The recent news in Ukraine, from the perspective of the government side, has been very positive. At least sixty settlements have been recaptured from the anti-Kyiv forces led by the Russian officers Vladimir Antyufeyev and Igor Girkin/Strelkov. The terrorists are now confined to two small pockets inside the two regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. They are well provided with weaponsry but desperate for a full-scale Russian invasion to begin.
This picture, however, masks fundamental problems at the upper levels of Ukrainian army. Evidence is emerging of large-scale corruption among generals and lower-ranking officers, particularly in Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. It is undermining the war effort and lowering the morale of rank-and-file. Many soldiers have come to the conclusion that it would be better to change the leadership in Kyiv before dealing with the separatists in the Donbas.
Command over troops in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) is divided among several sectors, including the ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs, along with some volunteer formations. Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, announced on July 29 that at least 20,000 troops in the Donbas were needed to replace deserters and traitors. Almost 600 troops had been found collaborating with officials of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” A further 242 people who had been on vacation “for a long time” were also under investigation.
After months of fighting the border with Russia remains open. Anton Herashchenko, an advisor to Avakov, notes that daily hundreds, and sometimes thousands of mercenaries cross from Russia to join the fighting in Ukraine. Some are influenced by Russian state propaganda, but others come as mercenaries. Some Ukrainian soldiers suspect that the border has remained open because some of their own leaders are making profits from the hiring of Russian troops and equipment.
One soldier (we have withheld his name) complained that ATO generals were ignorant of what is taking place in the war zone. They prefer to sit in hotels well away from the battle front “eating lobster” and cavorting with prostitutes. They remain restricted to the “Soviet mindset.” Leader of the Radical Party Oleh Liashko had visited them and provided cookies, chocolate, food, and sleeping bags, but the commanders had confiscated them and put such goods under lock and key. He quoted a border source that Russia was prepared to pay $100,000 for a truck loaded with weapons to cross and $10,000 for an individual mercenary. These funds fall into the hands of Ukrainian military leaders. The war, in his view, could be ended in a month using two battalions with twenty snipers in each, but people at the top are interested in prolonging it.
Parents of soldiers from Uzhhorod region complain of corrupt and irresponsible military commanders. About 280 soldiers were picked up at Luhansk airport and informed that their destination would be the Moscow-Luhansk highway, a virtual death sentence, since the road is the only remaining link between eastern Ukraine and Russia, and controlled by separatists and Chechens. The troops abandoned their mission; only 25 paratroopers from Zhytomyr were willing to take it on and suffered heavily. The Uzhhorod parents believe their Ukrainian commanders betrayed their whereabouts to the Chechens for cash and took vacations on the proceeds. Captured Chechens have also been suddenly released. The soldiers do not complain about shortages of food and water and are willing to defend Ukraine. But they believe also that the war is being prolonged for profits.
According to Dmytro Tymchuk, coordinator of the group “Information Resistance,” the main problem lies with army generals at ATO headquarters. They are, he reports, pathologically inclined to lies, are afraid to take on the slightest responsibility, unable to make simple decisions, and utterly incompetent. Military commanders of all units are psychologically unprepared for combat. Starting with the war in Crimea (March 2014), examples abound of middle and junior commanders refusing to obey orders or sabotaging them.
Treachery and corruption at the top is rampant. Both Svoboda leader Oleh Tiahnybok and commander of the “Aidar” battalion, Serhii Melnychuk, maintain there are traitors in the central office of the ATO. Tiahnybok has proposed a lie detector test to prevent the delivery of secret information to Moscow, end corruption, and facilitate the delivery of necessary military equipment. A volunteer from the “Wings of the Phoenix” from Mykolaiv region complained that: “The generals have saunas and fitness centers in the rear of ATO Staff. They have no idea what’s going on here, where our guys are dying.”
One soldier bemoaned the fact that in Kyiv the oligarchs have returned to power and “nothing has changed.” The generals do not care about soldiers, they remain in hotels and secure places, and are content to replace dead troops with new recruits. Even Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Valerii Heletei, acknowledged the depths of the problems of the high command, noting that the Ukrainian army has 20-30 generals who are quite adept at preparing battle plans on tablets and on paper. But they have no idea what is happening at the front. In order to understand the situation, he commented, “one should at least go there.”
The DNR’s defense leader Strelkov recently imposed martial law in Donetsk. Such options are not open to the Ukrainian side, complained deputy of the Kyiv Council, Ihor Lutsenko. Yet, he believes, its imposition would allow the military to detain suspected separatists. The front abounds in enemy agents and traitors, yet local police forces leave the separatists in peace. Lutsenko maintained that “The main problems with fighting the terrorists are located in the capital, and to overcome them will automatically ensure victory—at least over those enemies who are in our country right now. The ATO must start in Kyiv!”
The government of Ukraine proposes to allot about $1 billion for the ATO, the costs of refugees, and restoring the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the future in the 2014 state budget. It has also raised financial assistance to the families of dead servicemen in the ATO zone to around $50,000 per soldier. In reality, however, families do not receive such compensation since the soldiers are blamed for their own deaths—failure to follow instructions, misuse of weapon, improper behavior, etc., as the testimony of their widows reveals.
The failure to deal with fundamental problems of the army is undermining the war effort and alienating the troops conducting the main fighting. Not only does it endanger the future of Ukraine, but also it contributes to volunteer extremist paramilitary groups like the extremist “Azov” battalion taking over the war effort. The victims of high-level corruption in the current Ukrainian army are the rank-and-file troops who are neglected, betrayed, and often abandoned to their fate as “cannon fodder.” This fact is largely concealed in the Ukrainian and Western media amid reports of ATO successes and liberation of eastern towns and villages. But it will affect the future of Ukraine long after the demise of Girkin and the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
David Marples is currently Visiting Professor at the Slavic and Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University, Japan. He is Distinguished Professor and Dirctor of the Stasiuk Program for the Study of Contemporary Ukraine at the University of Alberta, Canada.
Myroslava Uniat holds an MA from the University of Alberta, Canada. Her sphere of research was contemporary Ukrainian political folklore. She was born in Kyiv and raised in Chernihiv region of Ukraine.