Accessibility links

Breaking News

Explainer: Will The Ukrainian Army Get Involved In The Country's Crisis?

An Orthodox priest blesses young recruits to Ukraine's armed forces in 2013, which was the final year in which conscripts were called up to the army.
An Orthodox priest blesses young recruits to Ukraine's armed forces in 2013, which was the final year in which conscripts were called up to the army.
The Ukrainian army is coming under mounting pressure from the government to intervene in the country's political crisis. Here are five things to know about where the military stands.

What has been the military's position so far?

Up to this point, the Ukrainian armed forces have stayed out of the fray and, until this week, that was in line with the government's own declared policy.

As recently as January 26, Defense Minister Pavel Lebedev repeated that the army was a neutral force and would not intervene in political matters.

But now, with the announcement of a new "antiterrorist" operation on February 19, the government is openly speaking about involving the army.

The Defense Ministry announced on February 19 that the armed forces could participate in the new nationwide "antiterrorist" operation, which is to be led by Ukraine's Special Security Agency (SBU). However, there is no indication yet that the army will indeed take part in the SBU's plans, whose details remain unclear.

Is the appointment of a new chief of the armed forces intended to ready the army for action?

President Viktor Yanukovych announced on February 19 that he had sacked the head of the Ukrainian armed forces, Volodymyr Zamana, and replaced him with Yuriy Ilyin, the naval chief.

No reason was given for the dismissal, but Zamana is known to have disagreed with Yanukovych when he first considered imposing a state of emergency.

Can the army be counted upon to obey a direct order to intervene?

Observers who know the army well say the soldiers reflect the same range of opinion over the crisis in Kyiv as can be found in the rest of Ukrainian society.

"We have the same 'problem' we see today in the [Interior Ministry] forces, the police," said Colonel-General Anatoliy Lopata, a former chief of staff of the armed forces, in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on February 20. "I don't doubt that in the armed forces there could be disobedience if it comes to performing criminal orders or orders that soldiers beat their own people, mothers, sisters, and parents."

One reason the army closely reflects the divisions among ordinary Ukrainians is that it is still largely a conscript force -- about 60 percent according to official figures. The last call-up of conscripts before the army turns into a wholly volunteer military took place in October last year.

Is there a danger that the army could break up along regional lines over an order to intervene?

The danger is there, because Ukrainian soldiers today tend to serve near their home areas.

"In past years, [military authorities] very much tried to insure that conscripts served well away from their home areas," says Moscow-based security analyst and New York University professor Mark Galeotti. "They were less bothered about doing that [in recent years] because they are beginning to scale down the whole machinery of conscription. So, you actually have got people who are more likely to be serving close to where they actually came from."

But, he says, countering the regional pull is a strong esprit de corps in the military based upon its identity as a national institution.

Galeotti says to maintain this balance of identities, the army has developed a "quite a strong culture of service to the state rather than to any one government." That has successfully kept the military out of decades of political squabbles that have plagued Ukraine ever since its independence in 1991.

Thus, the question may not be whether the army could break up over sympathies for one side or another in the current crisis so much as how great, or little, a part of the military would obey government orders that run against its own institutional culture.

Galeotti says that the decision would come down to "the views and complexions of local commanders and command staffs." That makes it still harder to predict along what lines the army might or might not fragment and how it might act if it did.

Could the involvement of the army spark a civil war?

This is the toughest question of all. But the possibility arises because the increasing levels of violence in clashes between protestors and police are already causing some civilians to arm themselves.

The most dramatic example so far was a raid by protestors on military buildings, including an arms depot, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv overnight February 18-19.

The fact that the protestors seized arms in Lviv underscores one of the principle fault lines in the crisis.

Lviv is a stronghold of western Ukrainians, who tend to favor stronger economic and political ties with the European Union.

By contrast, Yanukovych's strongest support base is in Eastern Ukraine, which is Russian-speaking and sees the country as closely tied to Russia.

Any further escalation of violence -- including the introduction of military forces -- could only deepen the enmities of those who see the current crisis in Kyiv as a showdown over the country's future.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.