On March 3, the Russian proxy representatives of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) reportedly gave permission to their military to launch preemptive attacks against Ukrainian forces along the frontline (Armiyadnr.su, RBC, March 3). Despite both sides announcing a comprehensive truce last July, 14 Ukrainian service members were killed since the start of 2021. Many more were injured by shelling, landmines and sniper fire that has intensified from the Russia-backed separatists’ side (Pravda.com.ua, February 28).
Throughout this time, Ukraine has continued to reach out to and develop its relations with strategic Western security partners. As recently as February 25, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who praised Ukraine’s ongoing reforms of its defense sector as well as reaffirmed the Alliance’s support for its Euro-Atlantic ambitions (President.gov.ua, February 25). Meanwhile, in Washington, the Joseph Biden administration recently announced an additional $125 military aid package to Ukraine (Kyiv Post, March 2).
Yet despite the notable military assistance and political backing the country has been receiving from its international allies, by some measures the situation within the Ukrainian Armed Forces remains gloomy. According to reporting published last autumn, throughout the period 2018–2020, around 77,000 contract soldiers resigned—a third of Ukraine’s total military personnel, numbering about 250,000. “If before, the Ministry of Defense was one of the most open bodies, now it is the most closed,” said Mykola Sungurovsky, the director of the military program at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center. The commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Colonel General Ruslan Khomchak, admits the military suffers from a problem of personnel turnover, but he noted that the same issue plagues all other armies around the world. And the reasons for these resignations among Ukrainian service members vary, including problem related to housing shortages or lack of fulfillment of some social guarantees. Khomchak asserted the Ukrainian military has to significantly change its mentality, its upbringing, ideology, military culture, and so on (BBC News—Ukrainian service, October 21, 2020).
In a recent interview, Colonel Serhii Sobko, a former commander of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, pointed out that those Soviet-style Ukrainian officers who dodged the war in 2014–2015 are now returning to the chain of command, which is adding new uncertainty to the Armed Forces’ proclaimed NATO path. Sobko recounted that, in 2018, he unexpectedly lost a promised ten-month study position at the US Army War College (Carlisle, Pennsylvania), which at the last minute was reassigned to another Ukrainian officer. Purportedly, Sobko was told he would instead be receiving a military promotion, but even a year later, no such elevation was ever given. He attributed this episode to his showing insufficient deference to the high command and refusing to accept the status quo within the military: “If I was quieter and did not raise any problems [in the army] to the command, military service would have been more comfortable for me” (YouTube, March 2, 2021).
During a trip to the frontline last month, President Zelenskyy affirmed that Ukrainian units are allowed to proportionally respond to instances of enemy fire (Ukrinform, February 11). But despite such assurances, many on-the-ground commanders still hesitate to give the order to fire back, in order to avoid further complaints from Kyiv. As this author personally witnessed during a visit to the Donbas line of control in mid-February 2021, following any exchange of fire, Ukrainian troops are required to prove they did not shoot first. Rebukes from commanders for discharging a weapon can end with involuntary resignation, ultimately ending the individual’s military career. In off-the-record conversations with this author, Ukrainian soldiers complained of effectively having to hide their activities from the high command while fighting for their own land.
A related problem, according to frontline troops, is overwhelming volumes of paperwork, which was not seen since 2014. Instead of fulfilling their direct duties, many service members now must deal with military bureaucracy, which includes answering thousands of formal request telegrams and filling out military reports that must be written by hand. One Ukrainian officer recently shared on his Facebook page that, last year, he received 3,853 incoming telegrams, letters, proofs, requirements, instructions, and other documentation—which averages out to at least 10 documents a day. In 2019, there were fewer such documents—3,491. So if the current trend holds, Ukrainian troops in the trenches may expect even more paperwork this year (Facebook.com/StanislavDiegtariev, February 17). Some service members joked to this author that they were members of the “Ukrainian paper army” (Author’s interviews, February 2021).
All this seriously undermines troop morale and motivation, while also potentially explaining the mass personnel attrition in the Ukrainian Armed Forces over the past couple years, especially among those who experienced fighting in Donbas. Many of them say they joined the army to fight the enemy and push it off of Ukrainian soil. Instead, they must deal with a daily routine and obey orders that, in their eyes, does not bring victory any closer. Such sentiment, if widespread, is particularly dangerous during periods of heightened violence across the frontline and deliberate provocations from the Russian side (Zn.ua, March 3; see EDM, March 11).
For now, the relatively high monthly salaries of up to 30,000 hryvna ($1,000) still attract many Ukrainians to sign a service contract with the military. This option has become particularly relevant amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, when many Ukrainians lost their jobs and have had to find other sources of income. Moreover, military service comes with crucial social safety net elements, including free housing, pensions and so on.
The Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) is currently considering legislation that would allow the president to call up 150,000 military reservists without first declaring a general mobilization or martial law (Babel.ua, March 5). The successful ability to absorb such large numbers of service members into the Armed Forces—all while maintaining morale and preserving a high level of combat capabilities to resist Russian military aggression—is not a trivial matter. If this bill is adopted into law, it will add further urgency and necessity to adopt deeper reforms that bring the Ukrainian military in line with NATO standards.