During the August 2008 commemoration of the 17th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, armored units of Ukraine’s ground forces paraded down Kyiv’s Khreschatyk Boulevard, while air force planes flew overhead in a show of Ukrainian military might and preparedness.
The decision to include a full-scale military parade was made by President Viktor Yushchenko at the last moment. His decision was directly linked to his support for Georgia in the August Russian-Georgian war and was intended to demonstrate to the world that Ukraine had the means to defend itself if Russia decided to invade the country.
Mr. Yushchenko told the gathered crowd: “No one will ever tell us what road to follow. No one will ever measure our borders, islands, and peninsulas…. I express the deepest condolences from everyone, without exception, to the victimized people of the undivided Georgian lands.… Your pain is in our hearts” (Ukrainian Weekly, August 31).
The main question many Ukrainians are asking, however, is how ready and capable is the Ukrainian military to withstand a sustained Russian air, ground, and sea attack and defend Ukraine’s independence? A recent poll by the Ukrainian Strategic Studies Institute found that 57 percent of those polled did not believe that Ukraine was capable of defending its territorial integrity and independence by itself (Ukrayinska Pravda, September 1).
Ukraine’s largely conscript armed forces consist of 191,000 military personnel and 43,000 civilian employees. They are generally considered to be underfunded and lacking in training.
According to a 2007 study by Marybeth Peterson Ulrich of the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, “The Ukrainian armed forces have been on a starvation diet, recently receiving only 1.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). [If Ukraine were in NATO, it would rank] third among NATO’s 26 countries in terms of size, but 127th out of 150 countries worldwide in expenditure per serviceman.”
Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov has said that “The MOD [Ministry of Defense] has a very long way to go in the area of defense, because a systematic transformation of the UAF [Ukrainian Armed Forces] requires enormous efforts, clear coherence in actions, and heavy daily routine” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense website www.mil.gov.ua/index.php?part=white_book&lang=en, April 17).
On a more optimistic note, the Defense Ministry’s “White Paper” for 2007 made the following assertion: “In general, in 2006 and 2007 the measures stipulated in the State Program of Development of the Armed Forces were mainly fulfilled. The amount of fulfillment affirms that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are approaching the standards set for 2011. Combat organization of the forces and their level of combat readiness indicated during military exercises, including international ones, as well as during peacekeeping missions, affirm that the armed forces are ready and capable of adequately reacting to potential threats and completing the reform to acquire the characteristics of a modern, professional, mobile European force.”
Despite this overly positive assessment, many specialists are asking if the Ukrainian leadership will be forced to resort to developing nuclear weapons as an answer to Ukraine’s military woes.
In January 1994, after considerable international pressure, Ukraine agreed with Russia and the United States to turn over its nuclear arsenal to Russia. At that time it adopted a military doctrine that declared the country’s intention to be a non-nuclear state and stated that Ukraine had no enemies, although the doctrine did stipulate that any state “whose consistent policy constitutes a military danger for Ukraine, leads to interference in internal matters, and encroaches on its territorial integrity or national interests” is an enemy (Stephen Blank, Proliferation and Nonproliferation in Ukraine: Implications for European and U.S. Security, U.S. Army War College, 1994)
On January 14, 1994, the Presidents of the United States, Russia, and Ukraine signed a trilateral statement detailing the procedures for the transfer of Ukrainian nuclear warheads to Russia and gave the Ukrainians the security assurances they demanded.
Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College wrote in July 1994 that with the conclusion of the tripartite accord “the United States has committed itself to involvement in all aspects of the Russo-Ukrainian relationship that are crucial to the security of the CIS and Europe. Perhaps without realizing it, the United States has become a permanent factor in the regional security equation. The United States is seen by Kiev, whatever U.S. policy is in actuality, as being able to guarantee Ukraine against Moscow’s pressures.”
The issue of nuclear weapons reappeared in the Ukrainian-Russian war of words in February 2007, when Russia’s then-president Vladimir Putin warned Yushchenko that nuclear weapons would be aimed at Ukraine if they cooperated with America’s missile defense program. A similar threat was made by the former chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, Yuriy Baluyevsky last April.
Reacting to these and earlier Russian threats, Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov has said a number of times that Ukraine made a “foolish” decision to give up all its nuclear weapons. In 2003 Yekhanurov stressed the importance of having a strong army and said that Ukraine “could easily resume nuclear weapons production if necessary” (Stolichnyye Novosti, October 28, 2003).
In late August, in a move designed to calm Ukrainian and Western concerns over Russia’s intentions, Putin said that Russia was not interested in annexing the Crimean Peninsula; but many in the Ukrainian defense establishment take little comfort from these words. The conflict over the Crimea is only one facet of the much larger picture, and the prospect of Russia targeting Ukrainian cities with nuclear weapons along with the lack of any meaningful Western security guarantees might push Ukraine to heed Yekhanurov’s concerns and begin a program to arm its military with a nuclear arsenal.