When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the Ukrainian army found itself unprepared. Hollowed out by corruption and barely ready for actual combat, the country’s military was forced to rely on volunteer battalions to fight the separatists armed and led by Moscow.
In September 2014, Ukrainian forces suffered a crushing defeat at Ilovaisk. In February 2015, Russian and separatist forces defeated the Ukrainian military at Debaltseve. Both battles were deeply demoralizing for Ukraine.
But the army that lost the battles of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve is no more, says Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow in Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program and director of the Conflict Studies Research Center.
The change “has been drastic and dramatic — the military is unrecognizable since the start of the war,” Giles says. “It has transformed from the remnant of a post-Soviet army — underfunded, under-resourced — into an effective fighting force while, of course, fighting a war at the same time.”
However, problems remain. The Ukrainian army has not yet reached Western standards and the reform process is still underway. Additionally, it suffers from an image problem that lags behind the actual improvement in the Ukrainian armed forces’ capabilities.
Hromadske spoke with Keir Giles over Skype to learn more about how the Ukrainian military has changed in four years.
The change, of course, has been drastic and dramatic – the military is unrecognisable since the start of the war. It has transformed from the remnant of a post-Soviet army – underfunded, under-resourced – into an effective fighting force while, of course, fighting a war at the same time. It's been a dramatic transformation. Now, the problem with that is that some of the elements that might have been in place if it had a more slow and methodical process of the reform have not been realised in quite the same way as perhaps they should have been. This is the roots of some of the criticisms of reforms so far; that it has not gone far enough. In terms of westernising the military according to some concepts like civilian control, transparency and so on. Nevertheless, we shouldn't underestimate just how far the Ukrainian Armed Forces and all of their ancillary forces have come in a very short time.
So what would it mean in practice for Ukraine's army to reach western standards? What would have to happen there?
Well there are two distinct challenges here. The first is actually taking all of the best from western experience and applying it, and that means in terms of commanding control, flexibility, the jointness of operations between forces. But there is also image problem that has to be addressed and that is the fact that Ukraine is occasionally perceived as having armed forces which are inefficient because they are not under centralised control and, also, served by a defence industry which is rife with corruption. There are immediate problems with that – if either of those are actually true. It obviously hampers the fighting efficiency of the armed forces. But, also, in terms of the image Russia projects to the West, and the United States in particular, there are distinct disadvantages to this problem. For instance, in a very immediate sense, some US aid is conditional on defence reform and on pushing through some of the changes that have been promised but not yet delivered. But, overall, there's the enormous problem of convincing the United States, and the West as a whole, that Ukraine is actually worth defending and worth siding with. And corruption allegations in particular, when they are persistent and, apparently, unresolved, poses a significant challenge to that.
Two of the areas that are often mentioned in terms of problems and reforming the military are volunteer battalions and also defence procurement. Could you tell us a bit more about those issues.
Well, in the volunteer battalions issues in particular, there is a problem of perception lagging behind reality. The negative image of the volunteer battalions in the very earliest stages of the conflict, when they were an emergency measure to respond to Russian aggression, has persisted long after the problems that were associated with them – like the lack of direct control, the potential use as private armies, the independence from the armed forces effort as a whole – those problems have largely passed and been resolved, but the negative impression has taken more time to dispel among critics of the Ukrainian war effort. And, in defence procurement in particular, Ukroboronprom is portrayed something which is impenetrable and not transparent and, actually, a mechanism which is permissive for corruption – there are consistent allegations that defence procurement is based on not only enriching the people involved in it, but also, providing to the armed forces those pieces of equipment which the industry is actually in the business to produce, as opposed to the ones it actually needs, so another impediment to long-standing reform.
You mention the image problem here – how can Ukrainian society, or for that matter Ukraine's western partners, how can they measure whether the military in the right direction? What would the signs be for them?
Fortunately, the West does have a window into exactly what is happening in Ukrainian defence reform because, of course, of all of the training missions that are actually working directly with the Ukrainian armed forces. That's sometimes seen as the West imparting knowledge to Ukraine. But, of course, it is a two-way process: it's a window into what's going on and also, the West learns about what is happening in terms of Russian military developments through that feedback, looping, passed back through the Ukrainian armed forces. However, in other areas, in particular, once again, defence procurement, there are criticisms that there is a lack of transparency, and not only to those western agencies that are seeking to cooperate with Ukraine, but also those who would like to assist it in terms of funding but find that it is impossible to do so because there is a lack of visibility on exactly how funds would be used and how these agencies operate.
Given these issues, how can Ukraine's western partners play a constructive role in this reform process going forward?
Well we have seen, just over the last few years, a lot more conditionality starting to be attached to the assistance that is being given, not in the direct military sense, as far as we're aware, there doesn't seem to be any challenge to the ongoing training missions, but, as I mentioned earlier, the United States, for example, has made part of its aid package dependent on some essential reforms being pushed through. I suspect that in the near to medium term, we will see more of those conditions being applied, unless Ukraine actually does address its image problem and demonstrate that it is taking significant steps to resolve the defence procurement side in particular.
One final question: We've seen Ukraine experience some rather severe defeats, – in Ilovaisk in 2014, in Debaltseve in 2015 – is the Ukrainian army today efficient, generally speaking, or does it have a long way to go?
Well let's place those defeats in context, this was at a very early stage of Ukraine responding to aggression and trying to work out exactly how it could optimise its armed in a crash program for resisting as best it could. We shouldn't see any performance of any military that is operating under those conditions as representative of what would happen once you take a longer term and more considered approach to reforming it. In other words, we shouldn't judge the potential performance of the Ukrainian Armed Forces now by anything that happened even just a short time ago, like Ilovaisk and Debaltseve. So, as I mentioned at the very start, yes, enormous progress has been made in a very short time -- there is still a way to go but it's a very different armed force to the one we saw at the outbreak of the conflict.
/Interview by Matthew Kupfer