by Mark Galeotti of New York University
A Ukrainian volunteer battalion trains near Mariupol.
What’s left of Donetsk airport has fallen to the rebels of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and, as of writing, they are now launching an attack on Mariupol. At this stage, it is hard to know whether the rebels will be successful, but Kyiv is in trouble. The standard response is to blame Moscow, the influx of modern heavy weapons and actual Russian troops. Would that it was so simple. The sad truth of the matter is that until Ukraine begins to come to terms with its own failings, it is hard to see how it can win – or even stem – the rebel advance.
Of course, Moscow has armed the rebels – a secessionist movement it essentially fomented in the first place – and not only facilitated and encouraged the flow of volunteers (and “volunteers”) to join their forces, but also sent advisors, specialists and, when it seemed necessary, combat troops. At present, Kyiv claims there are 9,000 there. Other intelligence sources I have spoken to put the figure at 4,000-6,000. Either way, that is a brigade to a brigade and a half. Okay, these are relatively elite troops, paratroopers and marines, but a brigade in a country of over 40mn souls ought not to be a decisive war-winning asset.
Likewise, the materiel provided by Russia, even if sometimes more advanced than that available to the government forces, is not enough to explain the rebel victories.
Instead, if Kyiv is to defeat this hybrid invasion-insurrection, then it also has to appreciate its own manifest and often decisive limitations. So what's going wrong with the Ukrainian war effort? Regardless of the undoubted determination of some individual units, such as the ‘cyborgs’ who defended Donetsk airport for so long, the answer appears to be pretty much everything, so far.
First and most fundamentally, there is no meaningful strategy, the essential game plan that ought to drive every aspect of the war. Is it to win the war on the battlefield by encircling and besieging Donetsk? To hold the line and wait until economic and political pressures on Russia force Moscow into abandoning its local agents? A broad rollback of the rebel front line? At times, any or all of them, but rarely with any coherence or conviction, leaving those within the General Staff at least meant to be planning the war effort floundering. This has led to inconclusive and often piecemeal military operations, which often look more like street brawls (which frankly favours the rebels) than full-scale war.
It is hard to tell how far this is a failing of political leadership, military leadership or operational command. All three have often seemed questionable. Consider the shelling which often hits civilian targets rather than military ones. Is this because the artillery crews lack the skills or the targeting data? Because they are not being told where to aim? Or because Kyiv actually wants to punish the civilian population? I'd rather not believe the last, and honestly see no evidence to suggest it is the case. But at the very least it hands Moscow and the rebels a propaganda win, hardens popular hatred of the government, and does nothing to bring the conflict any closer to an end. This is shoddy war fighting at best, counter-productive malice at worst.
The morale of government forces is often brittle. Some units – again, let's note the ‘cyborgs’ – demonstrated true grit. However, in the main units tend to have good morale when things are going well, but are prone to sudden collapses when things go badly. To an extent, of course, this represents not just that a fair proportion of the government forces are essentially deputized militias with relatively minimal combat training, but also that even the regular army is heavily made up of conscripts and the product of years of under-spending and corruption, which has also infected the officer corps.
Besides which, winning wars also depends on intelligence: knowing the enemy’s plans and capabilities while masking your own. For all that, the director of the Security Service of Ukraine, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, claims his service is cleansed of Russian agents and sympathizers, Moscow still appears to have a commanding intelligence advantage. This is in part because of their commanding lead in electronic and satellite capabilities, but also suggests they continue to penetrate government ranks.
Unwilling or unable
Ultimately, Russia’s involvement has been relatively minimal, not even to the scale of the Georgian war when its was fighting a country with a population of something like a ninth Ukraine’s. Of course, it could increase this substantially, but also at much greater economic and political cost.
Instead, it is Kyiv that needs to take this war seriously. A country of more than 40mn seems unable or unwilling to field more than some 50,000 troops. By way of comparison Spain, a country of comparable size, not at war and protected by Nato, has an army of 75,000. Likewise, John Schindler has noted that in 1991, when fighting Serbian rebels, Croatia – a country with a tenth of Ukraine’s population – fielded 150,000.
But it is more than just a question of the size of the military. Kyiv needs to spend less time on its propaganda war – the only people who still don’t see Russia’s hand in the rebellion will never be convinced – and more time on its real one.
This means a clear strategy so the generals can then be held accountable for developing a battle plan to achieve it. If that means bringing in military experts from abroad, so be it. A renewed and serious counter-intelligence drive. Above all, a government that does not just talk about “total war”, but one that will fight it.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows.