WEB EDITION
No. 5 - Oct. 1994
Vol. 42 - pp.21-25

TRANSFORMATION OF THE
UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES

Vyacheslav Pikhovshek and Christopher Pett
Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research (1)


Ukraine entered onto the world stage in 1991 with a mix of great advantages and grave disadvantages and its subsequent performance has hardly been smooth. And yet Ukraine remains stable, with a good record for democratic elections and the maintenance of civil rights. Observers from the West have seen the ethnic mix of Ukrainians and Russians as potentially the most explosive in the region. Instead, the citizens of Ukraine have consistently disappointed the frequent, pessimistic prognoses, and resolved their differences in an exemplary manner. Times are hard in Ukraine but objective analysis of the first three years of Ukrainian independence would caution one to be optimistic.

At the end of August this year, the new President of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, who won election on 11 July, took the unprecedented step of appointing a civilian minister of defence. This single most vital measure towards creating a democratically accountable defence structure surprised Western and Ukrainian observers alike: although the replacement of the outgoing minister, General Vitaliy Radetskiy, had been widely predicted, it had been supposed that another officer would be found to replace him. Valery Shmarov, Mr. Kuchma's deputy when he was prime minister last year, has now taken over from General Radetskiy, his appointment having been confirmed by parliament.

In 1991, Ukraine was perceived for many reasons to be the former Soviet state "most likely to succeed", and the flood of returning military personnel swelled the numbers of Ukraine's armed forces to around one million men under arms. This seemingly ideal beginning was short-lived. Although Ukraine possesses vast agricultural, mineral and industrial resources, its political response to the challenge of independence has been poor. The downside of Ukraine's inheritance is its strategic position, bordered by most of the central and east European states and therefore prey to every regional upset, and with little experience from which to draw in order to maintain its own balance. Ukraine inherited an unenviable role in the region: to be perpetually the bridge or buffer between East and West. Thus, while the military resources at independence were impressive on paper, they were fundamentally unsuited to Ukraine's needs.

Strategic concerns and military requirements

Many Western observers saw the adoption of Ukraine's military doctrine, passed by the last parliament in October 1993, as the most encouraging sign to date that Ukraine was on the right path towards stabilizing its military and strategic position in the region. It sets out commendable aims for the size and composition of the armed forces, and supplies a rough timetable for the achievement of these measures, but fails to show how their size and composition match up to the execution of their task: to protect the borders and vital interests of Ukraine.

This problem is typical of the difficulties facing the Ukrainian armed forces. Born of the finest traditions of the Red Army and infused with its doctrine and tactics, the Ukrainian Army is still predominantly based in the west and south-west of the country, where there is no serious threat to Ukraine's territorial integrity. Ukraine has no need or desire for a first-strike offensive capability by land, air or sea because it states in the Defence Doctrine that it has no claim on territory in other countries. Yet that is what these troops were trained and positioned for when they formed part of the Soviet armed forces.

The only volatile territorial dispute since independence has been the Crimean Republic, currently a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine. All of Ukraine's concern for its territory is focused on its relationship with its perennial "big brother", Russia. The Russo-Ukrainian relationship has always been fraught. It is certainly the case that Ukraine's fear of Russia was the reason for its prevarication over the ratification of the START treaty in December 1993 and its constant demands for security guarantees from NATO in return for its own process of nuclear disarmament.

The threat of great Russian chauvinism whipped up by Vladimir Zhirinovsky may well have now dissipated, but the success of his party in Russia's parliamentary elections in December 1993 was the cause of far greater consternation in Kiev than in the West. In addition, Ukraine has not supported Russian peacekeeping operations in the "near abroad", seeing them as a process of reassertion of Russian hegemony, and looks to Partnership for Peace (PFP) as a way of reconciling the principle and practice of peacekeeping across Europe.

The Russo-Ukrainian stand-off, which reached a crescendo in May when conflict was narrowly avoided over the issues of Black Sea Fleet ownership and Crimean sovereignty, has led Ukraine to seek a redefinition of its alliances in Europe and Asia, pointing away from the CIS security structure and towards NATO and the Visegard countries. It was a vociferous supporter of the Balladur Plan, (2) and Ukrainian security-studies institutes devote much time to developing theories for pan-European security alliances linking Ukraine into a chain of mutually supportive defence relationships reaching into Western Europe.

The need for NATO and the West in general to respect Russia's own moves towards a redefinition of its strategic role in the region of Central and Eastern Europe and Asia was, justifiably or not, construed by many in Ukraine as tantamount to a declaration of support for Russia against Ukraine. But since then, beginning with January's Trilateral Statement, (3) and culminating with President Kuchma's election, there has been a steady improvement in Ukraine's relations with both Russia and the West.

As this political scenario has developed, the requirements that Kiev perceives for the Ukrainian armed forces have become clear within the comparatively brief space of three years. Ukraine must be able to protect its northern and eastern borders in order to deter aggression from what many in Kiev still see as the possibility of a resurgent imperialist government to the north since it cannot guarantee for itself the continuation of the peaceful, democratic process throughout the former Soviet Union. Ukraine must be able to protect its shipping and ports in the Black Sea area. It must be able to maintain internal order during the deepening economic crisis. It must be able to respond, as it has done in the former Yugoslavia for the last two years, to the need for peacekeeping in the region, and it must be able to integrate with its allies and partners in both the CIS and NATO to that end.

Development of the Ministry of Defence

In the Soviet era, Ukraine's present territory was covered by three of the 16 Soviet Military Districts (MDs): the Carpathian, Odessa and Kiev MDs. The headquarters of Kiev MD became the basis of both the Ukrainian national General Staff and the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine. As was the case with most post-communist defence establishments, there was initially little distinction between the two: theminister was a serving officer, senior in position to the Chief of the General Staff but with the same background and professional agenda. Until recently, this was deemed sufficient civilian control. In early 1994 one senior Ukrainian officer described to the authors the principle of democratic accountability in Ukraine's armed forces thus: "The President is Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces. The President is a democratically elected civilian. Therefore we have democratic, civil control of the armed forces."

At the beginning of July this year - only a few days before losing the presidential elections - the then President Kravchuck introduced legislation which clarifies the role of the MoD, distinguishing it from the role of the General Staff, giving it responsibility for identification of potential and actual threats to Ukraine, management of the military industrial complex and the conversion process, and defining criteria for cooperation with other ministries. His successor, President Kuchma, has taken the most important step by appointing a civilian politician as minister. Many in the West had feared that a "soldier in a suit" - that is, an army officer retired for the purpose of serving as minister - would be the first civilian appointee. This has not happened: Mr. Shmarov is a career politician who, just like his Western counterparts, must learn about the needs and ways of the armed forces as he goes along, and can bring his other expertise to a ministry which has had no opportunity to acquire it.

Changes in the armed forces

Ukraine has reduced the number of men under arms by at least 200,000 over the last three years. Current estimates put the number of servicemen at between 500,000 and 600,000. The country's Defence Doctrine sets a target of 250,000 and few Ukrainian servicemen or politicians now contest this figure. The eventual aim is to establish professional armed services.

The experience of the Ukrainian armed forces can be seen as a microcosm of the difficulties of Ukraine as a whole since independence. This is certainly true of the process of "Ukrainianisation" of the armed forces, reflecting the state-wide debate over the proper relationship of Ukrainian language and culture to its Russian equivalent. As with the state as a whole, compromises have been reached and serious conflicts avoided. The most contentious change within the armed forces was the replacement of Marxist-Leninist political education with Ukrainian linguistic and cultural education. The introduction of the loyalty oath to Ukraine was, by comparison, received with equanimity.

Ethnic Russians, who form a majority in many units, resented the establishment of the Social Psychological Service which was to "nationalize" recruits. It was a somewhat clumsy attempt to redress the importance of Russian language and culture in the armed forces, and has now been reined in a little. Ukraine was presented in that context in a way highly gratifying to Ukrainian nationalists from the Galician region of western Ukraine but which bred resentment and concern in serving easterners.

The politicised element in the armed forces - and it must be said that the armed forces have remained remarkably quiet in political terms, especially compared with their Russian contemporaries - seems to have been placated by Mr. Kuchma's election as President. He is known to be sympathetic to the concerns of the large ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine but at the same time there seems little real fear that he will attempt to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty in favour of rule once again from Moscow.

The other chief structural changes to the armed forces have been to the navy, whose fleet of six vessels is a far cry from the vast commitment of the Black Sea Fleet. The Black Sea Fleet issue itself seems closer than ever to resolution. Recent talks in Moscow have produced real progress and it is possible that there is an end to the dispute in sight. In the meantime, the Black Sea Fleet represents for Ukraine a vast drain on financial, military and diplomatic resources for no tactical or strategic advantage.

Finally, the air force and the air defence arm of the army have been combined. There is little history of cooperation between these two organizations but their combination is the only major reallocation of role and resources to have taken place outside the navy. The disposition of troops between the Military Districts, as with the command structure after the inclusion of the MoD and General Staff, has remained mostly as it was at independence.

A national serviceman today would notice little difference from the service his elder brother experienced in the Soviet army of 1989-1990. Soldiers are barracked in the same places, receive the same equipment (save for some alterations to insignia) and - when there is fuel and ammunition available - receive the same training. Despite the high-level administrative reorganization and the complicating factor of political disagreements in the armed forces, for the majority of the military units in Ukraine it is still very much business as usual. The real issue of military reform which is still to be completed is in the organization of a command and controlstructure subject to Kiev and reflecting a concept of defence which truly shapes the armed forces into a cohesive force reflecting the needs of the state. This process will take some time yet.

Economic and social factors

Looking back after a tranquil summer, it is hard to remember the bite of the energy shortages, the threat of strikes throughout Ukraine, the arrival of hyper-inflation and the feeling of deep insecurity over Ukraine's relations with Russia and the West which characterized last winter. Despite the excitability of some of the reporting and analyses published in Ukraine and the West during that period, there can be little doubt that every part of society, including the officer corps, was close to collapse.

The new entrepreneurs and Mafia gangs are the focus of the awe and aspiration of Ukraine's young. Although the army, together with the clergy, is Ukraine's most respected institution, it is also one of the least understood. Ukrainian officers are witnessing the erosion of the prestige and benefits which once attracted them to their profession. During the winter of 1993-1994, they frequently remained unpaid from one month to the next. When they did receive their pay, they could choose whether to spend it on either heating, rent, food, or clothing, but seldom more than one of these options. Officers face chronic housing problems: the returnees from Central Europe and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union swelled the demand for housing above the limit of what could be supplied.

Meanwhile, the European Commission, together with Germany, the United Kingdom and the Soros Foundation, are establishing systems for the retraining of retired and discharged officers so that these individuals can go into civilian society with something practical to offer. Training is based on small business management and specific trades such as vehicle or electrical repair, and the combined financial contribution from the West runs to many millions of dollars. If the reduction of the armed forces to a strength of 250,000 is to be completed without risk of destabilizing protest, then the Ukrainian government, together with its Western and CIS partners, must ensure that the esprit de corps of the officer corps is not further eroded.

In this respect, the appointment of a civilian minister of defence must be carefully managed: one of the prime functions of the previous Minister of Defence, General Radetskiy, who had little hand in policy formulation, was as a placatory and pro-government figurehead for the armed forces. It will be essential for Mr. Shmarov to cement a good working relationship with his long-serving deputy, General Ivan Bizhan, a hugely popular figure in the armed forces. For as long as Ukraine remains in this period of unresolved transition from a communist, command economy to a capitalist free market economy, social and economic questions will remain an integral part of every aspect of the transformation of Ukraine's armed forces.

Ukraine has made slow but steady progress towards the transformation of its armed forces from the impressive but useless force inherited from the Soviet Union. Ukraine's strategic position in Europe is unenviable, with invasion and conquest the unifying features of its history. There can be no doubt that Ukraine requires a flexible, mobile and modern defence capability, or that the process of achieving that aim will continue to be slowed by economic and political difficulties. Ukraine's strong desire for security guarantees from the West comes from a realistic appraisal of its situation, but that very situation requires a circumspect reaction from the West which many politicians and officers in Ukraine resent and mistrust. There are signs, however, that Ukraine's security thinking and policy are rapidly maturing. NATO appears to have been impressed by Ukraine's enthusiastic embrace of PFP and there can be little doubt from the Kiev perspective that this enthusiasm is genuine. We view the future for Ukraine's transformation of its armed forces, and correspondingly the transformation of Ukraine's place in Europe's security architecture, with cautious optimism.

Notes:

(1) Vyacheslv Pikhovshek is the Director of the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research (UCIPR), a non-partisan, non-governmental research institution based in Kiev which was established by young Ukrainian researchers in 1991. The UCIPR is involved n research fields of Ukrainian foreign, military and security policies. The Centre's activities are supported by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (Great Britain), Freedom House (USA) and the National Endowment for Democracy (USA).

Christopher Pett recently completed an eight-month spell in Ukraine, during which time the UCIPR in developing contacts and plans with institutes in NATO countries and carrying out political research into Ukrainian security and defence affairs.

(2) The Balladur Plan concerns a proposal by the French Minister, Eduard Balladur, for a Pact on Stability in Europe. The inaugural conference in Paris on 26-27 May 1994, in response to a call from the European Union for the conclusion of such a pact. The pact would seek to guarantee borders and respect for national minorities in Europe and provide for regional cooperation towards achieving this goals.

(3) Editorial note: The Trilateral Statement of 14 January 1994, signed by the Presidents of the US, Russia and Ukraine details the procedures for the transfer of Ukrainian nuclear warheads to Russia and associated compensation and security assurances.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1994.