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Ukraine's Soviet-era army

Roman Goncharenko / cdMarch 4, 2014

Ukraine's army is in a parlous state. What was briefly the world's third-strongest nuclear country is now a Soviet relic. Kyiv's hopes, if there are any, rest with reservists who last fought three decades ago.

Image: Getty Images/Afp/Sergei Supinsky

Ukraine's army might be on high alert, but its capabilities are limited. The government in Kyiv has roughly 130,000 battle-ready soldiers and officers at its disposal, according to official estimates. Russia, by contrast, has more than five times that number. The last time Ukraine had armed forces comparable to Russia's roughly 800,000 soldiers was at the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Not only is Ukraine's army small, it also has a poor reputation, and has done for years. It's regarded as chronically underfunded, corrupt, poorly-educated and ill-equipped. The last form of conscription ended in autumn 2013, making 2014 the first year in which Ukraine's army consists entirely of professional soldiers. For years now the Ukrainian military has been complaining of too little money from parliamentary purse. Kyiv's solution for the underfunding issue was to shrink the army and do away with conscription,

In 2013, Ukraine spent 1.3 billion euros ($1.79 billion) on its army. However, experts such as Valentin Badrak at the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies estimate that it actually needed at least two to three times that amount. Russia, by contrast, invested 52 billion euros in its army that year - almost 50 times as much.

A soldier in front of a Russian flag.
Thousands of pro-Russian soldiers are now in CrimeaImage: Reuters

Deaf ears

The parlous state of the Ukrainian army has been amply demonstrated by a series of military accidents over the past fifteen years. In 2000, a rocket launched during target practice struck an apartment building near Kyiv. In 2001, a land-based missile aimed at destroying a drone instead struck a Russian passenger jet over the Black Sea, killing all on board. In 2002, an air display took a tragic turn when a fighter jet crashed into the crowd.

Most of Ukraine's weapons date back to the Soviet era, according to the military expert Valentin Badrak. This places the country "one generation of weapons" behind developed countries. A shortage of replacement parts has meant that only a handful of Soviet fighter jets are actually operational: Most pilots' training is purely theoretical. The planes themselves only have around half the fuel they need - if that.

Things don't look much better at sea. Russia sailed away with most of the former Soviet republic's Black Sea fleet when it was finally divided up in 1997. Today, Ukraine has just a couple of operational ships and a single diesel submarine. Russia's Black Sea fleet now stationed in Crimea dwarfs all that Ukraine has at its disposal.

Like its predecessors, the last government of the deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gave little thought to the army. "The government doesn't want to deal with it," wrote military expert Mykola Sunhurovski of the Kyiv-based Rasumkov Centre NGO in a newspaper article last summer.

Atomic weapons for security

When the USSR collapsed in 1991 and a dozen former Soviet republics declared their independence, the Soviet Union's atomic arsenal was divided up, too. Overnight, Ukraine became the world's third-strongest atomic power, right after the US and Russia, although the authority to fire the weapons remained in Moscow's hands.

However, the fledgling country didn't have enough money to maintain the warheads, and, under Russian and Western pressure, it gave up its nuclear weapons. Missiles that threatened the West during the Cold War, such as the SS-18 (aka "Satan"), were destroyed. Supersonic bombers like the Tupolev-160 were scrapped or handed over to Russia.

In exchange, Ukraine received economic aid and security guarantees from four nuclear powers, including Russia. Ukraine's current transitional government accuses Moscow of violating that promise by laying siege to the Crimean peninsula.

Ukraine soldiers training
Wanted: soldiers with combat experienceImage: AFP/Getty Images

Banking on reservists

Unlike their Russian counterparts, Ukrainian forces have little fighting experience. Individual units have taken part in peace missions in the Balkans or Africa. There have also been joint exercises with NATO every year: Ukraine participates in the NATO "Partnership for Peace" programme.

Russian troops have been engaged in two wars in the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya, and another in Georgia, also a former Soviet republic.

Against this backdrop, Ukraine's government is now banking on its reservists. Its hopes rest especially on veterans of the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan - which ended in 1989.