How Ukraine’s security, defence and the capability to counter hybrid aggression changed in 2017
The situation on the front is largely the same as last year: the trench warfare without large-scale events like those seen during the hot 2014-2015 continues. The shelling of Avdiyivka, a city in Donetsk Oblast, at the beginning of 2017 qualified as a flare-up. This was the first time when multiple launch rocket systems were used against a peaceful city during the long ceasefire period. The situation was complicated by weather conditions: the cold winter, along with damaged water and heat supplies, threatened the residents remaining in this front-line city with a humanitarian disaster. Coordinated response from the authorities, military and volunteers helped to avoid this. Further on, the use of heavy artillery and tanks was more of an exception until the end of the year, although it did not disappear altogether. The last incident was at the Svitlodarsk Arc, also in Donetsk Oblast, where the enemy struck a residential area in Novoluhanske with Grad missiles.
Ukraine’s Army continues to use the time and opportunities to strengthen itself. According to the Ukrainian Defence Ministry, 109 staff command and 32 tactical brigade exercises were conducted last year, which is 30% more than in the previous one. Ukrainian units participated in international exercises, in particular with NATO partners. Ukrainian tank drivers ranked fifth at a tank biathlon in Germany and Special Operations Forces personnel performed well at the Cambrian Patrol exercise, winning the silver medal. New standards are gradually being introduced in Defence Ministry structures, in line with the objectives of the Strategic Defence Bulletin, a defence plan.
The old system is not very willing to accept these changes and there is not always enough funding for rapid reform. The dependence of reforms on bureaucratic delays in other government agencies is also a hindrance. However, progress has already been made in some areas, although not as quickly as we might want.
New and upgraded equipment is gradually reaching the military, although questions remain about its quality, especially regarding the latest models. This is partly due to the lack of time for conducting tests. Despite the statements of various high-ranking officials, the issue of building an ammunition manufacturing plant has not yet been tackled. The new plant would have to replace the Luhansk Ammunition Plant that had been barely operating before the war and remains on the territory controlled by the terrorists, its current state unknown. On August 23, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko promised on August 23 to allocate UAH 1.4 billion (~$50m) from the state budget for this purpose. According to reports from the Defence Ministry, current supplies of ammunition are sufficient. However, sooner or later a solution has to be found. This could be a chance for the Ukrainian defence industry to switch straight to western calibres and avoid making this change in the future.
One of the solutions to the problem of equipment shortages is obtaining foreign models. New protected digital communication devices have already appeared on the front line, including the Turkish Aselsan. The Defence Ministry plans to transfer all military units of the Armed Forces onto modern radio stations by 2020. Despite significant obstacles, Special Operations Forces units already have quite a lot of modern small arms from the best foreign manufacturers, particularly high-precision sniper rifles. The possibility of acquiring lethal defensive weapons remains a sore, unresolved issue. Ukraine is waiting for a positive decision from Washington. This is also important because it will be a signal for all Western countries that it is possible to do business with the country in this sensitive area. However, not all countries are waiting for Donald Trump. Recently, the Standing Committee on National Defence released a report entitled Canada’s Support to Ukraine in Crisis and Armed Conflict, which recommended that the government provide lethal weapons to Ukraine. However, this would only happen if Ukraine demonstrates active fight against corruption.
Apart from the procurement of weapons, assistance from Ukraine's international partners continues. Among recent examples is the receipt of a batch of armoured medical vehicles from the United States.
Compared to 2016, Ukrainian forces were able to make less progress into "grey areas" in 2017 due to a decrease in positions available for manoeuvers. The most successful event was gaining full control over the settlements of Travneve and Hladosove in Luhansk Oblast. This happened against the background of a military coup in “Luhansk People’s Republic”, where forces of dismissed "Interior Minister" Kornet removed "legitimate" leader Igor Plotnitsky from power. Some expected the Armed Forces of Ukraine to take advantage of this chaos in the "people's republics" to launch a blitzkrieg attack. However, such an offensive could significantly undermine the international image of Ukraine, showing it as a violator of the Minsk Agreements, which could stand in the way of help from the international community. In addition, the sufficient amount of Russian reserves in the region called the success of such a move by Ukrainian forces into question.
Limited flare-ups can be expected closer to the presidential election in Russia, since it is important for the Kremlin to create a picture that contrasts with their "stable and peaceful" country. The end of active combat in Syria, at least officially, should also contribute to this. Now Moscow will not have to juggle two fronts at the same time. Still, Vladimir Putin will get his regular 86% in March with or without news from Ukraine.
This military situation creates conditions for shifting the focus of Russian hybrid warfare from the frontline to the political and social situation within Ukraine. Tank attacks are giving way to terrorist ones. This was confirmed by a series of high-profile murders that hit employees of the Defence Intelligence agency and Security Service (SBU), as well as explosions in ammunition warehouses in 2017. Moscow consistently tries to convince Ukrainians that nobody is safe and the authorities have no control over the situation. The helplessness of national intelligence services can be criticised as much as we please, but it is always much more difficult to prevent a terrorist attack than to carry one out in any country.
However, the IT systems and resources of a number of important organisations and government agencies remain without adequate protection. This was confirmed during large-scale cyber-attacks with in the summer, when Petya and NotPetya malware was able to paralyse important services for several days and briefly shut down a number of large national businesses. According to a study by the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance, an activist cyber-security group, far from everyone has learned a lesson from these events: important resources remain unprotected and open to outside intervention. This makes it possible to create an artificial explosion of public dissatisfaction at any time by interfering with the operation of, for instance, the pension fund, or trigger a man-made disaster as the result of failing critical infrastructure.
An equally important element of the undeclared war is stirring up social tension. The stronger the defence becomes on the frontline, there more calls for "third Maidans" there will be in the rear driven by whatever reason, from “we want the dollar to be worth 8 hryvnias again” to the cancellation of loans obtained in banks earlier and the fight against corruption.
Another aspect is international politics. A particular novelty of 2017 was Vladimir Putin's proposal to deploy a peacekeeping mission in the Donbas. Prior to that, Russia had officially rejected any proposals from Ukraine for the involvement of UN peacekeepers. However, it is not worth expecting a positive effect from these statements in the future. It is enough to recall that the death of allegedly Russian peacekeepers was the official reason for the beginning of the five-day war in Georgia. If peacekeepers are engaged on Russia's terms, this will mean that the region of war will turn into a clone of Transnistria with a frozen conflict and no chance for its quick return to Ukraine.
It seems that the international community has been able to correctly understand Putin's proposal, so Moscow's progress with these plans is not yet visible. But they have not vanished. Creating manually controlled chaos and subsequently solving it in a beneficial way is one of Russia's most beloved tactics. This is proved by the majority of contemporary conflicts it has participated in, most recently in Syria. There, Russia has helped create a humanitarian catastrophe, the persuaded the saved Assad to legalise the occupation of parts of the country by Russian forces.
There are enough supporters of peace at all costs in Ukraine as well. For these people it is not important what losses Ukraine has already sustained to at least maintain the shaky situation that currently exists. Or that peace with the invader on the latter’s terms will only be seen an invitation to continue, confirming the validity of the strategy it chose. As long as the aggressor only understands the language of force, so Ukraine has no right to show weakness.