Why did the Ukrainian province of Crimea fall to Russia after two months of military effort while a year later eastern Ukraine (Donbas) is still largely Ukrainian? It’s all about surprise, troops in place, Russian popular attitudes and Russia continuing to pretend that it is not really using troops to take control of Donbas. The other question is why has the meager number of Donbas rebels, supported by a growing number of Russian troops (pretending to be Russian “volunteers”) has not been swept aside by the larger number of Ukrainian troops and volunteer militias available (at least on paper). That is all about corruption in Ukraine and how it led to the plundering of the military budget and the crippling of the Ukrainian armed forces.
It’s been a year now since Russia has been sending troops and military equipment into Ukraine in an effort take over and annex two Ukrainian provinces known as Donbas and another in the south known as Crimea. By March Russia was in possession of Crimea. There Russian special operations troops reinforced and organized local ethnic Russians in a quick campaign that conquered Crimea with hardly any violence even though there were over 10,000 Ukrainian troops in Crimea.
The difference between Crimea and Donbas was that by treaty (to rent old Soviet naval bases) Russia already had 11,000 troops in Crimea and was able to more than double that in a few weeks. Since Crimea was a peninsula it was easy for the Russians to prevent Ukraine from sending reinforcements. Given the advantage of surprise and numerical superiority the quick Russian victory was not that surprising. Another advantage was that only about a quarter of the Crimea population was ethnic Ukrainian and about half were ethnic Russian. Finally, the Russian popular attitude was that Crimea was Russian and should not have been declared Ukrainian when the Soviet Union broke up.
Donbas was different because the Russians didn’t really make their move there until after Crimea the end of March, after Crimea was under Russian control. At that point most Ukrainians were enraged and Ukrainian forces were mobilizing to defend the country. Russia did not have as strong a claim on Donbas and half the population was ethnic Ukrainian and most of the ethnic Russians there did not want to be ruled by Russia. Moreover there were no Russian troops stationed in Donbas and it was easy for Ukrainian troops to move in against the pro-Russian rebels and growing number of Russian troops sneaking in.
The fighting in Donbas has been continuous since April 2014, and there are serious doubts that the new February ceasefire agreement is going to help end the fighting, or just serve as a brief pause like the September 2014 ceasefire. What the year of fighting has revealed is the extent to which the Ukrainian armed forces were untrained and underequipped to confront the smaller number of Donbas rebels and the better trained Russian troops and militias sent in to help fight the Ukrainians.
This came as a surprise to many. After all at one time, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukraine portion of the Soviet military, which became independent Ukraine’s army, was one of the largest and most advanced militaries in the world. The question is how did the large and relatively well trained and equipped force become so inefficient over the last 24 years? It’s all about money and believing Russia would keep a promise.
A decade earlier Ukrainians realized their military was in bad shape and made plans to fix the problems. In 2008 Ukraine set out on an ambitious plan to reform the army and reequip its forces to defend against any future Russian aggression. A major reason for the reforms was the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia (in the Caucasus) and annexation of some Georgian territory. But the Ukrainian reform plan was promptly upset by the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. The ensuing budget reductions not only made the implementation of the military reforms impossible but also led to a decline military readiness over the next six years. The 2010 election of strongly pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as Ukrainian president also discouraged any further investment in military reform. Yanukovych considered Russia a potential defender not a likely aggressor.
The reason the 2008 financial crisis hit the Ukrainian military especially hard was due to the fact that much of the annual military budget came from the sale of Cold War era weapons that had been stockpiled in Ukraine over decades in anticipation of a major war with NATO. When the Soviet Union collapsed all those weapons belonged to Ukraine, which did not need all those tanks and other armor vehicles, nor the huge quantities of ammo and other military supplies. Ukraine quickly realized it could make a lot of money exporting this stuff. Even so by 2001 Ukraine still had nearly 4,000 tanks and more than 4,600 armored fighting vehicles. The 2001 inventory included more than 3,700 artillery, 1,000 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, hundreds of helicopters, and dozens of warships. The defensive military infrastructure was also massive as it contained buildings, bases and multiple types of various weapons systems ranging from surface to air missiles to radar systems.
The overwhelming majority of this Ukrainian military equipment was unneeded, unused, and falling apart. Therefore, much of it was put into storage. And this is because the Ukrainian military was-and still is-a massive Soviet-era machine in a country far too corrupt and disorganized to use more than a fraction of it for itself. In parallel with this is the logistical challenges faced by Ukrainian military forces. Every combat unit of the army had three support units. The sole function of most of the support units was to store and protect huge amounts of rapidly aging weaponry, and effective combat training was out of the question.
In 2008, the pro-NATO government of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko ordered a major reform of the military, with defense spending to increase sharply the following year-paid for by surplus arms sales funneled into the special fund. If it all went according to plan, the army would be smaller, readier and have better equipment. Plus, the reform would begin shifting forces to the east to defend against a hypothetical future Russian invasion, which is exactly where the Russians did advance in 2014.
These steps would also greatly assist in moving Ukraine on the path towards securing NATO membership. It was in March 2008 that Ukraine sent an official letter of application for a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the first step in joining NATO. In anticipation of an approved MAP, Ukraine began reforming its internal command and control systems. But then later in 2008, the financial crisis halted all progress. Almost immediately, the anticipated defense spending was nothing more than an afterthought. The Ukrainian government expected the defense budget to increase by one-third in 2009. However, the military budget actually collapsed from $1.54 billion to $1.23 billion. In 2010, the budget dropped to $1.1 billion. Numerous military compounds and even small defense facilities were left without electricity because they could no longer pay their utility bills. By late 2010, some units were struggling to buy enough food for their soldiers.
A direct result of the decline in funding led to a dramatic decrease in training exercises. In 2008, the Ukrainian army conducted 10,773 small arms firing exercises. In 2009, the number fell to 1,556. In 2008, the army carried out 939 exercises from the squad level up to the brigade level. In 2009, there is no data at all. In 2010, the Ukrainian army conducted only 115 exercises.
Overall unit training also plummeted as units equipped with land vehicles such as tanks and armored personnel carriers virtually stopped as the army could not afford fuel. This also impacted both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft training as the average number of flight hours per pilot fell by half. The result is that Ukrainian pilots entered the 2014 war with badly degraded skills. Very few pilots were qualified to fly at night or in bad weather or to carry out strikes against ground targets. The result has been errant bombs that have indiscriminately killed thousands of civilians. Using all available resources available once the invasion of Crimea began, the Ukrainian military partially recovered by the beginning of the war, but was still well below its pre-2008 strength.
Ukraine had turned from one of the most militarized countries in the world to a nation state whose army was poorly armed and equipped, suffered from low morale and was anything but battle ready. It’s likely for this reason, among others, that the Russians decided to gamble on invading Crimea and then backing a proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Other pressures notwithstanding, the decision to annex Crimea was also strategically important to Russia due to the existence of the Russian Navy Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol. Gamblers like Russian leader Vladimir Putin generally make their decisions based on the cold odds of success. Ukraine’s degenerated military gave the odds to Russia and Putin rolled the dice. – Ryan Schinault