The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, including the confrontation in Donbas and occupation of Crimea, could last for years. Both the imperial project in Russia and democracy in Ukraine are seemingly taking root, and the West is trying to stabilize the conflict.
In the long-term perspective it means that military challenges will remain, and Ukraine, whether it wants it or not, will militarize. The level of trust towards existing institutions is low, and in this context the growth of the army as an institution means that in areas close to the frontline, although possibly all over the country, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will gain influence, and the role of the military will go beyond the traditional defense role.
Ukraine has two models of countries with a strong army to look up to — Turkey and Israel.
In Turkey, where the founders of the state saw Islamism as a danger to statehood, the army has always been the guarantor of secularity, even if it meant being less democratic. It was an advantage and a curse of a Kemalist (secular) political wing, which eventually lost the political battle to Islamists. Although, the past 10 or 15 years has seen the rise not so much of the Islamists, but of the Erdogan regime, which used the Islamists and the democratic institutions in Turkey to consolidate its power.
Under Erdogan, the army has been politically weakened. Officers who were not loyal to the president ended up behind the bars or sent to be retired. However, the army traditionally remained a threat to the Islamists. The Turkish army represents stability in a very unstable region — surrounded by Syria, Iran, Iraq, Georgia (with its territories annexed by Russia), Armenia (that is not friendly to Ankara), and Greece (that is not exactly friendly either). For this reason, a capable army is important for national security and the competitiveness of the political process.
Israel has a different model, where the army is much less politicized, although it has enormous impact on society. In Israel, the army allows society to perceive external and internal security challenges as rational and avoidable, which helps manage fear a great deal. The army is also one of the sources of equality in society. It is a place where people build networks, gain managerial experience, social capital that later flow into other spheres: business, politics, or civic activism. The army is one of the major social elevators in Israeli society.
In Ukraine, the army serves the defense mission, but is surrounded with new, wider opportunities. The army may become a new, meritocratic selection system that will help fill the institutional vacuum in Donbas, with time in Crimea, and not only there. The army may become a political player. This poses a risk of ‘stable instability’, as the state’s weak monopoly for using force will from time to time be privatized, which will be hard to resist. The balance will have to be created by simultaneous strengthening of other structures — which will put us in constant risk of ‘wars between law enforcement agencies.’
If Ukraine goes down the road of building a strong army, which I think is inevitable, it is important to remember that it is not only about the power of the military, but also about society being able to protect itself from the possible abuses of this power.
Turkey is a close example that may be inspiring for many, but the situation in Ukraine is very different. For instance, we don’t have access to NATO’s intellectual networks like Turkey does. Right now, the attempt to build a ‘guarantor army’ taking Turkey as an example, may rather lead to creating another political group, which will follow a more familiar Slavic tradition.
The Turkish experience is important, but in my personal opinion, Israel’s way of building an independent non-aligned army which is one of the driving forces of society, while simultaneously protecting the political process from the army’s institutional influence is more important for Ukraine.
A column serves to express the personal opinion of the author. It does not aim to be objective or comprehensive about the topic in question. The opinion of Ukrayinska Pravda editors may differ from that of the author. The editors are not responsible for the factual accuracy and interpretation of the information, our media outlet hereby only serves as a platform.
Translated by Tetiana Vodianytska