After a bit of a break, I’m resuming posting my briefs for Oxford Analytica, as always with a three month lag. This was written in early September, just after the conclusion of the ceasefire. (Note that this version is not identical to that published by Oxford Analytica, as I have removed some material that was added by the editorial staff.)
SIGNIFICANCE: At the start of the conflict in Donbas, the Ukrainian military appeared to be almost completely incapable of defending its territory. Kiev’s forces were unprepared for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and seemed powerless to prevent it. In recent months, it has become a somewhat more effective war-fighting force, though not one that is powerful enough to withstand a full-scale future Russian military invasion. If the current ceasefire fails and Russia intervenes fully in Donbas, the Ukrainian military will not have the capability to defend the country.
- Ukraine has made significant improvements to its military capabilities, compared to their state at the start of the conflict.
- However, the Ukrainian military is not capable of defeating the insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
- Russia will increase military assistance to the extent necessary to prevent the elimination of separatist Donbas enclaves.
At the start of the conflict, Ukraine’s military appeared on paper to be a fairly sizeable force, with almost 130,000 active military personnel, over 1,000 tanks, 370 combat aircraft and helicopters, and almost 2,000 artillery pieces. At the same time, it was notoriously underfunded and in disarray as a result of a recent political decision to end conscription and shift to a fully professional manning model. The total number of usable troops and equipment in the ground forces amounted to 80,000 personnel, 775 tanks, 51 helicopters, fewer than 1,000 artillery pieces and 2,280 armoured personnel carriers.
These troops were positioned in a manner that showed the Ukrainian military’s history as a legacy Soviet force, with the vast majority of units stationed in western Ukraine and along the southern coast. No units were located in the Luhansk or Donetsk regions. Only a single mechanised brigade was located in neighbouring Kharkiv region, while the largest concentration of Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine was based in the Dnipropetrovsk region.
Yanukovich’s neglect of military
Some reports indicated that the size of the combat-ready force was even smaller, with only 6,000 troops fully prepared to fight when the conflict broke out. Other units were not considered combat-ready because of a combination of lack of training and inadequate and poorly maintained equipment.
The Ukrainian military received limited funding throughout the post-Soviet period. This tendency became even more pronounced during Viktor Yanukovich’s presidency. He was more concerned about internal unrest than external threats and therefore increasingly shifted the country’s limited security budget towards internal security forces at the expense of the regular armed forces. As a result, the military budget remained very low, at just over 1% of GDP, throughout Yanukovich’s presidency.
Political chaos hampered military response
In addition to underfunding, Ukrainian forces were initially unprepared to deal with the crisis because of a combination of political chaos and internal subversion. The initial Russian intervention in Crimea took place immediately after the chaotic final stage of the ‘Maidan’ revolution. The newly formed acting Ukrainian government had not yet established its authority in Kiev, much less in the eastern and southern regions that had largely opposed Maidan. It was not prepared to act in response to Russia’s immediate and fast-paced operation in Crimea.
Widespread infiltration of the Ukrainian government, military and security services by Russian agents also contributed to disorganisation and poor performance. It appears that these agents were able to provide Moscow with detailed information on Ukrainian government and military planning for responding to the conflict. Highly placed military officers whose sympathies were with Russia and the east Ukrainian separatists may also have played a role in disrupting military planning. At the local level, unit commanders who sympathized with the separatist cause withdrew their personnel and turned their equipment over to the insurgents on several occasions. These surrenders provided the means for separatist forces to receive their first parties of heavy weapons and armored vehicles.
Lack of counter-insurgency training
The Ukrainian military was trained to respond to an invasion and to participate in peacekeeping operations abroad. It had neither plans nor training to fight an insurgency.
For all of these reasons, Ukraine’s military and security forces were unprepared to counter either the Russian military occupation of Crimea or the subsequent emergence of armed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military used a unilateral ceasefire in late June to rebuild its command structure, develop new tactics and recruit personnel. Most of the senior military leadership was replaced, with incompetent and compromised generals being forced out in favour of those who had shown the most initiative and/or were seen as loyal to Kiev.
Around this time, the government decided to use military tactics against the separatists. This led to an escalation of the conflict and an increase in civilian casualties, but also allowed it to use regular military units against separatists.
Kiev determined that it did not have enough regular military personnel to counter the insurgency in Donbas while simultaneously maintaining a standing force to face potential Russian aggression from Crimea. Kiev began to organise irregular militia battalions. A number of territorial defence battalions, special purpose police battalions, national guard battalions and other independent units have been formed through the recruitment of volunteers. These include several units that have gained some notoriety in the fighting, such as the Azov and Donbas battalions, as well as independent units associated with the Right Sector and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists.
Some of these battalions are sponsored by wealthy Ukrainians such as Igor Kolomoisky, the governor of Dnipropetrovsk region, who allegedly spent millions of dollars organising and arming fighters from Dnipropetrovsk.
Ideological and political battalions
Some of the new battalions are organised around nationalist ideology such as the Azov battalion, while others comprise people who participated in the Maidan protests (the Maidan and Aidar battalions). Additionally, there are some tied to political parties (the Batkivshchyna and Right Sector battalions).
However, the vast majority of the battalions were initially organised as territorial defence units and were only later sent to fight in eastern Ukraine. As of late June, the total approximate strength of these battalions was estimated at 5,600, with the Donbas Battalion the single largest with almost 1,000 fighters. Several of the units suffered major losses in battles in July and August, although in some cases they have also been able to recruit reinforcements.
Popular support for war effort
The parlous state of Ukrainian government finances and the reluctance of Western governments to provide financial and military assistance have necessitated efforts to raise money and provide basic supplies for government forces and especially for irregular pro-government fighters through donations from the Ukrainian population and from the diaspora abroad. To this end, a number of websites and social media resources have been organised to raise money for fighting the conflict.
These efforts have been primarily useful in providing basic supplies for military units, especially the irregular battalions. Such supplies, detailed in frequent reports on assistance websites, consist primarily of medicines, spare parts and maintenance, rather than the purchase of weapons or major equipment. They are not a replacement for regular procurement and recruitment, but have played a role in spurring the government to speed up resupply and increase the financing of regular military units.
Ukrainian internet crowdsourcing efforts have expanded beyond financial assistance. The website Stop Terror in Ukraine has used crowdsourcing to report separatist attacks, troop movements, roadblocks and the seizure of buildings throughout the country. The effectiveness of such efforts remains unclear but they do show that the war effort has widespread popular support.
Military unable to withstand increased Russian assistance
As a result of the improvements in capabilities described above, Ukrainian forces scored substantial victories against the separatists throughout July and in early August. By August 15, separatist forces had lost more than half of the territory they controlled prior to the ceasefire, were divided into several enclaves and had come close to losing the ability to transfer forces among strongholds. Ukrainian military and political leaders believed that they could defeat the separatists and retake all of the territory in eastern Ukraine not under government control within a few weeks.
However, their continued success depended on static levels of Russian assistance to the separatists. The Ukrainian leadership gambled that Russia would not seek to escalate its involvement in the conflict. However, Russia proved them wrong, first by providing greater levels of heavy weapons and volunteer fighters to separatist forces, then by shelling Ukrainian forces from Russian territory in order to prevent the latter from blocking separatists’ access to Russian assistance via the common border and finally by opening a new front in territory previously under the firm control of government forces — around Novoazovsk and Mariupol.
“Ceasefire in name only”
This escalation in Russian military assistance has in recent weeks caused a major shift in the path of the conflict, with Ukrainian forces taking heavy casualties throughout Donbas and losing control of approximately half of the territory they had gained over the summer. The current ceasefire is holding — although Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove of the US Air Force commented in Vilnius recently that the ceasefire was a “cease-fire in name only” — and a return to serious fighting is a distinct possibility. Russian support for the Donbas separatists will remain.
Prospects for Ukrainian forces
As shown by recent events, despite modest improvements in capabilities since the spring, Ukrainian forces are not currently capable to withstand attacks by even small numbers of well-trained regular Russian forces for any length of time. In part, this is the result of the disparity in training received by Ukrainian forces compared to elite Russian forces.
Yet the greater role in Ukrainian forces’ weakness comes from the disparity in equipment. The use of powerful air defence weapons provided by Russia largely negated Ukraine’s air superiority throughout the summer.
CONCLUSION: The Russian government has made clear that it will take steps to ensure that the Ukrainian military does not defeat separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. It will use as much force as it deems necessary to ensure that the separatist enclaves in Donbas remain functional. There is no way for the Ukrainian government to end the conflict through a military victory. Should the ceasefire fail and Ukrainian forces overcome their setbacks and renew their advance into separatist territory, Moscow is likely further to escalate the extent of its direct military assistance.