Kyiv Post | 20Jan2016 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Ukraine as a bulwark of European defense

At the start of the New Year 2016, Ukraine’s chief national priority remains defense against Russia. Despite being humiliated in Donbas, Russia continues to be Ukraine’s key threat. Like it or not, it will remain Ukraine’s eternal neighbor. Each Ukrainian therefore, must have the skills to counter the enemy’s aggression. The situation has and will continue to have implications for the West.

To have its punishing sanctions removed, Russia talks peace.

Yet it continues to seriously undermine the Minsk agreements. Removing sanctions would only encourage further terror as even the present ones have failed to prevent it from spreading its terror in Syria and elsewhere.

Furthermore, Russia is enlarging its military power with break-neck urgency which speaks to war not peace. According to the latest statements from its Defence Minster Sergei Shoigu, the enlargement includes armored divisions near Kharkiv, Ukraine, doubling the number of military regiments along Europe’s western frontier, adding rocket regiments and nuclear forces -- much of this in 2016.

New York Times columnist, Masha Gessen, writes. “The strategic purpose of (President Vladimir Putin’s) wars is war itself. This is true in Ukraine, where territory was a mere pretext, and this is true of Syria, where protecting Mr. Assad and fighting ISIS are pretexts too. Both conflicts are wars with no end in sight because… only at war can Russia feel at peace.”

Given this scenario, there can be no reductions of sanctions. They are the only current weapon containing Russia’s madness. It’s feeling the pain and wants them to lapse. This is not the time to cave; rather step-up help to Ukraine to strengthen its security.

Ukrainians live in a daily state of war. Their defense of Donbas succeeded brilliantly but Russia’s danger is constant. Therefore, President Petro Poroshenko needs to do more: create a national emergency preparedness program.

This means more elite special forces. Train them in the Donbas warzone to bolster morale among the boarderland population. Train the inhabitants. Hand them the means to fight Russia’s hybrid war tactics. Rather than be frightened victims convert them into a formidable defence force.

Meet fire with fire. Vladimir Putin uses clandestine operations in Ukraine with devastating results. His terrorists -- from little green men to corrupted heads of defence, security and judiciary obedient to Moscow -- wage insurgency wars. His two-year hybrid war requires a country-wide insurgency to deal with the Russian devil.

Ukrainians know insurgency. The clandestine operations of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army against three different occupational forces -- Poland, Germany and Russia during and post-World War II -- is a textbook classic.

President Petro Poroshenko needs to tap into this history to protect the gains made in the Donbas and in going forward by picking the best and brightest to create a most awesome special-forces operation on the planet. Also, he needs to make every citizen a defender of Ukraine. An invigorated three-way national defence approach -- conventional, special operations and citizen emergency preparedness -- will enhance Ukraine’s security. And more. It will provide a measure of protection for Europe.

Of greatest urgency is the need to secure the porous borders with Russia. It wants to maintain the status quo in order to allow the flow of illegal arms and terrorists including those from Syria. Ukraine-controlled boarders on the edge of a dangerous and unpredictable mafia-state are a must. They are a wall of first defense for Ukraine and for the EU.

Ukraine has been such a wall -- containing invaders from pouring into the rest of Europe -- for centuries. It’s enough to remember the halt of the Mongol hordes, the defense against the Ottoman Turks or Nazi fascist. (For more see Serhii Plokhy’s excellent new history of Ukraine: The Gates of Europe.) Putin’s Russia is but today’s threat. It behooves the West to remember that and support Ukraine, not Russia, in peace talks and in assisting Poroshenko, in transforming Ukraine into a once-again defense powerhouse of Europe.

Of course, Poroshenko must continue purging the pro-Russian elements in defense and security structures and seek further engagement for Ukraine’s forces with US, Canada and Nato’s participation critical to cementing Western partnerships.

But he must do more: he needs to create a warrior nation out of Ukraine -- defending its sovereignty and that of Europe. He can make a good start by using former ATO warriors to teach emergency preparedness in schools; an indispensable civil defence tactic. This knowledge will provide a comfort zone for children and parents and teach patriotism at the same time.

Let the returning ATO forces develop and teach the course. This will give them jobs, respect and integration. Expand the program to all citizens. Each Ukrainian needs basic insurgency skills to deal with the occupational aggressor.

Let better be safe than sorry become the new defense mantra of Ukraine. This will have an impact well beyond its borders.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, former policy adviser with the government of Canada, specializes in Ukraine.