December 6 was Armed Forces Day in Ukraine. Ukrainian armed forces have been in combat for over three years, stopping Russia’s invasion of Europe in Crimea and Donbas. Ukrainians and people in other Western countries have a lot to celebrate and to give thanks for. On the battlefield, Ukraine is saving Europe.
The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed on 5 December 1994, 23 years ago. Ukraine was three years old as a once-again independent country. Russia was also three years old as a once-again independent country, but it chose to call itself the Russian Federation and claimed to be the successor state of the Soviet Union. Western countries accepted the lie that Russia alone was the USSR’s successor. Russia was given the USSR’s permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, complete with its veto. The true foundation of the Ukrainian polity and the false foundation of the Russian polity meant that the Budapest Memorandum was an uneven arrangement. Ukraine lost nuclear weapons and Russia kept them. Ukraine lost heavy bombers and Russia kept them. Ukraine lost capital ships and Russia kept them. Ukraine lost the ability to be a military threat to its neighbours and Russia kept that ability. All Ukraine got out of the Budapest Memorandum was a promise that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation would work together to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. What Russia got out of the Budapest Memorandum was formal recognition that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine was not equal to and did not have the same status as Russia’s.
The dismantling of the Ukrainian armed forces was rapid in the 1990s. The Budapest Memorandum required disarmament on a never-before-seen scale. From being the world’s third-largest nuclear-armed power, Ukraine became a non-nuclear nation. Ukraine never got the credit it was due for carrying out the total nuclear disarmament that peace activists had campaigned for since the 1950s. Another factor in Ukraine’s disarmament was the collapse of the Ukrainian economy in the 1990s, complete with hyper-inflation. Ukraine could not afford a professional army, kept a conscript army, and the rust-out of equipment began and never stopped. A third factor in Ukraine’s disarmament beginning in the 1990s was the establishment of the oligarch system and the systemic corruption of the power vertical in Ukrainian society, economy, and politics. Under this system, the Ukrainian conscript army became a pool of indentured servants for corrupt generals and admirals to exploit for profit, along with their corrupt oligarch backers. At the beginning of the 1990s, Ukraine inherited a chunk of the Soviet armed forces – a formidable fighting force. By the end of the 1990s, Ukraine had a rump force, no longer capable of sustained military operations or of effective national defence.
A final denouement of the Ukrainian armed forces occurred during the Yanukovych period, from February 2010 to February 2014. Burdened already by under-funding and corruption, the seeds of disloyalty were planted in the Ukrainian armed forces. Russian intelligence services targeted Ukraine’s senior officers, playing on shared experiences and traditions in the Soviet forces or on shared service in Afghanistan, for example. When the time came, would a Ukrainian officer order his troops to fire on a Russian officer who was his comrade-in-arms? The Russians always had a plan to present their forthcoming invasion of Ukraine as a civil war, and sowing the seeds of disloyalty to Ukraine in the Ukrainian armed forces officer class fit in with this campaign.
The decline of Ukrainian society turned around in spectacular fashion, starting at the end of 2013. Euromaidan – the Revolution of Dignity – revitalized the Ukrainian polity and the Ukrainian military. When the kleptocrat under Russia’s influence, Yanukovych, chose to yank Ukraine’s from its European choice and European path (the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement), a popular uprising took place. By February 2014 the violence of the Yanukovych regime against the Ukrainian people reached its zenith, but the protests were larger and more widespread than ever before, and now constituted a Revolution of Dignity. Yanukovych fled, and the hope of Ukrainians for a better life triumphed. But at that same moment Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.
Putin had long-prepared for Russia to invade Ukraine. He started in Crimea and then moved to Donbas. Given the state of the Ukrainian armed forces, Putin expected no opposition and even anticipated defections to the Russian side. But Vladimir Putin knows nothing about Ukraine or the Ukrainian people. Foreign invaders had come to Ukrainian lands, again, and the Ukrainian people were prepared to fight them as they had for a thousand years. Even with no combat-worthy aircraft, the airmen of Ukraine’s Belbek airbase in Crimea never accepted the authority of the Russian invaders. The naval cadets of Sevastopol stayed true to their oath to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine as a whole mobilized for war. Volunteer battalions were hastily formed and given basic training. Many who had served in the “sotnyas” (companies or hundreds) in EuroMaidan became soldiers in the volunteer battalions. The same community support that sustained EuroMaidan was now directed towards the volunteer battalions and the regular army. When Russia’s invasion of Europe in Ukraine moved to Donbas, a war of movement was fought in the summer and autumn of 2014. Ukraine had victories in this phase of the war – liberating Mariupol, and Kramatorsk, and Slovyansk – but also defeats when regular forces of the Russian army poured into Donbas – losing battles at Luhansk airport and Ilovaisk.
To Putin’s surprise but to nobody else’s, the Ukrainian armed forces did not betray Ukraine. Despite long odds, they stopped the Russian advance. In 2014, Ukraine’s depleted regular army and hurriedly-assembled volunteer battalions stopped Russia’s invasion. Ukraine saved Europe.
In the three and three-quarter years of Putin’s War, the Ukrainian armed forces have gotten stronger and Russia has become an international pariah, stuck in a war that it cannot win. The Ukrainian armed forces now have a quarter of a million members: men and women whose loyalty is to Ukraine and who are dedicated to ridding the homeland of the foreign Russian invader. The volunteer battalions are now part of the Territorial Defence Forces of Ukraine. Large numbers of reservists, many with recent combat experience against the Russians, support Ukraine’s potential for full mobilization. The Ukrainian armed forces are among the most respected institutions among the Ukrainian people, and a large volunteer movement continues to support all aspects of the war effort. Military procurement has revitalized Ukraine’s defence industry, so much so that today Ukraine’s armed forces are 40% self-sufficient for matériel from Ukrainian sources. Ukraine is moving towards NATO membership, and its armed forces are adopting NATO standards rapidly, particularly in the areas of training, administration, and supply. In official figures, 2,333 Ukrainian armed forces service members have died in defence of the homeland in Crimea and Donbas. The Ukrainian people honour their military dead with the greatest of respect, dignity, and love. With pride in their armed forces, Ukrainians are fierce in their determination to liberate all the Ukrainian lands.