A year ago the Kyiv Post published an open letter from me to President Petro Poroshenko about defense reform. It created a stir simply because much of the contents had previously been kept from the public. Much has changed for the positive since then but also much has not changed, or in many cases things have got even worse.
The Soviet climate of fear within the military system is still as strong and destructive as ever and is killing morale. Whilst working with the Ukrainian Institute for the Future I have been able to gain more understanding of what is important for defense and security reform. I have visited the front line and the regions, talked to many presidential candidates and members of the Verkhovna Rada, mayors and political influencers. Most importantly I have greatly widened my contacts with civil society especially those wonderful volunteers and activists supporting the armed forces.
Much of what I now write comes directly from your own service people and volunteers, the men and women who fight daily in Donbas for your right to be president. I have put together their thoughts on defence and security because they cannot speak openly for fear of being punished. It also saves me saying the same thing over 40 times and tells the public what I am saying to each of you.
You will be the supreme commander of the armed forces. But you will take charge of an organization split into very distinct parts.
The first part on the front line is made up of some of the greatest people your country possesses. They are deeply loyal to Ukraine and risk their lives bravely for the country every day. Pray they do not stop. Many are remarkable by doing work far above their rank and experience and with very limited specific battle training. These people are mainly now led by those who have spent the last years fighting Russia supported by remarkable volunteers. But this is an army under deep and constant stress. Brigades suffer from senior officer hubris, inadequate decision making, 5thcolumnists deliberately destroying the system just as they did before 2014, incomprehensible inspections, stifling paper bureaucracy, a lack of proper equipment and a severe lack of tactical and operational preparation and training. All this is whilst many live month on month at the front line in complete squalor and shit. Maslow would weep. Fighting Russia proxy troops is easier because at least this opposition can be seen and measured. The internal attempts to destroy the army and the lack of care, just dismays the soldiers and viciously eats at their morale.
The second part is the army of parades, glory, public relations, gender equality, fine dining rooms and good food, international support, competitions, meetings and conferences. As the building programme has shown graphically, it is an army often more for show than performance. The soldiers call it “образцово-показательный”. In English we would say “sugar coated bullshit.”
This is the army the public and international community mainly sees. Like the front line army there are many great people here and many good parts and heroes. There is also much great training by NATO countries and valuable exercises like Combat Resolve, Sea Breeze and Rapid Trident. The forces need these badly. But despite this these two worlds appear far apart and really meet only when brigades change over. It is often very hard to see how this army of the rear relates meaningfully to the front line.
Another level of complexity in the security system is created by the other organisations under your future leadership. The National Guard is totally unclear about its role and tasks. They are “army” in terms of equipment and people, but have no clarity about an honest purpose except apparently defence of the political system. If they are to be army then they should go to army not be held separately. This split totally confuses the wider defense system and wastes precious people and defence money. You also have Special Forces, Navy and Air Forces but they are still not fully utilised for their abilities and suffer from the same bureaucratic nonsense from the central staffs as the army. The Navy commander does not even have a proper budget.
You will also be the president of the precious volunteer battalions. Literally no one of the current senior leaders has spoken of the volunteers with proper respect. There have even been attempts to blame them for military defeats. This is wrong. They have rightly earned their place in national history, but today with limited exceptions have been dispossessed and fractured. The challenge here is that Ukraine needs the strength of purpose and energy of the volunteer ethos for the reserves. But the military system does not recognise or want this. It wants control not energy. The country needs to embrace the public fully for defence and reserves as they have the proven abilities needed to fight Russia. Without the wonderful volunteers and their unmatched love for the forces the front line would wither and die quickly. Your enduring tasks will be to re-motivate the men and women of the forgotten front line, provide strong direction about real army reform and reserves and to find people who will do this for you honestly and properly.
Your appointment does not demand you act as some amateur general. It does not demand you make day to day decisions on war fighting. That is army business. You need to keep out of it unless you sense failure. Your task is to choose a competent, and I suggest English speaking, properly civilian defense minister Why is this needed? The country needs a skilled manager to make the forces efficient in terms of leadership, budget, manpower, better processes, IT, equipment and procurement, and to cure the current nonsense of defence housing and the National Guard Brigade development. Then you must choose a chief of defense. It is time for a change and a fresh Western approach to leadership. The Soviet model is visibly destroying motivation.
Your first role when taking post will be to provide the forces with clear strategic political direction. This must be easily understandable so it can be turned into military orders that every soldier can believe in and follow. If you cannot do this then perhaps you are seeking the wrong job because the survival of the country depends upon it. Like Winston Churchill you must be ready to change your team when they fail, are tired, or are simply out of their depth. Fresh blood is needed regularly to keep the system dynamic. You must change people around often and everywhere to both educate them and test them. You must not be frightened of bringing in civilians and youth into the system. Some people may fail. Better they fail against Russian proxies today and you remove them, than against Russia tomorrow.
You may choose to follow the current policy of adhering to the Minsk peace agreements because to be too aggressive may give Russia the excuse it needs to invade fully. But to continue this passive policy also contains many risks. Already the soldiers are tired of waiting and dying for no visible positive outcome. Many in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are also visibly against them and the enemy ignores Minsk at will. The initiative has been completely lost.
As was mentioned in Kyiv Post last year, this is the worst crime any government can make. If you do make this choice then hardened concrete must replace mud and logs as protection. Engineers must be deployed forward to support troops daily. The system must redouble efforts to improve front line support in areas like sanitation (many toilets are disgusting), more and readily changeable uniform, better food, health and cleanliness support.
If you want people to die at least let them face the enemy clean and healthy. You need to give them more battle equipment. More tanks is not the simple answer to this fight. What is needed is better capability for battalions and companies. This should include night fighting equipment, more anti tank weapons, light off road vehicles and trench diggers, robotic sensors, secure radios, technological solutions for iPads, the right ammunition for the fight and better tactical and operational training. These are all way more effective battle winners. If you do not understand this any of the advisers (even myself) can help.
Even more important is to cut out the dead hand of control and stupid inspections from senior headquarters. Your real appetite for reform will be judged against these and your ability to remove the truly mindless stupidity of the “journal for checking journals.” Trust your brigade and battalion commanders to fight as you demand from them. If they are not good enough you must replace them but not control them. Even if you choose the Minsk line the initiative must be regained. It is vital for military health that you give positive objectives and demand real reform.
You must worry about Russia coming.
The current head of the National Security Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, is very clear that this is a real threat. To face this with confidence there is a great need to train for joint mobile operations. The current system does not yet really embrace this as the emphasis in Donbas is upon trench warfare fighting proxy troops rather than fighting Russia itself. This is to confuse tactics and technical shooting skills with the operational art. They are very different. Russia will pose vastly different demands. Russia can only be beaten by manoeuvre and delegation of authority to low levels. This means taking every opportunity to move quickly where and when needed to fight. Delay kills. Both Illovaisk and Debaltseve showed clearly that heavy centralised control, especially of Brigades and supporting artillery, is too slow in a fluid battle. The push for true delegation of authority to act and making sure that it actually happens must come strongly from you, and you alone, as the staff will never allow it.
You will soon wonder why things in the army take so long to do. The management and policy system is broken. It is within your hands to guide your minister and chief of defense to change the way the system works. The discipline and control documents are totally out of date. It is like trying to travel to India with a 1960 Belgium bus timetable. The documents simply bear no relation to the reality. The fighting documents are equally out of date. Even the new ones written are “forward to the Soviet past”. They are written in a fashion that if an officer disobeys them he can be (and will be) punished. This is nonsense on the modern battlefield where the demands of the enemy driven by new technology and tactics change daily. The US advisory team wrote many new documents for the staff – I saw them. Volunteer advisers have produced excellent new combat manuals – I saw them. Where are they now? They are certainly not where they are needed – on the front line.
You must also deal with the prosecutors organisations. They are concentrating upon punishing soldiers for doing their job properly, not for being corrupt, abusing power and bullying or for being negligent. In short, those honest officers and soldiers who work hardest to protect the country are the most at risk of prosecution. Your discipline system is upside down and back to front. We need a new discipline law and system based upon the military police to protect soldiers from arbitrary abuse. The military are being made risk averse. To face Russia it needs to be risk comfortable.
On the issue of improving the management, you must kill the paper bureaucracy at the front and in units. After 4 years of war the front line is still swamped by paper demands. It means you need more officers just to keep the central staff beast happy. Brigades are wasting precious time on answering ridiculous paper demands instead of planning operations and training. There are no central data bases or common sense systems at all. This deadly process is driven by the central staff. This has to be the work of 5thcolumnists. No officer who calls himself professional could ever agree to such a daft scheme. For a country that the current President says is at the forefront of IT to still keep the army in the dark ages is frankly criminal. This kills people. This is not a money issue it is simply neglect. There must be no paper forward of the ATO headquarters, except the vital letters from commanding officers about their dead or seriously injured soldiers to families.
You will also be the person who talks to NATO governments about how well NATO standards are being met in your armed forces. I recommend you read the paper I wrote about this subject. It is here. There is still too much emphasis upon technical things and PR rather than upon working towards common values. There is too much nonsense spoken publicly about how well the country is doing. NATO is not fooled. There is much more to discuss about this issue.
The last area of your responsibility and perhaps the most important is the creation of a proper Human Resource system. The problem currently with this is not only that the HR managers are not fit for purpose but that the values that are driving selection decisions are completely wrong. Too much emphasis is placed upon loyalty to the leadership and meeting complex bureaucratic rules. Decisions should be based upon values like; results and performance, leadership ability, moral and physical courage, sound ethics, honesty and integrity, physical fitness, professional competence and evidence of personal development. At the moment the forgotten front line army has many officers and NCOs who are ranked far below their real ability and potential whilst conversely the army of the rear has people holding rank and posts far above their ability. Many posts are simply not needed – they slow work and eat resources. This will take your new Minister much time to repair and rebalance but it must be done if you want to progress and win.
Every officer must be boarded and re-graded with extreme urgency. This must not be like another “pink fluffy” police reform. Your staff do not know how to do this right, whom to include in the panel and what qualities are essential or can be sacrificed (for example being excellent at filling-in journals for checking journals). They will need serious help from the civilian world. This is too important for the country for it to be, or look like, another media-victory. The board must include people you trust of seniority who can judge fairly what they are seeing and hearing. As I wrote before in Kyiv Post, “a small Soviet army cannot beat a large Soviet army”. Only flexible and quick thinking fighting can do this, and that means selecting those officers who show courage, integrity, flair and intelligence to lead the future. You must ensure they are chosen and supported.
Finally, if you truly want to understand the real front line not the front line of PR pictures you must go there without prior warning. You must walk through the muddy trenches with your future soldiers and listen to them carefully. But do not make this a PR stunt. I believe you do understand all this yourself. If you are serious about this job, you have to go.
Glen Grant is an expert on national security and defense of Ukraine of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.
The letter was originaly published on KyivPost