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Ukraine’s poor military can only hope it never has to fight Russia

Understanding the depths of the crisis Ukraine faces today takes only a visit to historic St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral.

There, beneath distinctive blue and gold onion domes, as the cathedral’s patriarch prays for “calm and security for all Ukraine,” parishioners peel away to visit two donation boxes. Each box is labeled. One is “For the church” while the other is “To support our armed forces.” On a recent night, parishioners typically slid folded bills into each.

Boxes urging support for Ukraine’s armed forces can be found seemingly everywhere: in shops, along Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, and in thousands of other spots around the country. In the past month, they’ve gathered about 116 million Ukrainian hryvnia, or $10 million.

In the scheme of a modern military, that amounts to pennies. But Adm. Ihor Kabanenko, Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, used a news conference this week to express the gratitude of a traditionally woefully underfunded military.

“The money will be used to support our forces, with equipment and ammunition, uniforms and provisions,” Kabanenko said. “It has been a great help.”

For nations with robust military budgets, where national security is a high priority year after year, it seems odd that Ukraine’s military has to go begging just to afford bullets during a time of crisis. But to those who study the military here, there’s no surprise.

It’s one reason President Barack Obama, in assessing the situation in Ukraine, recently said in Manila, Philippines, that the push by some members of Congress for more military aid to Ukraine made no sense.

“Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?” he said, arguing that sanctions were more likely to discourage Russian aggression.

Military experts note that Ukraine’s list of needs presented to NATO in the standoff with Russia contained not only basic military items such as helmets, body armor and field radios but also camouflaged netting, tents, sleeping bags and ground cover tarps.

“The NATO response was ‘Are you really so poor as this?’ ” said Serhiy Zhurets, the director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, a research center in Kiev, and a longtime top adviser to the Ukrainian military. “The answer was yes. It still is yes; the situation isn’t getting better.”

How bad is it? Only 1 in 10 Ukrainian troops staring across the border at Russia are protected by body armor. The country has lost at least three helicopters trying to take a better look at the setup of pro-Russian militias and can’t afford to replace a single one. Zhurets said that outside of a U.S. donation of 300,000 meals ready to eat, nobody has offered much help.

Anton Mikhnenko, the editor of Defense Express, a Ukrainian defense magazine, said the numbers were easily interpreted. The Ukrainian military has come up with a budget plan in recent years to modernize _ either repair or replace _ the creaking Soviet weapons and machinery it relies on that calls for about 131 billion hryvnia a year, about $11.3 billion.

Parliament, reasoning last year that Ukraine faces no threats from the outside, allocated just 15.6 billion hryvnia _ $1.3 billion. In previous years, it had been as low as 9 billion hryvnia.

For comparison’s sake, in 2011 the U.S. military spent more than $700 billion. Ukraine’s neighbor Poland has recent defense budgets of about $10 billion. Russia’s defense budget is about $75 billion.

“We have old weapons and soldiers in need of better training,” Mikhnenko said. “It’s simple: We need more money. We do today, and we have for years.”

Dmytro Tymchuk, the director of Ukraine’s Center for Military and Political Research and the most widely quoted military expert on the conflict with Russia, said the state of the Ukrainian military was so bad that it couldn’t even afford to take some of the help it needed.

For instance, he said there was a widely accepted notion that Ukraine would like drones. Ukraine has lost three helicopters and had one pilot and one crew member killed on surveillance missions over the locations of pro-Russia separatists.

“Drones would mean we wouldn’t have to put our people at risk,” Tymchuk said. “But we don’t have anyone with the training to fly the drone. Do we ask the United States to loan us drone pilots, have them be involved if a war with Russia erupts, and thus start World War III? Of course not.”

Ukraine does own one drone, but it’s never flown, and no one is trained to operate it.

When the situation became critical in March, it was hardly news to those who work in and around the military. Ihor Teniukh, once the chief commander of the Ukrainian navy and in February and March the ill-fated minister of defense who held the spot when Russia occupied and then annexed Crimea without serious resistance, had tried to raise the alarm last year, writing that a plan for a “large-scale downsizing of the military” was dangerous.

Some experts are convinced that beyond a policy to “avoid spilling first blood and give Russia an excuse for further action” when Russian forces fanned out across Crimea in March, the military didn’t react because the military couldn’t react. The country’s tanks, trucks, jets and ships were in such bad repair that many weren’t operational. When the equipment was working, the troops didn’t have enough training to operate it or couldn’t find the necessary fuel to start the engines.

The country also had no defensive line between Crimea, now part of Russia, and the rest of Ukraine. “If we’d started shooting Russians in Crimea in March, their tanks would be in Kiev today,” Kabanenko said.

Last autumn, Leonid Poliakov, an expert at the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, wrote an article for the publication The Ukrainian Week that addressed the military situation. While other experts had voiced concerns about Russia’s military buildup, he focused directly on the problem growing in Ukraine.

“Weaponry and machinery are undeniably important, but there is no point in them without the due moral and psychological condition of the military as an important indicator of battle-readiness,” he wrote. “The moral and psychological condition is below poor. Why? Because servicemen don’t believe that the state, commanders, let alone the government, need them. The parliament which does not want to finance their needs doesn’t need them either. How much does the government plan to spend on housing for the military? Nothing. What else can be said?”