News | Dec. 30, 2014

Book Review: Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine

By Michael Kofman Joint Force Quarterly 76

Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine

Brothers Armed is an edited anthology comprising several essays detailing the history of Crimea, the post-Soviet history of the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces, and a detailed account of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. This volume is timely, especially given the dearth of existing scholarly sources on some of the subjects covered. It provides great insights into the annexation, comprehensively analyzes the historical context as well as the existing military balance, and delivers a full accounting in an objective and dispassionate manner.

The first chapter by Vasiliy Kashin briefly covers the history of Crimea until its controversial transfer from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev. A change of borders intended mostly for pragmatic reasons, the transfer proved unpopular with Russians and became a lasting problem between the two successor countries when Boris Yeltsin pushed for a hasty dissolution of the Soviet Union. Kashin explains that “the Crimean issue was never completely forgotten, but it was seen as relatively unimportant” as long as Moscow sought to achieve other goals in Ukraine, sacrificing Crimea in an effort to “draw the whole of Ukraine into its orbit.” An added insight is that Russia made little official effort to retain its influence in Crimea during the 1990s, or stir up trouble there, but a personal crusade by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov deserves most of the credit for preserving Russian influence on the peninsula.

Sergey Denisentsev next describes the Ukraine’s military inheritance from the Soviet Union. Ukraine received “the second most powerful armed forces in Europe after Russia, and the fourth most powerful in the world.” He describes the degradation of a formidable force, left without a budget, purpose, or political support as “completely unprecedented in terms of its speed and scale.” The chapter assesses some roughly $89 billion of inherited military assets ($150 billion adjusted for inflation), detailing some of the Soviet Union’s best technical assets.

Anton Lavrov and Aleksey Nikolsky then discuss why Ukraine largely neglected its armed forces, letting them deteriorate. Ukraine drastically cut manpower but maintained the Soviet mobilization- centric configuration and large stockpiles of equipment that were costly to maintain but provided little capability. Interestingly, the forces were all stationed on the western front because of existing Soviet infrastructure, and no funding was ever allocated to rebase units in the eastern half of the country. The reforms that did occur were pushed through by a pro-Western government in Kiev, starting in 2005, because of its desire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ukraine’s parliament, however, consistently underfunded the defense budget, undermining any attempts at reform, training, or modernization.

Russia’s war with Georgia had an unexpected suppressive effect, suspending Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO and thus nullifying any impetus for further military reforms. A disastrous scheme by the government in 2009 to fund a large percentage of the defense budget by selling surplus equipment fell through, leaving the armed forces bankrupt and without food or electricity. As a cumulative consequence, by 2012 “some 92% of Ukraine’s hardware was at least 20 years old, and 52% was older than 25 years.” Lavrov and Nikolsky paint a clear picture of how and why Ukraine ended up having barely 5,000 combat-ready troops in 2014, as well as few flying aircraft and hardly any functioning ships.

Mikhail Barabanov follows up with two excellent chapters on Russia’s own efforts at military reform. First came a series of fruitless attempts by defense ministers prior to 2008, when Russia fought two wars in Chechnya by creating ad hoc task forces and seeking to create a small combat force within a large mass mobilization army composed of skeleton units. The country was unable to “support or execute either.” Russia’s units sent untrained soldiers into Chechnya, sapping overall strength to field individual units, which combined into ineffective task forces.

This pattern changed when Vladimir Putin appointed Anatoliy Serdyukov as minister of defense to execute a radical transformation. The goal was to abandon mass mobilization in favor of an army that was consolidated, fully manned, employed a brigade structure, and intended for conflicts on Russia’s periphery instead of a major war with NATO. The process described is fitful, consolidating and transforming the military but throwing it into turmoil. Some of the essential reforms were ultimately discarded or partially rescinded by Sergei Shoigu, the current minister of defense. By 2014, Russia had a radically more capable and combat-ready force to deal with Ukraine than it did in the Russian-Georgian war, but many of its fundamental problems, such as undermanned formations and dependence on short-term conscription, remain unresolved.

Aleksey Nikolsky details the formation of Russia’s new special operations forces in 2011; these forces were designed for independent operations as Western analogues, leading to their eventual debut in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Dmitry Boltenikov navigates the military and political status of the Black Sea Fleet, both the force itself and its political relevance, from Ukraine’s independence to the present. This history segues into an intricate account of Russia’s operation to annex Crimea, where Moscow took advantage of several unique factors, including its naval base, local concern and trepidation at events in Kiev, political missteps by the interim national authority, and an early tactical advantage.

A disguised insertion of special operations forces, supported by local marines already garrisoned, rapidly isolated and nullified Ukraine’s forces throughout Crimea, which were numerically superior and retained much heavier firepower. Reinforcements via airlift and sealift established complete control, while proximity to mainland Russia allowed for heavier gear to arrive. With some exceptions, the affair was bloodless and surprisingly civil, concluding with the majority of Ukrainian troops joining Russia in the end. It is a remarkable account of tactical success, and a testament to select improvements within the Russian armed forces, but qualified by unique factors that make it almost impossible to repeat elsewhere.

The book concludes with Vyacheslav Tseluyko’s chapter on how to reform and modernize Ukraine’s force with an eye to further conventional conflict with Russia. He proposes a defense mindset, repairing existing systems and relying on standoff artillery, along with hopes for high-tech Western military assistance. It provides great background and ideas, though the scenarios discussed in Ukraine’s Donbass region are dated given current events on the ground.

As a whole, this volume is an excellent compendium for experts on Russia’s and Ukraine’s militaries, but is equally accessible to newcomers, offering background, context, and insights on the annexation of Crimea. JFQ