In effect, the Ukrainian army couldn't get themselves together and control the situation, causing the rebels to gain the upper hand. If Ukraine starts taking the offensive, they can control this war's outcome in their favor. But first, they need a sound plan that doesn't rely on might alone.
 
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The Ukrainian government was obviously unprepared for the uprising. No one saw the rebellion coming. The rebels had planned it for years and it's apparent in the way they operate. Another thing the government was unprepared for was Russia's direct but covert involvement. In effect, the Ukrainian army couldn't get themselves together and control the situation, causing the rebels to gain the upper hand. If Ukraine starts taking the offensive, they can control this war's outcome in their favor. But first, they need a sound plan that doesn't rely on might alone.
And of course you can back these claims with proof? From all the information available US started the coup, even Obama admits it:

Ukraine has been on the offensive since the start of the confrontation. The Ukrainian Army has been attacking the South-East in an attempt to force people into submission, however their army has proven to be useless. Only 6-20% of Ukrainians showed up for the latest military draft, and at least a million Ukrainians have fled to Russia to avoid it (fleeing to the ''aggressor'').
 
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And of course you can back these claims with proof? From all the information available US started the coup, even Obama admits it:

Ukraine has been on the offensive since the start of the confrontation. The Ukrainian Army has been attacking the South-East in an attempt to force people into submission, however their army has proven to be useless. Only 6-20% of Ukrainians showed up for the latest military draft, and at least a million Ukrainians have fled to Russia to avoid it (fleeing to the ''aggressor'').
So if Russia hadn't planned things from the outset, how could they dispatch troops and take over Crimea in so short a time to the shock of the Ukraine and the United States? Putin's army didn't even fire a shot, which means, they had already anticipated events to turn out the way they did. They had their eye on Crimea from the very beginning. Have you read the thread starter post? I guess not. Russia's been suffering from security dilemma for some time now. So you think the US started it? My goodness. Go to conspiracy sites then.
 
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So if Russia hadn't planned things from the outset, how could they dispatch troops and take over Crimea in so short a time to the shock of the Ukraine and the United States? Putin's army didn't even fire a shot, which means, they had already anticipated events to turn out the way they did. They had their eye on Crimea from the very beginning. Have you read the thread starter post? I guess not. Russia's been suffering from security dilemma for some time now. So you think the US started it? My goodness. Go to conspiracy sites then.
Did you even watch the video? Obama clearly states it was them, they ''brokered a power transition'' aka the coup (since that is how the power transitioned in Ukraine). I'm really not sure how you can say they didn't even after the leader of the US admits they did.
I love how the Western media somehow forgot to mention that Russian troops and navy have been stationed in Crimea since 1783. They also somehow forgot to mention that Russia and Ukraine had a signed deal, after the break up of USSR, by which Russia is allowed to station (and has stationed):
25,000 troops
24 artillery systems
132 armored vehicles
22 military planes
They also forgot to mention that according to the mentioned deal signed between Russia and Ukraine their (Russian) troops are permitted to implement security measures if needed, which they did after Crimea asked for their help. All of this information is of course widely available and known and yet Western media somehow ''forgot'' to mention these ''small'' details on how and why Russian military was in Crimea.
 
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Russia is one of the largest military in the world. Despite the backing of foreign powers I find it hard for Ukraine to come out on top. It would take a miracle for something like that to happen. Russia probably going be dominant for the time being.
 
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Russia is one of the largest military in the world. Despite the backing of foreign powers I find it hard for Ukraine to come out on top. It would take a miracle for something like that to happen. Russia probably going be dominant for the time being.
Ukrainian military is basically falling apart. Most of the guys join because of the high wages promised by Poroshenko, but they receive almost zero training before being deployed. Soldiers that have surrendered to the rebels claim that they have been deceived, they receive orders to shell towns under the excuse that the towns are empty besides rebels. This reaction of Ukrainian soldier being shown footage of the aftermath of one of such shelling actions sums it up:

I honestly believe his reaction is sincere and that they (his squad) had absolutely no idea they've been shelling civilians all along.
 
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