The Ukrainian Army Is Not Gaining Strength

President of Ukraine Poroshenko said recently that the transformation that has taken place in the Ukrainian army has prepared the country to repel full-scale aggression by Russia. Regardless of whether such aggression is likely, the current state of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is worth considering.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine tied China for the third strongest military in the world, as many commentators have pointed out. It also inherited a powerful defense industry. But the general failure of the Ukrainian state to perform since gaining independence extends to the military sphere. The army was shrinking uncontrollably; combat training was not being performed; the best officers were leaving the army, while the worst ones remained. The defense industry was oriented exclusively toward exports, while the Ukrainian army not only wasn’t getting any new weapons, but was selling existing ones in huge quantities.

All this has affected the way the Ukrainian Armed Forces and security forces have waged war in Donbass. As of today, their confirmed losses total 1,703 dead, as well as the destruction or capture of 124 tanks, 20 airborne assault vehicles, 3 amphibious armored personnel carriers, 229 infantry fighting vehicles, 103 armored personnel carriers, 23 multi-purpose armored tracked towers, 51 self-propelled guns, 37 towed guns, 20 MLRS, 9 combat and 3 auxiliary aircraft, and 5 combat and 6 multi-purpose helicopters. Again, these are just confirmed losses. The actual figures (especially for men and armor) are certainly much higher.

The ability of any modern European army to wage war would be significantly degraded with even half of these losses. However, Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union so much materiel that even after a massive sell-off and scrapping, it still has a lot in its possession. If we consider stored equipment, then the losses of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and airborne fighting vehicles amount to only about 10 percent of what’s available. For other types of equipment, the percentage is in single digits. For example, the Ukrainian Armed Forces still have up to 3,000 guns and MLRS, which were the main strike force of the Ukrainian army in Donbass battles and caused major problems for self-defense forces.

Ukrainian factories are hastily repairing mothballed equipment, including such "technological miracles" as the APC-1 and MPC-60. Again, this is not about producing new equipment, but restoring Soviet weapons, which are often as useful as a pile of scrap metal. Relatively new (or rather, the least old) equipment is already being used by the army and accounts for most of the losses. Accordingly, this "intensive care" for old equipment provides quantity, but in no way does it provide quality.

For all the talk of NATO arming Ukraine, there is still no concrete evidence this is actually happening. Besides, the Ukrainian army can neither afford nor master the new Western equipment, whereas Eastern European countries can give Ukraine Soviet materiel that is even older than it already has. Talking about network-centric warfare or precision weapons in relation to the current Ukrainian army is simply absurd.

In terms of personnel quantity and quality, the trend lines are less clear. For any army in the world, war provides the best training. In this sense, fighting in Donbass has been good for the Ukrainian military. On the other hand, it is always the best who die in wars. The Ukrainian army is no exception, and their casualties include soldiers steeped in the best Soviet traditions (such as paratroopers, in whose burnt vehicles militias found portraits of Vasily Margelov, Soviet-time legendary commander of Airborne Forces) and men who volunteered to go to war and defend their Motherland. Therefore, the caliber of personnel in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and security forces is steadily declining. Moreover, the Ukrainian commanders have used troops like cannon fodder in Donbass. They do this, first, because they don't know any better and also because this savage method solved the problem of disposing of the most courageous and battle-ready young men, including the Maidan activists.

One of the main slogans during the Maidan protests in winter 2013/2014 was "New faces in the government and no oligarchs." But Maidan was merely a tool used by one class of "old oligarchs" to defeat other class of "old oligarchs," nothing more. Some of the activists may have realized how cynically and cowardly they’ve been exploited, and they paid for it with their lives in Donbass.

The point is not that Ukraine is unable to find money or produce new equipment for its war. If the will is there, you can find a way to do both. But the fact is that the oligarchic nature of the Ukrainian government after Maidan hasn’t changed at all. On the contrary, it only got stronger. Thousands of people in Ukraine died not for the ephemeral "European choice," but for one set of oligarchs to destroy another and monopolize power (as well as the media which have turned into a rampant propaganda machine). For the winning oligarchs in government now, Ukraine remains a place to maximize profits. Accordingly, there’s no one in the country interested in building a modern, capable army. In certain circumstances, it can use sheer numbers to try to overwhelm the Donbass militias, but that’s no match for a modern fighting force, even one that’s weaker than the Russian army. Therefore, the president's words are nothing more than a bluff, which is standard practice for the Ukrainian government of late. 

This article was originally published in Russian

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