How U.S. Security Assistance Helped Kyiv Strengthen Civilian Control Over the Use of Force

By Polina Beliakova

Military aid to Ukraine was at the center of the recently concluded impeachment trial in the United States. In the course of the impeachment process, media commentators discussed its importance extensively, referring to both its symbolic significance and practical necessity for improving the battlefield performance of Ukraine’s government forces. Overlooked in this political storm, however, was a critical implication of the $1.5 billion in aid allocated to support Ukraine since 2014—it helped the government in Kyiv reinstate civilian control over the use of force in the early phases of the war when that control was weak and deteriorating.

Indeed, at the beginning of the hostilities in Donbas, the government could scarcely rely on the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) since the majority of units were unable or unwilling to perform assigned missions. Former president Petro Poroshenko admitted that at the beginning of the war nearly 30 percent of UAF conscripts abandoned their positions. Moreover, in Spring 2014, certain generals refused to order their troops to repel the aggression of armed but non-uniformed adversaries. In several instances in March and April that year, UAF forces deployed in the conflict zone surrendered to the enemy, which prevented Ukraine from closing its border with the Russian Federation and enabled further infiltration by Russian paramilitaries. In sum, the government in Kyiv could hardly exercise control over the supposed defenders of the state. Interestingly, both Poroshenko and soldiers attributed the insubordination of the military to the lack of adequate training and equipment.

The government could not effectively mobilize the UAF, so it legitimized the use of force by volunteer battalions to fill the vacuum. Driven by the personal and political preferences of their members, commanders, and sponsors, and virtually independent from the state and often lacking trust in government institutions, the battalions could hardly be expected to be an obedient tool for implementing policy. It should come as no surprise that the new saviors of the nation quickly became political contenders for government positions. In particular, 19 volunteer battalion fighters joined the parliament in 2014. Enjoying representation in the legislature, an extensive social media presence, and support from some Ukrainian oligarchs, the volunteers combined their military capabilities and political capital to challenge the government’s policies. On several occasions, battalion commanders threatened to bring the war to Kyiv and initiate a third Maidan. They also occasionally mobilized troops to pressure the authorities to accept policies that advanced their political agendas. 

As a result, the war in Eastern Ukraine required the government in Kyiv to grapple with two challenges to civilian control at once. The first was the military’s unwillingness and inability to implement orders. The second was Kyiv’s dependence on highly motivated, relatively capable, but selectively subordinate volunteer fighters who subsequently became the government’s political competitors. The financial aid Ukraine received from the United States became crucial for Kyiv to solve the first problem and, as a byproduct, minimize the second.

Financial assistance from the United States allowed Kyiv to boost military expenditure from about 2.4 percent of GDP in 2013 to almost 4 percent in 2015.  The assistance gave Kyiv the means to change the composition of the UAF, purchase necessary equipment, provide adequate training, make improvements to command and control, and reshape the armed forces to match government-defined tasks. As a result, by Spring 2015, the government was able to rely on its military and made most of the volunteer formations integrate into the forces controlled by the ministries of defense and interior.

The increase in military spending allowed a gradual move from relying on mobilized conscripts to recruiting more contract soldiers, further contributing to the professionalization of the UAF. In 2018, contract personnel accounted for 83 percent of the UAF. Replacing the foot-dragging soldiers and officers who never expected to fight with new personnel helped to re-establish the UAF as the main warfighting force in Donbas. This process culminated in delegating formal responsibility for the Joint Forces Operation in Eastern Ukraine to the UAF in Spring 2018. This move also outlawed the operation of volunteer formations in Donbas.

Thus, U.S. security assistance and economic aid, as well as broader cooperation with Ukraine in the defense sphere, helped the government in Kyiv to professionalize the UAF and re-establish civilian control over the military. The decrease in the government’s dependence on volunteer fighters also weakened the political appeal of the paramilitaries.

The new power balance between the civilian government, military, and volunteer battalions was subjected to and survived at least two tests. First, the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in 2019 brought only four former members of volunteer formations to the legislature, signaling the decreasing political appeal of the battalions. Second, when President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the town of Zolote, Luhansk oblast, in Fall 2019 in accordance with the Minsk Protocol, it ignited strong political opposition including from the veterans of the war in Donbas. While about 100 veterans from the “Azov” battalion arrived at Zolote armed and in camouflage, ready to step in after government troops withdrew, the regular forces obediently implemented the orders of the president. Despite widespread criticism of the Minsk Protocol within Ukraine and the widespread perception of the disengagement as a betrayal of previous war efforts, the UAF proved to be a politically neutral and obedient military. 

Ukraine still has a long way to go towards strengthening democratic control over its security forces and increasing civilian input in defense and security policy. So far, U.S. aid has been critical in helping the Ukrainian government not only on the battlefield but also in domestic political power struggles. Being able to rely on the restructured and professionalized UAF, the government in Kyiv sidelined political competitors from the volunteer battalions and asserted more robust control over the use of force in Ukraine.

Polina Beliakova is a senior PhD research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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