KIEV, UKRAINE — Ukraine’s new government inherited an army so bereft of modern equipment and training that when Russian troops entered Crimea and agitators stormed government offices in eastern Ukraine, the country proved helpless to protect its borders and citizens.
The corruption that had darkened all the nation’s institutions had provoked demonstrators to stand their ground in Kiev until the old leaders fled. But the depth of the damage took the country by surprise when the Crimean Peninsula was easily lost to Russian annexation last month, revealing a military profoundly weakened by theft and neglect.
“Our army has been systematically destroyed and disarmed,” Deputy Defense Minister Petro Mehed said at a briefing this past week, “and its best personnel dismissed.”
In the east, militants have occupied buildings in more than a dozen cities and on Saturday showed no signs of giving up their positions. The army was sent in and looked more anemic than ever when small knots of civilians managed to block armored personnel carriers simply by standing in front of them.
Ukraine’s position is dire. The new government found the treasury empty when it took over Feb. 27. The Ministry of Defense was so desperate for money that it went to the public for help.
People across the country have responded by pulling together for the Support the Ukrainian army fundraising drive, trying to repair the damage done by years of thieving governments. Children have held fairs and bake sales to raise money. Adults have delivered food and water to tent encampments. Community groups have collected shoes, clothes and canned goods.
Ukrainian businesses and individuals had raised more than $9 million for the military as of Friday, the Defense Ministry reported. Of that, $2 million came from cellphone users who made 50-cent donations from their accounts by calling a designated number.
Ukraine’s military budget was $5.3 billion last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Sweden, with a population a fifth the size of Ukraine’s, had a budget of $6.5 billion. And Ukrainians have little idea how much of the budget actually reached the military.
A recent investigation found that one defense factory was stealing $81 of every $100 order, Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema said. “If the stolen money had been used for modernization of the Ukrainian army,” he told reporters, “there would not be a problem.”
Nearly two weeks ago, pro-Russia separatists invaded the Donetsk regional administration offices and have occupied them since. The following weekend, several more government buildings in the east fell to well-equipped men in green uniforms who are widely believed to have been organized by Russia. After police — criticized as specialized at raking in bribes rather than putting down violence — failed to restore order, President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the army in.
The troops have had little effect. The militants have refused to honor an international agreement reached Thursday in Geneva by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union asking the militants to disarm and go home. And an estimated 40,000 well-equipped Russian troops have settled into positions along Ukraine’s eastern border, their presence forbidding, their intentions unclear.
When the new government took over, it found a military and security agency organized around loyalty to ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and riddled with people closely tied to Russia’s security service, the FSB, Andriy Parubiy, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, said in a recent interview. Not only was the treasury empty, so were military fuel tanks.
And there was Russia, Parubiy said, intent on making the government fail and seeing it replaced by one deferring to Moscow. Before the government could have its first meeting, the regional parliament building in Crimea had been overrun by shadowy forces. Less than three weeks later, Russia had annexed the peninsula.
Ukraine needed a nimble, modern army to protect itself against a Russian army that had invested a great deal in equipment and training since a mediocre showing in a 2008 conflict with Georgia. Ukraine had the rusting remnants of a Soviet machine. Decisions were being made in Kiev during the Crimean crisis, Parubiy said, but communication systems that could relay them to the field did not exist.
The state of their military shocked Ukrainians, even though they knew none of their institutions had resisted the pervasive corruption.
“The army became impoverished from the inside — money and materiel were stolen,” said Pavlo Podobied, a 26-year-old resident of Kiev, the capital. “They didn’t have equipment, and meals were cheap macaroni and a small piece of tough meat.”
Podobied was born in Kherson, Russian-speaking territory near Crimea. In March, he was hearing about fears there of a further Russian incursion. Residents became alarmed when they saw how the 900 soldiers of Ukraine’s 79th Airborne Brigade there were living and working. Who would protect them?
“Local people started bringing them food, water, SIM cards,” he said. “The soldiers were depending on them.”
Podobied, who had helped form an organization called Heroika that was tending to the graves of Ukrainians who fought for independence in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, turned his attention to the present-day army.
“We began collecting money to buy uniforms and ammunition,” he said. “Soldiers at one checkpoint had only one radio, and it broke after the second day.”
Heroika, which began its fundraising in March, recently bought 30 pairs of safety glasses for the soldiers in Kherson. “When we brought them to the base, it was like Christmas,” Podobied said. “They had only seen them in ads.”
The Ukrainian diaspora helped buy 14 American radios for the troops, he said, and a Ukrainian American traveled here to deliver them. Now the organization is raising money to buy rifle straps.
Not only did those in charge steal, Podobied said, but young men routinely paid bribes to avoid service, leaving thin ranks filled by the poor.
Ukraine has a military of about 130,000 with an army of nearly 65,000, a navy of almost 14,000, and an air force of 45,000, along with a 6,000-strong airborne force.
“Now the army is weak and can’t protect us,” Podobied said. “The people who ran it were only interested in money.”
The army has only about 30 to 40 percent of what it needs, the Defense Ministry’s deputy supply chief told reporters recently. The official, Arkadiy Stuzhuk, said body armor and helmets were in particularly low supply.
France is donating body armor, and on Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised $3.5 million worth of equipment, including helmets, sleeping mats, water purification kits, generators and medical supplies.
Earlier, the United States sent Ukraine 300,000 MRE’s — meals ready to eat.
Some of Ukraine’s oligarchs have chipped in for the defense effort as well. Serhiy Taruta, appointed governor of Donetsk in March, paid for the digging of a trench — with the help of his construction magnate brother — along the region’s 90-mile border with Russia.
Ihor Kolomoysky, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, spent $5 million of his own money to buy fuel and batteries for the military.
Local governments and groups are also taking up collections.
Children in the city of Zhytomyr, west of Kiev, helped put on a fair, where they sold paintings and postcards they made, raising $500. The nearby Novohrad-Volynskiy Bakery delivered a load of baked goods to its local military base. Donations poured into the fund organized by the Defense Ministry.
“There’s not much I can do,” Podobied said, “but I can collect money.”