Killing Fields

02.03.15 10:45 AM ET

Why Is Ukraine’s War So Bloody? The Soviet Union Trained Both Sides.

“First we work with massive artillery fire to clean up space and then infantry and tanks roll in.”

KIEV — Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels have intensified exchanges of heavy artillery fire in several towns and villages in eastern Ukraine these last few days, destroying houses, slaughtering the people in them, blowing to bits passengers in public transport and mowing down pedestrians.

Time and again, each side blames the other for the needless carnage and the massive collateral damage. But that’s not the only reason it’s sometimes hard to tell who is doing what to whom. The real problem is that the commanders on both sides of the lines used to be in the same army before the breakup of the Soviet Union, and even the younger ones have learned the same military doctrines that date back to the days of Stalin, and are absolutely brutal.

Vasily Budik, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense ministry, described the core approach of the combat operations in the eastern Ukraine: “First we work with massive artillery fire to clean up space and then infantry and tanks roll in,” he told me over the phone. “That approach has been the same forever.”

Just so. It’s not about hearts and minds, it’s about bodies and real estate.

The Ukrainian military also uses a lot of the same equipment as the Russians, with minor differences. For example, the Ukrainian military mount their Grads (multiple rocket launchings systems) on Ural trucks, while pro-Russian forces used Kamaz trucks.

Such weapons are blunt instruments, and they often are clumsily employed. (The Ukraine defense ministry claims pro-Russian forces have also deployed newer weapons in the past few weeks—one of them, called Buratino, or "Pinocchio," allegedly fired powerful thermobaric bombs.) Complicating the situation, there are irregular forces on both sides, with Russian military professionals trying to keep a relatively low profile behind the often-impulsive rebels and the regular Ukrainian forces, which, at best, are uneasy with the volunteer units fighting alongside them.

Speaking at a cafe in Kiev on Friday, Ukrainian officers at the table looked gloomy, discussing the protest outside the defense ministry’s gate by members of the volunteer Aidar Battalion. The protesters complained of what they called a “real mess” in their own forces. They claimed that earlier in the week a Ukrainian defense ministry unit fired artillery, Grads and mortars 15 to 20 times against the Aidar Battalion’s positions, even though they are all supposed to be on the same side.

Every day adults and children die as a result of the traditional post-Soviet methods applied around the clock both by Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces in thickly populated urban areas. Since the beginning last year of what the Ukrainian forces call their “anti-terrorist operations” in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, more than 5,000 people have been killed and over a million have fled their homes. On Saturday officials reported 12 civilians killed in artillery fire in Debaltsevo, while in rebel-controlled Donetsk, six people were killed by artillery attacks from the direction of Donetsk airport.

Human Rights Watch has kept a record of dozens of cases violating the laws of war in eastern Ukraine. “Sadly we are seeing that both sides are using many of the same weapons and committing many of the same violations,” says Ole Solvang, senior researcher in HRW’s emergencies division. “They both have used Grad rockets extensively, leading to significant civilian casualties. Both Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces are using explosive weapons such as artillery—often not being able to target
them properly.”

Ukrainian officers say operations have suffered as a result of the old-style vertical command structure, with each unit waiting for orders to come down from the top of the military hierarchy. They long for the more flexible approach employed by Western armies, notably the United States. “If only we had American-style higher technology, where two men could eliminate the enemy’s rocket launcher within one and a half minutes, we would not need 50,000 people on the front, we’d finish this war in a few weeks,” says Yevgeny Vitchenko, an officer at the ministry of defense. But bad as things are, Vitchenko denied that Ukrainian forces ever fired accidentally at civilians.

The only plan Ukraine has at the moment is to increase the number of units arrayed against the constantly growing pro-Russian contingent, up from about 40,000 regular soldiers fighting against about the same number of rebels to 50,000 and more.

Soviet military schools did not train the army for fighting in the cities, says independent Russian military expert Alexander Golts. “We saw this kind of war by Grad in Grozny during the second Chechen war—it never takes you anywhere but to a bad aftermath of civilian deaths. The military always will be blamed for that. And this time Russia is involved in a military operation that it can neither stop, nor win,” Golts said. “Besides, there is no discipline in the rebel forces. They keep provoking fire from the Ukrainian military by placing a mortar or by setting off a couple of mines in the middle of a street to cause trouble.” Golts considers such tactics for urban warfare a “dead end.”

Serhiy Halushko of Ukraine’s ministry of defense attended the Soviet Suvorov military school, then later served with the Ukrainian contingent in the allied coalition in Iraq in 2008. With a tense face, he told The Daily Beast about the last few months of what’s been called Russia’s “hybrid war” of covert action and overt military force aimed at Ukraine.

At first Moscow planned to create a guerrilla army of local recruits, says Halushko, but “as locals did not want to become guerrilla fighters, Russia had to deploy the professional military to fight against us in the end of summer.”

Halushko cautions that, whatever its problems, the “modern Russian army should not be underestimated” and “it has improved significantly since the first Chechen war.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

While the doctrines for urban combat by the Ukrainians and the Russians are much the same, the bigger military picture is not even remotely comparable.

Russia’s defense expenditures have nearly doubled since 2007. Last year it spent $69.3 billion on its army needs, the third largest military budget in the world, after the U.S. and China. The military reform launched in 2010 was a 10-year weapons-modernization program with a budget of $720 billion.

Last December Ukraine also decided to double its military budget, but the announced increase to $3.2 billion is only a tiny fraction of Russian expenditure. The latest strategic doctrine from Ukraine, adopted in 2012, did not name any specific enemy, while the new doctrine signed by Vladimir Putin in December named NATO as Russia’s top military threat. It also said that Russia could use nuclear weapons “as part of strategic deterrent measures,” and also in case of aggression that “threatens the very existence” of the Russian state.

Is it possible that the war in Ukraine could develop into a bigger international conflict involving nuclear weapons? Some Russians like to play with that idea. “If USA-backed Kiev does not stop killing the people of Donbas [eastern Ukraine] now, it could be WWIII,” Yuriy Krupnov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, told The Daily Beast. “We would rather use nuclear against NATO’s constant threats, than live on our knees for ever. It goes without saying that the conflict in Ukraine is a between us and United States, with USA attacking our borders, our people.”

Amid such dramatic rhetoric, the Grads continue blasting apart one family’s life after another in an approach that has been the same forever.