Like a refugee column

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By John Barnhart

    Ukraine’s army, such as it is, provides a good illustration about why Ukraine is so vulnerable to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s efforts to pull it apart.
    The government in Kiev made good, a couple of weeks ago, on a threat to begin military operations against pro-Russian separatists who have been occupying police stations and government buildings in the Kharkov, Donetsk and Lugansk provinces in eastern Ukraine. Columns of troops and equipment moved east, but things didn’t go very well. The Ukrainian troops seemed to be as popular with the civilian population there as Admiral Farragut’s Union force was with the citizens of New Orleans back in the spring of 1862. A lot of folks appeared to see them as foreign invaders, rather than troops meant to save them from a foreign invader. The greeting they got from the locals was not a warm welcome. It was more like “What are you doing here? Go away!”
    The soldiers didn’t appear very enthusiastic about their task. In one case an angry crowd of civilians surrounded a column of armored personnel carriers. Pro-Russian militants boarded them — the crews offered no resistance — hoisted Russian flags and drove them off.
    Nobody should be surprised. Foreign observers noted that the Ukrainian troops moving forward looked more like refugee columns than military units. The fact that the Ukrainian government asked for MREs — the Obama administration sent 300,000 of these military rations — socks, boots and uniforms indicates that the Ukrainian government isn’t prepared to meet even the most basic needs of troops in the field. Ukrainian civilians have even been taking up food collections for the troops. These aren’t the care packages that American civilians send to our deployed troops. These are basic food collections so the men won’t go hungry. In one Wall Street Journal article, the reporter asked a Ukrainian soldier when he had last eaten. The soldier declined to answer.
    Ukraine’s army is a basket case because Ukraine has been ruled by a succession of kleptocracies  since it became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The only changes that occurred in 23 years, including after the 2004 Orange Revolution, amounted to which set of billionaire oligarchs were bellying up to the public feeding trough. Money that was supposed to support the army routinely got siphoned off.
    The result of two decades of governments that governed mainly for the benefit of their oligarch cronies left areas with a majority of ethnic Russians or native Russian speakers with little attachment to the national government in Kiev. The country is split along ethnic and linguistic lines and Vladimir Vladimirovich is using these divisions as points at which he is applying leverage to break chunks of the country off.
    All of the above is why President Barack Obama needs to be very careful in how he approaches the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The U.S. is already providing national defense for the countries of Europe, relieving them of the need to defend themselves. The United States bears 75 percent of NATO’s defense burden, receiving little or no gratitude in return. Those “civilized” countries, that Rick Howell wrote about last week can afford their single-payer healthcare systems, along with the other aspects of their bloated welfare states, because they don’t have to spend the kind of money they would need to spend for an adequate national defense. We are doing it for them.
    We have a treaty obligation to these countries under the NATO treaty.  The last thing we need is to somehow obligate ourselves to defend a dysfunctional country where we have no vital interest at stake.
    As of this writing, Ukrainian troops are on the move eastward again and a small number of American paratroopers have arrived in Poland for exercises with Poland and the Baltic states, all NATO members. Mr. Howell often writes about the “Swaggering Texan,” but I’m worried that the “Bloviating Kenyan” is going to get us into something far worse than George W. Bush ever did.