President Viktor Yanukovich’s signing of Ukraine’s renewed NATO Annual National Plan last month, and the country’s completion of naval exercises with the alliance, in line with the Eastern European country’s commitment to supporting NATO counterpiracy operations, reaffirm its interest in maintaining a transatlantic relationship, at least to some extent.
This has been greeted with mixed responses from the public, media and policymakers on all sides of Ukraine’s NATO accession debate. Much has been discussed about the political reasons for refraining from accepting Ukraine into the alliance. Not much elucidated on the aid the Ukrainian armed forces could provide with or without NATO membership.
Overcoming shortcomings in budgeting, equipment and personnel due to an organizational breakdown following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian army evolved, gaining experience and demonstrating striking success in “low tech, low cost” yet highly skilled areas, including airlifts, anti-piracy, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense, engineering and peacekeeping.
Since 2000, the overall force posture has seen a turnaround. With the economy growing, more funds were allocated to the military and limited spending could resume. Personnel are being converted from the mixed conscript and contract system to an all volunteer service.
Recent events, specifically Ukraine’s contribution to the global War on Terror and anti-piracy operations, have steered the military to developing as a joint rapid reaction force, revising training programs to focus on combat readiness and mobility. Spending on military intelligence and rapid reaction force training has been streamlined, specifically in support of anti-terror and peacekeeping operations in which Ukrainian forces can be integrated with NATO components.
This comes on the heels of Ukraine’s entrance to NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and other bilateral military cooperation initiatives where Ukraine has demonstrated that it can play a crucial role, particularly in peacekeeping.
More than 16,000 Ukrainian peacekeepers are deployed throughout Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Ukrainian operations in these locales have received a well respected reputation which has even led to security assistance requests from the United Nations and other international organizations.
The Ukrainian armed forces have also demonstrated achievements in logistics, namely transport aviation, serving NATO, United Nations and individual country contracts to enhance aircraft capabilities and transport military equipment in support of combat engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
While formal integration into NATO has not materialized, areas for cooperation are present and being leveraged to enhance collaboration. The immediate operational and strategic goals of Ukraine are mostly congruent to those of the United States, NATO and allied states, focusing on preserving regional and global stability and participating in the global War on Terror. Earlier, Ukraine demonstrated value in military cooperation, specifically in combined engagements in Bosnia and Kosovo for which Ukraine deployed over two hundred troops as well as in Kuwait in 2003.
Full interoperability, however, has proved challenging. Due to Ukraine’s repeated inability, or ineligibility, to enter institutions and lacking domestic political will and financial support for larger missions, continuing to foster a niche specialist approach may be the better path for Ukraine to follow. This will allow it to pursue improvements on the operational level, namely low intensity conflict operations such as anti-piracy, border security, peacekeeping and even humanitarian operations.
Ukraine and NATO are already taking initiatives via NATO’s Planning and Review Process. Together they have set key objectives for Ukraine to complete for enhancing interoperability with NATO, chiefly the training of English-language proficient officers, enhanced command and control and migration to an all volunteer force.
Domestically, the irregularity of democratization across the defense sector makes transparency and accountability near impossible. Not only has progress toward incorporating civilian defense experts into planning not yet taken substantial hold but civilian control of the armed forces is lacking. Political commitment to fund reform and interoperability projects has not held for a variety of reasons, namely scandals and bureaucratic holdups. As Colonel Leonid Polyakov, a former deputy defense minister, stated (PDF), the “success of the military’s [development] remains hostage to success in wider democratic governance reform in the country.”
Despite such shortcomings, Ukraine’s overall force posture is stronger than it has been since independence. It is making headway becoming a combat ready force preparing for the challenges of modern warfare and increasingly carrying its load in the joint multinational operating environment. Government plans to better streamline the structural apparatus, specifically enhanced democratic command and control, further trimming of unnecessary personnel, decommissioning of obsolete equipment stockpiles, coupled with hardware upgrades, will better position the armed forces for future contingencies.
At a time when world powers find themselves in demanding situations where they cannot rely on their closest allies alone but must form coalitions with likeminded states, Ukraine’s evolved armed forces look to be an increasingly valuable partner.