A group of men and a few women clad in neat, matching camouflage uniforms and combat boots walk through an airport, presumably on their way to the front. As the soldiers make their way toward their gate, people around them rise in applause. A message appears on the screen: “Come back alive,” along with directions for contacting Ukraine’s volunteer brigades and donating to the military.
The video commercial shows the army Ukraine would like to have: a streamlined, battle-ready group that’s a source of pride for the country. But it also hints at the fighting force that Ukraine has today: one with a heavy reliance on support from volunteer soldiers and donations from across the country to help keep it properly outfitted.
“At the beginning of March, there was nothing,” says Oleksiy Melnyk, an analyst with Razmykov Center, an independent think tank in Kiev. When Russia annexed Crimea about a month after the EuroMaidan uprising, the interim government had limited options.
To prevent the loss of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions to pro-Russia separatists, the government has reinstated the military draft and launched a national campaign asking for donations to replenish the military’s depleted coffers. Thus far the donation campaign has raised more than $11.7 million, according to the BBC.
Volunteers, many spurred on by a rise in patriotism in the wake of the Maidan protests, have also helped to boost the armed forces’ numbers. The National Guard has integrated former members from Maidan’s self-defense forces into its ranks. Other informal fighting battalions have emerged in recent months that are sometimes very loosely affiliated with, or entirely independent from, official government forces.
The emergence of such battalions is a reflection of how weak Ukraine’s military was at the beginning of the eastern conflict. “I think the only reason that these battalions get a chance is because at this time, three months ago, the Ukrainian government was ready to accept probably any help it could get,” says Melnyk.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the budget and personnel numbers of the Ukrainian armed forces have been in sharp decline. In 1991, the Ukrainian army numbered around 700,000 troops; by 1996, there were approximately 300,000. In February 2014, on the eve of the Crimean annexation, there were approximately 150,000 in the army, navy, and air force, only 5,000 of whom were battle ready, says Melnyk.
Despite a legal requirement that set the defense budget at 3 percent of gross domestic product annually, defense spending has consistently failed to meet that target in recent years, according to an analysis from IHS Jane’s, which studies armed forces worldwide. The defense budget for 2014 is $1.8 billion, down from $1.9 billion in 2013, but a slight increase from 2009′s $1.5 billion budget. (Numbers adjusted for inflation.)
Even within the military budget, the allocation of funds does not help the Ukrainian armed forces to modernize, says Konrad Muzyka, a Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States armed forces analyst with IHS Jane’s. For example, only about 10 percent of Ukraine’s defense budget was allocated to the procurement of weapons. For armed forces to operate effectively, about 25 percent of the total military budget should go to weapons procurement.
Until February, there wasn’t the same urgency as there is now to modernize the Ukrainian armed forces, says Muzyka. According to the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994, Russia, the U.S., and Great Britain agreed to be guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament.
Then came the crisis with Russia and its annexation of Crimea. Although Russia might have been perceived as a destabilizing factor in Ukraine, “all of us, including myself, never imagined such a scale of military aggression,” says Melnyk, who, in addition to working as an analyst, served in the Soviet and Ukrainian Air Forces from 1980-2001 and did a stint in the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine from 2005-08.
To deal with the pro-Russia militias and their Russian sponsors was a military that had deteriorated under President Viktor Yanukovych. “The biggest amount of damage inflicted upon the Ukrainian army came at the hands of Yanukovych,” says Melnyk. Not only did the former president declare Ukraine an unaligned state, moving it away from future NATO membership, but he oversaw the disintegration of the command-and-control structure for the Ukrainian military and the state security services. During Yanukovych’s time in office—which ended with his flight to Moscow earlier this year—the emphasis was on building strong interior police forces, not a military that could effectively defend the country’s frontiers. The Berkyt police, a division of police officers since dissolved, were perhaps best known for their loyalty guarding the former president during the EuroMaidan protests. They made an average of 600 hryvnias per month, which adjusted for inflation is around $750. In contrast, the average soldier made around $100 per month.
When Yanukovych and those loyal to him fled the country, he left behind a military where soldiers lacked basic equipment, let alone combat training. It’s unlikely that Ukraine will be able to modernize its armed forces in the next few years, says Muzyka. But enough volunteers might be able to offer the country a much needed boost in its fight to restore its eastern boundaries.
Dmitry Tymchuk, an expert on the Ukrainian military at the Center of Military and Political Research in Kiev, says the army has plenty of firearms and can bring more firepower to bear against the separatists with its air force and tanks, which the separatists lack.
But Ukraine’s soldiers still need basics such as flak jackets, says Tymchuk. Ukrainian defense contractors made 100 flak jackets per year. Now “there’s no way they can make 10,000 to keep up with demand,” says the air force veteran. Another problem: “From the beginning of March, it’s been harder for Ukraine to buy weapons. Countries became reluctant to sell to Ukraine, in case they could later be accused of contributing weapons to a conflict. “
The U.S. had pledged upwards of $60 million in aid to Ukraine in June. Most recently, the Pentagon announced plans to tack on an additional $19 million to help train and equip the Ukrainian national guard. Back in April, the U.S. government also promised Ukraine a billion dollar loan guarantee to help the country’s severely weakened economy.