Ukraine looks to Canada to help modernize military's 'Soviet mentality'

With the war in Eastern Ukraine grinding on, away from the international headlines, Ukraine's Soviet-era military is struggling to suppress separatist forces backed by a modern, well-resourced Russian machine. And it is looking to Canada for help.

As 3-year conflict continues, Russian forces have extensively modernized — but Ukraine's troops have not

Ukrainian servicemen hold position on the front line near the government-held industrial town of Avdiivka, just north of Donetsk. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

As the war in Eastern Ukraine grinds on, away from the international headlines, the country's Soviet-era military is struggling to suppress separatist forces backed by a modern, well-resourced Russian machine.

And it is looking to Canada for help.

Both sides in the three-year-old conflict blithely ignore commitments made under the Minsk agreement — the ceasefire plan signed in early 2015 — to keep heavy weapons out of the conflict zone.

The Ukrainians, worried by U.S. President Donald Trump's closeness to Russia and his talk of accepting the annexation of Crimea, have been manoeuvring to win back some areas where they had agreed to remain out.

The combined Russian-separatist side has also upped the tempo of its rocketing and shelling, and still tends to be more effective in using those weapons, thanks to superior command, control and communications.

The Ukrainian side, meanwhile, continues to closely resemble its Soviet predecessor with outmoded uniforms, equipment, organization and training.

Russia's armed forces have been through years of rapid modernization. The effects can be seen among the separatist forces of Luhansk and Donetsk, which include thousands of Russian soldiers nominally fighting as "volunteers" of Novorossiya or "New Russia."

A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces inspects a building, damaged during battles with Ukrainian armed forces in Donetsk. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The result is a conflict that sometimes resembles the Russian Army of today fighting the Russian Army of 25 years ago — the one that suffered defeat in Afghanistan and the first Chechen War.

But Ukraine and its Western allies, including Canada, are determined to change that dynamic.

'DRAB' to the rescue

Jill Sinclair, a former assistant deputy minister of defence who once led the Canadian government's efforts to ban landmines, now holds Canada's seat on a panel designed to bring the Ukrainian armed forces into the 21st century.

Ukraine's Defence Reform Advisory Board (DRAB) is charged with steering the Ukrainian military through a crash transformation even as it fights a low-level war against a far-stronger neighbour.

She likens the task to "changing the wheels on a bicycle while the bicycle is moving."

Pro-Russian separatist commander Mikhail Tolstykh, known by the nom de guerre 'Givi,' salutes atop of a tank in Donetsk, Ukraine. For Ukraine, the war in the east began in 2014 with crushing defeats and battles that showcased new Russian tactics honed from the country's modernized military. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Her co-chairs are a trio of retired generals: former U.S. Centcom commander John Abizaid; the U.K.'s Sir Nick Parker; and Jonas Andriskevicius, former commander of Lithuania's armed forces.

Sinclair says there's currently "a Soviet mentality" in the Ukrainian armed forces and Defence Ministry. "The Ukrainians would be the first to say that."

While the Russian military underwent dramatic upgrades under Vladimir Putin, Ukraine's military stagnated from independence in the early 1990s, through to the outbreak of hostilities in 2014. 

Outclassed on the battlefield

For Ukraine, the war in the east began with crushing defeats. First at Ilovaisk in summer of 2014, then again at Debaltseve six months later, Ukrainian units were first encircled, then decimated by Russian artillery.

The battles showcased new Russian tactics that combined drone and satellite reconnaissance with modern communications and targeting, to produce devastatingly accurate and concentrated barrages.

Survivors who straggled back to Ukrainian lines brought tales of incompetent commanders, confused orders, chaotic supply lines and abandonment by Kyiv.

It all led to a commission of inquiry, where those recriminations were aired publicly. The inquiry estimated that 1,000 soldiers died at Ilovaisk alone.

A nine-year-old boy loosens parts from a burned-out Ukrainian armored personnel carrier in the village of Hrabske, near Ilovaisk, Ukraine. The fight for Ilovaisk was bitter and lasted the best part of a month. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

Ukrainian forces have never recovered the territory lost in those battles. But the debacle brought home the need for reform. "They really hit the reset button three years ago," says Sinclair.

She says the Ukrainians turned to their allies in the West to ask: "How are they going to position themselves so they're not constantly being bested by the other side?

"They want to move, by the end of 2018, to a civilian Ministry of Defence, and by 2020 to full civilian control of the armed forces," she says. "They also want to get to full interoperability with NATO by 2020."

That last goal is a monumental challenge for a military that still depends almost entirely on Warsaw Pact equipment.

But Ukraine's state defence conglomerate, Ukroboronprom, has already begun production of a licensed version of the American M16 assault rifle, which will ultimately replace the Russian-made Kalashnikov designs currently used, allowing Ukrainian forces to use NATO small arms ammunition.

Canadian companies are also finding plenty of opportunity as Ukraine retools its defence industry. Pratt & Whitney Canada, Esterline/CMC Electronics, IMP Aerospace, and L-3 Wescam all have joint projects with Ukroboronprom.

Training mission wrapping up?

Ukraine's foreign advisers are looking beyond the current conflict, Sinclair says.

"Canada's starting point is Ukraine's stated goal of joining the Euro-Atlantic family," she says, adding that Canada's training mission at Yavoriv, in western Ukraine, is focused on overall modernization and professionalization.

"We're never sitting down with the Ukrainians and saying, 'How do we help you to defeat the Russians?'," she says. "We are looking at the long haul, but of course in the meantime, people are being deployed [to the front lines]."

The effects of that training can be seen in those eastern battlegrounds, Sinclair says. "The last 24 months or so, they've been holding their own a lot better."

Canadian military instructors and Ukrainian servicemen take part in a military exercise at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv, Ukraine in this July 2016 file photo. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

As of this month, more than 3,000 Ukrainians had completed courses given by Canadian Armed Forces trainers, mostly either small-team infantry training or explosive ordnance training.

Canada's training countering improvised explosive devices, Sinclair says, has been a lifesaver for Ukrainian troops.

But Canada's training mission is set to end on March 31, and the Trudeau government has yet to say whether it will be renewed. Donations of free equipment to Ukraine have essentially dried up since the Harper government delivered several shipments of non-lethal assistance in the winter of 2014-15.

Profiteers and freebooters

Meantime, the internal battles in the Ukrainian Defence Ministry are focused on corruption and militias — two perennial issues that the country is finally determined to tackle, Sinclair says.

"You can't look at defence reform without looking at the militias," she says of the powerful paramilitary brigades that operate — at least nominally — under the control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Some of the militias, including the Azov Regiment and Right Sector, are given to displaying far-right and even neo-Nazi symbols that have embarrassed the government and provided ammunition for Russian propaganda. But the Ukrainian government is also painfully aware that their rush to the front lines may have saved the Ukrainian military from total collapse in the war's disastrous early days.

Ukraine's foreign advisers are looking beyond the current conflict in the east, hoping for a modernized military that will be under civilian control by 2020. (Oleksandr Klymenko/Reuters)

Some of the brigades answer to individual Ukrainian oligarchs who recruited them and paid to equip them as patriotic gestures; their obedience to central command is questionable.

"They have been playing fast and loose. Does the Ukrainian government have its arms around all of that?" asks Sinclair. "Donor countries want to see more order and more cohesion."

As for corruption, the bane of Ukraine's recent governments, profiteers who sought to get rich from the war, are finally being driven out, Sinclair says.

"Previously, somebody's brother was getting the contract to feed the troops. Now it's a German company with full transparency."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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