One of the intellectual challenges increasingly facing me in my work as a member of the International volunteer community in Ukraine is whether the international community has any proper role in providing the Ukrainian Armed Forces with assistance, whether lethal, nonlethal or otherwise. At the current time I am aware of an army of volunteers in different roles across the countries undertaking activities to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This involves the preparation of food; the supply of medical kits and first aid equipment; the provision of vehicles; provision of clothes to keep soldiers warm; and so on and so forth. However the problem with providing assistance of this kind, as several more astute members of the international community have pointed out to me, is that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have access to all of these things anyway - if only they want to purchase them. The problem is that they do not.
The very high salaries (by Ukrainian standards) paid to Ukrainian soldiers undertaking so-called combat deployment - that is to say, deployment to the front line (typically in trench warfare positions) - is precisely to compensate them for the fact that they are expected to purchase their own food, medical equipment and necessary provisions to sustain themselves and keep themselves alive. Should they not choose to use these augmented salaries for those purposes, that is their own affair but the fact remains that these sums of money are available for the purposes of sustenance of the Ukrainian Armed Forces should they wish to use this money to preserve their own lives in this fashion. It is therefore false to say that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are short of food or warm clothes, other than to the extent that they are individually architects of their own misfortune in declining to spend the funds allotted to them for these purposes and instead to save those funds for a later day or to donate them to family or simply to waste those funds on other objects. It is not as though food, warm clothes, camouflage netting, medical equipment or trench candles are unavailable on the front line or elsewhere in Ukraine. The same is true with vehicles (of a quasi-civilian type). Quite the opposite: these commodities are available everywhere in Ukraine, and a cottage industry in supplying such things has sprung up throughout the country, wherever there are locals, precisely because the individually paid soldiers all have so much money.
Why then do they need to be reliant upon charity? The short answer is that they don’t and they do not even want to be; they may resent it. As a friend of mine pointed out yesterday, when he tried to give money to some Ukrainian soldiers as a show of support they scowled at him, refusing it, saying “we have money now; we don’t need your help”. This is revelatory. It suggests that charitable support for military operations might be misdirected, because we as the international community are providing assistance that soldiers do not want and the reason we know they do not want it is because they have the funds and the capacity to purchase such things themselves and they are not doing so. Just giving them more of something they already have the capacity to buy and are not buying might seem short-sighted.
Now the truth turns out to be rather more complicated: the members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces will it appears accept gifts of clothing, body armour, medical supplies, vehicles and other things that they could in fact simply buy with their own money, because perversely they would rather grossly enhance their risk of death or serious injury while hoarding money for their families or wasting it on fripperies such as the endemic prostitution we see up and down the front line. Therefore in Rousseau’s words we are “forcing them to be free” in providing gratis to Ukrainian soldiers things that they are perfectly able to buy anyway but choose not to, and therefore we are encouraging them to be a better army than they otherwise would be. Hence there is value notwithstanding in the support volunteers are providing to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and I do not want to undermine that.
Nevertheless the fact remains that it is not through want of resources that Ukrainian soldiers on the front lie are suffering due to absence of basic facilities such as warm clothes, food and medical supplies. It is due to their own free choices in not spending the moneys made available to them to buy them. The reasons why Ukrainian soldiers are acting in this way are complex and manifold. They relate to a psychology of the scarcity economy, a legacy of the Soviet era in which any asset should be accumulated and preserved, or spent immediately, because you never know when it might be taken back from you by the government or through niggardly misfortune. It also relates to a wanton and irrational disregard of the value of their own lives, which is both personally damaging and poor logic for an army because it increases the incidences of death and permanent demobilisation of experienced personnel. Finally it is indicative of a sort of personal financial irresponsibility, in which individuals - in particular men - are considered insufficiently capable within Ukrainian society of making financial decisions for themselves.
For all these reasons, the current model - of circumventing endemic corruption in Ukrainian government public procurement procedures by paying funds directly to serving soldiers by way of enhanced salaries so that they may purchase their own equipment - is not working. It might seem a good idea as a matter of purist economic principle, to evade government inefficiencies by enhancing personal responsibility. But in the context of the Ukrainian national personality and Ukraine’s distinctive Soviet-era history, it doesn’t work. Rather this system is perpetuating potentially even greater inefficiencies, as it is now costing more to maintain this enormous land army than were the process of providing essential individual kit to soldiers managed by an efficacious public sector bureaucracy.
All this points to public administration reform, particularly in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, which is long overdue. Because right now US financial military assistance to Ukraine - the source of these elevated salaries for front line soldiers - is basically lining the pockets of private bank accounts of soldiers and their families or of soldiers’ girlfriends being bought fur coats in Kramatorsk. And that is an area in which the European Union, having just passed its own EUR50 billion civilian assistance package for Ukraine, ought now to intervene with the utmost gravity.