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Posted on Dec 11, 2007 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Caught Between Two Worlds – Ukraine’s Defense Industry

By Jerry D. Morelock

Political Reform

Ultimately, defense establishment reform is impossible without overall political reform, a desirable but elusive goal complicated by strongly-held regional political differences by the population residing in Ukraine’s four major regions – west; central; east; and south. The predominantly ethnic Russian population living in eastern and southern Ukraine prefers a Moscow-oriented government as a hedge against what many of them fear is a disturbing rise in ethnic Ukrainian nationalism (which fueled persecution of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians during the Russian Civil War, the Russo-Polish War and World War II), and they persist in holding a nearly paranoid distrust of the European Union (EU) and, in particular, NATO. Conversely, the majority of the predominately ethnic Ukrainians living in western and central Ukraine support a foreign policy oriented toward the EU and western Europe (and away from Moscow) – a view that is nearly the mirror opposite of that held by the eastern and southern populations.


As a whole, only 30-percent of Ukraine’s population favors NATO membership, a situation reflected when a proposal to allow western military forces to train in Ukraine was narrowly defeated in the Rada. In 2005, a survey of what direction Ukraine’s foreign policy should be oriented toward showed the following results: EU=35-percent; Russia=37-percent; Other CIS countries=12-percent; and U.S.=2.5-percent. This greatly varied regionally, with the most Russian-oriented being in the east (57-percent pro Russia) and south (49-percent pro Russia) and the most EU-oriented being in the west (60-percent pro EU) and central (44-percent pro EU).

Culture War: Ukraine’s East/South vs. West/Central Split

The east/south vs. west/central split goes beyond differences in foreign policy orientation and is manifested in conflicts as fundamentally based as language. The Ukrainian language remains a bone of contention between the regions, regardless of its status as the official national language since independence. Its instruction in schools is mandatory and all official documents (including voting ballots) are printed only in Ukrainian. Yet, to take only one example, nobody in Kharkov (Ukraine’s second largest city and the country’s largest industrial center) speaks Ukrainian. Teachers there are totally unqualified to teach Ukrainian, so they simply ignore the mandate. Official documents might be written in Ukrainian, but any replies from the Russian language-dominated regions come back to Kiev in Russian. Politicians courting votes in the East and South long have promised to establish Russian as Ukraine’s “official second language,” but have never followed through (Ukrainian nationalists in the Rada typically block their efforts).

Cyclone and Zenith rockets assembled in the Ugemach factory in the Ukraine.

Other recent actions that outraged Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population include president Yushchenko’s proposal earlier this year to recognize the WWII service of the Ukrainian National Army veterans (anti-Stalinist, pro-Nazis who helped German death squads kill ethnic Russians and Jews during the war). Yushchenko promised pensions to UNA veterans and made one of them a “Hero of Ukraine” (the same level as Hero of the Soviet Union), fueling fears among ethnic Russians of resurgent Ukrainian nationalism that many suffered under during the war.

Given the outcome of the September 30, 2007 national elections, which resulted in Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party being forced into a coalition partnership with the party of ultra-nationalist, Yulia Timoshenko (political predator and former ultra-communist), it seems unlikely that Ukraine’s east/south, west/central differences can be easily resolved. Yet, without achieving useful political reform, real defense reform will be difficult.

Future of Ukraine’s Defense Establishment and Industry – Money and Popular Support

The challenge that confronts Ukraine’s political leadership – if it wants to finally escape the country’s suffocating, Soviet-era legacy and achieve real government and defense establishment reform — is to build a nation-wide political consensus recognizing that the country’s future progress (overall economic as well as Ukraine’s defense industry) is much more likely with a western, rather than eastern orientation. This will remain problematic until Ukrainian leadership can find a way to convince the country’s population (regardless of region) that such a course is in their best interests.

The indicators, including the September 30 election results, show that Ukraine will likely remain suspended between a “new” (western) orientation and its “old” Moscow orientation for the foreseeable future. In defense, this is manifested by the competition between adopting a “NATO model” military or remaining locked into the “Soviet model” military. The Cold War and subsequent USSR collapse exposed the weaknesses of the Soviet model and emphasized the strengths of the NATO model in developing a military force and defense structure that realistically meets the actual challenges of today’s world. Ukraine’s creation of a Joint Rapid Reaction Force, a small but highly-trained, professionalized unit, manned by contract soldiers (volunteers rather than conscripts) and demonstrating excellent NATO interoperability, is a step in the right direction. Yet, the question remains: Can Ukraine’s political leadership succeed in matching a realistic assessment of its security challenges to the economic and political reality it faces? Key indicators to look for will be:

Follow the Money: Will Ukraine devote the economic resources necessary to implement real defense reforms?

Escape the “Bad Old Days”: Will Ukraine’s population finally emerge from its confrontational, Cold War mentality and see the West as its ally/partner rather than as a suspicious rival?

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