Why Ukraine Is Losing

Today brings more bad news from easternmost Ukraine, as Kyiv’s defenders are trying to hold on to Donetsk airport, where fighting has waxed and waned for months between Ukrainian troops and rebels, many of whom are actually Russian soldiers. Putin is pushing again around Donetsk and the airport’s brave defenders, termed Cyborgs by the Ukrainian public, may not be able to stand their ground much longer. As usual, they are dismally supplied and badly led. Never in the Russo-Ukrainian War, which started last spring, has Kyiv’s General Staff inspired much confidence, and their leadership is improving slowly, if at all, under the rigors of war.

The disorganization and corruption of too much of Ukraine’s military is no secret. Indeed, that the higher-ups are criminals who avoid battle is a near-universally held belief among the fighters who are doing the dying around Donetsk, who see senior officers, many of them hold-overs from the Yanukovych era, living in comfort far from the sound of the guns. The troops who have borne the brunt of the Russo-Ukrainian War to date are volunteers — there are more than fifty battalions of them, though some are in reality more company-sized — since the regular army is in such a lamentable state that many of its units cannot be sent into battle.

Why the Ukrainian military remains so unready after many months of promises from Kyiv that it is serious about resisting the Russians is an important question. We have heard many excuses proffered about how the military was neglected for two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, which is true but unhelpful now, when Ukraine urgently needs combat-ready forces. Courage is not lacking while battle skill clearly is.

Small wonder then that morale among Ukraine’s combat troops is low and dropping. The Azov Battalion, which is among the more proficient as well as politically radical of the volunteer units, makes no effort to hide its contempt for the politicos in Kyiv, promising to turn the guns around once the Russians are defeated. If Kyiv isn’t careful, it could easily find itself with a serious political problem on its hands, with angry volunteers feeling themselves to be defeated more by their own government than by the enemy. Here the experience of Germany’s Freikorps may offer worrisome lessons.

Moreover, the critique of many volunteers, that Kyiv is fundamentally not serious about the war, is difficult to refute. Even staunch defenders of the Ukrainian government concede that support for the combat forces is haphazard, at best, and the fighting troops would be starving and freezing without donations from private citizens eager to support “the boys.” Kyiv has just upped the draft age limit to twenty-seven, and has promised to soon add 50,000 conscripts to the hard-pressed forces.

But those troops will not be fit for frontline service for months, and if Putin decides to push harder in Ukraine’s Southeast, defenses would collapse quickly. Not to mention that calling up 50,000 draftees in a country of forty-five million citizens represents something very short of a general mobilization, and bespeaks a lack of understanding in Kyiv about the situation they actually face. The Poroshenko government is happy to raise awareness about Russian aggression, amidst unsubtle hints that they have been left in the lurch by NATO and the West, while bringing in foreign experts who are pleasing to the eye to try to repair the pathetic economy. However, Kyiv seems much less serious about actually defending the country from Putin’s aggression, substituting talk for action as a matter of policy. As for strategy on how to win the war, none can be detected.

A historical comparison illustrates how lame Poroshenko and his cronies actually are at defending Ukraine. When the First World War ended, Western Ukraine, centered on the recently Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, attempted to defend ethnic Ukrainian land (then, as now, Western Ukraine was a hotbed of nationalism). In a few months, they created an army of 100,000 troops, and managed to get three-quarters of them into battle in more than a dozen brigades. Notwithstanding a grave lack of weapons and funds, and a critical shortage of trained officers, they acquitted themselves well in battle, losing only when overwhelmed by greater numbers of much better equipped Polish forces. They did this from nearly no industrial base and a population less than one-tenth of Ukraine’s today.

To cite a more recent example that likewise puts Kyiv in a poor light, in 1991 Croatia saw fully one-third of its territory seized in a few months by Serbian rebels who were backed by Belgrade. Croatia had to create a military almost from scratch, possessing few heavy weapons, while burdened with counterintelligence problems at least as bad as Ukraine’s today. Yet by the end of 1991, by executing a true mass mobilization, Zagreb fielded an army of 150,0000 in sixty brigades, and thereby managed to blunt Belgrade’s effort to subdue Croatia by force.

Croatia stopped the Yugoslav military’s putative effort to destroy their country through sheer grit, helped by Serbian incompetence. Indeed, the Yugoslav offensive to crush Croatia was far larger than the effort Putin has made in the Donbas to date, while the epic siege of Vukovar in late 1991, which ended in Pyrrhic victory for the Serbs, was more intense than what’s going on around Donetsk now.

By early 1992, the war calmed down, front lines became more or less static, and Croatia resolved to get back the one-third of its country that had been seized by Belgrade. Zagreb understood this was a long-term project that required the building of a proper military machine. Croatia’s president, Franjo Tudjman, had many flaws, but he was a military man by background and he understood the strategic imperative. For the next three years, Croatia methodically built a new army along NATO lines, with discreet Western aid, while laying the diplomatic basis for eventual victory in what they call the Homeland War.

When the time was right, in mid-1995, as the Greater Serbia project was falling apart and NATO had tired of the antics of Slobodan Milošević, Zagreb unleashed Operation STORM in early August, the largest military operation in Europe since 1945. With lightning speed, 130,000 Croatian troops struck and within three days most of the country was back under Zagreb’s control, demoralized Serbs having folded in the face of betrayal by Belgrade. Three years after STORM, thanks to smart diplomacy, Croatia recovered all the territory it lost in 1991, setting the country on a path to membership in NATO and the European Union.

Lessons abound here for Ukraine today. In the first place, possessing competent armed forces is the critical factor; no amount of diplomacy, Western sympathy, or avid hashtagging can compensate for military power when your country is at war. If Ukraine wants to defeat Russian aggression and eventually get back the territory it has lost, the first job is making the Ukrainian military functional and big enough to matter. That remains far off at present. Talk of joining NATO or the EU until Ukraine controls every inch of its territory is a dangerous fantasy that should not be encouraged by the West.

Petro Poroshenko is well meaning but no war leader. If he cannot run the war he should step down in favor of those who can. At a minimum, Kyiv must purge the General Staff of crooks, incompetents, and Russian sympathizers. Turning to foreigners, including Ukrainians in the diaspora who possess acumen in military and security matters, is being done for the economy, why not for the armed forces? The time to evict Russian rebels from Ukrainian soil is years off but that goal will never be achieved if Kyiv does not get serious about the war soon.

There has been much complaining from some Ukrainians that NATO isn’t doing enough and I share some of that frustration. That said, Ukraine must defend itself. NATO will never go to war over the Donbas and the sooner Kyiv accepts strategic reality the better. Like Croatia in the 1990’s, NATO will provide discreet assistance with supplies, logistics, training, and intelligence, but the heavy lifting will have to be done by Ukrainians. If there are not enough Ukrainians willing to bear that burden, they will not have their own state for long.

Kyiv’s trump card, which they play poorly, is that Vladimir Putin is desperately afraid of getting embroiled in a messy, full-scale war in Ukraine. While Russia can defeat Ukraine’s military with relative ease still, occupying large chunks of Ukraine, in the face of certain resistance, would be a political and humanitarian nightmare and the Kremlin knows this.

It’s fair to point out that Russia, a vast nuclear power, is a much more formidable foe than Serbia. Yet it’s likewise fair to note that Croatia, whose experience in the 1990’s offers a template for what Kyiv must do now, has one-tenth the population of Ukraine, and even less territory. The Russo-Ukrainian War is far from over. Someday, Russian power and Moscow’s willingness to use it will wane and Putin, like Milošević, may seek to cut off bumptious rebels whom he nurtured but later finds a nuisance. Then will be the time for Ukraine’s own Operation STORM, but not before, and unless Kyiv gets serious about military matters, that day will never come.


29 comments on “Why Ukraine Is Losing”
  1. Plenty of people (who pay attention) know that the Ukrainian military and government is still filled with corruption. You say they need to purge, but how? Surely it can’t be as simple as firing them?

    If Ukraine continues on this path of not really facing the reality of their situation, do you see a divided Ukraine, West and East? Or would East be absorbed into Russian territory?

    1. 20committee says:

      That needs a book 🙂

  2. jkylander says:

    “As for strategy on how to win the war, none can be detected.”
    I think it’s safe to say that Ukraine cannot “win” by ejecting a far stronger Russia from its territory. Ukraine can however win by inching slowly back through its rather large territory while watching Russia immolate itself on the combined effects of present and future sanctions. That too is a strategy. Not as pretty as one might wish, but devastating yet.

  3. Art says:

    I’ve recently discovered your site, via BadBlue. Thank you for providing a historically literate, intellectually honest, mentally balanced, experientially informed perspective.
    Question: How firm is Putin’s grasp on power at the moment? Specifically, what’s the likelihood that the current economic crisis will embolden his ethno-religious allies so much that Putin will be forced into military adventurism that demands a NATO military response in order avoid being overthrown by those allies, whose main criticism, as far as I know, is that Boris hasn’t been bold enough.

  4. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    More on the sad situation in Ukraine…

  5. Alex R. says:

    After reading this, my question is what can be done to make sure Ukraine doesn’t lose? Would a NATO training mission be effective??? Or does Ukraine just need the weapons and ammo to fight Russian insurgents?? I should note that I disagree with you on the issue of direct NATO intervention on the battlefield…. because this isn’t only about Donbass. I suspect the Russians will fight to Odessa if they have the momentum to do so. While the Croation analogy is a good one, I’m thinking more along the lines of Operation Cyclone to help Ukraine.

    1. 20committee says:

      Until Kyiv gets serious, no Western aid can really change things.

  6. Rob says:

    Great writeup. The analogy with Croatia circa 91-92 seems appropriate, though also with the not insubstantial caveats you mention.

    Most of the reports we get focus on the battle for Donetsk airport, and the view from afar is baffling. Granted we don’t know the full tactical situation there, but it does seem the leadership is intentionally losing that fight while pretending to do just enough to say they’re not. Unlike the general Russian counterattack in August, it hasn’t been a particularly dynamic situation – the “cyborgs” have been holding onto gradually shrinking ground for months, getting shelled daily, watching their supply lines grow more and more tenuous, etc. The fact that they might be on their last legs today is surprising to no one. One has to think that if the Ukrainian leadership truly wanted to hold the airport, they would have held the damn airport. Maybe I’m hugely mistaken in these assumptions – I’m happy to be corrected on that count.

    And a follow up question John – possible Ukrainian leadership is intentionally sending the more radicalized volunteer “battalions” into harm’s way without adequate support, to hopefully spend their strength before they get any funny ideas about who “the real enemy” is?

    1. 20committee says:

      Azov and the boys seem to think so, yes ….

  7. Beelza says:

    The single nagging question from this piece, is Poroshenko unable or unwilling to find competent military leaders, strategists and tacticians? While doing an internship with London Metro, I was introduced to one of the greatest exercises in leadership I’d ever experienced. I asked my mentor a question, he paused and answered thusly, ” I do not know, but I know the man that does.” It is difficult for me to believe Poroshenko does not understand this concept.

    1. 20committee says:

      I think Chocolate Man is totally ignorant of matters military and strategic, and believes his own soothing voice.

  8. Niccolo Salo says:

    John draws the proper parallels and does centre the piece with the need for the Ukes to sort out their own military structures, requiring not just reorganization but a purging of its forces (particularly military intel).

    It’s the political side where the Ukrainians are weakest though and where the Ukrainians have really messed up. A big tent approach is what is fueling their side at the moment, but where they fail and where Croatia didn’t is that the Ukrainians have handed over their entire country to foreign interests, whether dual or trial citizens with questionable loyalties like Kolomoisky the Oligarch, or their financial apparatus to men like George Soros, said to be holding a lot of Ukrainian bonds, explaining his call for a Ukrainian Marshall Plan.

    These types don’t have Ukrainians’ best interests at heart but rather only see it as a tool to weaken Russia. The local Ukrainians are not in as strong a position to negotiate a deal with their western allies and “allies” vis a vis the Russians as the Croatians were by way of Holbrooke and Galbraith vis a vis the Serbs.

    It’s still early days, so this situation can be turned around but the political will seems to be missing or paralyzed, with the greatest impact on the poor and on the front line troops.

  9. Guy Montag says:

    In the meantime, Ukraine’s best hope of any favourable outcome in the short to medium term is to wage a war of attrition against the (pro) Russian separatists to exhaust their personnel, resources and patience as much as possible. Meanwhile the Ukrainian diaspora should up the ante in their support for the war effort, and rely on sympathetic neighbours as “arms depositories” for the discrete of arms and materiels, as I would assume is already happening. This is where Poland plays a role similar to Hungary’s during Croatia’s own Homeland War.

    As you’ve plausibly tweeted in your comments that NATO provided covert support to Croatia to rebuild its strength in order to regain its lost territories. The west should consider assisting Ukraine in improving and expanding it’s existing military industrial complex, while giving it blueprints of NATO’s own state of the art offensive arsenal of weapons it may reproduce on it’s own. While Ukraine’s frontline personnel and its officer corps could be retrained by organisations such as Virginia based MPRI (Miliary Professional Resources Incorporated). In addition weeding out the bad crop from its officer corps, Ukraine should also update and calibrate its military strategy from it’s old Soviet doctrine to that of NATO’s. This is what Croatia also did when Zagreb also updated its military doctrine.

    From a Croat to Ukrainians, I wish you the best of luck.

    1. 20committee says:

      Spot-on, well said.

  10. Allure says:

    Easy to say in hindsight but… Ukraine initial strategy to this was wrong. They hushed against the clock of a supposed “window of opportunity” to gain ground and raise flags in cities. They did so running down precious and limited miltary resources, until their army was messy and overstretched and got almost defeated in Ilovaisk following a series of bad moves.

    Terrain and time was acutally the least of their worries. Either focus on killing Russian soldiers so as to make this war too costly for Putin or maybe approach it more patiently so as not run down the miitary, but build it up instead.

    10 months passed since Russia invasion of Crimea, and apart from the addition of voluntary force, Ukraine is not much better than it startd off.

    1. 20committee says:

      All true, sadly.

    2. califax says:

      They became overconfident after retaking Sloviansk. Listening to ukrainian voices was almost unbearable. A lot of people really thought they could defeat Russia just by always attacking. They thought to not accept bad news and to deny any weaknesses was a way to become invincible.
      Ilovaisk was no surprise. The sandwich between Luhansk/Donetsk and the russian border was an undefendable killing zone and they just kept sending men and tech into it.

      During the last weeks it became obvious that a lot of armchair generals and politicians still didn’t get the Ilovaisk memo. They are willfully blind and want to repeat the very same mistake, hoping that they are now so much superior to the russian forces.

      They way I, being an incompetent armchair general myself, see it, Ukraine has three phases to run through: contain the war zone, build up, retake.
      Containment is there, somewhat stable. It’s the build up that is missing.
      Hell, they can’t even get military supply chains to work properly. It’s still all dependent on SOS Army and others.
      When the Canadians landed a ship full of military supplies, they couldn’t unload it in time because the ukrainian customs officials wanted their bribes first and made trouble.
      Instead of showing off with seemingly new weapons, Poroshenko should make a public show out of marching such saboteurs through the town into some very dirty jail.
      If you can’t jail them all, because everyone is doing it, you have to opt for deterrence and use the public outcry to signal a change in the way things are done.
      Economic side is another matter. No reforms, no more money. The european support, especially the financial support from Germany, will shrink when the only prognoses is to lose all the money without stabilizing Ukraine.
      Nice talk is no longer going to help it.

  11. Wolodymyr Zarycky says:

    JS…..we used to love your posts…but now we suspect that the RU Dezinform crowd has gotten got to you as well.

    Easy to do….simply use the extremist elements within the ‘volunteer battalions’ (ultra right wing nut-wings penetrated by/or actually operating for the FSB and Putin guru Olexandr Dugin) to spread ‘panic’ and ‘constant choas’ in the ranks.

    Does anyone know that the legendary Cyborgs in the Donetsk Airport are actually three quarters regular UA army and only one quarter ‘volunteer’ (and those volunteers have been fighting since the Euro-Maidan in Dec/Jan……..rather than sitting around Kyiv or DC complaining)???

    Incidentally, the CYS are holding their own….see the following TSN report from Ukraine tonite (1-17):


    1. 20committee says:

      If you think the RU deza crowd has gotten to me, I think you need serious help.

  12. Chris G says:

    “At a minimum, Kyiv must purge the General Staff of crooks, incompetents, and Russian sympathizers. Turning to foreigners, including Ukrainians in the diaspora who possess acumen in military and security matters, is being done for the economy, why not for the armed forces?”

    Hopefully they can dig up their own Mickey Marcus to rebuild the command and control structure and come up with a way for the regular army and volunteers to work together. Hopefully they also don’t suffer the same fate as Marcus…

    1. 20committee says:

      Quite well said.

  13. Anja Böttcher says:

    Ukrainian nationalism was an invention by right-wing German elites in 1915. The think tank “Freie Ukraine” was founded as an instrument to fight Russia in WWI, coming along with the same kind of aggressive ideology than your Neocon product PNAC [only – at that time – focussed on Germany’s position in the world]. One of that think tank’s main funder was the media monopolist Hugenberg, one of the basic Hitler-makers.


    The contact of British and US secret services with Ukranian fascists startet in 1949 in Bavaria where the Nazis had trained the UPA- & OUN-mass murderers all through WWII. Especially the CIA thought they would make great cold-war-warriors. And as the destruction of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union was not enough for US-neocons after the fall of the Berlin wall, they decided in the 1990s to create a renaissance of the dead monster, the Nazi-creation of Ukrainian nationalism, to destroy Russia completely — to get hold of its resources.

    But those Ukrainians who fought Nazism in the Red Army know that the violent & unconstitutional overthrow of their last really democratically elected government shiftet puppets in the governing position who just serve some outer evil — and who are as deadly fascist as they used to be.

    Therefore the Western Ukrainian army can oly rely on poor chaps who didn’t achieve to run off in time (and who have no reason to fight), fascists and a miserable lot of commercial fighters. But those who fight against them have a real reason to fight: their lives and ther liberty.

    By supporting this evil and destructive course in Ukraine the European governments are by now regarded as mere US-prostitutes by their own populatons. We now know that we either manage to achieve to kick the US off from our ground and to sack all vassals — or our continent will face another time of destruction like in the 1930s & 1940s.

    What was once the swatisca, the symbol of evil, are now the stars & stripes.

    Dammned is everybody who lines up behind it!

    And whatever political form the Russians may live under today — it’s again them who are pressed to save our freedom as Western Europeans, too.

    1. 20committee says:

      I’m sure that sounded better in the original Russian.

      1. Anja Böttcher says:

        I’m sorry to disappoint you. But I’m completely lacking any capacities of the Russian language. But as a native speaker of German I’m quite fit at understanding the remainder of Nazi sources in Germany. Having especially closely studied historical sources of Nazi propaganda quite thoroughly for two decades, I am informed enough not to buy US-Neocon propaganda. You Americans shouldn’t copy past German policies and expect we wouldn’t notice it. There has been an awful lot of German research on Nazism in the past seven decades.

        And my view is far from being a minority opinion in Germany. US-officials may by our miserable Chancellor — but that will only contribute to her deep fall at the end of the term.

        Your neocons’ violent coup in Ukraine which has already destroyed half of the country — only to save your dollar empire is the worst attack on peace in Europe since Hitler was forced – by the Red Army’s approach to Berlin – to sentence himself.

        This will turn out to be the end of the US-grip on Europe.

      2. 20committee says:

        If you think Germany “invented” Ukraine in 1915 you are so amazingly ignorant I don’t know where to start. Learn some history. You don’t need Russian to do that. Also, there is ample historical literature on Ukrainian national identity in German, read it.

  14. jtns says:

    anja may be at a disadvantage in the english language but it is important to hear dissenting views from the western party-line of “ukraine good, russia bad.” from my long ago, and recently revived reading, of eastern european history a few thoughts emerge. 1. ukraine was never a successful nation state unlike its neighbors. it has no legacy of independent governance on which to build. fwiw, belorussia falls into the same categoy but it has the common sense to not poke the russian bear (and lacked a crimea-like aberration). 2. ukraine has been a speedbump in the wars between east and west for a good 1000 years. what koolaid were its 1991 elites drinking when they failed to fortify themselves (intellectually, politically and militarily) after the cold war? 3. ukrainians indeed greatly suffered in the past 100 years, but have also meted out brutality when given half a chance (ask poles and jews). 4. anja’s review of ww2 and before may prove instructive here. most westerners cannot truly understand comprehend the depth of russia’s losses in ww2. putin may well inflame russian opinion, but ukraine provides coal for that fire, with pre1945 germany (and now the west?) offering up a shovel.

    1. 20committee says:

      You effort to portray me as a Kyiv hack demonstrates your own vast biases.

      Thanks for the subliterate “lesson” in the history of Eastern Europe.

      I have a PhD in modern European history with emphasis on ECE, with many publications.

      Please elaborate where I can find yours and Anja’s doctorates and publication records.


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