WHAT TO DO with the military analysts who calmly list the reasons why the most serious war in Europe since 1945 could begin in January? The flat and muddy terrain of southeastern Ukraine will then be frozen over, allowing Russian tanks to intervene. It is in the middle of the deployment cycle of the conscripts who constitute a large part of the Russian ground forces. And Russia may end up with a pretext for an invasion, as the New Year has in the past sparked frontline pushes in Ukraine’s war against Russia-backed separatists. Moreover, the 100,000 Russian soldiers massed near the border are more than just a theater; Russia is setting up field hospitals and calling on its reserves.
Dima is not impressed. A colonel in the Ukrainian army, he has witnessed the rapid transformation of his country’s armed forces from a bad joke to something akin to a modern army. And he thinks Russia has also observed. “They are afraid of us because since 2014 we have shown what we can do,” explains Dima, who prefers not to use her real name. “It would be at least a third world war,” he says, perhaps with a hint of hyperbole. In the corner of a Kiev cafe, fiddling with cigarettes and coffee, he remembers how far Ukraine has come.
In 2014, Dima commanded a battalion near Lugansk, a town near the Russian border. Of its 700 soldiers, only 40 were ready for active service. His men did not bother to wear their awkward Soviet army vests or helmets, which offered little protection against bullets. Soldiers instead, when possible, dressed in German equipment collected abroad from second-hand stores by volunteers. His tanks had the wrong engines installed. Few men had the training they needed to fight well. If Ukraine had benefited from today’s army in 2014, “Donetsk and Lugansk would be free today,” Dima said with a snap of his fingers.
But they are not. Ukraine has failed to stop Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the self-proclaimed “republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk remain outside of Ukraine’s control. The fact that Ukraine only had 6,000 combat-ready soldiers at the time was a legacy of decades of neglect. Well-meaning Ukrainian politicians were complacent after the 1994 signing of the Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from the United States, Britain and the United States. Russia. Ill-intentioned officials, some of Russian nationality, sold equipment and took their share.
Now Ukraine is pulling itself together. Military spending as a percentage of GDP more than doubled to 4%, financed in part by a “military levy” on income. America donated $ 2.5 billion worth of equipment to Ukraine. This includes Harris radios to ensure troops can communicate and counter battery radars to detect the source of enemy fire. The soldiers are enthusiastic about their new modern uniforms. Conscription has been reintroduced, although 85% of Ukrainian soldiers are still professionals.
Some necessary reforms will take time that the country does not have. The supply is cloudy and state manufacturers are unproductive. An overly rigid command culture of the Soviet era persists. But Ukraine has 250,000 troops and 900,000 additional reserves. Some 300,000 of them have frontline experience. New soldiers are better trained. The West, initially reluctant to send arms to Ukraine, is changing course. Ukraine has bought TB-2 Bayraktar combat drones from NATO member Turkey, which the separatists can do little to stop. America sent Javelin missiles to Ukraine, but on condition that they were stored away from the front line.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wants more. Armament is good, but what he most covets is membership in NATO. This would commit America and 29 other countries to stand up for Ukraine if it were attacked by Russia. But such an invitation seems highly improbable; NATO does not want an unambiguous commitment to defend a country that Russia has already attacked. However, Ukraine is preparing its forces for “interoperability” with NATO forces anyway. Joint exercises with NATO are increasingly common; older ones like Rapid Trident and Sea Breeze this summer are getting bigger and more sophisticated. New exercises are also emerging, such as Cossack Mace, a UK-Ukraine exercise that began this year, and “Coherent Resilience,” an annual NATO tabletop exercise with Ukrainian officials that began in 2017. A new policy requires fluency in English among all. Ukrainian troops by 2025.
Much of Ukraine’s improvement has been based on the premise that Russia wants to challenge Ukraine, but doesn’t want the cost of waging a war on its own behalf. Vladimir Putin routed troops and small amounts of Russian materiel to the front line; but he did not send planes or entire battalions. This produced the kind of disorganized land warfare that Ukraine has improved in since then. If Ukraine’s more robust military can deny Mr Putin his preferred option of a low-risk military bet, Ukraine could keep Russia at bay.
But Russian thinking can change in response to a version of the future that it finds intolerable. He fears that a west-facing Ukraine will give up its historic role as a buffer between Russia and the West, and instead welcome American firepower a short distance from Moscow. Critics accuse Mr Putin of scheming to ensure that the 2015 Minsk II ceasefire agreement would see Donetsk and Lugansk, with their large Russian populations, handed over to a federal Ukraine with veto power over everything. tilt to the west. This does not happen. Ukraine’s court with Europe and America continues and Russia is losing patience, says Samuel Charap of RAND, an American think tank.
This does not mean that Russia wants to swallow up large swathes of Ukrainian territory for good. Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy analyst close to the Kremlin, suggests that a swift and harsh incursion similar to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia could occur, followed by merciless talks. A pretext would not be difficult to find, nor to manufacture.
This force, fully unleashed on the Ukrainian troops, would pulverize them. Nothing in Ukraine’s arsenal would be able to stop the Russian Air Force, made up of modern jets, which recently proved their might in a bombing campaign on Syria. Most of the Ukrainian navy disappeared with the Crimea in 2014 and has not been rebuilt since then. Russian troops are better armed, more numerous and supported by a more fluid logistical organization. No Western power seems willing to wage war on Russia for the sake of Ukraine. Mr. Putin is probably bluffing. If he isn’t, Dima’s confidence will be strained. ■