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Ukraine: What soldiers think?

  • September 12th, 2014
  • Posted by EU Australia

UkraineFaced with an overseas crisis like the conflict in Ukraine, governments, notably inexperienced ones that might hope to settle every dogfight and desert war, think about a military solution.

The armed forces will comply, but  may not be given a clear or realistic task.

This post carries a letter held to be the view of a seasoned soldier, talking among colleagues and friends.



Ukraine tanksLast week talk started about assisting Ukraine, possibly with military training for its forces in Australia.

The letter below from a United States Colonel, circulated at the beginning of March, came to mind.

It says that from a professional’s perspective, things might turn out to be more difficult than they might seem.

The letter is not authenticated; the “colonel” may not exist, though it has a ring of authenticity.

It was passed on through a network of officers and retired officers in Australia and the United States.

It would be, in any case, only the private view of one rather opinionated man, but a man with experience relevant to the military situation.

It has been slightly redacted.


Text of the letter:

One of my Ukrainian colleagues asked me if I was informing my friends back home about the situation here. I admitted that I’ve only talked to my wife much about it and he accepted that. I got to thinking and decided that I’ve been delinquent.

Ukraine armsI came here in 2005 on a contract to help build a professional corps of Non Commissioned Officers for the Ukrainian Army. It was a dismal failure. The military budget couldn’t support building the kind of NCO corps the US Army has. Ukraine just doesn’t have the budget for the personnel and training changes that are necessary. Also, as a result of many years of European and Soviet style military doctrine, the junior leaders are officers. NCOs are just technicians. That’s worked for them for a couple centuries. The current mid-grade officers recognised that this wasn’t the most efficient way of leadership, but they just can’t convince the civilians to put enough in the budget to professionalise the force . Conscription stopped this year, but they are a long way from developing a small, professional army.

I left Ukraine and went back to Iraq, then Germany, then Afghanistan. I came back to Ukraine when I got the opportunity to work at one of the few diamonds in the rough that I’d seen in Ukraine on my earlier contract. I’m now an … advisor at the Ukrainian Land Forces Academy, their version of West Point.

During my last three years here now, I’ve met and worked with several Ukrainian mid-grade (Major through Colonel) and junior grade (Lieutenant and Captain) officers. Plus a few hundred cadets. I’ve made friends, a couple enemies, and a lot of good colleagues. I’ve met local civilians and have eaten in some fantastic cafes. I enjoy being in Lviv, here in Western Ukraine. It has a history that goes back a couple thousand years and is rich in a culture that even Soviet occupation for 50 years could not destroy.


Ukrainians are almost as much of a mixed culture as is the USA. There are leftists, rightists, centrists, and a few idiots. There is a small but vocal group that bears resemblance to the Nazi Party in Germany in 1939. There are human rights activists, well educated professionals, business entrepreneurs, and criminals. Just like home. What amazed me, however, was the level of corruption. I expected it, after having worked in former socialist countries before, and have seen what happens when you toss out the communists.

The only groups ready to replace the communists … the only groups with an formal/semi-formal hierarchy, organisation, chains of command, resource procurement procedures, etc… the only groups immediately available are the crooks and criminal organisations. What usually happens is the crooks make their way into government positions, both elected and appointed, and just raise the level of their operations to a national level. The people usually get tired of it, and either vote them out, or kick their asses out. Once they do, the only groups ready to move back in and take charge are the old communists! They’ll have a new name, but old styles. So the folks kick them out and the damned crooks come back in, usually with less power.

Ukraine has gone through these cycles. There is no civil service system here . When a new political party takes charge, everyone who works for the government expects to lose their job. Teachers, civil works technicians, cops, secretaries, postal workers, etc. If they don’t offer a bribe to their new politically appointed boss, they will lose their paycheck .

Cops are a special thing. No city cops, no state cops, just the national police, and they get paid MUCH less than minimum wage. A cop does not chase criminals, he chases his boss’s political opponents. A traffic cop does not enforce traffic laws, he fights to get assigned to a check point on a good street so he can stop new cars and extort money from the driver (obviously well off…. he’s driving a new car) using some trumped up charge. I’ve been stopped many times. They want me to blow into a fake breathalyser so they can charge me with DUI. I was stopped once and they asked for my ID and drivers license. I unbuckled my seat belt to get to my wallet. The cop looked at my licence and then wanted to charge me with not wearing my seatbelt. Normal Ukrainians normally pay the cop somewhere between $12 to $20 to get on their way. I show my US passport and start dialing the embassy on my cell phone. They usually let me go.

Businesses are extorted by officers attempting to enforce unwritten city codes. Driving schools don’t teach kids to drive, the kids can buy a licence for $50 and walk out the same day they enrolled in the course. Everything is like that.




When I got here I was just flat amazed how deep the corruption was. My translator asked me how I would handle such a situation back in USA. I told him we had enforceable laws, much more accountability of officials and as a last resort, the .45 on my hip and the AR-15 in my bedroom gun cabinet. He sighed, said we have none of that; we can’t make changes.

Well folks. Ukrainians stood up on their hind legs these last few months, and they fought back against the crooks… and they won! More than one hundred of them died doing it. It’ll take the new folks in government to change what they had. It’s hard changing a nation, a culture of corruption, a business environment that doesn’t know how to enforce contract law. But they want to give it a chance.

And now, Vladimir Putin has decided that he can’t allow the new Ukraines to succeed. Because if they do, Russians might decide to get rid of the criminals who are the Russian Mafia, and the people like Putin who are trying to rebuild, not the Soviet Union, but the old Russian Empire. There are good geo-political reasons for him to desire that, but it comes at the cost of Ukrainian freedoms to chose.

The US will not, maybe cannot jump in here and oppose the Russians militarily (the US has zero tanks left in Germany, folks). The Germans, Brits, French, etc don’t have the forces to do it either. Nor the political will. So a NATO military option is out of the question. The Ukrainian military is too small, too under-resourced, and too tied to old Soviet style doctrine to go it alone.




So, what is left?

That will be up to President Obama, the British Prime Minister, Ban-Ki-Moon at the UN and, believe it or not, the people and Prime Minister of Turkey. The Poles might go up against the Russians. They’ve done it before. Polish military history is pretty brave. They’ve been outclassed and outmatched, but no one can ever accuse them of cowardice. If the Russians try to take Western Ukraine, the Poles might surprise everyone.

ukraine soldiersI support what the Ukrainians are trying to do. I can’t do much about it, except teach my cadets. Because of the semi-official position I work in, I can’t do much more. If it gets too dangerous out here in Western Ukraine, I have to go home. If it gets too politically strenuous for the US, the State Department might order us to go home. I’m not impressed with John Kerry whining that Putin doesn’t respond to our super-civilised new world society. He is ‘stunned’ that Mr Putin acted in the same old way that Russians have always reacted. By force. By making your enemies fear you. By taking action, not talking. I’m amazed that anyone with a clue really thinks that this 21st Century is going to be much different than the 19th Century. History shows us otherwise, every damned time.

So, I’ve made my conscience easier by writing this. The old Ukrainian colleague who asked if I had written my friends is a retired Colonel and a  professor, and  he is itching to put his uniform back on and go defend Ukraine. Against the Russians; against a force a hundred times bigger. He has a beautiful, thirteen year old daughter who wants to be a ballerina, and he wants her to have the opportunity to do it in a free, law-abiding, free-enterprise nation. He’s willing to go up against the Russian Bear to do it.

I just wanted you to know.


Ukrainian forces have this Summer contained and encircled the armed dissidents supported by Russia, in Eastern Ukraine. This has brought the situation to a truce arranged by the Presidents of Ukraine and Russia, now being put to the test in the field. Ukraine has reintroduced military conscription. EUAustralia Online publishes various contending views. The map shows Ukraine integrating Crimea, seized an annexed by Russia in the present crisis (Ed.).