The World

Can Yanukovych Rely on His Own Military?

Ukrainian Army tanks drive in downtown on Aug. 19, 2008, during a military parade.

Photo by Genia Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

The “khaki elephant on the room” of the Ukraine situation at the moment appears to be whether the country’s military will get involved if the country’s “Berkut” special police are unable to restore order in Kiev and the country’s rebellious western cities. This is probably how any worst-case “civil war” scenario might begin. (Involvement by the Ukrainian military in the unrest is the Obama administration’s latest “red line,” for whatever that’s worth.)

So far the Defense Ministry has denied reports that the military is being deployed to break up the Maidan protests, but there are a few worrying signs that Yanukovych might be contemplating such a move. He named a new chief of staff of the country’s armed forces on Wednesday night, perhaps to ensure loyalty in the top military ranks. He had previously announced that the military will take part in an unspecified  “national anti-terrorist operation,” though the country’s legislature has now apparently banned such operations.  

The Ukrainian military has extensive contacts with Western militaries through NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program, though U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has apparently been unable to reach his Ukrainian counterpart. 

However, the question then becomes whether the military would obey orders to fire on Ukrainian protesters. Valentyn Badrak, director of the Kiev-based Centre for Army Conversion and Disarmament Studies, tells the Financial Times that  “The core of the army does not support Yanukovich and will not execute an order” to use arms against ordinary people.

Mark Galeotti, and expert on Russian and Eurasian Security isues, writes that he is “not convinced [the army] would obey orders to join Berkut, although at present I feel they’d simply refuse rather than outright join the protesters. But again, this can change.”

As Eurasianet’s Joshua Kucera notes, there are rumors that the military is already rebelling:

[Defense Minister Pavel] Lebedev’s predecessor, Anatoliy Hrytsenko, said in a facebook post that Lebedev intended to use the military against the protesters, but suggested the military wouldn’t obey: “The army with the people - Ukrainians wondered in anticipation. There you go. Defence Minister Lebedev has just ordered the 25th Dnipropetrovsk Airborne Brigade of 500 people in full combat gear to head to Kyiv. Whom will they protect? And from whom? The answer is obvious with such army and such officers…” (Translation from Ukrainian by The Ukrainian Week.) Hrytsenko had earlier said that Lebedev tried to put the unit (along with another military unit, the 79th Air Mobile Brigade) under Interior Ministry Command, but that only public opposition forced him to back down.

There’s still a pretty decent chance that Yanukovych will survive this crisis. But if it becomes clear that his own military has turned on him, or even just refuses to obey him, it’s hard to see him staying in power much longer.