Nov 30, 2021
What to make of the military analysts who calmly list the reasons why the most serious war in Europe since 1945 might begin in January? The flat, muddy terrain of south-eastern Ukraine will be frozen solid by then, allowing Russian tanks to roll in. It is in the middle of the deployment cycle for the conscripts who make up much of Russia’s ground forces. And Russia may find itself with a pretext for invasion, since the new year has in the past brought front line flare-ups in Ukraine’s war against Russian-backed separatists. Besides, the 100,000 Russian troops massed near the border are more than mere theatre; Russia is setting up field hospitals and calling up its reserves.
Dima is unimpressed. A colonel in the Ukrainian army, he has watched the rapid transformation of his country’s armed forces from a bad joke to something approaching a modern army. And he thinks Russia has been watching, too. “They are afraid of us, because since 2014 we have shown what we can do,” says Dima, who prefers not to use his real name. “It would be a third world war, at a minimum,” he says, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole. In the corner of a café in Kyiv, fidgeting with cigarettes and coffee, he remembers how far Ukraine has travelled.
In 2014 Dima was commanding a battalion near Luhansk, a city near the Russian border. Of his 700 soldiers, only 40 were ready for active duty. His men did not bother to wear their clumsy Soviet-army vests or helmets, which offered little protection against bullets. Soldiers instead, when possible, dressed in German gear scrounged abroad in second-hand stores by volunteers. His tanks had the wrong engines installed. Few men had the training they needed to fight well. Had Ukraine enjoyed today’s military back in 2014 “Donetsk and Luhansk would be free today,” claims Dima with a snap of his fingers.
But they are not. Ukraine failed to stop Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the self-declared “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk remain outside Ukraine’s control. That Ukraine had just 6,000 combat-ready troops at the time was a legacy of decades of neglect. Well-intentioned Ukrainian politicians were complacent after the signing in 1994 of the Budapest memorandum, under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from America, Britain and Russia. Ill-intentioned officials, some with Russian citizenship, sold off equipment and took their cut.
Now Ukraine is getting its act together. Military spending as a share of GDP has more than doubled to 4%, funded in part by a “military levy” on incomes. America has given $2.5bn-worth of equipment to Ukraine. That includes Harris radios to ensure troops can communicate, and counter-battery radars to detect the source of enemy fire. Soldiers enthuse about their modern new uniforms. Conscription was reintroduced, though 85% of Ukraine’s soldiers are still professional.
Some necessary reforms will take time the country does not have. Procurement is murky and state-owned manufacturers are unproductive. An overly rigid Soviet-era command culture persists. But Ukraine has 250,000 troops and a further 900,000 reserves. Some 300,000 of them have experience on the front line. The new soldiers are better trained. The West, at first reluctant to send Ukraine weaponry, is changing tack. Ukraine has bought TB-2 Bayraktar combat-capable drones from Turkey, a NATO member, which the separatists can do little to stop. America has sent Ukraine Javelin missiles, though on the condition that they be stored far from the front line.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, wants more. Weaponry is nice but what he covets most is accession to NATO. That would commit America and 29 other countries to leap to Ukraine’s defence were it attacked by Russia. But such an invitation looks highly unlikely; NATO does not want an unambiguous commitment to defend a country Russia has already attacked. However, Ukraine is preparing its forces for “interoperability” with NATO forces anyway. Joint exercises with NATO are increasingly common; the older ones such as Rapid Trident, and Sea Breeze this summer, are getting bigger and more sophisticated. New exercises are also cropping up, such as Cossack Mace, a Britain-Ukraine exercise that began this year, and “Coherent Resilience”, an annual tabletop NATO exercise with Ukrainian officials that began in 2017. A new policy mandates command of English among all Ukrainian troops by 2025.
Much of Ukraine’s improvement has been based on the premise that Russia wants to challenge Ukraine, but does not want the cost of waging a war in its own name. Vladimir Putin funnelled troops and small quantities of Russian kit to the front line; but he has not sent planes or entire battalions. That has produced the kind of disorganised ground war that Ukraine has been getting better at fighting ever since. If Ukraine’s beefier military can deny Mr Putin his preferred option of a low-risk military gambit, the thinking goes, Ukraine might keep Russia at bay.
But Russian thinking may be changing in response to a version of the future it finds intolerable. It fears that a West-veering Ukraine will abandon its historical role as a buffer between Russia and the West, and instead play host to American firepower only a short distance from Moscow. Critics accuse Mr Putin of scheming to ensure that the Minsk II ceasefire agreement of 2015 would see Donetsk and Luhansk put back into a federal Ukraine with a power of veto over any Westward tilt. That has not happened. Ukraine’s courtship of Europe and America is continuing and Russia is losing patience, reckons Samuel Charap of the RAND corporation, an American think-tank.
That does not mean that Russia wishes to gobble up large swathes of Ukrainian territory for good. Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign-policy analyst close to the Kremlin, suggests that a quick, hard incursion akin to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia could occur, followed by merciless talks. A pretext would not be hard to find, or to manufacture.
No Western power looks willing to wage war against Russia for Ukraine’s sake. Mr Putin is probably bluffing. If he is not, Dima’s confidence will face a fearsome test.