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Advice instead of weapons? What will the new American Adviser for Defense bring Ukraine

John Abizaid. Archive photo
Advice instead of weapons? What will the new American Adviser for Defense bring Ukraine
Article by: Kseniya Kirillova
Retired General John Abizaid, former commander of the United States armed forces Central Command, has been appointed as senior adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. American Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced this at a meeting with his Ukrainian colleague, Stephan Poltorak, on 8 September. The goal of this appointment is to bring the Ukrainian army “in line with Western principles and standards.”
Gilberto Villahermosa
Gilberto Villahermosa

At first glance, such an announcement suggests that the United States is stepping up its game to ensure that Kyiv and Ukraine are ready to meet further Russian aggression. Colonel (Retired) Gilberto Villahermosa, a former US Army Foreign Area specialist (Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East), Intelligence Analyst, and Strategist discussed what Ukrainians should expect from this appointment in an interview with Radio Liberty.

“John Abizaid is the real deal. As the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), the 65-year old soldier-scholar-diplomat and retired four-star general commanded 250,000 US soldiers and American military operations in a 27-country region, from the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, to South and Central Asia, covering much of the Middle East. Abizaid retired from the military on 1 May 2007 after 34 years of service. He is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Distinguished Chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point,” stressed Villahermosa.

However, the American colonel warns that despite the new adviser’s merit and military experience, his appointment by the Obama administration may be intended more to bolster Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s tough anti-Russian rhetoric and election chances than Ukraine’s actual military.

“It’s true, that since 2014, the United States has dedicated more than $760 mn in assistance to the government in Kyiv. This is in addition to three $1 bn loan guarantees to help the new government carry out political and economic reforms and to bolster the capabilities of its security sector, including its army. The United States has also provided more than $70 mn in humanitarian support to help displaced Ukrainians through international relief and local nongovernmental organizations. Abizaid joins almost a dozen US economic and technical experts advising Ukrainian ministries and localities,” recounts Villahermosa.

The American expert reminds us that between August 2014 and September 2015 the US Department of Defense awarded contracts to US companies for the supply of radios, UAVs, HMMWVs, and tracking radars to Ukraine. Additionally, medical equipment and large numbers of night sights have already been delivered to Kyiv.

“But the Obama Administration, currently involved in providing more than a billion dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia – a country prominent for exporting radical Islam and supporting Islamic extremists around the world – is reticent to provide Kyiv with the lethal weapons it needs to defend itself for fear of upsetting Russia. Washington’s weak tone has been mimicked by our NATO allies. It was only recently that Lithuania became the first NATO country to provide Ukraine with lethal assistance in the form of 150 tons of small arms ammunition,” emphasizes the analyst.

In light of this, Villahermosa anticipates that Abizaid will have his hands full dealing with a number of challenges.

 1. To not offend his State Department superiors

“The first will be not offending his State Department superiors in Washington, who fear upsetting Russia and will resist taking any robust measures in support of Kyiv and its military that violates its ‘Russia First’ policy. They will do everything possible to undermine Abizaid and hinder his agenda,” warns Colonel Villahermosa.

 2. To persuade Ukraine’s military to drop corruption

The second challenge the expert anticipates is that rampant corruption in the Ukrainian government and an anemic economy do not instill great confidence in the United States that its investment in the country is going to good use, or that the country is worth fighting for. Abizaid must join the voices trying to convince the government in Kyiv and the military to change their ways and Washington to give Kyiv more time.

 3. To avoid radical elements

“Third, the presence of radical elements in the Ukrainian armed forces greatly complicates US military assistance. Three hundred Americans soldiers sent to Ukraine to train the country’s National Guard have encountered difficulties ensuring that members of neo-Nazi groups, like the ‘Azov’ Battalion, are not among those being trained, due to allegations of gross human rights violations. All foreign units trained by American soldiers must be vetted for human rights and approved by the State Department and Congress. Yet the Azov Battalion is one of the most combat effective formations fighting Russian-supported separatists,” acknowledges Villahermosa.

 4. To deal with low morale

Fourth, the readiness of the Ukrainian armed forces to fight for their country in a large-scale, high-intensity conflict is still questionable. Rather than battle the Russians during their low-key occupation of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers (12% of the armed forces) simply voted with their feet. The majority joined the Russians, while most of the rest just walked away. Despite attempts to root them out, the government in Kyiv and the Ukrainian security and intelligence services are still rife with Russian sympathizers and agents, undermining US attempts to build a credible Ukrainian army.

 5. To rebuild the Ukrainian army

“Fifth, rebuilding the Ukrainian armed forces, consisting of some 250,000 active duty soldiers (half of them conscripts) is an immense undertaking that will take years and cost billions (not millions) of dollars. It is a job that can only be accomplished by working in concert with our NATO and non-NATO partners following a long-term strategic plan. At the time of the Russian annexation of Crimea, only several tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were combat ready and only a handful of tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and artillery pieces were operational and mission capable. Two decades of neglect and under-funding had left Kyiv’s military arm in shambles, a condition the Russians were quick to exploit. Since then, the Ukrainian military has come a long way. But it still has a long way to go,” warns the American Colonel.

 6. To avoid annoying Russia

Sixth, and the major problem for Washington, is that everything the US and its allies do to make Ukraine more secure may end up creating a real or perceived security dilemma for Russia, bringing the war closer.

“This has resulted in a failure by the US and its European partners to provide the Ukrainian army with much-needed lethal assistance, especially surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles to repel Russian air and armor attack. Proving those weapons in sufficient numbers to deter or repel Russian aggression and training Ukrainian soldiers to use them will take time,” notes Villahermosa.

“Without support or the appropriate funding, General Abizaid may find that he has been given an impossible task. Let us hope that a new administration in Washington will provide him and Kyiv with the tools they need to deter or repel Russian aggression,” concludes the American expert.

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