Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 3

Ukraine adopts a wide-ranging military reform program

By Serhii Markiv

After five years of failed experiments and false starts, Ukraine has finalized a "State Program for the Building and Development of Ukraine’s Armed Forces to the Year 2005." The plan was approved at the end of December 1996 at a closed session of the National Security and Defense Council chaired by President Leonid Kuchma. According to Volodymyr Horbulin, the council’s secretary, Ukraine is the first among the CIS countries to have approved an all-encompassing military reform plan at the highest levels of government.

Efforts at reforming the armed forces began soon after Ukraine gained independence. At the time, active duty military personnel, excluding the Black Sea Fleet, numbered 726,000, making Ukraine’s army one of the largest standing armies in Europe. Horbulin told journalists that during the past several years no less than five different draft programs had been developed, but none proved workable. As in Russia, the major stumbling block has been the lack of adequate funding in the state budget. Another serious problem was the infighting at the top levels of the Ministry of Defense, particularly during the tenure of Ukraine’s first civilian defense chief, Valery Shmarov. His appointment in October 1994 was met with opposition from the officer corps, and it was not uncommon for high-ranking generals to criticize their superior at public forums. The conflict came to a head early last year and resulted in the dismissal of Gen. Anatoly Lopata, chief of the General Staff, who came to personify the anti-Shmarov sentiment among Ukraine’s military professionals.

There were also concrete differences over the direction that military reform should take. Shmarov and First Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Ivan Bizhan favored replacing Ukraine’s remaining two military districts with so-called operational-territorial commands (OTKs). Gen. Lopata categorically opposed the idea of territorial commands and favored the formation of a third military district, headquartered in Dnipropetrovsk.

One of the major criticisms of the proposed OTKs has been that they raise the specter of "regional armies" emerging in Ukraine, where regional cleavages overlap with ethnic and linguistic differences. In a nationwide poll conducted at the end of 1995 and in early 1996, the idea of confederation with Russia, Kazakstan, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics drew widespread support in the heavily Russian and Russian-speaking eastern region of Ukraine (87 percent), Crimea (88 percent), and among ethnic Russians overall (80 percent). In the western region, a solid majority of two-thirds supported a sovereign and independent Ukraine.

Kuchma must be credited with taking the initiative and, ultimately, forcing his subordinates finally to take action. After the earlier experiments failed to produce anything other than a mechanical downsizing of the army, he set the reform process in motion once again in early 1995 and provided the Defense Ministry’s leadership with ample opportunity to work out a viable military reform program. In May 1996, Kuchma brought together a specially formed working group of experts, including civilian specialists, to review the reform plans that were being devised within the narrow circle of Shmarov’s supporters. Finally, in July, the President took the logical step of firing his minister of defense, admitting that the experiment with a civilian defense chief had been premature. Shmarov’s replacement is the 42-year-old Gen. Oleksandr Kuzmuk, the former commander of the National Guard.

In mid-December 1996, some two weeks before the new reform program was adopted, Kuchma addressed the military’s top brass and delivered what may well be the most devastating critique of the state of Ukraine’s armed forces since their formation. (1) Emphasizing that the time of pleading and pointless discussions had been exhausted, he announced that henceforth the generals would be held personally responsible. How is it, Kuchma asked, that not a single one of the ground forces’ 191 mechanized and tank battalions is in a state of combat readiness? Who can explain why 2,500 pilots have left the air force in the last few years? Why can only one-third of Ukraine’s bomber aircraft get off the ground? When will Ukraine have a single air defense system? During the first nine months of 1996, "losses and deficits" within the Logistics Service amounted to nearly 4 million hryvni. In plain language, more than $2 million worth of military hardware and supplies were stolen. These figures represent only reported losses. Kuchma asserted that there is every reason to believe that the actual figures are much higher. According to one source, Ukraine’s Security Service is investigating 15 generals and 85 senior officers for complicity in the activities of dozens of organized criminal groups. (2) The President reminded his high-ranking audience that the people of Ukraine expected their children to return from military service alive and not as physical, spiritual, and moral cripples. Clearly, it is a sad state of affairs that increasingly more young men are evading military service. "But ask yourselves," said Kuchma: "Who would want to serve in this kind of an army?"

The situation described by Kuchma is confirmed by other sources. A survey taken in April 1996 by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Research together with the Social Monitoring Center, which encompassed 14 regions and over 1,000 officers, came to the conclusion that Ukraine’s armed forces are incapable of performing their primary function and, indeed, that they are becoming a destabilizing force in society. A full 50 percent of the officers in the survey characterized their attitude toward their commander-in-chief–namely, President Kuchma — as negative; one-third described their attitude as completely negative. Defense Minister Shmarov fared even worse: two-thirds of the officers gave him a negative appraisal. The proportion of respondents who favored forming a bloc with Russia and Belarus and supported integration with Ukraine’s Slavic neighbors totaled 37 percent. Only 12 percent were oriented toward NATO and another 8 percent supported the Tashkent collective security pact led by Moscow. The largest group, 41 percent, were in favor of retaining Ukraine’s non-aligned status. Only 4 percent of the officers felt that the army could defend the country; 57 percent were convinced that it could not. One out of three officers felt that it had been a mistake to enter the military profession. (3)

Figures from the Ministry of Defense show that in the first half of 1996 crime in the military increased by 14 percent over the same period in the previous year; non-statutory relations [hazing] increased by almost 10 percent; evasion of military service by more than 45 percent; theft by more than 9 percent; and grand larceny by 45 percent. About 71,000 officers and their families remain without their own housing. (4)

According to the State Program, the earlier planned downsizing of the armed forces to 350,000 by the end of 1996 has now been postponed to 2005. Recent statistics provided by the Ministry of Defense in compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, to which Ukraine is a signatory, show that as of January 1, 1997 Ukraine’s armed forces, excluding sea-based military personnel, numbered almost 371,000.

The Ukrainian military will be organized into four branch services: ground forces; air force; air defense force; and the navy. The ground forces will be organized into three operational commands — Western, Southern, and Northern — based on the two existing military districts and the experimental Northern OTK. Two points should be emphasized. First, Shmarov’s proposal of operational-territorial commands (OTKs) has been dropped in favor of a structure that is not very different from the old Soviet system of military districts. Second, there will now be a military command that faces the border with Russia in Chernihiv. The air force will consist of two aviation corps with a brigade and regimental structure. The air defense force will have three brigade-based corps. And the navy will be responsible for two districts, the Southern and Eastern.

The central bureaucracy of the Ministry of Defense and General Staff is to be reduced by 1,000 generals and officers and the number of deputy defense ministers will also be cut. At present, each of the commanders of the four branch services also holds the rank of deputy minister of defense.

The proposed reforms call for a new role for the General Staff, which will now be charged with overall defense planning and whose authority will be broadened to include other military formations outside of the Ministry of Defense. At the same time, Gen. Kuzmuk has demanded that the long-standing discussions about the need to clearly delineate functions between the minister and the chief of the General Staff must stop. Instead, he has demanded the strict subordination of the chief of the General Staff to the minister of defense. As for civilian control of the military, which was nominal in any case under Shmarov’s tenure, it appears that this notion has been buried for the indeterminate future.

Finally, the State Program calls for the drafting of a concrete plan for the modernization of armaments and military technology, which has been given high priority and is scheduled for completion by mid-1997. It is estimated that between 30 percent and 80 percent of the weapons arsenal and military technology, depending upon the category, is nearing its shelf life and will have to be phased out within the next five to ten years. At a recent press conference, Gen. Kuzmuk noted sarcastically that if steps are not taken soon to modernize Ukraine’s military hardware, "after 2005 we may be left with national consciousness and Kalashnikovs." (5)

It is difficult to make a balanced judgment about the prospects for the successful implementation the new reform program. Two problems, however, are fairly obvious. First, it is not at all clear where the financing for the State Program will come from. All previous reform initiatives floundered precisely because of the lack of adequate funding, which now covers only the minimal needs of the military — namely, salaries and provisions. The other major problem is that the State Program requires parliamentary approval and needs to be supplemented by additional military-related legislation in order for it to be implemented. Some steps have already been taken in this direction, specifically the adoption of a national security concept in January 1997. Overall, however, Ukraine’s economic crisis and the inertia of parliament are likely to be serious barriers to effective military reform.


1. For the text, see Uryadovyi kuryer, December 17, 1996

2. Krasnaya zvezda, December 27, 1996

3. Zerkalo nedeli, June 15-21, 1996

4. Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 12, 1996

5. Narodna armiya, January 18, 1997