Today brings more bad news from easternmost Ukraine, as Kyiv’s defenders are trying to hold on to Donetsk airport, where fighting has waxed and waned for months between Ukrainian troops and rebels, many of whom are actually Russian soldiers. Putin is pushing again around Donetsk and the airport’s brave defenders, termed Cyborgs by the Ukrainian public, may not be able to stand their ground much longer. As usual, they are dismally supplied and badly led. Never in the Russo-Ukrainian War, which started last spring, has Kyiv’s General Staff inspired much confidence, and their leadership is improving slowly, if at all, under the rigors of war.
The disorganization and corruption of too much of Ukraine’s military is no secret. Indeed, that the higher-ups are criminals who avoid battle is a near-universally held belief among the fighters who are doing the dying around Donetsk, who see senior officers, many of them hold-overs from the Yanukovych era, living in comfort far from the sound of the guns. The troops who have borne the brunt of the Russo-Ukrainian War to date are volunteers -- there are more than fifty battalions of them, though some are in reality more company-sized -- since the regular army is in such a lamentable state that many of its units cannot be sent into battle.
Why the Ukrainian military remains so unready after many months of promises from Kyiv that it is serious about resisting the Russians is an important question. We have heard many excuses proffered about how the military was neglected for two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, which is true but unhelpful now, when Ukraine urgently needs combat-ready forces. Courage is not lacking while battle skill clearly is.
Small wonder then that morale among Ukraine’s combat troops is low and dropping. The Azov Battalion, which is among the more proficient as well as politically radical of the volunteer units, makes no effort to hide its contempt for the politicos in Kyiv, promising to turn the guns around once the Russians are defeated. If Kyiv isn’t careful, it could easily find itself with a serious political problem on its hands, with angry volunteers feeling themselves to be defeated more by their own government than by the enemy. Here the experience of Germany’s Freikorps may offer worrisome lessons.
Moreover, the critique of many volunteers, that Kyiv is fundamentally not serious about the war, is difficult to refute. Even staunch defenders of the Ukrainian government concede that support for the combat forces is haphazard, at best, and the fighting troops would be starving and freezing without donations from private citizens eager to support “the boys.” Kyiv has just upped the draft age limit to twenty-seven, and has promised to soon add 50,000 conscripts to the hard-pressed forces.
But those troops will not be fit for frontline service for months, and if Putin decides to push harder in Ukraine’s Southeast, defenses would collapse quickly. Not to mention that calling up 50,000 draftees in a country of forty-five million citizens represents something very short of a general mobilization, and bespeaks a lack of understanding in Kyiv about the situation they actually face. The Poroshenko government is happy to raise awareness about Russian aggression, amidst unsubtle hints that they have been left in the lurch by NATO and the West, while bringing in foreign experts who are pleasing to the eye to try to repair the pathetic economy. However, Kyiv seems much less serious about actually defending the country from Putin’s aggression, substituting talk for action as a matter of policy. As for strategy on how to win the war, none can be detected.
A historical comparison illustrates how lame Poroshenko and his cronies actually are at defending Ukraine. When the First World War ended, Western Ukraine, centered on the recently Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, attempted to defend ethnic Ukrainian land (then, as now, Western Ukraine was a hotbed of nationalism). In a few months, they created an army of 100,000 troops, and managed to get three-quarters of them into battle in more than a dozen brigades. Notwithstanding a grave lack of weapons and funds, and a critical shortage of trained officers, they acquitted themselves well in battle, losing only when overwhelmed by greater numbers of much better equipped Polish forces. They did this from nearly no industrial base and a population less than one-tenth of Ukraine’s today.
To cite a more recent example that likewise puts Kyiv in a poor light, in 1991 Croatia saw fully one-third of its territory seized in a few months by Serbian rebels who were backed by Belgrade. Croatia had to create a military almost from scratch, possessing few heavy weapons, while burdened with counterintelligence problems at least as bad as Ukraine’s today. Yet by the end of 1991, by executing a true mass mobilization, Zagreb fielded an army of 150,0000 in sixty brigades, and thereby managed to blunt Belgrade’s effort to subdue Croatia by force.
Croatia stopped the Yugoslav military’s putative effort to destroy their country through sheer grit, helped by Serbian incompetence. Indeed, the Yugoslav offensive to crush Croatia was far larger than the effort Putin has made in the Donbas to date, while the epic siege of Vukovar in late 1991, which ended in Pyrrhic victory for the Serbs, was more intense than what’s going on around Donetsk now.
By early 1992, the war calmed down, front lines became more or less static, and Croatia resolved to get back the one-third of its country that had been seized by Belgrade. Zagreb understood this was a long-term project that required the building of a proper military machine. Croatia’s president, Franjo Tudjman, had many flaws, but he was a military man by background and he understood the strategic imperative. For the next three years, Croatia methodically built a new army along NATO lines, with discreet Western aid, while laying the diplomatic basis for eventual victory in what they call the Homeland War.
When the time was right, in mid-1995, as the Greater Serbia project was falling apart and NATO had tired of the antics of Slobodan Milošević, Zagreb unleashed Operation STORM in early August, the largest military operation in Europe since 1945. With lightning speed, 130,000 Croatian troops struck and within three days most of the country was back under Zagreb’s control, demoralized Serbs having folded in the face of betrayal by Belgrade. Three years after STORM, thanks to smart diplomacy, Croatia recovered all the territory it lost in 1991, setting the country on a path to membership in NATO and the European Union.
Lessons abound here for Ukraine today. In the first place, possessing competent armed forces is the critical factor; no amount of diplomacy, Western sympathy, or avid hashtagging can compensate for military power when your country is at war. If Ukraine wants to defeat Russian aggression and eventually get back the territory it has lost, the first job is making the Ukrainian military functional and big enough to matter. That remains far off at present. Talk of joining NATO or the EU until Ukraine controls every inch of its territory is a dangerous fantasy that should not be encouraged by the West.
Petro Poroshenko is well meaning but no war leader. If he cannot run the war he should step down in favor of those who can. At a minimum, Kyiv must purge the General Staff of crooks, incompetents, and Russian sympathizers. Turning to foreigners, including Ukrainians in the diaspora who possess acumen in military and security matters, is being done for the economy, why not for the armed forces? The time to evict Russian rebels from Ukrainian soil is years off but that goal will never be achieved if Kyiv does not get serious about the war soon.
There has been much complaining from some Ukrainians that NATO isn’t doing enough and I share some of that frustration. That said, Ukraine must defend itself. NATO will never go to war over the Donbas and the sooner Kyiv accepts strategic reality the better. Like Croatia in the 1990’s, NATO will provide discreet assistance with supplies, logistics, training, and intelligence, but the heavy lifting will have to be done by Ukrainians. If there are not enough Ukrainians willing to bear that burden, they will not have their own state for long.
Kyiv’s trump card, which they play poorly, is that Vladimir Putin is desperately afraid of getting embroiled in a messy, full-scale war in Ukraine. While Russia can defeat Ukraine’s military with relative ease still, occupying large chunks of Ukraine, in the face of certain resistance, would be a political and humanitarian nightmare and the Kremlin knows this.
It’s fair to point out that Russia, a vast nuclear power, is a much more formidable foe than Serbia. Yet it’s likewise fair to note that Croatia, whose experience in the 1990’s offers a template for what Kyiv must do now, has one-tenth the population of Ukraine, and even less territory. The Russo-Ukrainian War is far from over. Someday, Russian power and Moscow’s willingness to use it will wane and Putin, like Milošević, may seek to cut off bumptious rebels whom he nurtured but later finds a nuisance. Then will be the time for Ukraine’s own Operation STORM, but not before, and unless Kyiv gets serious about military matters, that day will never come.
Today Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, breathed fire about his country’s ultimate victory in its war with Russia. Perhaps encouraged by reports of a local victory at Donetsk airport, which has seen a major uptick in fighting this weekend, Poroshenko assured Ukrainians with tough talk that “invaders” will be evicted from their country’s soil, every last inch.
This, however, is more optimistic blather of the sort Poroshenko has applied considerably in recent months, without much action to show for it. Ukraine needs not peace marches and blustery speeches, rather force generation, counterintelligence, and above all strategy. I laid all this out in my piece yesterday, which got considerable pushback from those who think Ukraine can be defended with wishful thinking and the right hashtag.
As I explained, Ukraine needs to get serious about the war if it wants to win it. Croatia two decades ago, when that country lost a third of its territory in 1991, only to regain it four years later after building the right military and applying it strategically, offers a model for success if anybody in Kyiv is looking for one. That template is imperfect but far better than any others out there right now.
What Ukraine must not do is emulate Georgia, and I’m providing this warning clearly because there’s a good chance that Poroshenko and his cadres of image-over-substance pols will be tempted to ape Tbilisi when they need to follow the Zagreb model. What I mean by the Georgia model is the road to disaster followed by President Mikheil Saakashvili in the run-up to his country’s stomping by Putin in Georgia’s brief, painful war with Russia in August 2008. This is especially relevant because Saakashvili, a strategic illiterate, thought he was following the Croatian model of the 1990’s when, in fact, he did the opposite.
For Saakashvili, getting Georgia into NATO was the primum mobile of his foreign and defense policy; as to Ukrainians of a certain ilk, accession to the Atlantic Alliance seemed to offer the only real security guarantee against rapacious Russia. To be fair to pro-NATO people in Tbilisi and Kyiv, getting those countries into the Atlantic Alliance is stated U.S. policy, and has been for years, and remains so today -- though Washington, DC, is publicly committed to getting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO sometime between this afternoon and the end of time. In other words, this is something even cautious liberals like President Obama have to say to keep neocons like John McCain quiet, but which they have no intention of actually doing.
Getting into NATO is a tricky business, with enormous political and bureaucratic hoops for any applicant to jump through, and it’s never a quick or cheap process. On the military side, this means transforming your armed forces and defense ministry to look and act in Western ways: you have to ditch Soviet-era tactics, techniques, and procedures, at a minimum. Your military’s software needs modernization. On the hardware side, your military’s Soviet-legacy gear will need to get cut back too, because it’s expensive to maintain and not very interoperable with NATO members.
From the time he became president in 2004, Saakashvili didn’t just transform his military to “NATO-ize” it, he actively courted favor with the Pentagon and the George W. Bush administration, sending troops to Iraq to help battle the rising insurgency there. The Georgian army was reduced to five brigades, nearly all light infantry, ditching practically all its armor and artillery in favor of a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency approach to warfare, which of course was what U.S. military trainers working with the Georgians encouraged.
Most consequentially, as explained in the excellent book on the 2008 war written by the late Ron Asmus, Saakashvili had a chat in 2006 with Stipe Mesić, Croatia’s president, who knew that his country would soon join NATO, which was the Holy Grail for Tbilisi. Helpfully, Mesić told his Georgian counterpart that what he needed to do was reassert control over all their territory or they would never get into NATO -- which was good advice -- and to do that Georgia needed its own Operation STORM … which turned out to be deadly advice.
As I explained yesterday, Operation STORM was Croatia’s August 1995 victory offensive, the biggest military operation in Europe since the Second World War, which in a few days thoroughly defeated Serb rebels and restored the country’s territorial integrity. Wholly ignorant of military affairs, yet brimming with confidence, Saaksahvili became obsessed with the idea that Georgia could pull off its own Operation STORM and thereby humiliate Russia, achieving glory and entry to NATO. He did not dwell on the fact that Georgia’s military was totally incapable of anything like what Croatia achieved in 1995, nor that Russia is not Serbia.
Before long, Moscow got wind of Saakashvili’s intentions, specifically his ardent desire to reclaim Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were lost in the early 1990’s and were de facto under Putin’s control, protected by the Russian military. Eager to cut Saakashvili down to size and message NATO that it needed to back off, Russian military intelligence (GRU) turned up the heat, unleashing Special War against Tbilisi, and it was only a matter of time before the Georgians walked right into a GRU trap.
Which happened in the summer of 2008, when months of Russian provocations in South Ossetia presented an opportunity that Saakashvili stumbled blindly towards, not understanding the consequences. It only took a few days in August for Putin’s forces to lay waste to Georgia’s unready forces. The only brigade of the Georgia Army that was battle-ready was not on hand since it was -- you guessed it -- serving with U.S. forces in Baghdad, while the other four maneuver brigades were in various stages of disrepair. They were, in the words of an American liaison officer, “beginning to walk, but by no means were they running … If that was a U.S. brigade it would not have gone into combat.”
Predictably, Russia’s better equipped and trained forces, including mechanized brigades, crushed Georgian light infantry like a bug and Tbilisi saw its dreams of reconquest evaporate in blood and humiliation. Putin made his point about what happens to countries in the post-Soviet space who court NATO too openly, while Saakashvili, whose political career was in tatters, learned the cost of magical thinking in military matters, particularly when coupled with hope masquerading as strategy.
Since 2008, Georgia has quietly rebuilt its shattered military while toning down talk of NATO, especially when Russians are in the room. Mikheil Saakashvili, in courting war against a much more powerful neighbor with his own weak military, has provided an ideal how-not-to guide on dealing with Vladimir Putin. Georgia learned painfully that it’s a terrible idea to act like you’re in NATO when actually you are not.
Fortunately for Kyiv, Ukraine is a vastly bigger and more populous country than little Georgia, but it faces serious strategic hazards at present. Defiant words, as Poroshenko used today, when not accompanied by military means to back up tough talk, can lead to catastrophe, particularly when Russians are on the other side. If Ukraine wants to win the war that Putin has forced upon it, Kyiv must emulate Croatia’s hard work in the 1990’s that created a path to victory. If Poroshenko opts for the Georgian model, Ukraine may not survive the coming strategic debacle.
Events this week may finally wake up Kyiv to the reality it is facing. Ukraine is at war with Russia. It has been so for many months, as was obvious some time ago to those with eyes wanting to see. Ukraine’s government has not been in that group, and as military reverses mounted, hiding from painful facts has continued. In their own way, Kyiv mouthpieces have been nearly as dishonest in their depictions of the Russo-Ukrainian War as the Kremlin.
In the face of mountains of contrary evidence, Kyiv insisted that the war in the Donbas has been an “anti-terrorist operation” and that the enemy found there are “terrorists” rather than the Russian soldiers that most of them are. In recent days, Moscow has dropped any pretense and is dispatching battalions across the border essentially openly. Once commonplace efforts to mask insignia identifying these units as regular Russian troops have dissipated as Vladimir Putin feels he no longer needs to hide his aggressive presence in Ukraine.
Why should he? Kyiv is a paper tiger, the Europeans are cowered in the corner, terrified of the Kremlin’s next move, while Obama is talking tough about how Russia is losing this conflict, despite the fact that obviously it is not. As usual, Obama is all vapid and chest-puffing talk, coupled with very little action. The White House’s tendency towards escapism in foreign policy has become increasingly marked in a manner that ought to worry all those who like a free Europe, but Obama has no grounds to criticize Kyiv for its dishonest depiction of events in Eastern Europe.
The fall of Donetsk airport this week says a lot about Petro Poroshenko and his presidency, none of it flattering. While there was little Ukraine could have done about the loss of Crimea last spring -- they were floored by Putin’s unleashing of Special War with its “little green men,” just as NATO was, and Ukraine had no desire to confront Russia head-on, thinking a wider war might be averted -- Kyiv’s leadership since then deserves harsh assessment.
Ham-handed summertime efforts to put pressure on Russian troops and their local proxies led to disaster at Ilovaisk, where ill-prepared and supplied Ukrainian troops and volunteers were cut to pieces. Rather than take the obvious lesson from this, that due to a lack of troops, especially battle-ready ones, Ukraine needed to establish more defensible positions in the Southeast, Kyiv did nothing of the sort.
Instead we wound up with the needless siege of Donetsk airport, an objective of no strategic value except that Poroshenko and his administration said many times that it must be held at any costs, implying Ukraine itself would be lost if this worthless heap of rubble fell to the rebels. Given such rhetoric, one might expect a no-holds barred effort to reinforce the defense, but this being Poroshenko, nothing of the sort happened.
Instead the “cyborgs” bravely holding on to Donetsk airport remained outnumbered, poorly supplied, and dismally led, so their eventual defeat was only a matter of time. With astonishing stupidity, just last weekend Poroshenko, breathing fire, publicly promised that all lost Ukrainian land would be retaken, then turned around and said he was a peace president, not a war president. Then he promptly flew to Davos to hang out with the global one-percent-of-one-percent jet-set. It’s no surprise that many Ukrainian frontline soldiers hate Putin yet actively despise their own president.
I’ve already called on Poroshenko to step down if he cannot manage the war, and it’s painfully clear that he cannot. My counsel last week, that Ukraine must emulate Croatia in the 1990’s -- and definitely not Georgia more recently -- if it wants to win this war, has been met with pushback from fans of Poroshenko, whose argument really boils down to: this is hard. Yes, war is very hard, perhaps even hell if you believe certain battle-tested generals.
A lot of Ukrainians are angry that they have been left in the lurch by NATO, forgetting that they are not a member of the Alliance. NATO will never go to war over the Donbas and the sooner Ukrainians accept that and stop feeling sorry for themselves and get in the war, the better. To be clear: Putin has engaged in naked aggression against his neighbor, just as Milošević did against Croatia in 1991. Yet if Zagreb had approached that war as Ukraine has dealt with its current crisis, complaining instead of fighting, substituting hashtags for strategy, one-third of Croatia would still be in Serbian hands today, an eternally frozen conflict, and that country would still be decades away from membership in NATO or the EU.
Given the complete lack of serious mobilization for war by Poroshenko, the next move is Putin’s. Given rather strongly suggested Russian objectives, plus looking at a map, it’s likely Russian forces will next move on Mariupol, in an effort to create a land bridge to Crimea. Outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops will resist bravely, again, and again they will lose. At this point there is nothing militarily stopping Putin from creating Novorossiya, a Russian pseudo-state running from the Donbas across the Black Sea coast over to their pseudo-state in Transnistria.
Creating Novorossiya would deprive Ukraine of any coastline, which is another reason Putin may seek to do that. It needs to be understood that, after so many needless and humiliating Ukrainian defeats, Putin is only one operational-level victory away from breaking hard-pressed Kyiv’s military in any meaningful sense. The Kremlin can already dictate its terms in the Southeast of Ukraine, and soon it will be able to exert its political will, without a full-scale invasion, over the whole shambolic country.
Putin has the military means to take over all Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s total control of the air, but that would be a fool’s errand, a humanitarian nightmare coupled with an endless insurgency. We can assume the General Staff has told “the boss” what would happen in that case, and we can hope Putin is listening. More likely is the creation of Novorossiya, step by step, under the Russian tricolor, and with that the shattering of any Ukrainian conventional military capability -- and political will.
After that, the partition of Ukraine will be easy. The most likely end-state would be a three-way cutting up of the country, with Novorossiya, like Crimea, being joined to the Motherland by a triumphant Putin. The middle of the country around Kyiv, still called Ukraine, would emerge a rump Russian vassal state, independent in name only, to serve as a buffer between Russia and NATO. Ukraine’s West would go its own way, by default. Consisting of an expanded East Galicia, Austrian until 1918, this is the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, unclaimed even by Russian hardliners, who acknowledge its special status and history. Those with long memories will recall that in 1918, after the Habsburgs fell, the West did not seek immediate union with the rest of Ukraine: expect the Kremlin to “remember” this soon. West Ukraine, the remnant not eaten by the Russian shark, would soon join NATO and the EU, as the Russians off-record understand and accept.
This fate is not preordained, yet it approaches fast, and should be acknowledged as the likely outcome of this war by Ukrainians who seem unable to grasp the gravity of the situation Ukraine faces -- starting with Poroshenko. Should Ukraine be broken and partitioned by Russia, a sad history will have repeated itself, and Putin will have thoroughly overturned Europe’s post-Cold War order. This is only part of a broader struggle between Putin and the West -- since members of the Russian elite are publicly warning of war with the United States, we may want to pay attention -- but Ukraine is the main battleground for now. There Putin is winning, and he will continue to triumph unless Kyiv decides to get serious about the war that has been forced upon Ukraine. They will lose much more than Crimea and the Donbas if they do not.