Winning the War in Ukraine, Part #5
One of the principal questions facing all Western countries supporting Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion of her territory is whether to provide military support and if so then in what quantities, in what kinds, and with what duration of commitment. So far Western policy in this regard as appeared ad hoc, with each country adopting a different approach and decisions being made to commit this number of pieces of armour or that amount of money being made in a sporadic way that renders proper planning and the effective development of military strategy. This kind of approach risks falling foul of what in the British Army is known as the “six P’s”: proper planning prevents piss poor performance. If the West does not have a more coherent strategy for providing military assistance to Ukraine over a comprehensive period of time with specific military objectives in mind, then we are unlikely to make a material difference to the outcome of the war in Ukraine and we may be left with a sense that our money and other contributions have been wasted.
So far the types of support Ukraine has received in pursuit of her military objectives has been very mixed. Some countries have been providing armour, weapons, ammunition, training and support in an official capacity. Some of the training and support has been undertaken in theatre; some without. The United States and the United Kingdom, two of Ukraine’s most vocal and indeed generous supporters in this war, have nonetheless been reluctant overtly to place soldiers officially on the government payroll into Ukrainian theatre. That is because this might be construed by the Russian political establishment as a declaration of war on the part of nuclear powers which might conceivably prompt a nuclear escalation. While this is unlikely there is a sense that the Russian political leadership is sufficiently unstable that this possibility cannot be excluded entirely, particularly given the nuclear warfare rhetoric that periodically emanates from Moscow. However we should be cautious about this rhetoric; our own view is that it is entirely hollow, designed solely to create the deterrent effect discussed and without any realistic prospect of being actioned because that would entail Russia’s total destruction by Western powers and in any event Russia’s nuclear arsenal is of questionable usability, not having been tested for some decades.
Nevertheless some official military support in the form of training, in particular for the use of western manufactured weapons, aeroplanes and special forces training, has taken place. It is not clear just how much coordination there has been of these various efforts nor with what military goals in mind this sort of training has been provided. Coordination so monumental an international effort in training and indeed supplying the Ukrainian Armed Forces with the weapons and armour that they are being trained to use is properly the province of NATO and it is not obvious that NATO has been coordinating these efforts as rigorously as it might do. In large part that may stem from the fact that NATO has not declared that this is an episode in which its common defence priorities are triggered and hence NATO has no formal command responsibility in respect of operations in Ukraine; such official military assistance as is being provided is not an official NATO operation and hence each country is deciding for itself what bilateral official military support it should provide. Following an election, Slovakia has in recent days declared that it will bring official military support to Ukraine to an end while maintaining humanitarian and civilian assistance to Ukraine. Despite the grandstanding headlines, this is not likely to make any significant difference to Ukraine as Slovakia’s official military contribution is quite minute as befits a very small country. No fuss should be made in this connection; the rhetoric associating Slovakia’s new government-in-formation with support for Moscow should be played down; Slovakia has already reiterated her commitment to civilian support for Ukraine but in the face of domestic opposition to providing active military support she is rescinding her extremely modest current contributions and let it be.
The provision of specific military equipment to Ukraine on a bilateral basis, which is what is taking place at the moment, is haphazard because each foreign ministry of defence is providing different equipment that is in surplus or otherwise available to them and hence the Ukrainian Armed Forces are ending up with a hodgepodge of different pieces of equipment each of which requires slightly different training that may or may not be available inside or outside theatre by more or less experienced training personnel, depending upon the training policies and availability of training staff from the country exporting the equipment in question. As equipment becomes larger and more complicated, these problems are exacerbated. One handgun is pretty much (but not exactly) the same as another. Assault rifles may be very different in terms of the training needed to fire them accurately; their reliability; and the skills and techniques required to clean them, strip them and maintain them. Armoured personnel carriers are more varied and complicated still; tanks are even more so. Specific fighter aircraft may take six months of training out of military theatre for each individual pilot. The danger with providing the Ukrainian Armed Forces with so many different types of equipment from a variety of bilateral sources is that it grossly undermines the principle that troops should be given common training, both to streamline the training process and to provide flexibility in deployment. If one unit is using this sort of assault rifle and another unit elsewhere on the front is using another sort of assault rifle, then it may be difficult to rotate troops between units because they will not have the requisite training for the equipment in the unit into which they are to rotate.
Nevertheless the presumed reason that the Western allies are each providing bilateral military supplies and training to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, rather than simply providing money and allowing the Ukrainian Armed Forces to purchase such weapons and training as they consider appropriate on the international military market, is because the West lacks confidence in the procurement, purchasing and accounting capacities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces senior management and indeed in the quality of the Ukrainian government’s public procurement institutions more generally. To put things more directly, there is a fear in the West, and a common acknowledgement amongst Ukrainians (I have not met anyone who denies it), that tremendous corruption exists in the senior ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and that substantial parts of the Ukrainian military’s procurement budgets are being “misprocured”, a colloquial term that means intentionally misspent on things they are not supposed to be spent on such as corrupt payments, kickbacks or other types of improper facilitation payment. Quite what proportion of the Ukrainian military budget is “misprocured”, nobody seems to know; but there is a consensus that it is significant.
Hence the West is reluctant to make direct financial payments into the military budget, because they fear that their own money may be misprocured within the corrupt Ukrainian political system. Accordingly they try to keep their own controls upon expenditure, and that is why they are providing equipment and training, as non-monetary contributions towards the Ukrainian Armed Forces, rather than direct financing.
However an army cannot survive without finances - and finances that are properly run. Rather than try to evade the corruption that infects the Ukrainian Armed Forces procurement procedures, in which informal cuts are taken at every level on every purchase through a series of intermediary contractors, whether it be of ammunition, equipment for soldiers, meals or weapons and armour (and in this respect Ukrainian corruption is structured in virtually identical terms to the equivalent Russian corruption), western donors seeking to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces ought to tackle these problems head-on, by conditioning their support upon real reforms overseen by international oversight bodies or individuals planted in the relevant Ukrainian government ministries with the requisite forensic accounting skills to filter out skims, frauds and illicit payment mechanisms. There are plenty of people with the appropriate skills; they are the financial service providers that formerly serviced the Russian markets until those markets became increasingly closed to them from 2014 onwards with the imposition of sanctions that profoundly affected the possibility of doing business with Russia.
There are teams of lawyers, accountants, investment analysts and others who are thoroughly familiar with Russian and Ukrainian corporate structures typically used to filter money from government budgets. Those issues must be faced if corruption in Ukraine is going to be reduced. This goal is essential not only to render the expenditure of Ukrainian funds on the military more efficient and effective, but also to advance Ukraine’s stated goal of EU membership. While procurement and expenditure procedures within government remain opaque, murky and infested with corruption, Ukraine stands no prospect of meeting the EU’s accession criteria relating to rule of law and the effectiveness of public administration.
Ukraine is currently running a war economy and war economies are in their very nature command economies, in which the government is making the principal economic decisions rather than individuals and businesses. Businesses, to the extent that they still exist in significant size, have been co-opted to assist in the war effort and in some way shape or form their principal customers have become agencies of the government. Individual consumers cease to be a powerful economic force in wartime conditions because their incomes drop and they move from luxury or comfort spending to subsistence spending which tends to involve an absence of choice, simply buying the cheapest or most reliable thing on a regular basis to get through the war and to preserve the limited income or assets that one may still possess. To preserve the integrity of Ukraine’s economy therefore requires integrity in the system of public finances, meaning that procurement and purchasing decisions should be made by the government impartially, transparently, without the use of multiple intermediary entities designed to sluice government budgets off into the pockets of specific individuals or their families, and therefore using money efficiently without substantial proportions of those funds disappearing. Given that a substantial proportion of Ukraine’s economy is currently financed by her Western allies in some form or other, the West must insist upon these higher standards being met. In fact this is an essential precondition of wartime victory: stamping out waste and corruption in the way the Ukrainian Armed Forces and associated government agencies spend their budgets.
Because western donors cannot rely upon Ukrainian government institutions to spend money donated to them properly, other methods of transmitting funds or assistance into Ukraine, that avoids the government agencies (correctly) imagined as very corrupt, have been developed. All of these mechanisms are less efficient than government working properly, but we should mention them briefly. One method used is that foreign soldiers or other people with relevant military experience are permitted or encouraged (or at least no objection is taken) to join the Ukrainian Armed Forces as volunteers in the so-called International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine. Notoriously, this has attracted some soldiers currently serving in foreign armies and at the time of writing one British soldier is currently serving a prison sentence imposed by a Court-Martial for going absent without leave from the British Army and joining Ukraine’s International Legion. A former British Prime Minister is seeking to obtain has pardon but so far apparently without success.
In other cases the volunteers are indeed just that: enthusiastic volunteers who may or may not have relevant military experience. (The International Legion has withdrawn its prior requirement that any member must have prior military experience.) People who join the International Legion without proper training or experience may place themselves at greater risk; if they are injured, that costs the Ukrainian state budget money to ensure their welfare. It is not at all clear, certain special forces and the specialist training they may provide aside, that volunteers in the International Legion, who may not speak a relevant language of Ukraine and may not know much of the terrain, geography or military culture, make a determinative difference but the existence of the legion undoubtedly causes anguish and concern for the families of the foreign fighters engaged on the front line in a large European country that borders Russia. It is not really clear how many fighters are in the International Legion at any one time but it appears that there are far fewer than there once was; it may be that there are between just 1,000 and 2,000 at the time of writing. In any event it would obviously be preferable if, rather than foreign soldiers joining the International Legion as volunteers, western states would formally second troops to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in a structured way. This might, apart from anything else, assist in disciplining the procurement and expenditure operations in the Ukrainian military because relevant foreign defence officials would be in the same offices as Ukrainian military officials doing the accounting and could oversee that foreign donor funds are being spent in an appropriate way.
If foreign soldiers or defence officials are to be sent to Ukraine in any capacity, then it may be more appropriate that they occupy so-called “back office” jobs where the real expertise is required rather than front line roles in which their skills may be comparatively inferior to Ukrainian nationals who are far more familiar with the geographical and cultural contours of the war they are fighting and who know the psychology of their enemy far better. Therein lies one weakness in the idea of the International Legion of volunteers.
There is also a range of entirely private volunteers present in Ukraine, who have come to theatre to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces on their own initiative and often using their own private funds or other funds privately obtained, without formally joining the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This range of private individuals - they are not mercenaries because they are not actually doing any fighting and to the best of our knowledge they are not being paid by anyone in Ukraine to do what they are doing - seem to provide a lot of useful assistance. They may help with logistics, vehicles, supply lines, training, repairs, and a variety of other essential military support roles. In many cases they bring much needed expertise and such people tend to know their own limitations. These people, often career professionals from the military or who have worked extensively in war zones, are well aware that they cannot do any fighting on the front line as effectively as Ukrainian soldiers. Overwhelmingly, in our experience, such people have good will and fine intentions. Nevertheless these roles would more properly be filled by foreign governments sending their own people to provide this sort of military support, with all the back-up and financing that would render them more effective than what is essentially a collection of private volunteers using their own vehicles and establishing informal ad hoc relationships with individual Ukrainian army officers. Were Western governments to send such people there would be a substantially enhanced capacity to monitor the expenditure of foreign government donations and to ensure that the money the West is spending to finance this conflict is being spent effectively with a view to winning it.
The tentative conclusion of this essay is that it is imperative if the West is serious about winning the war in Ukraine not just to send money, armaments, moral support and promises of more, but actually to send people, engaged in a more or less official capacity, to ensure that funds and armaments are properly spent and used and that Ukrainian soldiers are properly trained; and also to ensure that Ukrainian government procedures relating to the expenditure of money inch towards European standards. This requires something of an intellectual or policy leap from the position we are in at the moment, in which the West wants to support Ukraine but without sending people in an official capacity when institution-building and public administration reform, particularly within the Ukrainian government ministries handling war spending but not exclusively there, are so essential. What Ukraine needs if the West is to help her win this war is not just more money and more weapons and ammunition, but more people, deployed in an official capacity, to help her spend those funds and use those weapons more effectively. This is also an essential step in the EU accession process and it should surely begin straight away. Becoming an EU member state does entail the loss of some sovereignty to international institutions while the accession state develops institutional capacity. Ukrainian officials surely understand that and, even (or particularly) while the war is underway, this process is more essential than ever.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.