Analysis |

Amid Crisis, Ukrainian Military's Neutrality Hangs in the Balance

NATO has courted the Ukrainian generals for years but their ties to the Red Army are historically and culturally entrenched.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Last weekend, according to a rumor circulating around Kiev, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin, the navy commander who was suddenly promoted as chief of the General Staff for Ukraine's armed forces had promised (by now former) President Viktor Yanukovych he would deal with the demonstrators in Independence Maidan "like in Israel."

While their image in the West may be slightly different, in Ukraine they believe that Israeli security forces are capable of suppressing violent riots with a minimum of casualties. After the police had lost control of the capital's streets in live-fire exchanges with gun-toting protestors and dozens of them had been taken hostage, Yanukovych was looking for a bit more professionalism. Admiral Ilyin got the job after his predecessor, Colonel General Volodymyr Zamana, refused Yanukovych's demand to use soldiers in putting down the protests. The rumor may be baseless, but whatever was said, despite Ilyin's willingness, the army did not grapple with the demonstrators.

A few convoys of paratroopers left their barracks in buses and trains but were stopped on the way by protesters' roadblocks and some of the soldiers and officers refused to carry out their orders. Instead they were deployed around the military bases and weapons stashes to prevent either side taking control of them. The result was a disappointment for Yanukovych who expected much more from his armed forces, but the paratroopers succeeded in keeping the military from intervening in the internal conflict that is tearing Ukraine apart. Now they hold the keys to the nation's future.

Two days after being deposed as chief of staff, General Zamana is now the interim defense minister in the temporary government. The military hasn't been tainted by politics but it remains at the center of the national dilemma – will Ukraine turn east, back to Mother Russia or westward to the European Union and United States?

Last week, as the commanders of NATO and even U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tried in vain to reach their Ukrainian counterparts on the phone and warn them against escalating the situation to a civil war, they feared the intentional snub was due to Russia. On Sunday when the Ukrainian military issued an official statement it would not intervene in the country's political crisis, the relief from NATO headquarters was audible. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put out a welcoming press release in which he said "Ukraine is a close partner to NATO." But he knows full well the connection to the Russian military is still like an umbilical cord. The generals and admirals in both armies trained and served together in the Red Army.

NATO has invested major resources in the last two decades trying to pull the Ukrainian military into its orbit - if not as a full member, then at least as a candidate for membership. Joint exercises were held and hundreds of Ukrainian officers were invited to study at American military colleges. The Ukrainians also wanted to get closer to the West and learn more but they had their Red Army heritage, still operating on Soviet doctrines, most of their equipment is of joint Russian-Ukrainian manufacture; they share with their Russian comrades a language and in some cases, especially in the Black Sea ports, they use the same bases.

Despite the recurring tensions between the two nations, their militaries have remained close - comrades in arms, developing weapons systems together and reminiscing on the days when their grandfathers fought the German invaders together. If the day comes, when Russian troops enters the Crimean peninsula, invited perhaps by the local parliament with its ethnic-Russian majority, it is far from certain that the Ukrainian officers, with a large number of ethnic-Russians within their own ranks, will be able to stand in their way.

General view of Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's recent unrest, Ukraine, on a mourning day Sunday, February 23, 2014.Credit: AP

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