Ukrainian armed forces

After Debaltseve: government and volunteer battalions seek different military solutions

Semen Semenchenko

Semen Semenchenko

The debacle at Debaltseve in the days following the Minsk II accords has given rise to two major developments: the Ukrainian government is seeking a European Union police mission to help it hold the line against the separatists and their Russian backers; and seventeen volunteer battalions have established a joint leadership and headquarters to make them a more effective fighting force. Both developments stem from the same recognition of the military inferiority of the Ukrainian side facing an adversary that is ready and willing to press forward into new territory. Both developments pose a military solution to this inferiority. But they differ insofar as the first seeks more external support to correct the military imbalance while the second seeks domestic changes to do the same thing.

The military solution from within

The announcement of a new joint leadership came from Semen Semenchenko, leader of the Donbas volunteer battalion, People’s Deputy elected to the Verkhovna Rada and deputy chairperson of the Rada’s Committee on National Security and Defense. In a series of posts on his Facebook on February 18 and 19 Semenchenko reported first on the difficult exit of Ukrainian troops from the Debaltseve encirclement, that an initial 167 wounded were taken to Artemivsk, and that “many dead” were left behind. He then fiercely criticised the military and political leadership for the debacle:

“This is not evidence of Russian superiority, but of mass heroism of the people’s army and the volunteer battalions and the gross incompetence, if not more, of the top leaders of the army.

What went wrong in Debaltseve? The same as before. We had enough forces and resources. The problem lay in the command and co-ordination. They were not up to the mark. There is a lack of personal responsibility. Simply stated, Muzhenko must go (Viktor Muzhenko, Chief of Staff and Commander of the Armed Forces). In the footsteps of Heletey (Colonel General, Minister of Defense from July to October 2014) …The Chief of Staff should be brought to justice…

The second problem concerns lying. If you utter a white lie in war time to save people’s lives or to prevent panic, then its admissible. But if you lie to save your own ass, its unacceptable. People are paying for that with their lives. We pay.

Donetsk Airport – a lie. Ilovaysk – a lie. Uhlehirsk – a lie. Lohvinove – a lie. That Donestsk airport and Debaltseve have no strategic significance – lies.”

On the following morning, February 19, Semenchenko gave his reaction to Poroshenko’s press conference about the evacuation from Debaltseve, comparing Poroshenko’s claims about its well organised character and the modest level of casualties and fatalities to the more damning reports he was receiving from officers and soldiers coming out of the encirclement. He insisted that Poroshenko was deliberately misinformed about Debaltseve, that he was the victim of

“fakes concocted specially for the President…produced and distributed by a narrow group of people trying to protect their influence over the president despite all their mistakes, failures and crimes…..They deceive you about the number of dead…of wounded…of the real level of co-ordination of the army…they deceive you when they report the capture of settlements that have in fact not been captured”.

The leaders of 17 volunteer battalions have decided to establish their own joint leadership and headquarters because of the incompetence, corruption and treason they see taking place in the highest ranks of the armed forces command and the intelligence services. (on treason see: ). The battalion commanders hold these people above all as responsible for the series of military defeats suffered from IIovaysk to Debaltseve, and they can no longer trust them to send their volunteers into battle. The battalions’ own joint leadership wants to filter, evaluate and inform such orders before obeying them.

The new leadership is headquartered in Dnipropetrovsk and has appointed an initial staff of 35 people.

They insist that the headquarters for the volunteer battalions is not a parallel or alternative or competing authority to that of the Armed Forces General Staff, but rather a supplementary institution that will maintain discipline of its forces, organise better their provision, co-ordinate their military resources and operations, provide additional sources of intelligence from the field and advise the Armed Forces General Staff. The volunteer battalions, they say, will obey the Armed Forces command and carry out its orders.

Equally important, the new headquarters will offer an independent channel of intelligence and advice to the President, in effect an alternative to what he already gets from the state institutions.

Immediately after the joint leadership and headquarters were announced, Ukrayinska Pravda published statements from several battalion commanders and paramilitary group leaders declining to take part in the initiative. They said that it challenged the authority of the armed forces command and undermined the unity of the forces themselves. Semenchenko responded to what he saw as “the wild hysteria” generated in social media by the announcement by insisting their joint leadership will not compete with the armed forces command, it is not intended to put pressure on the president, nor will it conduct its own separate war.

The volunteer military movement is splitting under the pressure of these developments. Some whole battalions as well as separate units breaking away from their battalions are going over. So there is a new crack opening up in the already fragile unity of the military forces. It has arisen directly in response to defeats they suffered in the field that battalion leaders and the rank and file attribute to the incompetence, corruption and treason at work inside the military, political and bureaucratic echelons of the Ukrainian state. The army is a microcosm of society and the same view about what’s wrong with the Ukrainian state is widespread today across civil society as well. It is most evident at the intersection between civilian and military life: in the growing evasion of and even resistance to conscription .

The military solution from without

The Poroshenko-Yatseniuk coalition government has sought military support from its western allies for some months now. But until last week there were never any requests for foreign troops on Ukrainian soil. When asked on the eve of the Minsk negotiations in February whether his government would accept peace-keeping forces in Ukraine, president Poroshenko declined, arguing instead that all Ukraine needed was to control its own border with Russia and for foreign fighters to leave, and then international peace keepers would be unnecessary. This position changed cardinally after the Debaltseve debacle. A meeting of the Council of National Security and Defense (RNBO) on 18 February took a decision to put to the Verkhovna Rada a proposal to approve an appeal to the European Union and the United Nations to send an EU police mission to patrol two borders – the section of the Russian-Ukrainian border that Ukrainian authorities are prevented from reaching by the separatist forces, and the front line of fighting between the separatists and the Ukrainian forces further to the west.

The proposal is not for a UN peace keeping force because Russia as a member of the UN Security Council can veto such a proposal, or on the other hand insist on Russian peacekeepers taking part in that force. President Putin had said at Minsk that he was not opposed to a UN mission, so presumably Kyiv is already on alert that Russia may wish to strengthen its presence in Eastern Ukraine in such a way, as it did in Georgia with its own “peace keepers”after it won the short August 2008 war. An EU police mission, on the other hand, could not by definition have Russian participation. Kyiv makes this point by saying that Russia as an aggressor state cannot partake in a peacekeeping mission in the same theatre.

The significance of this proposal is twofold. First, it signals Ukrainian leaders’ recognition that they cannot get access to all of their common border with Russia nor can they rely on their own military forces to hold back further advances of the separatist movement. And second, they are prepared to become even more reliant on external support – this time military force – as a counterweight to the challenge posed by the separatist movement and their external backers.

These two major developments of the past week cannot be reconciled. They cannot co-exist and each contribute somehow to strengthen Kyiv’s hand against its adversary. For one, Poroshenko and his close circle of sylovyky will not long tolerate a bifurcated chain of command, especially one that weakens their control over the volunteer battalions, which are their most motivated and battle hardened forces. For another, the European Union will not even contemplate sending any kind of peace keeping or peace-making force into a zone where all sides have not agreed to cease fighting. And there still isn’t sufficient evidence yet that the pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian volunteer battalions want to end the fighting, even if Kyiv and Moscow do now.

The solution cannot rely on military force alone

The wider problem, however, is that greater military capacity from within Ukrainian society or from without cannot on its own prevent further defeats and losses of territory by the Ukrainian side. Unless Russia stops backing the separatists. The current state of the Ukrainian armed forces alone demonstrates quite convincingly that the Ukrainian state’s leaders are also failing on several other critical fronts – ideological, social and economic – to rally the society and put up an effective national resistance to Russian imperialist aggression. The state of Ukraine will survive for some time in some shape or form. But if it proves incapable of defending the right of the Ukrainian people to their national self-determination it will become an even more dependent state – beholden to the West and to Russia. In the long run they could impose a settlement on the Ukrainian people that is based on a common transnational interest that satisfies the ruling classes of Europe, Ukraine and Russia. And that kind of solution would serve rather well some powerful members of the Ukrainian establishment like Rinat Akhmetov, Viktor Medvedchuk and Dmytro Firtash, to name the most likely deal makers.

The Ukrainian people deserve better than that. But where will an effective strategy and leadership of national resistance come from?  And who will embark on a radical transformation of the rotten political, social and economic order, and in a time of war?