Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shook up his country’s beleaguered defense forces Thursday with new appointments to head the Defense Ministry, the general staff and a military advisory office in his presidential administration.
The appointments announced in the parliament and swiftly approved by lawmakers were aimed at reforming the armed forces that have been ravaged by inadequate funding and corruption throughout the 23 years that Ukraine has been independent.
As Ukrainian troops battle pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, indications also have emerged of devastating intelligence leaks that have allowed soldiers to be ambushed on missions to retake territory seized by the militants.
Ukrainian and Western news media accounts of Poroshenko’s address to the parliament described him as angry and frustrated over the ineffectual campaigns to drive back the separatists. More than 200 government soldiers and police officers have been killed and 600 wounded since Kiev ordered an “anti-terrorism operation” more than three months ago.
“Today the revival of the army is starting from scratch,” Poroshenko said, vowing to create armed forces “capable of fighting and winning.”
Violence and lawlessness persisted in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, when nine border guards were injured during an artillery attack by separatists on the Dolzhansky border crossing in the Luhansk region, the border guards service reported on its website.
In Donetsk, three traffic policemen loyal to the government were shot to death and a fourth was injured by two men in combat fatigues who opened fire on them near the central railway station, the Ukrinform news agency reported.
Poroshenko’s choice to run the Defense Ministry, Col. Gen. Valery Heletey of the security service, promised in remarks to the parliament that he would recover the Crimean peninsula invaded and seized by Russian troops in late February.
“We can bring peace and harmony to our home. I am convinced that Ukraine will win. And believe me, a victory parade will certainly be held in Ukrainian Sevastopol,” Heletey, 46, promised lawmakers, according to Ukrinform.
Heletey replaces Mykhailo Koval, who has served as acting defense minister since opposition politicians took over the government in Kiev after a rebellion drove former President Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Russia. Koval was appointed Thursday to the office of deputy chief of the National Security and Defense Council.
Poroshenko also named a new army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, 52, until recently a top commander of the operation to roll back the separatist gains in eastern Ukraine.
The president, who has been in office for less than a month, chose a fellow billionaire, poultry magnate Yuri Kosyuk, as first deputy head of the presidential administration to advise him on security and logistics.
Poroshenko said the new security and defense leaders would stamp out corruption and “purge the army of thieves and grafters.”
But security analysts blame systemic deficiencies in defense spending and planning for the high casualty tolls among Ukrainian soldiers during a 12-week operation that has recovered only a few checkpoints and border crossings from the militants.
Two eastern regions remain under the control of gunmen whom Kiev accuses of getting support from the Kremlin. They are home to 6.5 million Ukrainian citizens, as well as key mining and manufacturing industries that produce components for the Russian military.
Igor Smeshko, a retired colonel-general now heading the Center for Strategic Studies and Analysis, said the Ukrainian rank and file suffer equipment and munitions shortages and, more important, a chronic lack of strategic planning and coordination among defense, security and border guard forces.
“The casualties are awful because we’re sending these young men out without support, without a plan,” he said of the government offensive that has made little headway against the separatists.
The Ukrainian military structure also suffers from political influences that were a legacy of the Soviet system, Smeshko said.
“The military leaders appointed by Viktor Yanukovich had no relevant experience, which is why a foreign country was allowed to lead the Defense Ministry,” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s powerful influence on Ukrainian security policy until Yanukovich was ousted in February.
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