As Ukraine looks to solve its escalating crisis, the nation’s military has so far been out of the equation.
Two decades of budget cuts have left the army a shadow of its post-Soviet-breakup self. Even with loyalists across the top of the command structure, the poorly trained and ill-equipped military is unlikely to be an option for President Viktor Yanukovych. Soldiers also loath getting involved in politics, unlike in other hotspots including Egypt.
“Morale is low,” Susan Stewart, the deputy head of the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said in an interview. “They are relatively poorly trained and their equipment is inadequate.”
While the president’s inability to staunch a wave of popular protests in the city’s main square echoes the final days of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Russian-born Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev has said the Ukrainian army won’t get involved on either side.
Yanukovych and the opposition are at an impasse after concessions by the government failed to end the spreading protests that turned deadly last week. With the cabinet’s resignation not enough to placate activists, the two sides are bracing for escalating tensions.
The Ukrainian president, who went on sick leave yesterday, denounced opposition leaders and accused them of putting their political interests “above the existence of Ukraine itself.” The European Union warned that the conflict threatens to escalate into a civil war that may break Ukraine apart.
The country’s 182,000 military personnel have so far stayed in their barracks throughout the crisis.
The Defense Ministry today called on Yanukovych “to take urgent steps, within the limits of law, to stabilize the country.” Ministry staff members at a general meeting yesterday expressed “support” for Yanukovych and spoke of the “threat” to the territorial integrity of Ukraine if the crisis worsens, it said in a statement on its website.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a phone call with Lebedev last month called for restraint against civilians. Hagel cited the potential damage of any involvement by the military in breaking up demonstrations, while Lebedev said Yanukovych’s position is not to use the army against protesters, the U.S. Department of Defense said in an e-mailed statement.
The Ukrainian opposition echoed Hagel’s warning and criticized the government for the lack of funding to the military. Current financing is 40 percent of the required, according to Serhiy Kaplin, a lawmaker for ex-boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR party.
“The army can’t participate in the political process,” Kaplin said on UDAR’s website today. “It has to be outside politics. If the authorities want to draw military men into the political conflict, I’m convinced that soldiers will be on the people’s side.”
The size of the military pales in comparison with the 800,000-strong army the ex-Soviet republic inherited after independence in 1991, Yevhen Lupakov, head of the Union of Officers in Ukraine, said in a phone interview.
Since then, Ukraine transferred 4,400 nuclear warheads to Russia, according to David Cortright and Raimo Vayrynen in their book, “Towards Nuclear Zero.”
Plans to overhaul the armed forces have been “hampered by inadequate funding,” according to The Military Balance 2013, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The military is capable “only of providing limited territorial defense” and “aging Soviet-era equipment increasingly needs to be replaced,” according to the report.
Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said the military’s position in society doesn’t compare to that in Egypt and Turkey, where it has played a decisive role in times of crisis, he said.
Throughout the protests, Yanukovych has relied on Interior Ministry forces, police and the troops of the elite unit Berkut, the beneficiaries of budget allocations under the president.
Soldiers earn 2,500 hryvnia ($295) a month and officers get 3,000 hryvnia, Lupakov said. Personnel in Berkut, or Golden Eagle, earn about 4,300 hryvnia a month, about 50 percent more than regular police.
As the crisis escalated, Yanukovych started working on shoring up army loyalty, pledging to double soldiers’ pay. Soldiers were ordered to show their allegiance at special gatherings, according to Anatoliy Hrytsenko, defense minister in 2005-2007.
“The defense minister is loyal, but the troops may not be,” Stefan Meister, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said in a phone interview.
Yanukovych is grappling with unrest that’s spread across the country criss-crossed with pipelines taking Russian gas to Europe. The crisis, sparked by the president’s rejection of a European Union integration pact, escalated last weak, leaving as many as eight people dead.
If deploying soldiers is taboo, Yanukovych’s means are limited as Berkut numbers about 4,000 in the nation of 45 million.
“The opposition’s tactic is to spread the protests nationwide because Yanukovych doesn’t have enough Berkut forces,” Meister said.
With the government unable to count on the army, a possible avenue would be expanding Berkut. The weekly newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli reported Jan. 27 that there’s a government plan to increase the personnel of Berkut and a similar unit called Grifon to 30,000. The report said Grifon currently has 1,000 members. The government denied having such plans.
“I wouldn’t rule out that Yanukovych could resort to the violent route,” Stewart said. “It’s not the most likely scenario but it cannot be ruled out if he’s desperate and pushed into a corner.”