As the war in Eastern Ukraine grinds on, away from the international headlines, the country’s Soviet-era military is struggling to suppress separatist forces backed by a modern, well-resourced Russian machine.
And it is looking to Canada for help.
Both sides in the three-year-old conflict blithely ignore commitments made under the Minsk agreement — the ceasefire plan signed in early 2015 — to keep heavy weapons out of the conflict zone.
The Ukrainians, worried by U.S. President Donald Trump’s closeness to Russia and his talk of accepting the annexation of Crimea, have been manoeuvring to win back some areas where they had agreed to remain out.
The combined Russian-separatist side has also upped the tempo of its rocketing and shelling, and still tends to be more effective in using those weapons, thanks to superior command, control and communications.
The Ukrainian side, meanwhile, continues to closely resemble its Soviet predecessor with outmoded uniforms, equipment, organization and training.
Russia’s armed forces have been through years of rapid modernization. The effects can be seen among the separatist forces of Luhansk and Donetsk, which include thousands of Russian soldiers nominally fighting as “volunteers” of Novorossiya or “New Russia.”
The result is a conflict that sometimes resembles the Russian Army of today fighting the Russian Army of 25 years ago — the one that suffered defeat in Afghanistan and the first Chechen War.
But Ukraine and its Western allies, including Canada, are determined to change that dynamic.
‘DRAB’ to the rescue
Jill Sinclair, a former assistant deputy minister of defence who once led the Canadian government’s efforts to ban landmines, now holds Canada’s seat on a panel designed to bring the Ukrainian armed forces into the 21st century.
Ukraine’s Defence Reform Advisory Board (DRAB) is charged with steering the Ukrainian military through a crash transformation even as it fights a low-level war against a far-stronger neighbour.
She likens the task to “changing the wheels on a bicycle while the bicycle is moving.”