The woeful state of Ukraine’s military can be blamed on corruption, Kiev’s shaky commitment to national defense and a policy of selling the best weapons to gain cold hard cash, analysts say.
The shortfall is surprising given that Ukraine’s large defense industrial complex produces tanks, anti-armor weapons, radars and spare parts.
“They’ve been doing it to themselves,” said Olga Oliker, a national security policy analyst at the Rand Corp. “It’s a corrupt, broken system. And they’re not putting money or resources into it. Things have been getting siphoned off.”
Kiev has raised defense spending from $1.45 billion in 2009 to $1.9 billion last year, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly. Some of the money apparently is being diverted: On the list of military needs are essentials such as blankets and food.
Analysts say the leadership’s neglect is backfiring. It could not stop Vladimir Putin’s front-line troops from conquering Ukraine’s Crimea region and, analysts predict, cannot prevent Mr. Putin from annexing the Russian-speaking eastern region or from storming the capital.
“They’ve been letting it deteriorate,” Ms. Oliker said. “It’s started with Ukraine as a whole. It’s not just the military. Ukraine has been in bad shape economically and politically for a very long time.”
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, once the top American officer in Europe, documented Ukraine’s dire state in a fact-finding trip this month.
The 130,000-troop force has virtually no body armor, while Russian infantry and Spetsnaz special forces boast some of the world’s best. The gap means Ukrainian troops would be at a severe disadvantage in close fighting to repel a Russian invasion into urban areas, including Kiev.
Mr. Clark said in a report that Ukraine needs former Soviet bloc countries to provide T-72 tanks and anti-tank weapons, yet the state-owned Ukrainian Defense Industry produces and tries to sell anti-armor weapons and makes its own main battle tank, the T-84.
“What Ukrainian experts point to more often is that Ukrainian arms firms, which make perfectly good tanks, export them all for tons of money, leaving the Ukrainian military with T-62s,” said Steven Woehrel of the Congressional Research Service.
Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych hollowed out the force to put more money into internal security.
“Not that it did him much good,” Mr. Woehrel said.
Ken Allard, a retired Army officer and military analyst, said Ukraine’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union made it a de facto demilitarized zone between Poland and Russia.
“Ukraine was cast adrift from both Russian military and from NATO,” he said. “So where could they go for a future role model?”
He added, “About all they had on hand militarily was mostly obsolete equipment inherited from the Warsaw Pact. Romania and Poland, in contrast, used their partnership with NATO to modernize and upgrade their forces to NATO standards. In Bosnia, for example, I served with both the Polish and Romanian contingent. They were ferociously determined to put things right, almost the way we were after Vietnam.”
It’s not just body armor, helmets and bedding the Ukrainian army needs. Its communications network is shoddy and it can’t fly some helicopters for lack of fuel.
Mr. Clark’s report displays photographs of front-line Ukrainian troops living in squalor. They are fed not by well-run tooth-to-tail logistics lines, but by farmers in pony carts and by civilian grocery shoppers. To keep warm, soldiers burn fires, which reveal their positions to Russian snipers.
Since Ukraine’s independence, Ms. Oliker said, a succession of governments as a matter of policy decided that building a robust military to repel a Russian invasion was not a priority.
“Early on, the decision was not to defend the land against a Russian invasion because that wasn’t going to work anyway,” she said. “Everyone agrees that Ukraine has not been investing in their armed forces for a while.”