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Ukraine's Military Between East and West

Ukraine's Military Between East and West - Cover

Authored by Professor Marybeth Peterson Ulrich.

June 2007

42 Pages

Brief Synopsis

America’s new allies in Central and Eastern Europe have been struggling with defense reform since the end of the Cold War. Only recently since the Orange Revolution has Ukraine’s national political and military leadership seriously engaged the process of radical and comprehensive defense reform. This monograph applies the various roadmaps for reform developed in the postcommunist states of Central European states to the emerging Ukrainian case. The author draws upon this mixed picture to suggest a framework focused on key areas in need of reform as well as key conditions that facilitate the achievement of reform objectives. The result is a richly developed monograph revealing Ukraine’s main strengths as well as obstacles limiting the improvement of its military capabilities. Ukraine’s interests in the East and West, along with the reality of its divided society, shape the outcomes to date and constrain the future of its Euro-Atlantic orientation.


Ukraine’s geopolitical location positioning it firmly between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to the west and Russia to the east has demanded that its foreign and security policy take into account its interests in the east and the west. The pro-reform forces in power since the Orange Revolution would like to move Ukraine squarely into the Euro-Atlantic community with only limited deference to Russia in matters where Ukrainian dependency remains unavoidable. Political forces favoring a more neutral stance between east and west or openly in favor of leaning eastward remain formidable. Russia’s astute deployment of its national instruments of power in support of these forces will loom large into the indefinite future.

The Need for Radical Reform—Key Areas.

Key areas in need of radical reform include the quality and degree of intragovernmental coordination and improving the expertise of civilian defense bureaucrats, along with adapting Soviet era military experts to the new security environment and democratic political system. Other areas requiring priority attention and resources are the creation of a rational defense planning system and the revamping of personnel policies in accordance with the needs of a professional and expeditionary force. Reform may take place unevenly across the various governmental institutions depending on the level of democratization, especially with regard to transparency, accountability, and, in the case of the security sector, the introduction of effective civilian democratic control. The Ukrainian political and military leadership has remained divided over the question of whether Ukraine should pursue a collective security approach or retain its neutral status.

A key pillar of defense reform is the creation of a rational defense planning system. The essential ingredients of such a system include a coherent articulation of national interests within national security documents, defense programming processes that adequately match resources with requirements, and the systemic ability to choose among competing priorities using long-term planning timelines.

Ukraine embarked on independence with 0.9 million Soviet troops stationed on its territory. Significant downsizing occurred, but by 2004 the remaining force of 355,000 “matched neither the requirements of the military-political situation in the world nor the country’s economic capabilities.” The 2004 Strategic Defense Review (SDR) recommended adopting a rational defense planning system linking objectives to an economic basis of reform.

Fundamental transformation of personnel systems has eluded most post-communist militaries and been a major cause of these armies’ lack of capabilities. Ukraine’s distribution of officers is cylindrical rather than pyramidal, reflecting the fact that there are still far too many senior officers in proportion to junior officers. The White Paper lays out the objective of moving toward a normal-curve distribution, while interjecting a Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Corps and contract professional soldiers into the mix alongside the conscript pool. Conditions attracting appropriately educated civilians to serve in the Ministry of Defense (MOD) are also lacking.

Military education is another area in need of radical reform. The communist era system must adapt not only to the vast ideological changes that occurred within the state, but also overhaul curriculums to educate officers to perform within the post-Cold War threat environment in multinational coalition or alliance operations. Overall, the military education system is characterized by the side-by-side existence of two standards—NATO and Soviet—causing systemic tension and a continued waste of resources.

Achieving Radical Military Reform—Key Conditions.

Some conditions have emerged as key factors for beginning the cycle of substantive reform, which may lead to improved capabilities through systemic and integrated change.

• Political will to undertake difficult reform and governmental commitment to dedicate a predictable level of scarce economic resources over a long period of time are the most essential factors required to facilitate the success of defense reform. The backing of key political leaders willing to appoint change agents in critical positions at the MOD and General Staff has proven to be a prerequisite to launching reform processes in the region. The Ukrainian armed forces have been on a starvation diet, recently receiving only 1.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Ukraine ranks third among NATO’s 26 countries in terms of size, but 127th out of 150 countries worldwide in expenditure per serviceman.

• A country’s national security documents play a crucial role in setting forth the state’s strategic vision. Equally important is the quality of the strategic concepts being employed to effect change, that is, the reform plans themselves. Only reform plans that take an integrated and systemic approach have been effective in the region. Ukraine’s Defense White Paper takes some important steps in that it lays out the essential parameters of an integrated and systemic approach to reform.

• In addition to political will at the top, strong leadership in positions of authority throughout the national security bureaucracy is necessary to move reform plans forward. Ukraine’s current senior military leadership is thought to support the reform agenda and favor closer ties to NATO. Most senior commanders have pro-reform credentials, but there are still large numbers of senior leaders within the Main Defense Forces who have no or only limited exposure to Western training and operations.

• Cases that leverage external expertise have advanced more quickly in the reform process. The additional input of external leverage from NATO in the form of Alliance assessments, both before accession and after, has also been critical. In the case of Ukraine, long-term collaboration between Ukraine and NATO provided the political and military leadership with expertise essential to the development of reform concepts.

The Way Ahead.

Ukraine has made tremendous strides toward its integration into the Euro-Atlantic community of states. The overall move toward the West is unlikely to be reversed, but Ukraine is still a divided society that is not yet at the stage of political, social, and economic development where a broad and deep consensus on Euro-Atlantic integration is possible. Ukraine’s main strengths lie in its capacity to develop sound reform concepts and to back them up with the strongest level of political will evident since independence. Ukraine’s greatest obstacles to reform are the prospect of indefinite underfunding of reform concepts and the lack of consensus beneath the top leadership within society as a whole and the military overall with regard to the reform agenda, both at the level of defense policy and in the overall orientation toward the West.

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