Si vis pacem, Ukraine ,– para bellum

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By Leonid Polyakov

Russian aggression left little choice for my unfortunate country, the former Soviet republic turned independent country Ukraine – to either submit to its bullying neighbor, chauvinistic Russia, and forget about real sovereignty or to fight against an overwhelming Russian invading force and a pro-Russian separatist insurgency, risking losing part of its territory but securing its freedom. Below is a brief glance at the recent history of Ukrainian military posture, the recent hostilities in Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine, and prospects for future development of our national military, which might be helpful for understanding important aspects of this latest example of Russian aggression.

A Brief history of Ukraine: 1991-2014

In the case of Ukraine, the ancient Roman axiom “Want peace – prepare for war” did not work properly for the 22 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until the start of 2014, when the Russian Federation launched a hysterical military aggression against Ukraine, occupying the Crimean peninsula and establishing a puppet separatist regime in the South-Eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, on Russia’s border. To the little surprise of some Ukrainians, including myself, but to the dismay of many others, at the start of Russian aggression, Ukraine had nothing meaningful in military terms with which to resist, despite formally possessing a national military of some 150,000 soldiers.

It was a particular dismay for those Ukrainians who remembered that back in December 1991, Ukraine inherited an 800,000 strong conventional military contingent and hosted on its soil the third largest nuclear arsenal – some 2,500 nuclear warheads and a number of different carriers. In short, some 20 years ago Ukraine possessed Europe’s second largest armed forces, with an impressive array of military equipment. Those armed forces included approximately 6,500 tanks, 7,000 armored vehicles, 1,500 combat aircraft, and more than 350 ships. In storages and depots, left from the former Soviet Army, Ukraine had 2.5 million tons of conventional ammunition and more than 7 million small arms.

Since its declaration of independence in 1991, Ukraine has covered quite a significant distance in transforming its armed forces. However, the process of transformation was generally characterised by a chronic lack of clarity in Ukraine’s defense policy, which in turn was the result of the inability of responsible authorities to give specific answers to questions concerning military threats, possible allies, etc. Typical in this regard is the 2004 quote of former President Leonid Kuchma, rather characteristic for that period: “We should abandon outdated approaches to and stereotypes of military threats and build an army on the principles of defense sufficiency based on the state’s economic capabilities”. The Ukrainian economy, however, lacked high “economic capabilities,” and as a result this kind of strategic guidance led to faulty assessments of forces and equipment required and caused general degradation of the military.

Attempts to introduce interoperability with NATO and to somewhat modernize key equipment during the tenure of pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko in 2005-2010 also failed due to the inconsistency between bold political declarations and the scarce resources available to the military. Even the very clear lessons of Georgian-Russian war of 2008 made only a temporary impact, which never led to a noticeable change in the continuing discontinuity between declarations and practice. The election of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 led to still further military reductions – the result of a pro-Russian economic policy that further starved the military of resources.

So in February 2014, when Yanukovych fled, the Ukrainian military looked much less impressive than it had in December 1991. This was, as I said above, not a surprise for military experts and civil society activists, who for years had tried to raise alarm at Ukraine’s declining military. Since 1991, the quantity of military equipment had dropped by four to five times; the military had hardly modernized at all, while the state of its readiness was rather poor. Besides, in the winter of 2013-2014 Ukrainian military personnel were largely demoralized and military leadership disoriented after three months of stand-off between the active part of the pro-European Ukrainian protestors and police loyal to President Yanukovych.

Early developments of 2014

Scared by the prospect of democratic protests spreading from Ukraine to Russia, Russia’s authoritarian leadership took advantage of Ukraine’s temporary weakness and occupied Crimea. This operation was initially started mostly by the troops of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, stationed in Crimean port of Sevastopol, and by undercover Russian special operations units. Their initial actions to block Ukrainian troops in their bases were quickly augmented by a large number of troops, transported to Crimea by Russian transport aircraft and by sea, as well as by the arrival of several pro-Russian paramilitaries such as the “Black Sea Cossacks,” “druzhinniki,” etc., made up both from local separatists and Russian nationalist elements organized by Russian special services. Moreover, the joint operations of the Russian military and the various Russian proxies in Crimea were supported by massive information manipulation.

In March 2014, Russian aggression in Crimea was developing in concert with deployment of large numbers of Russian troops along the length of the Ukrainian-Russian border. This deployment threatened the occupation of the vast and largely undefended territories of the Ukrainian East and South — from industrial Kharkiv in the North to Odessa seaport in the South, where Russian undercover agents aided by Russian propaganda in the media, aggressively initiated separatist movements. Ukraine’s first reaction to these Russian actions was to keep its bases in Crimea for as long as possible, tying down Russian forces in the peninsula while putting maximum effort into the mobilization of reserves and into organizing the deployment of land forces closer to the Russian border in the East. Ukrainian troops in Crimea, however, ceased resistance after three weeks, having lost half of its Navy ships and about 50 aircraft, captured by the Russians at Belbeck airfield. About 10,000 military personnel, mostly locally enlisted, shifted sides in favor of Russia. However, this three week long resistance allowed for the deployment of Ukrainian troops to the East as well as allowing time to initiate measures for their reinforcement and rearmament.

Soon after the loss of Crimea, in April 2014, these Ukrainian troops were engaged by armed pro-Russian separatists and Russian mercenaries. In response, Ukraine took continuous efforts to build up its military, which had two major simultaneous missions: to deter Russia from a full-scale invasion and to restore control over Donetsk and Lugansk regions (the only places where the separatists had been successful). The core of the separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk were orchestrated, equipped, trained, and directed by Russia. In this, Russia worked in alliance with a local criminalized elite that has controlled the region for most of the post-Soviet period. These were the same elites, the bankrupt Yanukovych regime, whom Russia had supported in their effort to extend the control of their criminalized political culture over the entire territory of Ukraine – an effort that the Ukrainian people defeated at the cost of over 100 killed and hundreds wounded in February 2014.

Growing hostilities

At that stage, in April 2014, the key problems of the military were to organize mobilized units for effective military actions against an armed insurgency — and possible regular Russian troops — and to provide them with the basic military equipment needed, from body armor and night vision goggles, to secure communication equipment and unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”). Initial hopes for timely support from partners in Europe and in North America proved to be false. US leadership in the spring-summer period of 2014 was rather hesitant to offer anything meaningful beyond one aircraft load of MRE rations. The rest of Ukraine’s possible supporters in NATO and the EU, as has traditionally been the case, took their cue from the US, and without a U.S. lead appeared hesitant to step forward and support Ukraine militarily.

While regular Ukrainian military units needed more time to reconstitute their combat capability the decision was made to expedite the formation of lightly armed “territorial defence” battalions and to send them on an antiterrorist mission to the East to support the regular military and National Guard units deployed there. In addition, Ukrainian society came up with several initiatives to support the war effort: forming volunteer militia type battalions, organising logistical volunteer networks in Ukraine and abroad, and providing medical support and donation money for military needs. The scale of this volunteer support was rather unprecedented and, by June 2014, it had allowed the military to reverse the advance of the well-equipped pro-Russian insurgency.

By the middle of 2014, it also became evident that Russia was conducting a type of aggression, identified by experts as “hybrid war”, which put equally important emphasis not just on traditional instruments: the regular military, special operation units and special services/intelligence; but also on information warfare tools, where a key role was played by major Russian TV channels, printed media and news agencies, who openly manipulated their viewers. In response, Ukrainian volunteers created their ad hoc information resistance cells, uniting groups of professionals and volunteers in an effort to neutralize the flow or Russian fake messages and anti-Western/ant-Ukrainian propaganda.

In late May, Ukrainians democratically elected President Petro Poroshenko, who was resolved to destroy separatists in shortest possible time. In June, the progress of the separatists was stopped, and in July, Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region started slowly but steadily advancing against pro-Russian separatists. Russia then initiated a hasty supply of armaments, mercenaries and military personnel to the separatist “battalions,” which climaxed in the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH47 by a Russian missile evidently launched by a Russian crew from separatist held territory — presumably to hit one of Ukraine’s planes. In August 2014, Ukrainian troops continued pushing separatists towards the border with Russia. At that point, facing the prospect of the imminent destruction of the separatists and mercenaries, Russia’s leadership launched Russian regular troops into Ukraine. This invasion shifted the war from mainly “hybrid” to a more regular warfare. Defending Ukrainian troops sustained losses of several hundred killed and about one thousand wounded in August only, but they managed to inflict even higher losses to Russian invaders.

Shaky truce

Major fighting subsided in September. A ceasefire was formally wrapped up in the so-called Minsk protocol reached between Ukraine, Russia, rebels and OSCE calling for observing the de-facto line of separation, the exchange of prisoners and other truce-oriented measures.

The following months witnessed continuous provocations on the part of the separatists and consequent responses from Ukrainian troops all along the line of separation. In parallel, Russia was beefing up rebels with modern armaments, ammunition and with better trained personnel. Separatist “battalions” turned into “brigades.” Ukraine, for its part, was putting maximum effort into restoring the combat readiness of regular units, into improving their supply, and into incorporating volunteer detachments into regular formations of the Armed Forces and National Guard. It was also working to turn the national defence industry towards the maximum possible fulfilment of Ukraine’s military needs.

According to official statistical data made public by the Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, during 2014, in order to meet the interests of the Armed Forces and other military formations, Ukraine had to mobilise 110,000 personnel and 6,100vehicles. The Ukrainian defence industry supplied 740 pieces of military hardware, which included 154 tanks and armoured carriers, 165 artillery and mortar pieces, 16 aircraft and 8 helicopters. Besides, military repair plants restored about 20,000 pieces of military equipment. In general, the Ukrainian military has gone from having an army of approximately 150,000with almost no combat-ready units to having a force of around 250,000 thousand – of which the most combat ready parts are now deployed to deter potential Russian aggression.


In general, over the past year, Ukraine has mobilized, equipped, and trained a substantial force, which looks much more able to fight and resist invading Russian forces and to inflict a high cost on them, if they choose to launch another round of invasion. Of course, if the Russians are willing to pay a high enough price, it will be still difficult to stop them from partially achieving their objectives, particularly given their advantage in manpower, armor, and especially airpower. External support from democratic countries could help Ukraine substantially increase its military’s ability to deter Russian aggression. Even as early as spring 2014, it was clear that only success in organizing and equipping the national military will give Ukraine a chance to receive meaningful military support from abroad. So, quite naturally, the issue of military reform has become an issue of national survival.

One of the key lessons of Russian aggression in 2014 was that regardless of whether country is facing “hybrid” or conventional war, its military has to respond to the very basic requirements for modern, robust and interoperable forces in terms of basic equipment, training, logistics, command and control, etc. The possession of substantial numbers of motivated personnel is not a substitute for modern communication, observation, navigation, electronic warfare and other high-tech equipment, so Ukraine urgently needs to find systemic sources of supply for these items — either through its own development or from acquisition abroad, whatever works better.

Counteracting superior numbers of Russian combat aircraft, attack helicopters and tactical missiles would logically require a strong emphasis on different air defense assets and on electronic warfare capability. Under the USSR, Ukraine comprised a 17% share in the Soviet military-industrial complex output, with 1840 enterprises and research centers employing 2.7 million people on a permanent basis. While only fragments of this survive today, Ukraine still preserves a sufficient number of different military repair plants for a wide array of military hardware. It also preserves certain research, development and production capabilities in advanced areas. However, to cover existing gaps will require time and resources, which country may not have. So, Ukraine may need to look into the experience of neighboring countries like Poland, Romania or Turkey, who demonstrated success in defense industrial production either under licences, or in close cooperation with major Western weapons producers. This is especially important, since past cooperation with Russia is not an option any more for obvious reasons.

Another important lesson calls for improving the system of reserve force maintenance, including especially the mobilization process, and of developing territorial defense strategies as an asymmetric way of employing motivated personnel, inexpensive weapons, and better human intelligence against a superior occupying force. To that end experts often name Finland, the Baltic States, Israel or even Switzerland as a source of useful experience. In concert with substantial numbers of highly trained and equipped special forces, this approach may seem like a cost-effective way to neutralize the “hybrid” type of invasion of illegal armed formations supported by regular military units that Russia has deployed.

Democratic Ukraine’s survival will also depend on its economic condition and its ability to address in a systemic way the current challenge of the insurgency, as well as its ability to deter further Russian incursions. To the extent that Ukraine’s Western partners can add material support to their political support and economic sanctions, Ukraine’s capability will grow more quickly, and the window of risk will be shorter.



Leonid Polyakov is senior advisor  at the Ukrainian think tank “Institute for Strategic Studies: New Ukraine”; former Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine; .


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