Ukrainian army fights rebels and neglect


Ukrainian troops patrol an area near the border with Russia outside Kharkiv on June 16, 2014. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

The cellphone photo showed a young Ukrainian soldier lying in a hospital bed, seemingly unconscious, with his head heavily bandaged and a feeding tube sticking from his mouth.

He had been fighting separatists in the country’s east. He went into combat without a helmet.

“If he’d had one, he wouldn’t have been hurt so bad,” said Yuri Biryukov, 39, who relies on his employees to run his chain of travel agencies while he raises money to buy the basics of modern warfare, including the goggles and sniper rifles that he delivers in sometimes harrowing trips to the front line. “I need to get 40,000 euros by tomorrow to buy helmets, and I don’t have it.”

Ultimately, he raised more than double the $54,000 he sought when he posted the young man’s photo on his Facebook page the next day.

Biryukov is part of a sea change in the way Ukrainians view their defense forces. Their newfound support for the troops may complicate things for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose declaration of a unilateral cease-fire Friday as part of a broader peace plan is not universally popular. Many Ukrainians, particularly in the western half of the country, far from the battlefields, say that they do not think a truce will bring the peace they desire and that it will give the insurgents time to regroup.

Pro-Russian separatists pledged to defend themselves and denounced the cease-fire ordered by Ukrainian President Poroshenko in eastern Ukraine. (Reuters)

Many Ukrainians say their army is finally making advances in its fight against pro-Russian militias and is gaining valuable combat experience as it begins to receive new equipment from a proliferation of volunteer groups.

“I’m optimistic that the army is changing,” said Yuri Kasyanov, a coordinator for the volunteer group SOS Army, which has bought food and communication radios for the army. “It’s becoming better as Ukrainians are helping to directly finance it. It’s becoming a people’s army.”

That spirit seemed a distant dream only a few months ago. The sudden rise in separatist sentiment, starting in Crimea in March and spreading the next month to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, revealed a nation startlingly unprepared to defend itself.

Under the mistaken belief that Ukraine faced no threat from its neighbors, every administration since Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 axed the military budget. Today, the 180,000 members of the armed forces are barely a fifth of the number of two decades ago and are ill-equipped and poorly trained.

In a damning report issued this month, a military think tank in Kiev, the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, said every defense minister who came into office presented a new plan to reform the army, and every reform led to a decrease in Ukraine’s defense capacity.

The report said the low priority given to military spending and the endemic corruption that plundered resources from the defense budget were directly responsible for the current crisis the nation confronts. Ukraine’s army was “destroyed,” the researchers said in recommending an eight-fold increase in military spending.

“It’s not only [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who’s guilty for the loss of our territory,” said Sergiy Bondarchuk, the former director of a state-owned military arms manufacturer who was one of the researchers. “It’s politicians who didn’t build up the army.”

The separatist revolt in the east, which Ukraine has accused Russia of fomenting, has shocked many Ukrainians out of complacency. The army has established a fund to which Ukrainians can contribute in 40-cent increments with each cellphone call. Many people say they call the number daily.

The campaign, dubbed Support the Ukrainian Army, had raised about $11.5 million by mid-June. The sum was modest enough that the Defense Ministry ticked off exactly what it bought with the money — 17,500 sleeping bags, 600 field mattresses, 5,000 blankets, 53,000 pairs of boots and 3,000 bulletproof vests. When the war against the separatists began, the army didn’t have a single vest or flak jacket in the warehouse, said Col. Oleg Dovgalyuk, the head of procurement and supply for the Defense Ministry. There were none left for combat soldiers.

Many Ukrainians embarrassed by the sorry state of their army are feeling moments of pride as the defense forces have wrested back control of border checkpoints and territory that had been held by rebels.

“Our army was in bad shape, but it has learned by doing,” said Serhi Zhurets, director of the military publication Defense Express. “With their new combat experience, we have a new type of army in Ukraine.”

The battlefield setbacks as well as the victories have served to harden attitudes against the separatists. Some Ukrainians say they don’t understand why Poroshenko declared a cease-fire now, unless it’s to lay the foundation for a full-scale offensive against rebels who don’t take advantage of his offer of amnesty or safe passage out of the country.

“There should be no cease-fire until the Russian army returns to its territory,” said Boris Pavelko, 64, who spent 22 years in the Soviet army and retired as a Ukrainian army colonel. He routinely visits the Russian Embassy to hold a large Ukrainian flag protesting the country he now considers an enemy.

Opposition to a cease-fire is particularly strong among people who have put their lives on hold to help supply the soldiers.

“I don’t know why our government would increase the number of people who suffer and die by proposing this,” said Biryukov, who raises funds on his Facebook page under the name Wings Phoenix, a reference to the tattoo on his left arm. “Every hour of peace means a new separatist checkpoint or a new land mine. Why would we give them this gift?”

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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