What’s happened to the Ukrainian military?


During the quarter century of Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence, the country’s state institutions have remained fragile, and efforts to strengthen and consolidate them were undermined by corruption and an inability of the Ukrainian national authorities to assert sovereign control. Nowhere was this more true than in military and security structures, where the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) – independent Ukraine’s successor to the Soviet KGB – was until very recently open to Russian spying. In an interview with Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service, former Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk explains these problems and sheds light on why the situation is so worrying today, when Russian-backed forces continue to attack Ukrainian territory in the east, and Russian President Vladimir Putin – reputedly – haы boasted to an EU official that his armies could be in Kyiv “in two weeks.”

A career officer of the Soviet KGB, Marchuk became the first head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in 1991, upon Ukraine’s independence. In addition to serving as prime minister, Marchuk has been defense minister, a member of parliament and secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. He has held the rank of army general since 1994. In December, he was appointed head of an international secretariat on security and civil cooperation between Ukraine and NATO and between Ukraine and the EU.

What’s happened to the Ukrainian army?

Vitaly Portnikov’s guest is former Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk.

Vitaly Portnikov: What happened to Ukrainian defense and security structures on the eve of the Maidan, and what is happening to them today? Why aren’t we seeing any real answers, on a conceptual level, from the perspective of providing for the security of the country? How will the Russo-Ukrainian conflict change the future of the Russian defense and security forces? I’ll be discussing this with our guest, former Prime Minister of Ukraine Yevhen Marchuk. The first question I have for you is historical, and is not even really directed to you as a man who once headed the Ukrainian government, but rather as a former defense minister, former chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and former secretary of the Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. Haven’t I listed all your power positions?

Yevhen Marchuk: That’s enough.

Vitaly Portnikov: In any case, you are the classic Ukrainian strongman, who headed all the structures, and who a year ago – as it turned out – was unable (to put it mildly) to answer calls. How is it that there was no real army, no real security? The Security and Defense Council was literally created from scratch last year?

Yevhen Marchuk

Yevhen Marchuk

Yevhen Marchuk: First of all, we shouldn’t start counting from 1991, with the collapse [of the Soviet Union – Ed.], because I remember very well what was going on in Ukraine militarily and in terms of security during the years 1991-1995. I think the situation wouldn’t have been so dramatic in 2014 if Yanukovych’s team hadn’t come to power in 2010. Of course, the SBU and Ministry of Defense even prior to Yanukovych had experienced a negative transformation to some extent, especially when a kind of commercialization of the SBU’s activities occurred in 1999-2000. But the most dramatic events began in 2010, when the defense ministers were people from Russia, including Defense Minister Solomatin. Incidentally, journalists have now unearthed the location of his home, the FSB general who was his neighbor, and so on. The same thing happened with the SBU. But the most important thing is that during this time, about three and a half years into Yanukovych’s tenure, people were appointed to leadership positions who were not only 100% pro-Russian but were also under the control of Russian state structures, so that in practical terms an intrusion into the management sector took place, into the administrative sphere – this is what I know thoroughly. This is the SBU and the Ministry of Defense.

True, the National Security Council had turned into a kind of tool for preparing the acceleration of the Maidan, and it almost got out of control, besides the fact that the SBU participated in the bloody events on the Maidan. Thus, the invasion, which occurred through the cadres – through a so-called partnership – ended as a result of the fact that the Russian security services virtually took control of the Defense Ministry and the SBU. On this occasion, there is a lot of evidence that they were already legalized – from documents of the Ministry of Defense. Every country has top secret documents regulating the activities of the armed forces in critical situations, including as a result of aggression. All these documents have, unfortunately, become the property of the Russian security services, not to mention the fact that in Ukraine before the Maidan there was a large group of employees of the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB), which had almost taken over the SBU for its own interests.

Here it would have seemed that a simple element, like the transition of the armed forces from conscript to contract system, was, like, a positive thing, but Ukraine was not ready for this, neither legally nor financially. When they announced the transition to contract-based service, they practically stopped the normal, regular call-up in accordance with Ukraine law. And then, when critical circumstances arose in connection with the aggression in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, it turned out that military conscription had been virtually neutralized. To begin at least some sort of call-up, it was necessary to initiate the call for the formation of the military.

SBU Luhansk

Police officers guard the regional HQ of the SBU in Luhansk, as protesters demand the release of captive pro-Russian leaders in April 2014 (Igor Golovniov/AFP/Getty Images)

On the other hand, the question is very often asked: what happened to the border? Why is the infiltration of militants, mercenaries and regular armed forces from Russia so easy? What is called a reliable border was blurred until 2014. Border guards – these are not defense forces, but border guards – these represent regulation and security. Defense, according to the Law of Ukraine on Defense, rests with the Ministry of Defense. Protection of state borders lies with the Ministry of Defense and border guards. That is, the real border, adjusted for the people, is the border guards. In addition, there are the regular territorial organs of the SBU – that is, not the military but police units, the migration service, and, in the last instance, the armed forces. So in almost all normal states, the borders are constructed, i.e., the military doesn’t stand on the border, but is in the third echelon.

Vitaly Portnikov: We did not have this third echelon.

Yevhen Marchuk: In fact it did exist, but the border was blurred over the course of three years. In addition, the Russo-Ukrainian border is not demarcated. That is, borders – even in the European sense – practically didn’t exist. A field, in the middle of a field was a country road, on the left was Russia, and on the right – Ukraine.

Vitaly Portnikov: In Russia, as I understand it, there are these elements of protection of the border?

Yevhen Marchuk: They existed. When the blurring of borders occurred in a defensive sense, then military units were withdrawn from the border, and only border guards were left. They cannot engage in long-term warfare. That is, it was a multi-directional erosion of the defense potential of Ukraine’s security in the physical and conceptual sense. What do I mean by “conceptual”? We remember how noisily provisions of the law on the foundations of national security were eliminated, provisions which anticipated an opportunity for the country to accede to military-political blocs in the future, in the interests of national security.

Vitaly Portnikov: Without personalization of the bloc.

Yevhen Marchuk: In the interests of national security – joining military-political blocs, in particular, the North Atlantic alliance, while maintaining good relations with Russia and other CIS countries. I led this legislation through parliament, so I remember this formula exactly. It was not that Ukraine would enter at a certain time, and so on. It was simply a kind of vector. But under this, the emphasis was on the fact that the procedure itself and the actions themselves should be balanced in terms of political understanding of this process.

Vitaly Portnikov: Viktor Yanukovych completely abandoned this item.

Ukrainian military officers march in Crimea in March 2014 in defiance of Russian troops who were in the process of seizing the peninsula

Ukrainian military officers march in Crimea in March 2014 in defiance of Russian troops seizing the peninsula

Yevhen Marchuk: First, Leonid Kuchma removed all of it. The new doctrine of cooperation with NATO was adopted in 2002, but it was enshrined, in law in 2003. In 2004, when Kuchma wanted to give a nod to the West because he couldn’t get himself out of isolation as a result of well-known scandals (the Gongadze case, “Kolchuga,” and so on), he gives a command, and six weeks before the NATO summit in Istanbul the same provision is introduced to the military doctrine as was in the law: the possibility of joining NATO in the future in the interests of security. After the Istanbul summit, when not everything happened the way the Ukrainian side wanted, whether before the summit in Sochi or in Yalta, Kuchma ordered the immediate removal of this provision from the military doctrine.

Vitaly Portnikov: It changed, depending on what meetings were held.

Yevhen Marchuk: Three months remained before the presidential election in 2004. Thus, Kuchma virtually cleared the way for Yanukovych, who within a week as presidential candidate and current prime minister said: when I become president, Ukraine will not join NATO – that is, the vector is being removed. Then he gives the command – and his puppet Verkhovna Rada removes this from the law.

Vitaly Portnikov: You were heading…

Yevhen Marchuk: It’s called the ‘International Secretariat for Security and Civilian Co-operation between Ukraine and NATO, and the countries of the EU.’

Vitaly Portnikov: And it was – under the SBU?

Yevhen Marchuk: Under the SBU, only because the SBU has a Department of International Cooperation, and the service provides us with some sort of base.

Vitaly Portnikov: What is the meaning of this service? How did you feel about the NATO alliance, toward the position of the alliance on this conflict? It is not easy, probably, to cooperate.

Yevhen Marchuk: I was compelled to be at the headquarters of NATO last year and to meet with functionaries at various levels. The situation for Ukraine is not easy now, to the extent that the level of desire to join NATO in the near future is greatly elevated in public opinion. It is clear what has caused this: real Russian aggression against Ukraine, starting with the annexation of the Crimea. Who would deny that not only are there all the signs of aggression, but also specific graves throughout Ukraine, the graves of young men killed by Russian weaponry. Many monuments have such inscriptions. In public opinion, this trend is strong, but realists – those who know the reality (and I include here myself among them) – understand very well that this road is very long and very difficult. We know the recent statements by Francois Hollande on the fact that France will not support the potential entry of Ukraine into NATO. We do understand that there cannot be entry into NATO now for a variety of reasons, not to mention the fact that we are almost at war with Russia (to be honest), and on the other hand, NATO consists of 28 countries, this is a consensus procedure, and not to mention the fact that it’s 28 parliaments. Even if at some point, at a NATO summit, they decide to award Ukraine the partnership regime for entry, still you need to conduct this through parliaments, and it’s all ambiguous. And most importantly, that the NATO standards 30% of the requirements for the candidate are for the military sphere, and 70% for the economy, human rights, the judicial system, democratic institutions, and so on. That is, Ukraine needs just a very difficult path of inner transformation in order to get closer to NATO standards, even in this sense.

Vitaly Portnikov: And does Ukraine in the current situation have time to do all this?

Yevhen Marchuk: No. In one of my interviews I said that, even if you adhere to such requirements only in peacetime, it could be drawn out for decades. On the other hand, a very serious transformation of European security in general can occur, and it has already occurred. I – even in NATO headquarters – spoke about getting away from standards at least regarding the procedure for getting to the partnership mode of Ukraine in the interests of membership.

Vitaly Portnikov: Can NATO take such a step?

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko greets troops in Lviv, western Ukraine

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko greets troops in Lviv, western Ukraine

Yevhen Marchuk: I understand that it is not very easy, especially if the French leader says France is against it. We know that Germany as well, Merkel, is not very keen… Moreover, a year ago, she did say that Ukraine did not need to join NATO now. We do understand that this will not happen tomorrow, but the process… Today the Parliament removed the so-called non-aligned status from the law (though it is only a verbal formulation), so that in the interests of the security of Ukraine it is possible to choose the path of accession to NATO. But if today the Ukrainian leadership is very cautious and adapts to the French mood (not to mention Russia’s opposition), then, unfortunately, it can, on the one hand, do great damage to public opinion, and on the other hand, significantly slow down the process. This same Hollande – the president is not 10 years old, and there may also occur a certain transformation. I still see that, little by little, Russia “helps” us on our way to NATO, since the annexation of Crimea, and especially in recent weeks, despite all the negotiation processes that are now going on and, probably, will be going on for a long time to come. But given Russia’s behavior towards Ukraine and in this context Russia’s behavior in negotiations with Western partners, the United States and Europe, it’s obvious that the evolution is happening in our favor, in the sense that Ukraine should seek to enter the mode of partnership for membership – this is the first thing.

Second, the Ukrainian army, willingly or unwillingly, has undergone very rapid transformation, including via the Russian “assistance.” In peacetime, such a transformation would have to take a very long time. Not only that, but Ukrainian military structures have gained experience of real war (and in fact, today there is a Russo-Ukrainian war). I think that the main problems on this path – it’s unquestionably our internal economic, political, and judicial transformation. We know NATO is a club of aristocrats. The states created a system that provides peace of mind.

Vitaly Portnikov: Speaking of these club commitments, I want to go back to the beginning of our conversation, when you talked about the infiltration of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, the Ministry of Defense and the SBU by Russian agents of influence.

Yevhen Marchuk: Not only this, but also professional staff.

Vitaly Portnikov: Can this infiltration be eliminated in a short space of time?

Yevhen Marchuk: This is, of course, a problem. The situation itself has helped a little bit. We know that almost the entire leadership fled.

Vitaly Portnikov: Top management?

Ukrainian security forces stand guard in Kharkiv after activists were ousted from a government building in April 2014

Ukrainian security forces stand guard in Kharkiv after activists were ousted from a government building in April 2014

Yevhen Marchuk: Ministry of Defense and SBU, and not only these, but the politicians escaped too. This process can go for a long time. In the SBU there are specific examples when, in “standby” mode, their sources had to reveal themselves. In addition to the mechanism of lustration, there are mechanisms for intelligence activities. Yes, this process will be a serious obstacle for us. But there has been a major revival of counterintelligence, almost the entire leadership down to the lowest levels was been laid off, and those who were laid off during the Yanukovych era are being called to service. We see that military intelligence and counterintelligence, like units of the SBU, are now showing relatively good results. Professionals do not need much proof that the Russian intelligence services are working actively and aggressively not only in eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, cases have arisen in the SBU, including acts of subversion – not plans, but specific acts almost throughout Ukraine, from Transcarpathia to eastern Ukraine, from Chernihiv to Odessa. Indicative of this was the recent remark by [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov, who said that today national minorities in Ukraine (he named, it seems, Hungarians and Romanians) have drawn attention to the fact that men of these nationalities are being called up in disproportionately large numbers. This, of course, is utter nonsense. But most importantly, it’s a kind of wick, which is associated with the activities of the intelligence agencies to ignite what Russia hopes to ignite.

Vitaly Portnikov: This is an ongoing search for weaknesses.

Yevhen Marchuk: The match runs – they say, there’s also some tension there, and Russia is demonstrating that it’s kind of like a defender…

Vitaly Portnikov: … not only of the Russian-speaking population, but also of national minorities in general.

Yevhen Marchuk: We understand what it means when Lavrov says such things. I can give an absolute guarantee that it was ordered from the FSB – that it’s necessary to entertain such a thought. But I’m absolutely sure that nothing will happen. I know these tricks.

Vitaly Portnikov: There weren’t tricks that you wouldn’t know? I wonder whether the Russian security services have been modified over the years?

Yevhen Marchuk: I warned a few days beforehand about everything Russia has done with the annexation of the Crimea, and in the Donbas. Crimean annexation – whatever it’s called in Russia, but it is the de facto annexation of the Crimea – is exactly as it was in 1993, 1994 and 1995, down to the minutest detail. A festival – they send young, good-looking guys with short hair from the Kuban to Crimea, and they all obey their elders. The rise of political parties, the seizure of parliament, seizure of the TV station, and the rise of the brigade of marines of the Black Sea Fleet.

Vitaly Portnikov: So it was a delayed annexation?

Yevhen Marchuk: The president at the time was Yuri Meshkov. It was almost a prewar composition, a prewar component – it was all the same.

Vitaly Portnikov: Let’s you and I meet again specifically to talk about this story of deferred annexation of Crimea. I think our viewers and listeners will be very interested.

Marchuk in the 1990s

Marchuk in the 1990s

Yevhen Marchuk: It’s amazing, I was surprised how the GRU – we know that it’s the professionals of the highest level, this is not the Foreign Intelligence Service, although it also – and the GRU is repeating… I think, perhaps, that there’s no one in Ukraine who won’t read the sequence of these actions.

Vitaly Portnikov: It’s possible to read the sequence, but there is no way to defend ourselves.

Yevhen Marchuk: We read, but we just had anarchy when they did it – they calculated well. In a hotel, we identified a group from the Russian security services, headed up by a general. We brought in our secret service in helicopters at low altitude. Then – 20 years ago, in fact – we prevented the seizure of Crimea.

Что произошло с украинской армией?

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