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

February 16, 2015
Members of the Ukrainian armed forces ride on a military vehicle near Debaltseve

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.

35 comments

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OK, but why is everyone sitting on their hands and voices as Russian thugs continue to pummel Debaltseve? If Putin can’t (or won’t) hold up his end of the deal, what’s the point of allowing more and more loyal Ukrainians to die? Do we really want Ukraine to wind up like Syria, with no viable options? Even the choice to do nothing has real consequences!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

These ceasefires give a pause to reload the hardware that’s on the way to both sides.

This is now an official proxy war fomented by US under the guise of trade/economy with acts of destabilization by USAID operations in Ukraine and at the cost of lives of both sides while funneling billions of US tax payer dollars.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

Ridiculous article. If there is such a fervor of voluntarism on the Ukrainian side, as Mr. Chin claims, why is their current mobilization draft failing so miserably? The only ones who want to prosecute this war are the odd alliance of Ukrainian oligarchs and neo-Nazis. The neo-Nazi volunteers are not under the command of the Ukrainian army, so they come and go at the front as they please. Near the front their main role is as second echelon enforcers to keep the regular troops from retreating.

The article also presents an extremely distorted view of the balance of forces. In the early days of the conflict, the UAF had overwhelming advantages in firepower and numbers, and they still got defeated. UAF has the same problem the Soviet army had at the outbreak of WWII – virtually all of the competent officers had been purged for political reasons.

There is no doubt in my mind that if the US gave a qualitative boost to the UAF armaments, Russia would respond in kind. Such escalation would be a dead end.

Posted by gcrav | Report as abusive

By the Minsk agreement Ukrainian troops have to leave completely from the territory of Novorossiya.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

@Macedonian
One would say in a language of diplomats from Victorian era: The truth of your expressions could be successfully put into doubt.

Please read an official text of the agreement. Novorossiya is mentioned not even one time and moving applies only to heavy weapons.

Posted by Chamomile | Report as abusive

“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”

Ties? They march under nazi banners, wear nazi insignia and idolize WWII mass murderers and nazi collaborators.
No need for anyone to amplify those obvious facts.

Posted by HeroinofKosova | Report as abusive

По приложению к Минским договорённостям от 19 сентября аэропорт Донецка должен быть отдан Донецку, но это не было сделано. Более того, с территории аэропорта (возвышенность над городом) систематически производились артиллерийские обстрелы города Донецк с жертвами среди мирного населения. “Одностороннее нарушение” является лишь предлогом для тех, кто не хочет видеть всей правды. В текущей ситуации все говорят про Дебальцево, но никто не упомянул массированные обстрелы Горловки в январе! Никто из репортёров не поехал туда, чтобы узнать мнение местных жителей! Двойные стандарты. Может это новая форма “свободы слова” и “демократических ценностей”?

Posted by Alfa190 | Report as abusive

At least some truth leaks about those infamous “territorial defense battalions”. Full truth is these are made of extremists idolizing Ukraine of Bandera and SS Galizien and criminal elements made loose due to special amnesty. Population of Ukraine at large is against this war as widespread avoidance of mobilization and low spirit of those mobilized shows. But that obviously does not matter as the present rulers of Ukraine are proxies in the US geopolitical game of containment and breakup of Russia.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

The United States has no strategic interest in Ukraine. Intervention only happens to justify the gargantuan military-industrial complex’s parasitism.

We have no business meddling in that regions. We have no business fighting multiple wars on multiple continents.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Obviously the American photographer is talking about West Ukraine. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the democratically-elected president gained more than half the votes of the whole of “Ukraine”. He had already been deprived of another win by Maidan 1

As regards “US army to train Ukrainians” is that a good move? Think Afghanistan, Iraq….

Posted by Godot433 | Report as abusive

Reads as a piece of fiction.

Posted by andykoppe | Report as abusive

Putin specifically asked about the surrounded U.S. backed forces in Debaltseve during the negotiations. Poroshenko denied that he had 6,000 troops surrounded in the area and agreed to look into the situation and get back to everyone. Well, he has said nothing about those troops. Why? Because he does not want to admit to such a large military defeat for his army. Moral is at its lowest point for the U.S. backed soldiers out of Kiev. Now the negotiations are over, those 6,000 troops are in occupied territory and now prisoners of war. They must surrender their weapons and they were told by the rebels that they can all go home. However they are sticking to their guns and trying to hold this region. This is why you still have fighting in this area. Poroshenko should get his men out now!

Posted by johnlocke445 | Report as abusive

BEWARE of russian trolls commentaries! These are paid gov’t workers to distribute propaganda!!!

Posted by LisaLin | Report as abusive

As most of EU consider the Slavs a talking monkeys Ukrainian’s EU dream will turn sour. As everything anti-Russian gets support Ukraine will enjoy some attention until EU becomes aware of the dangers of prolonged Ukrainian which conflict could inflame the frozen conflicts in former Yugoslavia where thing are getting worse by the day high unemployment, radicalized Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, Greece out of control etc… The peace in the Balkans was only achieved because of the Russian good will not because of the NATO interventions. Now Russia saw its allies in action so lets be patient and see what happens next.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Its obvious no one will supply Ukraine with modern defensive weaponry.

So its just a matter of time Ukraine will start its own program of modernization of its armament.

Currently they severely lack satellite launch capability (they can launch Zenit rockets only with cooperation with Russia), satellite reconnaissance, modern guided antitank weapons, guided artillery shells, secure telecommunication equipment, counter-battery radars and reconnaissance/attack drones.

They perfectly can develop this technologies themselves – they do have Antonov aircraft design bureau, Yuzhnoe rocketry bureau and so on.

So, no one will defend Ukraine except Ukraine itself.

Posted by WilliamJordan | Report as abusive

Russia isn’t going to leave Ukraine alone. As a result, Russia will continue to fight Ukraine. Eventually, the U.S. will end up giving small amounts of aid to Ukraine. As time goes on, the U.S. will give more aid. If we had given aid to the Ukraine earlier, the Russians wouldn’t have invaded Crimea.

Kudos to the Europeans who have imposed punishing economic sanctions on Russia. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions too, however, the economic pain falls greater on Europe than the U.S. because Europe has stronger economic ties to Russia.

Posted by EthelGoodhill | Report as abusive

Russia isn’t going to leave Ukraine alone. As a result, Russia will continue to fight Ukraine. Eventually, the U.S. will end up giving small amounts of aid to Ukraine. As time goes on, the U.S. will give more aid. If we had given aid to the Ukraine earlier, the Russians wouldn’t have invaded Crimea.

Kudos to the Europeans who have imposed punishing economic sanctions on Russia. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions too, however, the economic pain falls greater on Europe than the U.S. because Europe has stronger economic ties to Russia.

Posted by EthelGoodhill | Report as abusive

“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”.

Russia lost at least 20.000.000 lifes in WW2. Probably much more thn that.
Every family lost a loved one.
Untill guys like Azov Battalion keep on fighting on the Kiev side, there will be many of antifscist Russian volonteers in the conflict, even if you try to seal off the border. The fastest way to stop this war is to ban the nazi battalions.

Posted by vovka | Report as abusive

Only 6% of Ukrainian draftees have reported for UAF duty. Ultra-nationalist/Neo-Nazi volunteer battalions fire upon regular army units to prevent retreat (Ironically, one of Stalin’s tactics). Ultra-nationalist/Neo-Nazi volunteer battalions recently complained that the regular army deliberately targeted them with artillery fire. Ukraine’s population is profoundly fractured. The author’s narrative that the main problem facing the people of Ukraine is a lack of various high-tech weapons such as anti-tank munitions and drones is delusional. Note to author: The separatist movement is also a so called “civilian effort”. There is no united Ukraine.

Posted by Squeamish | Report as abusive

WHAT’S A FEW NEO-NAZIS AMONG FRIENDS?

Mr. Chin has long career ahead.

Posted by St.Juste | Report as abusive

Army shot on Ukrainians fro Russia – Look at bellingcat.com/resources/2015/02/12/ukra ine-conflict-vehicle-first-week/
These journalists do a very good job — Russia is fighting Ukraine and Ukraine get no help whatsoever in their fight only contracts not worth their paper

Posted by jacobsch | Report as abusive

Army shot on Ukrainians fro Russia – Look at bellingcat.com
These journalists do a very good job — Russia is fighting Ukraine and Ukraine get no help whatsoever in their fight only contracts not worth their paper

Posted by jacobsch | Report as abusive

Alan Chin makes exactly the right comparisons. Country after country paid a heavy price for the European real politik of the Balkans wars. The French, German and the British campaigned only for ‘business as usual’, and prevented country’s under well-organised Serb (with Russian support) attack. The links between the foreign policy officials and their Serbian business interests were wholly disgraceful and shameful – and never confronted.

In country after country, self-defence forces pushed back the savage and reactionary forces of Serbia. The country with the best organised militaries suffered least. The invaders were repulsed and normality resumend. The same would happen in Eastern Ukraine, if the ‘lvel killing field’ policy was not being rerun.

I’m personally very disgusted at the role of both Madame Merkel and M. Hollande. Both have too many financial interrests in preventing any effective defence of Ukraine. But Europe cannot survive if its fundemental values are not defended.

Posted by docmartin | Report as abusive

It would be interesting to find out how many refugees from Donbass out of one and a half million the EU welcomed since the fighting broke out eight months ago?A dozen? Less? Do you want to be helpful? Stop talking about more arms, start talking about some aid.

Posted by SimonWinnik | Report as abusive

There has been more that five thousands dead in this war, and this is just official data. Most likely the real number is much higher. Putin is a war criminal and he needs to be dealt with accordingly.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

First the US superpower with its NATO/EU coalition have failed in two wars that have been going on for longer than a decade. Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of these two forays have cost the United States. 4,487 American lives, 32,223 wounded for Iraqi Operation Freedom, Operation New Dawn another 66 deaths, and 301 wounded. 2343 deaths in Afghanistan, and wounded 17,674. The financial cost is at about $5 Trillion, plus interest borrowed on the War debt is still to be calculated, and Afghanistan isn’t over in lives and cost. With a debt in the US approaching $18 Trillion. Don’t be conned by the EU. Using the US as its muscle.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

First the US superpower with its NATO/EU coalition have failed in two wars that have been going on for longer than a decade. Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of these two forays have cost the United States. 4,487 American lives, 32,223 wounded for Iraqi Operation Freedom, Operation New Dawn another 66 deaths, and 301 wounded. 2343 deaths in Afghanistan, and wounded 17,674. The financial cost is at about $5 Trillion, plus interest borrowed on the War debt is still to be calculated, and Afghanistan isn’t over in lives and cost. With a debt in the US approaching $18 Trillion. Don’t be conned by the EU.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

The US is hemorrhaging red ink in debt. So after spending trillions, more must be spent for a failed policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, now lets just add Ukraine. Don’t forget only 4 of 28 NATO countries contribute to NATO, the other 24 are deadbeats. The US pays 25% of all cost even if NATO added another 10 countries. So far only the US, UK, Estonia, and Greece pay, 2% of GDP. Greece is bankrupt what is the GDP there? Estonia is a small country how much is their GDP contribution. The US is paying and bleeding more than anyone. http://www.usdebtclock.org/
Check for yourself….

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

(Reuters) – U.S. Army Europe commander Ben Hodges said on Wednesday the U.S. army will provide training to Ukrainian troops battling Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.

Does this include the NAZI”S of Right Sector, and other fascists?

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

so reuters come to aid of ukraine by give some pep talk nice..:)

Posted by famas | Report as abusive

There is no evidence that Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine. Does the CIA pay well for the promulgation of these lies and propaganda?

Posted by bankstersloot | Report as abusive

Just some thoughts
1. Any country with a large minority, e.g. can be attacked by the minority’s mother country. Russia is setting the example.
2. World leaders should look at the results of appeasement from just before WWII.
3. Russian leaders never worry about their casualty list, whether theirs or others.
4. Putin is similar to Hitler, Napolean; small but big egos.
5. Only the leaders do not suffer.

Posted by ttgypsy50 | Report as abusive

What the hell are the people from Lviv and the mercenaries doing there anyway?

Posted by Godot433 | Report as abusive

Ukrainian Army is very brave and willing to fight. They only need the West to pay their bills, give them high tech weapons, and also spare some few hundred thousand soldiers to help. Rrrii..ight

Posted by EddieLo | Report as abusive

WONDERFUL Post.thanks for share..more wait .. …

Posted by narcotráfico unibank panama | Report as abusive