A day after his election as Ukrainian president on May 25, Petro Poroshenko vowed to finally provide the country's woefully neglected military with some much-needed care, declaring, "Ukrainian soldiers will no longer be naked, barefoot, and hungry!"
But between tensions in the east, a looming refugee crisis, restless oligarchs, and radical government reform, Poroshenko has made a lot of promises that may be difficult to deliver on. As Kyiv continues to conduct what it calls antiterrorist operations against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the country's soldiers are increasingly looking to charities and local volunteers
to donate essentials like food, binoculars, and body armor.
At the start of Ukraine's counteroffensive in April, only one in 100 soldiers was equipped with a bulletproof vest. Kevlar helmets and thermal-vision sniper scopes were also in short supply. In Warsaw on June 4, Poroshenko received a pledge from U.S. President Barack Obama to provide $5 million worth of body armor, night-vision goggles, and communication equipment. For now, however, many soldiers remain woefully undersupplied.
The shortage is the legacy of a period of prolonged neglect. The Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Research, a Kyiv-based think tank, says Ukraine would need to spend $20 billion a year to maintain a 200,000-strong, combat-ready military. In reality, spending in the past two decades never exceeded $1.3 billion a year.
The belt-tightening was at its worst under ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych, who kept the army on a subsistence budget and in 2013 announced a decision to transition Ukraine from a conscription to a professional army. Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov issued a decree reinstating the draft only last month, adding to the improvisational atmosphere still evident in many army units.
Valentin Badrak, the head of the Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Center, says Ukraine's transitional government has also failed to provide moral support and financial incentives for its young recruits and seasoned stalwarts. "Perhaps the biggest and most unforgivable mistake of the power transition is that no mechanisms have been introduced to encourage these soldiers and officers who took up arms to defend Ukraine," he wrote on June 8 on the Ukrainian information site ZN.ua
Such incentives, he said, should include medals and awards, insurance and other benefits, and compensation for family members in case of death in service. "The first wave of patriotism is on the decline," Badrak added. "Today you hear more and more about draftees getting medical certificates to say they are unfit for service."
Ukrainian officials said on June 11 that 257 people had died in the country's Donetsk and Luhansk regions since the start of the antiseparatist offensive two months ago. They did not specify how many were Ukrainian soldiers, separatist militants, or civilians.
The toll came as Russia and Ukraine called on each other to cease hostilities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. counterpart John Kerry in a telephone call that Ukraine must stop its military operations and strike a cease-fire agreement with separatists.
Poroshenko was quoted by his press office as saying that he is prepared to hold talks with opponents in the east once separatists agree to lay down their weapons.