Ukraine Battles To Rebuild A Depleted Military

KIEV, Ukraine -- As the Kremlin began its invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea last month, a days-old government in Kiev turned to its military to stem the tide. There was an immediate problem: No car batteries for the military vehicles.

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With coffers empty, Ukraine's fledgling government appealed to the U.S. embassy for help.

The embassy said it would take weeks to get assistance, so the government had to search—among its own people—to find a regional oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, to kick in the funds to buy them locally.

According to a spokesman for the banking and oil products magnate, Mr. Kolomoisky spent "several million dollars" of his own money, but he stresses others are helping too.

"There are lots of small businesses, farmers and local people who are pitching in to help the military bases," said the spokesman.

More than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and with Russia breathing down its neck, Ukraine's military has come down to this: a seriously, if not woefully, depleted force struggling to mount a defense against a formidable foe.

The country once boasted a proud and sizable military—more than 750,000 strong—not to mention the third largest strategic nuclear arsenal in the world.

But stripped by years of neglect, corruption and an apparently unclear nuclear disarmament agreement with the superpowers, Ukraine's military has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, both in numbers and in working tanks, aircraft and battleships.

According to Ukraine, the country today has about 140,000 military personnel.

But only 6,000 of the country's 41,000 land troops were ready for combat, Ukraine's defense minister told parliament earlier this month.

That has left the country unable to defend Crimea and vulnerable to further invasion.

So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he has no interest in seeing Ukraine divided, but he has sent a sizable number of troops to Ukraine's eastern and western borders, setting off alarms that Russia may target other Ukrainian regions.

With little time or money, the new government finds itself in a scramble to reassemble its armed forces, but with little precedent or road map to follow.

Much of that effort has fallen into the hands of Ukraine's new defense chief, First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema, a long-time police veteran with little formal military experience.

In an interview in his office in Kiev, he said he believes the country could deliver a "decisive blow" against an aggressor.

"How effective that blow will be will only be shown in a war that I hope will not happen," he said.

As part of its quick rebuilding campaign, the government is searching far and wide for help, including establishing a hotline for Ukrainians to call and automatically donate 5 hryvnia—about 50 cents.

It also hastily formed a National Guard, which, in a fit of national fervor, has attracted more than 4,000 recruits.

Basic training lasts just two weeks.

As with the rest of the West, the White House has so far refused to provide any lethal military aid to Ukraine, despite calls from some members of Congress to hurry shipments in to make an attack from Russia more costly to the Kremlin.

Those who oppose arming Ukraine argue that the arms may just fall into the hands of the Russians, since Ukrainian forces face a long road ahead in training and equipping their army to fight successfully.

Last week, President Barack Obama said the U.S. wouldn't get involved militarily in Ukraine.

"Obviously we do not need to trigger an actual war with Russia," he said in a television interview.

Still, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said Sunday that the alliance might have to reassess its position toward Russia now that "what used to be a partner" is "now acting more like an adversary." 

He said Russia had massed enough troops on Ukraine's eastern border to march across swaths of the country's south and seize Moldova's Transnistria region on Ukraine's western border.

In total, Russia's active military personnel numbers about 845,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"The [Russian] force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizable and very, very ready," said NATO's Gen. Breedlove.

In response, Russian officials said the buildup was part of a routine exercise and didn't violate any of Russia's treaty obligations.

Ukrainian officials say the country's trajectory from a mighty nuclear power to a trampled nation scrounging for handouts is a cautionary tale for nations that neglect their military in a tough neighborhood.

Kiev blames Russia and the West alike for lulling it into a false sense of security with high-sounding promises 20 years ago to respect its borders if it let down its guard. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Ukraine was left holding more than 1,200 nuclear warheads and more than 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons.

But in a historic turn, it agreed to give up that arsenal.

In return, the U.S., U.K. and Russia signed a memorandum in Budapest in 1994 saying they would refrain from the threat or use of force or economic coercion against Ukraine.

For years, experts say, that agreement gave Ukrainians a false sense of security, as officials interpreted it loosely to mean a guarantee of the country's territorial integrity.

The U.S. says the memorandum was a political agreement, not a binding promise to defend Ukraine's borders.

Over the years Ukraine cut its forces drastically, but spent little on those remaining under arms, with a U.S. Army report noting in 2007 that the Ukrainian armed forces "have been on a starvation diet" and that the country was 127th out of 150 countries around the world in its spending per serviceman.

Western officials say lack of funding worsened under recently ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who they say hollowed out the military during the past four years and instead spent only on interior ministry troops who could quell riots at home.

In a visit of U.S. senators to Kiev earlier this month, Ukrainian officials said they had only a few thousand combat-ready troops available, who would be quickly overrun in a Russian assault.

In Crimea, the Russian invasion captured a large part of Ukraine's air force and most of its navy without a fight.

Democrat Senator Dick Durbin, of Illinois, said Ukraine's prime minister told the group that "we don't have anything that floats, flies or runs."

Leading the fight to rebuild Ukraine's defenses is Mr. Yarema, a 25-year police force veteran who became first deputy prime minister for defense and security one month ago, after mass protests on Kiev's central Maidan square led to Mr. Yanukovych's ouster.

Mr. Yarema, who says he spent much of the three months of protests sleeping in a tent on Maidan square, came to power with a quickly assembled coalition of opposition politicians and activists.

What he found when he took over was alarming: Only four of 25 fighter jets at one large air base in Crimea were in working order.

The jets were quickly disabled by Russian troops, who slashed their tires and threw rocks into their engines, officers at the base said.

Russia has denied the incident. Mr. Yarema's team appealed to the U.S. embassy for spare aircraft tires and car batteries, but decided to buy the car batteries locally because they needed to mobilize quickly, said an aide, Andrii Telizhenko.

They didn't arrive in time to get vehicles mobilized for Crimea, but they did help move trucks and armor to Ukraine's northern and eastern borders, he said.

"For the past 23 years we never really rearmed," Mr. Yarema said.

"We don't have any of the modern equipment that is being used in other countries." 

Years of corruption are part of the reason for the primitive armaments, he added.

"In the past four years there was basically a destruction of the army," he said.

Much of the budget for new arms "was stolen by the last two ministers of defense," he said.

With Ukraine already teetering on default of its debts, money is hard to find.

Still, the new government raised an extra $610 million in emergency defense funding by cutting spending on social programs—aid to the disabled and to mothers with dependent children.

Ukraine is dedicating part of that money to the establishment of a new National Guard, which aims to recruit 20,000 members.

The guard will be responsible for protecting Ukraine's borders and helping maintain social order at home, Mr. Yarema said.

A top priority is recruiting young protesters from the Maidan uprising, some of whom are still armed, Mr. Yarema said.

"We have to disarm them, because they simply cannot have arms, but they have to believe in us," he said.

To attract them, the guard has set up recruiting tables and hung advertisements on the square and at other points around town.

Those who have enlisted find themselves quickly in training; at one camp outside of Kiev last week, skinny recruits in fatigues learned to march, assemble automatic weapons and throw grenades.

Asked about Maidan, new guardsman Yaroslav Levchenko pointed to his eyebrow. "See this scar? It's a fragment from a grenade," he said.

The 27-year-old says he spent four months on the square, throwing rocks and, in the final days, dodging bullets that left holes in his bulletproof vest.

"I want there to be order in Ukraine," he said of his decision to join the guard.

"I want my children to live normally, like in Europe."

Denis Dimyanko said Russia's invasion of Crimea motivated him to join.

"Historically the Russians made us slaves," he said.

His friend, Vitaly Polishuk, agreed.

"This time we won't be slaves. It's better to die," he said.

Other potential recruits have proved wary because the guard is being organized under the auspices of the Interior Ministry, which commanded the troops that fired on protesters during Maidan.

"To go serve with people who were shooting at you—I don't want that," said a young man in fatigues standing with friends on Maidan, who would identify himself only as a member of Pravy Sektor, a loosely knit group of far-right protesters that formed during the uprising.

Mr. Yarema acknowledged the difficulty of convincing some protesters to serve with Interior Ministry troops.

He said a recently begun investigation into who ordered the shooting of protesters should help identify and punish the guilty and give potential recruits greater confidence in the guard.

Last week, about fifty young people who had protested on Maidan carried a pile of tires to the building where Mr. Yarema and other ministers work, planning to set fire to them, Mr. Yarema says.

The group was frustrated by what it sees as the slow pace of anticorruption measures, he said, and by Ukraine's capitulation in Crimea.

Mr. Yarema said he offered them his work pass and his keys to the building, saying, "Why don't you go in there and work?"

The group eventually calmed down and left peacefully, he says.

In recent weeks Mr. Yarema has turned to Washington and NATO for help, but with little luck so far.

Ukraine's military lacks much of an air force, and if fighting breaks out he expects that Russia would be able to pound Ukrainian ground troops with impunity.

In meetings with U.S. senators and Western diplomats, he says he asked for help establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine's 15 nuclear reactors so that his troops could at least count on some zones of safety.

He also asked the West to slap a trade embargo on Russia, he says, and for the U.S. to allow one of its guided missile destroyers to make a friendly port visit in the Black Sea as a veiled threat to Putin.

Republican Senator John McCain, who came to Kiev and met with top government officials earlier this month, said before he left that he would redouble efforts to get the White House to send arms to Ukraine.

He said the Ukrainians requested a variety of equipment, including small arms and antitank weaponry.

"I asked the most senior defense guy in uniform 'What do you need?'" Mr. McCain said.

"And he said, `Everything.'"

For now, Mr. Yarema said Ukraine's main goal in the near future is to avoid a war.

Looking ahead he said Ukraine will also have to revise its military doctrine now that the government knows that the U.S. and U.K. interpret the Budapest memorandum differently from Kiev.

"We are understanding that in the 23rd year of our independence that an army is something you need to hold up in a state of readiness," he said.

Source: The Wall Street Journal