In his speech on Ukrainian Independence Day, August 24, President Poroshenko reported that almost 2,100 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed as a result of Russian aggression and emphasized that Ukraine’s war for independence continues. The core question is if the Armed Forces of Ukraine are ready to defend the independence of the state. Oleksandr Lashchenko posed the question during an interview on Vasha Svoboda (Your Freedom) to two men with extensive knowledge of Ukraine’s military: Yuriy Biriukov, adviser to the President of Ukraine, assistant to the minister of defense and founder of the volunteer military support group Wings of the Phoenix, and Yuriy Butusov, one of the best military journalists in Ukraine, who has written extensively on the Ilovaisk tragedy.
After almost a quarter of a century is this the first independence day where Ukraine actually has real Armed Forces?
Biriukov: The last two years, yes. It would be difficult to say that there were any Armed Forces of Ukraine since the 2000s. In the early 1990s they still existed because they had been inherited from the USSR. And then they were destroyed; they were cut and cut. The height of the destruction of the army occurred during 2008 -2013. The army was reduced, the brigades and the most combat-ready parts were destroyed. The best initiatives with positive results were cancelled.
Mr. Butusov, what do you think?
Butusov: Yes, of course. Now the army can be called an army. Because previously it was being destroyed. During the past 23 years there was practically no army. It did not hold maneuvers. It did not participate in military activities. Right now we can see that in 1.5 years of war a significant number of fighters and commanders of the lower and middle ranks have gained experience. The talent pool, the personnel resource is unique and can provide the basis for carrying out a real reform of the Armed Forces in a very short period of time.
Almost exactly a year ago, also on Independence Day, the Russian invasion took place, a stab in the back with an insidious, undeclared war. I remember your post from a year ago. Today you again pointed out on Facebook that this was in reality an invasion by Russian troops. At that time there was a different Ukrainian army that could not resist. But now, after a year, if Putin again dares to repeat similar actions will the Ukrainian army be able to resist?
Butusov: Basically last year the problem was not at all in the army. These were simply decisions that are now being investigated by the military prosecutor and have received a proper appraisal. I expect that decisions will be rendered in court very soon , during a court hearing. There were basically not problems in the combat capability of Ukrainian troops. These were problems of command, problems with orders, and people were carrying out their duties with the same dedication as they did afterwards. Of course there were weak links. Some people became frightened, some fled, but the ones who were encircled were those who had not fled, who stood there till the very end and who were carrying out orders till the end.
This is a problem of operational management and the fact that, unfortunately, the same people who commanded the army for 23 years are still in command today. The ones who are incapable of competent command, who do not meet modern requirements. These are clans of generals who should have been exchanged some time ago for those commanders who have real combat experience.
Mr. Biriukov, do you agree?
Biriukov: No one has ever denied the presence of clans of generals nor the fact that with the exception of one general, who appeared only yesterday, all the inherited generals to a greater or lesser extent were still trained in the USSR. Yesterday the first truly Ukrainian general appeared. It is Oleh Mikats, who had already completed higher military education in Ukraine …
Participant in the battle for the Donetsk Airport ?
Biriukov: Yes he was. As to the fact that everything was bad on the level of the generals — it was bad. But things were bad everywhere, in everything. In principle the process has already started. During this year — I don’t have the exact numbers — dozens of squadron commanders have seen combat and a number of the combatants have become brigade commanders, and the brigade commanders have already moved to the Operations Command of the General Staff. And now we already have four generals, former brigade commanders of combat brigades who have become generals and now are beginning to work as generals.
Yesterday there was one more general who is not well known. He is the head of the Military Medical Department, a colonel, a practicing surgeon, who has hundreds of operations under his belt, including during ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation). He also received his general’s stars yesterday.
Therefore, the process continues. It is not as rapid as I and others would like. But, objectively, we have to understand that we do not have that many experienced military people with operational and strategic levels of education.
Mr. Butusov, you have sharply criticized what is happening in the Armed Forces. When the fourth wave of general mobilization began, the first one this year, you wrote in Facebook that 104,000 of Ukrainian soldiers will be replaced by another 104,000 soldiers without decent training. Now the sixth wave of mobilization has ended, the last one this year so far. Do you still think the same way?
Butusov: No, I had a slightly different position. I believe that it is necessary to create and carry out mobilizations after creating a vision that is called for by several regulations in Ukraine. There is a doctrine on the use of the Armed Forces of Ukraine that covers where and why they should fight. On this basis a program for the development of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is prepared and this is what needs to be approved. And on the basis of this program of development there is also the armament program. Of course other regulations are included under these programs.
On October 15, 2014, the president ordered that a new program to develop the Armed Forces of Ukraine be created as soon as possible as well as a new armament program. Unfortunately, none of these regulations documents have yet been approved.
By the Verkhovna Rada?
Butusov: This needs to be developed by the General Staff and approved by the president. None of these documents has been adopted so far. Therefore, we approve a budget for the army without approving a vision of how to build it, how to develop it.
Therefore, in your opinion, after 1.5 years of a continuing war that doesn’t stop for a single day there is still no vision?
Butusov: The presidential decree called for it and it still hasn’t happened. Because of what is happening? Why do we have such problems in the army? Why is there such chaos and disorder at the supply level? Because we are making arrangements for the army without a vision, creating new units that are not given necessary material support. The army budget is for 230,000 people. In fact, by presidential decree it has been increased to 250,000, and presently it has 280,000 people! Because the most recent wave of mobilization has not yet been released. But the budget is calculated for 230,000.
So, of course, under such conditions there is no real planning. And since there is no vision on the part of the leadership because the leadership of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has not yet determined what kind of army it is building. This planning demands money for something that is not envisioned. This is why, as a consequence, were have such systematic problems right down to the bottom, to the level of the soldier. But we need to build the army from the soldier, from his needs at the front. But our army is still being built still from the level of the general on down and his needs at the headquarters.
Mr Biriukov, you write every day in Facebook, very emotionally, and not as an official who avoids controversial topics. You write about indisputable examples of heroism, about what is being done. However, there are enormous problems. What is currently the most important issue?
Biriukov: You have just heard what is basically 10% of the general picture. Because the defense doctrine, the program of the development of the Defense Ministry, has been completed long ago by the General Staff. But the president is not able to sign the documents because first they need to be approved by the Cabinet. And this is where the constant “back and forth” begins because we, for example, do not fully understand. Therefore, on one hand, it is clear why the Ministry of Economics, represented by the Economics Minister, needs to approve the military doctrine. And the Cabinet took 2.5 months to approve the military doctrine. This was because the economy indicated that we would not have enough money and the lawyers said something else, then the Ministry of Justice and so on. Finally the doctrine was approved two to three weeks ago.
Now comes the next step. Now this needs to be approved at the meeting of the National Security and Defense Council. And only then it is presented for the president’s signature. Unfortunately, these layers of our bureaucracy usually inhibit the activity of the Ministry of Defense catastrophically.
This is what I described on Facebook. This is our struggle with the standards of military issue.The standards describe not only the types of socks and trousers that need to be given to the soldiers but also their numbers. You would think that this is a decision strictly for the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff, but no, it must be approved by resolution of the Cabinet.
But Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak is a member of the government. And you are his advisor.
Yes, but I may surprise you when I say that the first attempts to change the standards for military issue were approved not even under Heletey (previous defense minister — Ed.) but under Koval.
The second defense minister after Maidan.
Biriukov: And these attempts to make changes were blocked by the Ministry of Finance, which stated there was no money. Then they were blocked by the Ministry of Justice with the argument that if the Ministry of Defense determines military issue standards then that in itself would be evidence of corruption. But no one has ever explained what exactly was the evidence of corruption
And so, in February we developed the bill and 4.5 months later we pushed it through the Cabinet, with complete approval. And then we pushed it through the Verkhovna Rada, ginving the army the right to establish its own military issue standards. And this is the way it goes with each step.
One subject that comes up constantly is the possibility of having a professional army. The Commander in Chief Petro Poroshenko, while visiting Chuhuiv in the Kharkiv Oblast, stated that no country waging a real war has been able to afford such a luxury as a completely contract army. On the other hand, there are many problems.
Mr. Biriukov, I read your interviews carefully. You said in late March this year that after you visited the 79th brigade you saw the results of the fourth wave, that “10% are chronic alcoholics.” You said they stated they would not fight and therefore “would drink morning, noon and night,” Is there such a problem?
Biriukov: Yes, absolutely
Therefore, there is a lack of money that you mention again (no money for a professional army), and then we have this problem. How do we find the “middle ground” in order to still have a battle-ready army in numbers and quality?
Biriukov: There are several initiatives, including in the Ministry of Defense, which again the Cabinet is approving with difficulty, to keep as many of those who have already served for a year and who have normal characteristics on a contract basis.
This is the skeleton that Poroshenko talked about? Some 60,000 people, if I remember his statement.
Biriukov: No, we already have 60,000 in the contract army now. Plus 42,5000 officers. Therefore, we essentially have more than 100,000 people on contract with the army. And all the calculations indicate that the ideal proportions should be 70% contractors and 30% of those mobilized and called up. So that the mobilized forces would not be used for combat but to fulfill other necessary daily functions.
Not at the forefront?
Yes, the process is continuing but very slowly
Mr. Butusov, Of course we will not move to a 100% professional army in one day. Our economy will not allow it. But is this transition under way?
Butusov: We, unfortunately, constantly confuse the professional army with the contract army. The president also confuses the two (as he did in his speech today) They are really quite different.A contract is simply a form of the relationship. And professionalism is the organization and professional demands and criteria. Right now these professional demands and criteria are absent in the army today. That’s why we have these commanders …
Today General Pushniakov, commander of the land forces, received the parade. Yuriy Biriukov, incidentally, with complete justification demanded that he be removed from office for incompetence.
He has been awarded the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi
Butusov: He has been awarded the Order of Bohdan Khmelnyckyi! Since the beginning of war this person in the General Staff has overseen the work of the recruitment offices, the recruiters who enlist these “beings,” the alcoholics, the drug addicts.
On the other hand, there is the objective picture. The General Staff has recognized that during the last wave of mobilization they were able to enlist only 60%. In the west, many leave the country for work or flee from Ukraine, for example.
Butusov: Why should we recruit an army that we can’t provide for with weaponry, for example. We give valuable, expensive equipment to the untrained, unmotivated people, often to these “beings” who are incapacitated, absolutely unfit for combat.
Why does this happen? Because in the General Staff, in the Ministry of Defense, despite the presidential decree of last year (as I mention again), these basic elements of development have not yet been approved. They don’t see this. Yuriy (Bociurkiv) confused the two concepts somewhat. In reality, these are planning documents; military doctrine is somewhat different. The strategic doctrine has been adopted. And this is very good. But there are concrete programs for developing the Armed Forces of Ukraine. They need to exist. If they are absent, there will be constant recruitment of completely unnecessary people to the army. The soldiers have no selection, no appropriate material supplies.
Petro Poroshenko said today that Russia has 50,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine and 9,000 military personnel in the occupied territories in the Donbas. Therefore this is altogether 60,000 Russians. Additionally, there are the fighters. So maybe it makes sense to have a smaller but more professional, combat-ready Ukrainian army?
Butusov: Yes. All the commanders at the front say the same thing. They say why do we need the dead weight of useless people?
Mr. Botiurkov, Do you agree?
Biriukov: The total contingent on our side occasionally reaches 200,000. In reality it is less right now. But from that number they have formed two new corps that are undergoing training and combat readiness. So to say that there are 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 — no, there are more.
Right now we’re in a defensive posture, so that’s why we have reinforced the front line. Only now we reinforced it with troops along the entire front line but with somewhat inferior moral quality . I’m sorry but it’s true. I saw the various units at the front. However, unfortunately I don’t see other options right now. I’m not a professional soldier, and I cannot imagine how you can cover this length of the frontline with a small army.