I recently came across an article in the Kyiv Post entitled “How Ukraine Can Build an Army to Beat Putin”, written by a certain Glen Grant. The author suggests concrete actions that the Ukrainian military can take to improve its combat effectiveness. The article’s title is what caught my eye for its bold claim that Ukraine, which spends the equivalent of six billion USD on defence, could build an army to beat Russia, that spends over seven times that. I decided to find out more about Grant, his role in Ukraine and his suggestions for solving Ukraine’s war in the Donbass.
I first asked about Grant’s educational and professional background. He spent thirty-seven years in the British Army, joining at the age of sixteen. After four years he became an officer in the artillery; he worked in all aspects of combat operations, including meteorology, radar use, communications, and the deployment of various missiles and guns. Once a senior artillery officer, Grant went to study at the Staff college, and was then commanded to run the military prison which was “corrupt and… financially broken”. He thus “spent a couple of years fixing the prison” before working at several jobs in the Ministry of Defence, including as defence attaché to Finland, Estonia and Latvia where he “spent 50% of [his] working time doing defence reform helping the Baltic States get into NATO”. This was particularly challenging as “it was all new, they didn’t have any Western mentors”. As he says, one of the key problems was that “the typical Soviet trained officer will tell you what you want to hear”, instead of the reality of the situation. He was one of the first advisors in Ukraine when the war started in 2014, working in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence for three weeks to support operations. Already he could see the problems with the military’s leadership: “When you have colonels who are standing shaking and quivering before they go to talk to someone senior, then you have not got a system that works”. He also noted the problems posed by the vestiges of Soviet-era organizational structure: “if you rely on the Soviet style of total centralization, then nothing works, because then the boss has to do the work of 250,000 people so it’s impossible!”.
I was curious as to why Grant chose to publish his findings and suggestions in such a public way. Grant emphasized that it was not his initial reaction. He had first sent the document to the government and “senior people had had it”, but nothing happened. “So I then rewrote it, updated it, checked it with people…and then passed that into the government and still nothing happened… it went to [President] Poroshenko, and I realized that nothing was going to happen”. He thus felt “duty-bound” to do everything he could to get the necessary reforms passed. This included publishing it publicly so that the people of Ukraine and the international community could understand the state of Ukraine’s military, and what urgent reforms were needed to improve its combat capabilities. As Grant says, “if you believe something is right, you have to stand up and say so, and say so loudly”.
His article has apparently ruffled some feathers in the Ukrainian Defence Ministry, which recently published a press release condemning his article as biased and uninformed. I asked him what he thought of this negative reaction by the people consulted for. His initial response: “I think it’s stupid, to be blunt, because what’s the point of fighting me?”. Grant claims that the criticism is misdirected, as “the only thing I was criticizing them about was the need for a military strategy”, as opposed to reform in the ministry of defence, which they are doing but seem to be very sensitive about. In addition, “there was a reaction from the general staff saying that we are doing this sort of training that I suggested, but they’re not”. This continual stream of misinformation, of being told what you want to hear as opposed to the truth, is a common theme in the Ukrainian military system. This leads to the issue of there being “a huge gulf between what Western advisors are thinking and what’s really going on in the front line”. Grant recognizes the attitude of the Ukrainian army towards outsiders as one of “You don’t know what’s going on”. He insists that “therein lies the biggest problem: the leadership and the style of leadership in the military”.
Grant’s time as a consultant in Ukraine gave him a unique perspective on the current state of public opinions and consciousness. “Society is split. You have half the society that wants to be in the West…and then you’ve got half the society that still wants the great strong leader in Soviet fashion”. Grant asserts that “it’s a cultural thing, whether the culture allows the country to change”, and that “society where it’s a groupthink, people tend to be more followers, and that allows leadership to do… whatever they want to”. Grant remarked wryly that “it’s the countries with nice people that allow dictators to flourish”.
One of Grant’s projects with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence was housing reform. I had never thought of this as a particularly important factor in military strategy, so I asked about the relation between proper housing and effective combat operations. Grant began by specifying that “housing” in the defence world actually means any kind of physical infrastructure. So it does include houses and apartments for soldiers, but also offices, ports, airfields, training facilities, barracks etc. Really, “anything that’s solid and fixed is ‘housing'”. Grant identified two ongoing problems with military housing in Ukraine. First, there is a problematic Soviet-Era law which ensures that every soldier who has served for 20 years gets a house. This has led to currently over 40,000 people waiting for their military house. Grant condemns this law as “financially impossible to fulfill”, and yet government after government has done nothing to fix the problem. This situation also shows the “broken structure of the military, that so many people reach 20 years”, because in most armies, most soldiers usually leave after a few years of service, often to start new careers and due to fatigue after years of physical exertion. Grant recommended that the law be eliminated, but the government refused due to “morale reasons”. This is strange reasoning, argues Grant, because the law will not affect morale on the front line as likely none of the front-line soldiers will serve for twenty years. There is also the issue of corruption, present in every aspect of Ukrainian political life. Grant recounted the story of a Colonel who approached him last year and said “I have just been told I can have my flat, but to finish the paperwork will cost me 5000 dollars”.
The second issue is that Ukraine has a new army of professionals, and they need proper accommodation that suits their status and role as professional soldiers instead of conscripts. This includes requirements such as having no more than four servicemen per room, providing space for soldiers to keep personal belongings securely, and the provision of family housing for those soldiers with spouses and children. When asked about the impact of his suggestions at the end of the day, Grant said “we put a lot of ideas into the system, but housing is slow. ” It is good to see in recent weeks that Deputy Minister Shevchuk is moving forward quickly with big plans for next year. I really hope they all work”.
I wanted to know whether Grant, as military expert and Ukraine specialist, would categorize the conflict in Donbas as a frozen conflict, as many media sources seem to be doing recently. Grant was emphatic that “no…people are dying, there’s nothing frozen about it” because “in a frozen conflict both sides know that it’s going nowhere, but this is not the case”. He argued instead that Donbass is at “an interim stage…between phase A and B”, and that in reality “its being used effectively as a training area by the Russians, a training conflict”. More ominously, Grant highlighted that “Russia shows no signs at all that it’s not preparing for a serious war”. He emphasized that “everybody says that the war is in Donbass, and will stay in Donbass, but there is absolutely not one shred of evidence to say that is the case. It’s just in Donbass today, it could be somewhere else tomorrow”.
I asked whether Grant thought that if the military followed his suggestions and reformed itself it could retake the Donbass territories through a military offensive. Grant’s surprising answer was that “I think they could probably do that today anyway, but retaking the Donbass or Crimea, these are political questions”. He remarked that “the thing about it is that diplomacy always needs tanks behind you, you don’t have any strength in your diplomatic arguments if you can’t do something”. He clarified however, that “several people misquoted me as suggesting that we should go and attack and beat Russia, but what I was saying is that Russia has a vote, Russia’s got the key vote at the moment, and what we have to do is take away that vote… if they want to attack it’s gonna cost them so much that it’s not worth it…an unacceptable cost, and the only way to make it an unacceptable cost is to be better than they are. And at that point then, you have negotiating power”. The end goal, he argues, is for Ukraine to be able to say “Do what you want, mate, it’s gonna cost you so much. It’s gonna cost you your position as leader of Russia because the public will not accept the losses that we are gonna inflict on you”.
An idea that has been floating around the defence and diplomatic world recently has been the introduction of UN peacekeepers in Ukraine. I asked if Grant supports this suggestion. He clarified that it is “a political thing, but I think it’s very dangerous” because “it formalizes the position, that makes it a frozen conflict”. Grant’s insistence that “you don’t want Belarusian forces or forces that are loyal to Russia in any way in that area” is especially pointed, as Belarus recently offered to send its troops to be peacekeepers in the region. Invoking the example of Cyprus, Grant reminds that “UN Peacekeepers… will be there for 30 or 40 years, and there’s no guarantee that Russia will let them do their job anyways”. However, realistically, ” it may turn out that frozen war for 40 or 50 years is what you’ve got to accept”.
Finally, I thought it would be interesting to shift to recent developments in British defence policy, as Grant is former British military. I asked Grant what he thought of the Chief of General Staff’s recent comments that the UK needs to boost defence spending to deter Russian aggression? Without clearly agreeing with the statement, Grant highlighted that “the British military is reduced in size seriously, there is a danger now that it reaches the point that it can no longer actually deploy troops to do something”. This drastic reduction of the military must be taken in the context where “Russia has been attacking Britain with cyber warfare and politically now for a couple of years”. Grant ended by bringing up the ever-controversial Brexit: “I actually said that Brexit was partially Russia-funded and I was laughed at, but I was right”.
You can read Grant’s article “How Ukraine Can Build an Army to Beat Putin” here.
Isabelle Ava-Pointon is a second year student in SciencesPo’s Euro-American program. She is passionate about security and defence issues, as well as politico-military developments in the post-Soviet sphere, especially Ukraine. She tweets @i_alethia