In 1991 the young Ukrainian state inherited a considerable chunk of the Soviet army with almost 730,000 military personnel. It consisted of three military districts (Prykarpattia, Odesa and Kyiv) that used to be the pieces of the larger Soviet puzzle, the great tank hammer designed to strike Europe if need be.
In 1991-1992, right after Ukraine gained independence, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and the General Staff were created on the basis of the Kyiv military district staff. Counterintuitively, the staffs of the other two military districts continued to function until 1997.
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In the early ‘90s military experts almost unanimously stressed on the necessity to immediately overhaul the then system of dislocation which focused on the potential threat from countries of Western Europe while leaving the eastern front almost entirely untended. There were suggestions to replace the existing staffs, districts and corps with five or six new army corps: the West (Lviv), the North (Zhytomyr – Chernihiv), the East (Dnipropetrovsk), the South (Odesa) and Crimea (Simferopol). Each corps would have exactly the number of military that would be needed to defend its respective direction.
A similar reform should have been carried out in the navy and the air defense. In 1991 air defense corps headquarters were located in Kyiv, Lviv and Dnipropetrovsk. And while the quality of the air defense system in the west, the south and partially the north was acceptable, the eastern direction was utterly substandard, as back in Soviet times the skies above the eastern territories of Ukrainian SSR were controlled from the Russian side of the administrative border.
Nither of the Defense Ministers made sure to relocate the Armed Forces to allow for appropriate defense in the East. Furthermore out the five existing divisions located on the eastern bank of the Dnieper two (in Lubny and Artemivsk) have been disbanded. The three remaining ones (currently existing as brigades) are 200 to 500 kilometers apart (Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk oblasts). In case of a direct military conflict with Russia these units would be promptly decimated.
Instead of developing the corps system of command, three “classic” military districts of the Soviet ilk were restored, except now they are known as the Western, the Northern and the Southern operating command centers. Land Forces were cut with no consideration to any kind of defense logic, but based purely on the availability of new or outdated armament. So the first to be axed were the ones with older weaponry. Some areas, like for instance the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts were largely demilitarized. There are not any Land Forces left, despite the presence of a number of large arms depots (primarily the one in Artemivsk) and unique military manufacture, as well as artillery battalions.
When it comes to air defense the situation is much of the same. To patch the holes in the sky Ukraine merged its air force and air defense into a single branch simply called the Air Force. The airspace beyond the control of Ukrainian air defense was supposed to be covered by the aviation. The major flaw was that, in case of a military conflict with Russia the aviation would be eliminated by its air defense. Ukrainian artillery brigades and divisions would be unable to provide appropriate support to the aviation without a stable shield in the East. No wonder certain Russian politicians are threatening to get Ukraine into a so-called closed skies situation: Russia’s air defense can indeed cause considerable trouble for Ukrainian air force.
So why is Ukraine so defenseless from the east? An exhaustive answer to this question was given by the former Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk (1996-2001, 2004-2005) in his March 15 interview: “Not a single plan for strategic use of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has ever envisaged defense from the East and the North…”
The dismantling the Armed Forces continued under Minister Mykhaylo Yezhel (2010-2012) and his successor Pavlo Lebedev (2012 – 2014). By and large, throughout the last decade Ukrainian army suffered an utterly thoughtless reduction down to bare minimum, coupled with mass write-off of military equipment and armament as well as the sale of everything that was deemed “unessential”. For that purpose a dedicated State Department for Surplus Property and Land within the Defense Ministry was created.
The latter deserves a separate investigation. It is rumored that in Kyiv alone the Ministry of Defense used this department to "voluntarily dispose" of more than a hundred land plots where military units used to be based. Many of them are in the historic centre of Kyiv where troops had been dislocated since the 17-19th centuries.
The army on paper vs reality
The size of Ukrainian army was supposed to be regulated by international documents: first and foremost the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (1990) and additional Tashkent agreements (1992) that defined the numbers of conventional armament for every European country. Ukraine was given a generous quota with consideration to its geopolitical position, territory and population. Therefore the Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel could be within 400-450,000 range.
In reality, maintaining such an army, let alone constantly reequipping it with the latest armament and machinery would prove a struggle for Ukraine. Therefore back under the presidency of Leonid Kuchma (1994 – 2005) the decision was made to dramatically reduce the armed forces. In the year 2000 there were 415,850 personnel. They were reduced to 245,000 by 2005. The process should have ended there and then, yet for some reason Viktor Yushchenko (president in 2005-2010) and his team decided to go further. This is especially puzzling considering that it was done under the new military doctrine (2005-2010), according to which Ukraine was to join the NATO and therefore have Russia as a likely opponent.
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In 2005, Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko introduced a reform plan which envisaged the reduction of armed forces staff down to 143,000, including 116,000 military servicemen. Under this plan, Ukrainian army would only be fit for use in a small localized conflict. The possibility of a large-scale one was not even considered. Otherwise, the plan would envisage the so-called personnel merger that would allow increasing the army two- or threefold.
Hrytsenko's plan, as well as the plans of other reformers that followed him, carried on through the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. Eventually, Minister Pavlo Lebedev was to cut the army personnel down to 100,000 with only 75,000 servicemen.
In accordance with Lebedev's plan, military conscription was canned in the autumn of 2013. From that point onwards the Armed Forces of Ukraine were to switch to contract-based voluntary enlistment. To those that were to stay in the army the minister promised the moon: high salaries, apartments, social security and more. The much-awaited positive changes were supposed to arrive in 2012, yet promises turned out to be empty prompting a wave of disenchantment through the ranks. In the meantime, Vladimir Putin was "winning" against Ukrainian army in Crimea by chucking cubic rubles at his Black Sea fleet. From 2012 onwards the military serving under the Russian flag were making three or four times as much as their colleagues in the Ukrainian fleet next door.
According to the bill On the strength of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2013 signed by ex-president Yanukovych, as of December 31 the army of Ukraine had 168,201 personnel, or 125,482 excluding the civil staff. Sources in the media also suggest that 47,000 out of 168,000 were female personnel.
At present, the armament of the Ukrainian Army is 90-95% worn out or outdated. New equipment and armament is present in exceedingly small quantities and, coincidentally, is supplied by manufacturers located predominantly in the East of Ukraine.
Where things stand now
During the Maidan, Viktor Yanukovych threatened to use the Army against the protesters. When on February 18-19, the bloodiest days of the revolution, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin who served as Chief of the General Staff, attempted to throw the army to crush the revolution, there turned out to be nobody to suppress it with, much to Yanukovych's surprise.
Later Ilyin's plans were made public. According to the disclosed information,Ilyin was to use only the Immediate Reaction Force (around 6,000 overall) as no other units were physically ready for action. The IRF also included the 30th Tank Brigade and the 95th Airborne Brigade located in Central Ukraine along the Right Bank of the Dnieper comprised mostly of the locals, as well as some aviation and navy units. Since that part of Ukraine supported the Maidan en masse, the use of these units against protesters was questionable. That left Ilyin with the 25th Airborne Brigade from Dnipropetrovsk, the 79th Bbrigade from Mykolayiv, the marines and special units from Ochakiv. The latter, among other things, were tasked with storming the Trade Unions building in Kyiv. As a result, Ilyin sent towards Kyiv around 500-600 paratroopers from Dnipropetrovsk, several tanks from Zhytomyr and 350 marines. As for the special ops, their use in Kyiv would prove somewhat difficult. The thing is that these Ochakiv units happen to be naval commandos, actual combat swimmers! What exactly they were supposed to do in the heart of the landlocked Kyiv with their flippers and snorkels is something admiral Ilyin never clarified.
It could have been this lack of the military force that eventually sent Yanukovych fleeing Kyiv, then Ukraine.
After the Maidan, Ukraine lost its almost 18,000-strong contingent in Crimea that Putin effectively bought with ultra-high Russian Black Sea Fleet wages. Interestingly enough, the wages for Russian military in Crimea have since been cut by a third to a half due to the fact that Russia no longer considers Crimean military bases as ones situated on the foreign territory. On top of that both Russian and former Ukrainian military serving at Russian bases in Crimea are forced to either move to serve in other regions of Russia or to resign. But even here Putin showed a dark sense of irony, for unclear reasons choosing to pay the pensions to both the former Ukrainian and the originally Russian servicemen according to Ukrainian retirement law! Needless to say, Ukrainian army pensions are considerably lower.
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Additionally, Ukraine lost a significant part of the Interior forces as well as special units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). A great number of professionals left the ranks of the law-enforcement disgruntled after what happened at Maidan. In fact the only component that remained intact after the revolution was the Border Guard Service which makes around 50,000, including 10,000 of civilian personnel. But this force had to continue protecting the 7,000-kilometer long border of Ukraine.
The new authorities in Kyiv and the public had been convinced that Ukraine had a mighty army capable of protecting the territorial integrity of the state. The statement made by Admiral Ihor Tenuikh on March 11, 2014 reading that "de-facto only 6,000 are in combat readiness" was a hard piece of news to swallow.
So it should be acknowledged that Admiral Teniukh and General Koval as Defense Ministers both managed practically do the impossible: to mobilize all available forces (rapid reaction, extension and stabilization forces) in the shortest of terms, and carry out immediate and secret redeployment of 20 or more military formations.
Some brigades have been redeployed to the East from the bases in Western Ukraine, and this operation, even in today's globally "wired" society, had gone practically unnoticed.
Q&A ON THE MILITARY TODAY
Why don't the Armed Forces have bulletproof vests, sleeping bags or even extra sets of underwear?
The Armed Forces carried on through the 23 years of Ukraine's independence using old stock without adding anything to it. The Soviet army was never indented to wear bulletproof vests, hence their lack in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Modern weaponry and individual protection equipment is manufactured in Ukraine. Why is so little of that available for the military?
New weapons were ordered for the Ukrainian Army only in small quantities for testing purposes before selling them overseas. The state procurement programme for armament has been regulated according to the demands of the international market, not the demands of the army.
Why do the soldiers complain about poor quality armament issued to them from the military bases and army depots?
For the last decade there have only been enough military personnel to guard military bases (excluding the Immediate and Rapid Reaction Forces). Maintenance and upkeep of the military equipment and armament de facto has not been carried out.
Why is there a feeling that the army numbers are vast, yet the anti-terrorist operation does not look like ending ever?
Involved in the active phase of the anti-terrorist operation are only the units made out of contract servicemen and volunteers (National Guard battalions, Internal Ministry units and detached volunteer units). Mobilized brigades (tank, mechanized, artillery) for the most part are only capable of providing backup at certain directions and of blockading certain populated areas or parts of state border.
Why can't the mobilized formations be used for the active phase of the anti-terrorist operation?
They can. But that is likely to have negative effect, such as in the terrorist attack on the 51st mechanized brigade near Volnovakha where 16 servicemen were killed. In spite of the fact that the brigade was largely made up of servicemen mobilized in Western Ukraine, namely (i.e. the "Banderites" much feared by the easterners), they were reluctant to resist with appropriate force, lacking motivation to take active part in the armed conflict.
Why aren't the Armed Forces helping the Border Guards?
There is a shortage of units made up of professional military and all of them are already involved with the anti-terrorist operation. It is too dangerous to send mobilized brigades to guard certain parts of the state border. Therefore help can only arrive in the form of aviation and mobile reserve made out of professionals, which, obviously needs to be done as soon as possible.
What needs to be done in order to defeat the diversionists and terrorists in the East of Ukraine?
Increase the Armed Forces and the National Guard of Ukraine, adding first and foremost contracted professionals and volunteers. Defeating the enemy will only become possible after the state border is sealed and guarded by the army.
Are there any analogies of current conflict in Eastern Ukraine in the military history?
The first Chechen war for one. The material and moral state of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is comparable to that of the Russian army in the 1990s. The political situation and the nature of the warfare are also similar. For the anti-terrorist operation to succeed Russian experience in Chechnya must be studied thoroughly.