At Last, Military Reform Makes Headway in Ukraine


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Written by Alexander J. Motyl
Source: World Affairs

When a close observer and frequent critic of Ukraine’s military establishment has something good to say about it, we may want to listen.

Yuri Butusov, military analyst and editor of the website, describes a January 21 roundtable on defense reform he attended at the Ministry of Defense. He lists a number of firsts:

  • For the first time, a draft reform strategy was developed on the basis of the new National Security Strategy and the new Military Doctrine. It’s impossible to begin structural reforms of the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces without such a plan.
  • For the first time, outside experts were invited to provide criticism, and not praise.
  • For the first time, discussion focused on a finished document, and not a concept.
  • For the first time, “NATO standards” were defined as not something abstract, but as certain concrete obligations.

In a word, Ukraine’s military establishment appeared to be serious and willing to listen. Moreover, the focus of the discussion—the Strategic Defense Bulletin—elicited, according to Butusov, a generally positive response from the civilian participants. There was also substantive criticism, especially of the document’s suggestion that NATO standards be introduced only by 2018. Obviously, notes Butusov, changing military hardware and training takes time. But “to change the administrative system, to replace our absolutely ineffective administrative formula with NATO’s decentralized system of decision-making and greater leadership responsibility does not require many resources or time. We have the cadres. We know how to do it.

Butusov notes that the document’s main shortcoming is that it fails to specify military threats. Without that, it’s impossible to establish reform priorities and the depth of desired changes. “We don’t need standards for the sake of standards,” says Butusov, “but results” in case of a “massive Russian aggression.” After all, “we need to know the war and scenarios for which we’re preparing.”

Another military analyst, Dmytro Tymchuk, puts the matter this way:

The main goal of any reform of any armed forces is to create a structure able to oppose effectively the most likely military threat. For us that’s an open and massive aggression by the Russian Federation, regardless of how improbable it may be.

Instead of focusing on the main threat, however, “we are currently situationally reforming the army in terms of the hybrid war with Russia” and the Anti-Terrorist Operation against the separatists in the eastern Donbas. That’s too bad, because the needs of conducting hybrid war are different from those of conducting a massive land war.

Rather more bullish on the prospects of reforming the Ukrainian defense establishment is Andrii Zahorodniuk, the head of the Ministry of Defense’s Reform Office. In addition to the Ministry’s own staff, an “enormous numbers of people are taking part in developing reform,” he says, and reforms are already taking place on several levels. Zahorodniuk has big hopes for 2016:

Our main task in the new year is to unite all the reform initiatives…. At present, we have about ten reform initiatives at the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff, with no coordination among them…. The Strategic Defense Bulletin is a kind of roadmap for defense reform.

Butusov might be less sanguine about the Bulletin’s serving as an effective road map, but he would agree with Zahorodniuk that the major obstacle to reform is the bloated, obstructionist bureaucracy. “90 percent of our work goes to fighting it,” says Zahorodniuk. “Everyone whose signature is required can slow down or stop the process. One of our colleagues recently calculated that gathering the signatures for just one document required walking nine kilometers within the corridors of the Ministry.

All bureaucracies change slowly and unwillingly, as Zahorodiuk understands. “The things we’ll be doing this year will affect many people,” he says hopefully. The good news is that he expects “a great deal of resistance.” This may mean that those nine kilometers could soon be reduced—but only if Ukraine’s Butusovs, Tymchuks, and Zahorodniuks keep pushing.

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