Leadership: The Ukrainian Paradox


September 5, 2008:  Ukraine has been desperately seeking a way to maintain its independence from Russia. The big fear is that Russia will use force to take over. Ukraine has long been in trouble with Russia, and now in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, the situation is grim. It's been like that since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. After several centuries of forced unification with Russia, Ukraine again became independent in 1991. Many Russians want to reverse this, and now the Russian government has shown, in Georgia, that it is willing to use force to make that happen.

Ukraine has, over the last few years, angered Russia by establishing closer relations with the West, particularly efforts to join NATO. Russia has always been characterized as paranoid, and this is increasingly seen as a reality, not an ethnic slur. Ukraine wants some protection from Russia (as do many of Russia's neighbors.)

The basic Ukrainian problem is that their military is still closely linked with the "Red Army" (the armed forces of the Russia.) Nearly all Ukrainian military equipment and weapons are Russian. Before, and after, 1991, a large portion of the Ukrainian export market was driven by factories that manufactured Russian designed weapons. Ironically, for the last 17 years, the Ukrainian weapons industry has prospered, even though the Ukrainian military could not afford to buy most of these weapons. But export customers could.

Unlike Russia, Ukraine doesn't have oil and gas exports to finance rebuilding of their armed forces. Ukraine spends only $2 billion a year on defense, which barely keeps its force of 149,000 active duty troops going. But because it uses conscription, it could quickly mobilize over half a million more troops. But the Russians have advantages as well, particularly the Russian minority (17 percent of the population, and the majority in many eastern districts, particularly around Kharkov.)

Ukraine has ten times the population of Georgia, and its troops are better trained and armed. It would be a prolonged and nasty fight if the Russians tried to do a "Georgia" on Ukraine. What Russia fears the most is Ukraine joining NATO, which is basically a mutually self-defense agreement (you attack one member, and all the others get involved).

The biggest impediment to joining NATO is cost. For example, Poland, a nearby nation with slightly smaller population (38 million versus 46 million in Ukraine) and a slightly larger armed forces (163,000), spent about $2 billion just to achieve interoperability (radios and people trained to communicate and work with other NATO forces). Upgrading their weapons and equipment cost over $10 billion. But Poland has a GDP that is more than three times as large as the Ukraine's (because East European nations were able to reform and grow their economies much faster than the new nations that were once part of the Soviet Union.) The U.S., and Western Europe, could provide most of the money for Ukraine to upgrade its armed forces. But the Russians have already made it be known that this would be seen, by them, as a hostile (to Russia) act.

So Ukraine has to decide if they want to risk invasion by Russia, by trying to gain more security from Russian aggression via NATO membership.




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