Ukraine’s military and pro-Russian separatists face shortcomings in their fight in restive east

Locals in Ukraine’s eastern rebel held city survey damage Tuesday after gunfire destroyed homes overnight. (Reuters)

At a frontline post near pro-Russian rebels, a Ukrainian military unit gave off a vibe that did not exactly convey a readiness to fight.

One soldier — without helmet, flak jacket or rifle — stood off to the side of the unit’s roadblock to sun himself as a line of vehicles waited to pass. Other soldiers hung out laundry. Then came a burst of machine-gun fire just east of the checkpoint and an awkward dash for helmets, flak jackets and weapons.

The disorder on the road to rebel-held Slovyansk on a recent afternoon underscored the severe challenges facing Ukraine as it seeks to regain control of its restive east — even as the momentum of the conflict may have begun to shift.

The rise of a violent separatist movement that threatens to rip the country in two has also laid bare the woeful shape of the Ukrainian military, an army so poorly equipped that commanders have had to ask the public for donations.

“Ukrainian soldiers have been on U.N. peacekeeping operations, but not in actual combat,” said Taras Beresovets, a Kiev-based political analyst. “Unlike the Russians who have been fighting for 20 years almost nonstop, the Ukrainian military doesn’t have the military experience. They are a peacetime force, not taught to kill.”

There have been signs in recent days that the uprising in eastern Ukraine against the Western-leaning government in Kiev may be waning in strength. Pro-Russian leaders this week even issued a desperate call to arms for new combatants, including women.

But if there is a shift in Kiev’s favor, it seems to have little to do with the Ukrainian military.

Going into the crisis, the story line was that Ukraine’s military was a small but mighty force that would, perhaps, give the Russians more than they bargained for. But what has transpired in the east has not been an impressive performance.

The Ukrainian forces have repeatedly failed in their efforts to oust rebels from a number of strongholds, and their losses have included more than a dozen troops and four helicopters. In standoffs in cities like Slovyansk, they have avoided head-on clashes with the rebels and have often seemed to be outmaneuvered by separatists in a shadowy campaign that Kiev says is being organized at least in part by Russian infiltrators.

“The Ukrainian military is not suited to this kind of urban warfare,” said Oleksiy Meinyk, military analyst at the Kiev-based Razumkov Center.

Desperate for supplies

The military deteriorated under ousted President Viktor Yanukovych as he shifted resources to domestic security units to protect his government. In February, the interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced that perhaps only 6,000 troops were combat ready.

Since then, that figure has risen as high as 40,000, analysts say, but Ukraine’s military remains dangerously ill equipped. Their situation is so dire that requests to the United States for nonlethal aid have included basics such as field rations, blankets and even toothpaste. They begged their own citizens to make donations via a hotline. Observers say some troops in the field are still without body armor and helmets. In addition, experts say the many Ukrainian units lack modern communications gear needed to avoid the interception of messages.

Yet that, perhaps, has not been the Ukrainian army’s biggest problem. Even as it copes with aging and missing equipment, the military has found itself caught in a nearly impossible balancing act.

Separatist snipers, for instance, have positioned themselves in apartment buildings and schools, making the risk of civilian casualties unacceptably high for military commanders. At the same time, U.S. and European allies of the new government in Kiev have urged restraint, fearing that too strong a push by the Ukrainian military could offer the Russians a pretext to roll in with tanks.

“You can’t just open fire,” Meinyk said. “They want to avoid collateral damage. And wherever they go, you have Russian TV cameras ready to capture the images if they do hit civilians.”

But the rebels also have to make do, sometimes arming themselves with shotguns and setting out collection jugs at roadblocks. This week, several rebel leaders made an urgent call to arms, with Igor Strelkov, a rebel commander in Slovyansk, saying his militia would take women if men continued to shirk their duty, as if waiting for the Russian army to carry on their rebellion.

“So, tens and hundreds of thousands simply sit at home in front of a TV, sipping a beer,” Strelkov, who is defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video posted online Sunday. “Donetsk needs protectors. And if men are not able to do that, I have to call upon women.”

Joking at checkpoints

Another separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, a key figure in the self-proclaimed republic, insists that separatist passions remain high.

In an interview in his office in Donetsk, he pointed to the large number of voters who turned out in support of the May 11 referendum on self-rule. But he did complain that some eastern Ukrainians who favor independence have not made sufficient sacrifices.

“Men don’t want to leave their comfort zone,” Pushilin said. “If they even do want to go to war, they want to come at 8 a.m. and then in the evening go back home to their wives, to drink tea, watch TV,” Pushilin said. “But of course in our situation, the best option is a barracks state.”

A similar lapse of discipline was evident among the Ukrainian troops at the checkpoint on Sunday, even though it lay less than a half-mile from a roadblock operated by armed rebels — and within sight of a television tower that both sides have fought over.

Farther south, outside the port city of Mariupol, the scene at another Ukrainian army checkpoint was more orderly, though with soldiers also in a state that seemed devil-may-care and jumpy. A few nights earlier, rebels had rained fire with automatic weapons for about 15 minutes while a local television news crew was visiting.

Sometimes the soldiers conducted a cursory search of car trunks. Sometimes not.

“Are you carrying a bomb?” a soldier asked a driver from Donetsk.

“Not today,” the driver joked, and the soldier waved him on.

The Ukrainian unit’s commanding officer, a major who would give his name only as Volodimir, said his men were ready to fight, even if it meant taking on a Russian invasion.

“We have our fighting spirit,” Volodimir said as about 25 reservists lounged in the heat near an armored personnel carrier. But the major also acknowledged that the Ukrainian army was still trying to make up for years of paltry defense spending.

“We are not 100 percent supplied, but we’re in the process,” Volodimir said.

He declined to specify his unit’s needs but was eager to share his view of the conflict.

“It’s a ridiculous situation,” he said “We live in Ukraine, not in Russia. If somebody would like to live in Russia — then, pass the butter, move yourself to Russia.”

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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