Ukraine Army Demoralized, Defeated and Dodging the Draft

The defeat at the railway town of Debaltseve was a heavy blow for Ukraine's overstretched, badly organized army. Little wonder few want to sign up.
Ukrainian soldiers withdraw from Debaltseve.

When Ukraine descended into war in April 2014, the country's defense ministry said it had 130,000 troops, but experts suggest the country had just 6,000 combat-ready troops in a population of 44 million.

Now, after a massive recruitment drive and the re-introduction of military conscription, Ukraine claims to have 232,000 soldiers. But the draft is unpopular and the morale of soldiers is at rock bottom.

Faced with well-equipped, fired up pro-Russian separatist fighters in the key railway town of Debaltseve, Ukrainian soldiers ran away.

Ukraine did have compulsory conscription, but this was abolished in October 2013, when the government decided it wanted to focus its resources on creating a more professional fighting force.

Before it could do this, the country descended into war and the draft was reintroduced in May 2014.  Mr. Poroshenko said in January that the draft had so far called up 75,000 men, around 60 percent of whom will enter active service.

The Ukrainian defense ministry now claims to have 180,230 ground forces, 36,300 in the airforce and 15,000 in the Navy.

The sight of muddied, exhausted, demoralized Ukrainian soldiers trudging westwards after losing Debaltseve to pro-Russian rebel fighters was not a great moment for Ukraine’s beleaguered government.

It highlighted, only too brutally, just how Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has lost control of his own troops.

It looks like the troops decided to withdraw on their own accord. It is a signal that Kiev and Poroshenko cannot control what parts of the army do. Gwendolyn Sasse, professor in comparative politics, University of Oxford

The pro-Russian rebels claimed that the ceasefire that came into effect on February 15 did not apply to the key railway hub of Debaltseve, which had been the scene of fierce fighting in recent weeks.

The town was almost theirs and they would continue to fight till they had claimed it. On Wednesday, they did. The Russian broadcaster RT described the Ukraine army’s retreat from the town as a “surrender,” and the rebels raised the flag of New Russia, or NovoRossiya over the town. Mr. Poroshenko announced that the Ukrainian army would withdraw. It was not an order.

“It looks like the troops decided to withdraw on their own accord,” said Gwendolyn Sasse, professor in comparative politics at the University of Oxford told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “It is a signal that Kiev and Poroshenko cannot control what parts of the army do. It’s a pretty strong sign that decisions are now being taken on the ground by individual battalions, and a sign that morale is low.”

The retreat from Debaltseve was a mess: demoralizing, confused and undignified. Officially 13 Ukrainian solders died in the battle for the town, but soldiers on the ground say there were likely to have been more casualties.

One Ukrainian soldier told AP how the troops came under heavy fire even as they withdrew. "As we were leaving, we were attacked by artillery and grenade launchers. We came under repeated attack by tanks and assault groups.”

The incident has left the reputation of the Ukrainian army in tatters.

Many of these troops are untrained, badly organized and demoralized. The authority of the generals is also undermined by another group of private armies, made up of would be fighters formed their own battalions, funded and controlled by the country’s oligarchs.

The military was unable to control these unofficial troops and across Ukraine, there have been complaints that these fighters have been stealing, attacking citizens and acting outside the law.

Although there is little official data on these private armies, there is some evidence they are still active. The defense ministry was forced on Thursday to issue a statement denying that the Ukrainian army had authorized the creation of volunteer battalions in eastern Ukraine which had been given permission to act independently.


Ukrainian soldiers line up.


The government is also struggling with conscription.  The move is hugely unpopular, and human rights groups warn that the government is undermining human rights in its drive to recruit more soldiers. Men who dodge the draft can be imprisoned for up to five years.

There are already signs that dissent is being suppressed.  A high profile journalist Ruslan Kotsaba was charged with treason and espionage after he spoke out against conscription last month, dismaying activists who had hoped Mr. Poroshenko’s government would be less authoritarian than its predecessor.

The government is talking about introducing martial law, which would allow it to seize property for military purposes, and recruit soldiers more forcibly. In a country that was, even before the war in eastern Ukraine, beset by cronyism and corruption, this would be a massive step backwards.

Video: Ukrainian Flag on ground by Debaltseve.

Meera Selva has covered international affairs from Africa and Europe for 15 years. To contact the author: [email protected]