A government anti-terror campaign to root out pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine threatens to turn into a fiasco. The country's demoralized forces are ill-equipped and defections are commonplace.
Ukraine's transitional government has made an almost desperate attempt to demonstrate strength in eastern Ukraine with tanks making their way into the crisis zones and combat helicopters circling over disputed cities.
But shortly after the start of the so-called anti-terrorism campaign against pro-Russian separatists, completely different images dominated news broadcasts, showing soldiers sitting on their tanks, with a somewhat clueless look on their faces, surrounded by locals who are preventing them from moving forward. Added to this are reports of soldiers who have been defecting to the separatists.
Instead of getting the situation under control, the transitional government seems to be completely losing control in some of Ukraine's eastern regions. "With this anti-terrorist operation, I think the government has overestimated their options," said Kyryl Savin, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kyiv. "And now we can see the results."
Defector or simply overwhelmed?
Savin, himself a Ukrainian, believes the soldiers are above all hopelessly overwhelmed. "These are just regular military units that have been trained to go to war and fight the enemy with all possible means," he told DW. "It's a big challenge for these soldiers to be suddenly faced with hundreds of civilians standing in front of their tanks, among them women and children." These soldiers are faced with an almost impossible question: Do they actually want to take action against their fellow citizens?
The conflict has been exacerbated by the fact that the transitional government has decided, for the most part, to send in units stationed in Ukraine's eastern or central areas, "so it doesn't look as if nationalist groups from the West are being sent to maintain order," said Savin. But with soldiers native to the region, the question of loyalty is even more of a struggle. Savin doesn't necessarily want to call them defectors, saying that many simply give up their arms voluntarily and then disappear. But that doesn't make the matter any less disastrous, he said.
Divided population - divided army leadership
Ewald Böhlke, head the Berthold Beitz Center in Berlin, also believes the issue of local security forces changing sides has been overstated. "There are always these kinds of defectors in transitional situations – and then people reorganize themselves," he said. Speaking on German television, the Eastern Europe expert warned against being manipulated by such reports, saying that the separatists are counting on these sorts of reports to increase their acceptance in eastern Ukraine.
"We should not believe this false image, that eastern Ukraine in its entirety is marching toward Russia, simply because a few hundred officers or police have gone over to the separatists," he said. Böhlke added that the Ukrainian population can be split into three groups: "The first represents a the nationalists in western Ukraine, and the second consists of the Russian-speakers that want to join up with Russia. But the vast majority still support Ukraine's sovereignty."
Much like the general population, the Ukrainian army is split into factions, in particular the army leadership, said Kyryl Savin. "Officers from the east, especially, are undecided. They see that the government in Kyiv is weak, and they see the amateurish way these anti-terrorist efforts have been prepared and carried out - and many simply don't believe that they can bring the situation under control," said Savin. "Accordingly, they sabotage the military's plans or give up their weapons."
But would a government with a military in such desperate circumstances ever be able o enforce state's monopoly on force? Savin, along with many others, is doubtful. The Ukrainian army is not only fighting conflicting loyalties but also dealing with very poor equipment, which consists mainly of old Soviet weapons that has not been renewed for years.
Looted army, demoralized soldiers
A prime example: the hopelessly out of date 50-year-old Soviet T-64 battle tank. According to a 2013 study by the London International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Ukrainian army currently operates 1,100 such tanks, in addition to about a dozen modern T-84 versions.
It's not a new problem. "The Ukrainian army has for the last 20 years been plundered by the Ukrainian oligarchs and members of the Ukrainian civil service," said Böhlke. "As a result, it's in a terrible state and completely demoralized."
In fact, the Ukrainian armed forces should have long since been transformed into a modern army. But these ambitious plans were already hampered back in 2010 due to a lack of funding by the ousted government of former President Viktor Yanukovych. And that, according to Böhlke, could now become a problem in any looming military confrontation with the "strong Russian armed forces."
Haunted by past mistakes
Military personnel has long been neglected by the state, says Kyryl Savin of the Böll Foundation. "The military has little respect. You only become a soldier or officer if you can't find anything else." Ukraine has more than 200,000 troops, but noo one can really depend on them, he says.
Ukraine is now paying for years of misguided policies with its inability to effectively confront the separatists, says Savin. In the short term, he sees few possibilities for change. "The best you can hope for now is to try and make a few special forces units battle ready and hope they do their job."