Ukraine’s military in even worse shape than Russia’s

The Ukrainian military seems to be in complete disarray. I don’t regularly follow the Ukrainian military, so I apologize if the following is in some way incomplete or misleading. It is based on an article in the most recent issue of NVO.

Once we get past the usual tendency of much of the Russian press to make fun of Ukraine and especially the Ukrainian language (such as the continual references to Ukraine’s “zbroinye sily”) and the slightly ludicrous connection between underfinancing of the Ukrainian military and political arguments that Russia might soon attack Ukraine, there is some interesting information in the article.

First of all, the Ukrainian military is woefully underfinanced. To maintain its existing level of functionality, the Ukrainian military required 17.7 billion hryvnias (about $2.2 billion). The actual level of financing in the 2009 budget was 8.4 billion hryvnias (just over $1 billion), which is equivalent to 0.87 percent of the country’s GDP.  After public protests by head of the general staff, funding was increased to 11.7 billion hryvnias, although one-third of that money was to come from special one time revenues from property sales. The financial problems were so bad that a large number of Ukrainian military bases had their power shut off due to non-payment of electricity bills.

The result of this level of underfinancing has had a devastating impact on training, with 96 percent of military staff receiving no practical training whatsoever. Air force pilots from the rapid reaction force get only 10 hours of flight training per year, while other pilots receive virtually none at all. In large part, this is because the air force receives virtually no fuel (4000 tons in 2009 versus a requirement of 65-70,000 tons).

Equipment is also deteriorating. 88 percent of Ukrainian military aircraft are incapable of flight. Only 30 of the air force’s 112 fighter aircraft are considered combat-ready. 70 percent of navy ships and 40 percent of tanks and artillery are not combat-ready. The only major new systems received by the military in the past year were two new tanks.

My only personal interaction with the Ukrainian military bears this out. Back in 2005, I was involved in a study that examined the possibility of greater US naval cooperation with the Ukrainian Navy. This was in the immediate aftermath of the Orange revolution and hopes were high. Ukrainian naval commanders were eager to meet with my team and made it clear that they would accept any overtures for greater cooperation. But they persistently rejected our requests to see their ships with various excuses. It was clear that they were embarrassed at the condition of these ships and did not want the extent of their deterioration to become widely known.

The deterioration of training and equipment is compounded by what seems to be a complete leadership vacuum. Yuri Yekhanurov, the last defense minister, was removed by parliament last summer. No replacement has been appointed, nor is there any chance that one will be appointed before the upcoming presidential elections. In early October, Sergei Kirichenko, the chief of the general staff (i.e. the country’s top military officer) submitted his resignation in protest at the lack of concern for the military’s problems among the country’s political elite.

At the same time, Ukraine is doing better than Russia in terms of manpower. 53 percent of Ukrainian soldiers are professional. Salaries and benefits are quite competitive with the civilian economy and there is virtually no prospect of actually having to participate in combat.

At the same time, the military has no problems with the draft. In fact, in the current year there are 18 candidates for each available spot in the military draft. This is the result of a combination of high levels of unemployment among young men in the aftermath of the economic crisis, improved job prospects for draftees after the completion of their service (they can get jobs more easily in the police forces or in private security services), and the disappearance of hazing in the Ukrainian military after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The implication of this article for the Russian military is that a transition to a professional military is possible as long as economic incentives are properly aligned and living conditions (included freedom from hazing) are adequate.