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