A Weary War

It has been well over a year since the Russians initiated their “hybrid” war in Eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has degenerated into an endless war of attrition with little sign of resolution in the near future. I am sure that Putin had a different goal in mind when he started all this, anticipating another easy Crimean scenario, and one in which most of Eastern Ukraine would fall into his hands as the locals welcomed their fraternal Russian “liberators”. Now he is caught in an expensive stalemate with no real exit strategy. As he ponders his next move, it seems he is quite content to let the situation simmer at low boil by continuously feeding arms, ammunition and green men in an effort to wear down the morale of the Ukrainian forces and the Ukrainian government. He is by all accounts a patient man.

Looking at this from the Ukrainian side, there is cause for both optimism and no small amount of frustration. The optimism come from the fact, that though Ukraine was figuratively caught with its pants down militarily when the Russians invaded Donetsk and Luhansk, they have managed to recover sufficiently to stabilize the existing battle lines and make it impossible for the Russians to make any significant further advances without committing sizable forces from Russia itself. There has also been good progress at reforming the country’s police/militia structures, its educational system, its civil service, the energy sector and the taxation system.

Reform of the Ukrainian military, though, has been a bit of a mixed bag. A year ago, one could say that there really was no credible Ukrainian military. The officer ranks were thoroughly penetrated by the Russian FSB and the front line troops, what few of them there were, were poorly equipped, poorly trained, poorly led and low in morale. Since then, there have been significant improvements on all fronts, though the situation is still far from ideal. Nonetheless, there are now sufficient forces and armaments to make any further advances very problematic for the Russians.

The frustrations arise from the fact that there remains a high degree of corruption and incompetence within the Ukrainian military. Even though it has been over a year since this war started, the Ministry of Defense is still unable to properly equip the troops it is sending to the front, and is relying on the diaspora to fund and equip new recruits with clothes, boots, body armor, medical supplies and even weaponry. When a country is in a state of war, this cannot be viewed as being anything but unconscionable. This has even prompted one such diaspora group in Canada to issue an open letter to President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government threatening to bypass dealing with them altogether if they don’t clean up their act by a certain date.

The continuing issue of corruption is not restricted to the military, and both the diaspora and the Ukrainian citizenry are getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the government’s anti-corruption efforts. Despite a lot of rhetoric and the creation of various initiatives and government structures aimed at rooting out corruption, actual results have been exceedingly paltry. Very few oligarchs or high-ranking government officials from the Yanukovich era have been prosecuted or jailed. Most of the corrupt prosecutors and judges from that time are still in place. Those responsible for the killings on the Maidan have not been brought to justice.

The patience of the Ukrainian populace is wearing thin. The “honeymoon” period for Poroshenko and Yatseniuk is now over, and people are starting to demand more aggressive and decisive action on the key issues of corruption, lustration, and the purging of the Yanukovich era deadwood still in place in many of the Ministries. This has spread to the Ukrainian diaspora, who are getting tired of the endless need to raise fund to provide assistance to Ukrainian soldiers and humanitarian aid to displaced Ukrainians, assistance that should be provided by the Ukrainian government proper.

As this weary war continues, the message to the Ukrainian government is clear – you have done a good job in weathering the initial crisis, but it is now time to switch into a higher gear in terms of dealing with the major sores still plaguing Ukraine.