Militia commander Yuri Bereza and his 150 Ukrainian irregulars were closing in on pro-Moscow separatists in their last stronghold in this eastern city when Russian troops and armor thundered in out of nowhere to cut them off in the suburb of Ilovaisk.
No satellite or drone surveillance detected the sudden movement of the Russian columns. No word of the impending attack had been radioed from the border guard base the invaders had to have passed. Neither did any of the allied soldiers who were supposed to be bringing up the rear inform Bereza’s fighters that they had been cut off. In fact, the 700-strong contingent of government recruits had deserted en masse.
The unit’s calls to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, to say it was surrounded brought promises of a reinforcements, food and ammunition, none of which came to the rescue of the men, who survived on grass and rainwater as they braved five days of incessant sniper fire, “like game at a hunting range,” Bereza said bitterly of the battle two months ago.
It was at Ilovaisk, where 107 irregulars died and at least 700 recruits and volunteers were taken captive, that the Ukrainian military’s post-independence disintegration was most painfully on display.
A standing army of 1 million inherited by Ukraine after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union has dwindled to barely 100,000. Analysts say even that figure is inflated. At the time the Russia-backed separatists began grabbing territory in March, then-Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh told the parliament that Ukraine had no more than 6,000 combat-ready troops to repel the aggression.
The Ukraine contingent of the once-fearsome Soviet Red Army rotted from the top after independence, when senior posts became cushy rewards for political supporters of the ruling party. Since the overthrow of Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich in February, the military leadership has been a revolving door. The fourth defense minister in eight months, Stepan Poltorak, was appointed by President Petro Poroshenko this week and confirmed Tuesday.
Defense funding has declined to a fraction of its Soviet-era support. Ukraine last year allocated $1.9 billion for the armed forces, Defense Ministry figures show, only 10% of it earmarked for modernizing training and weapons. Russia, by contrast, spent $4.47 billion and has a standing force and conscription-age population three times larger than Ukraine’s, the CIA World Factbook estimates.