Putting Democratic Values at the Centre of International Assistance to Ukraine

14 September 2020   ·   Oleksiy Melnyk

Security sector reform in Ukraine has made significant progress in areas like the defence sector, while others remain a challenge. Germany should apply the standards of its interministerial strategy by focussing not only on financial and material assistance but also on the transfer of democratic values, human rights, and rule of law principles into Ukraine’s security sector.

Security sector reform (SSR) in Ukraine started almost immediately after its independence in 1991. Since then, it has been a long-lasting process of transformations with some achievements and failures. Similarly, Western assistance to the SSR in Ukraine has been permanent but not problem-free.

The year 2014 marked a new era in the modern history of Ukraine and also opened a new page in its record on security sector reform. Over the last six years, with significant international assistance and the active involvement of civil society, the Ukrainian government has shown notable progress in some areas like the defence sector. At the same time, reforms in other sectors got stuck midway (such as law enforcement or judiciary) or were blocked at a preparatory stage (for example SBU, the Security Service of Ukraine).

Germany has been a vital partner of Ukraine for decades and is one of the major international contributors for Ukraine’s political, economic, and social reforms. The third largest international donor to Ukraine, Germany focuses mainly on the non-military domain – even when providing assistance for the Ukrainian military. For instance, the Federal Government offers advisory and material support for improving Ukraine’s military medical system but traditionally holds a very strong position against weapons supply for Ukraine. Overall, Germany’s assistance seems to meet its respective national strategies, such as its interministerial strategy to support security sector reform or its guidelines on crisis prevention, and generally corresponds with Ukraine’s needs, expectations, and the basic principles of its national security policy.

The Ukrainian Security Sector’s Soviet Legacy Remains One of the Key Obstacles

Previous “reforms” of the Ukrainian security sector in the 1990s were executed by the respective administrations without tangible plans, and numerous reform programmes that were approved at a later stage were never effectively implemented. Ukraine’s initial decision not to get rid of the inherited Soviet security structures, as the Baltic States did, but to convert them into national ones seemed rather rational at that time. Quite soon, however, Ukraine realised that „the [Soviet] legacy (thousands of battle tanks, APCs, aircraft, artillery pieces, hundreds of ships and enormous Cold War era stockpiles) brought with it more debts for future payments than resources for future prosperity.” Similarly, a decision to retain more than one million uniformed personnel conserved the Soviet security culture, which remains one of the key obstacles for reforms even three decades later.

Transformations in the defence sector until 2014 were not as much aimed at strengthening national defence capabilities than at downsizing the huge inherited component of the Soviet military might. Already pre-2014, international assistance was an integral part of Ukraine’s efforts towards establishing civilian democratic control over the security sector, demobilisation and reintegration of retired officers, as well as destruction and demilitarisation of excessive weaponry and military installations.

The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict Gave a New Push for Reform and Increased the Political Stakes for External Support

In 2014, Ukraine’s reforms received a new impetus. There were a few pushing factors. First, the Euromaidan revolution – that was driven by demands for change – forced the new government to address the public expectations for reforms. Moreover, since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the defence sector has enjoyed the heightened attention of the national government and society, as well as significant external assistance from NATO, the EU, OSCE and partner countries, either bilaterally or within the frameworks of the above-mentioned organisations.

The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement signed in March 2014, alongside with the already existing NATO-Ukraine cooperation framework, reinforced comprehensive and Europe-oriented reforms in the country as well as better-structured and coordinated support provided by the Western partners. Due to immense security challenges, the national security sector has become one of the key areas of reforms and for international support.

Since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, external support for Ukraine’s SSR has become quite a sensitive political and security issue for the West. Unlike the pre-war times, when Western multi-billion investments in reducing Ukraine’s war-fighting capabilities were welcomed or ignored by the Kremlin, nowadays any kind of international support for Ukraine – defence-related in particular – might be perceived as anti-Russian and provoke Vladimir Putin. A combination of security risks, business interests, and core principles and values, short-time benefits and strategic interests make these policy decisions extremely complicated for Western governments.

Ukraine’s Independence and Territorial Integrity Is in Germany’s Security Interests

What should or should not be changed in German assistance policy towards Ukraine’s SSR? What are the main issues that policy makers should consider in keeping this assistance consistent with Germany’s national security interests? How can assistance to the reform of Ukraine’s security sector serve the goals of strengthening security and stability of Ukraine and in the Euro-Atlantic region?

First, assistance to Ukraine is not a technical, but rather a strategic question. Obviously, peaceful, stable and resilient neighbours – capable of safeguarding their own as well as regional security and stability – matter! Therefore, it is critically important and in the German security interest to maintain a strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. Moreover, Ukraine already has a strong record of national contributions in global and regional security by active participation in UN and NATO-led operations amongst others. Therefore, political and financial aspects of the German assistance for Ukraine should be recognised and communicated – to German politicians and taxpayers – as an investment in a common European security, rather than be understood as mere international aid.

It Does Not Have to Be Weapons: Apply a People-Centred Approach to International Assistance

To ensure the sustainability of SSR in Ukraine, international assistance should focus on people, institutions and procedures. The German active involvement in ongoing and future international initiatives related to strategic advising, capacity building, education and training – as well as the proper application of other elements listed in the Federal Government’s SSR strategy – are just as vital as modern weapons.

As for the German position on the international transfer of weapons to Ukraine, of course, modern weapons and ammunition are important for a country at war. However, Germany has plenty of other articles to offer, especially in the view of both countries’ shared people-centred approach to security. When it comes to the Federal Government’s executive decision on what kind of item to pick up from the long list of what Ukraine needs, there is always a possibility to satisfy Ukraine’s requirements without compromising German principles. German assistance for military medical service is but one example of providing foreign military aid short of weaponry supply.

Focus on the Implementation of Existing Regulations, Norms and Standards

Other, non-material items include the German experience of incorporating the principles of human rights and the rule of law, as well as international principles of good governance into institutional procedures and the daily activities of military, law-enforcement, and security services. Colonel Ralf Mayer, German Military Attaché in Kyiv, rightly mentioned in his recent interview  for the Ukrainian Den newspaper the importance of the “transfer of values”: “modern armed forces are perceived as an integral part of society with a focus on its people. An army is a part of a peaceful and stable Euro-Atlantic order, based on the rule of law”.

These strategically important issues should be shared at all levels as an integral part of various forms and formats of cooperation – either with Ukrainian high-level officials, civil society activists, or with low-rank personnel. German assistance should aim, however, not only at the development of laws and regulations but also and primarily at the practical implementation of already existing national documents and European/NATO norms and standards, both formal and informal ones.

Cooperate With Civil Society and Transfer Not Only Material Support, but Democratic Values and Standards

Last but not least, as the German government’s SSR strategy stipulates: “effective SSR processes are inconceivable without the inclusion of civil society”. The Ukrainian civil society (public activists, volunteers, think tanks, and more) is one of the key players in the SSR process. Therefore, it is crucial that international partners appreciate, maintain, and develop cooperation with the Ukrainian civil society in the future. Recent positive developments in tackling a deeply rooted Soviet-time problem of gender inequality in Ukraine’s security sector is a good example of the value of such cooperation.

To conclude, Ukraine has made a remarkable progress in the area of SSR during the last six years. The value of Western support for the national reform efforts is hard to overestimate. The ultimate success, however, is still a challenge and depends on many factors, including Ukraine’s ability to absorb not only financial and in-kind contributions but also the Western democratic values and principles, incorporating them into practice, into the daily lives of national military and non-military security agencies. If Germany succeeds in supporting Ukraine with its efforts to replace the deeply rooted Soviet legacy by putting the principles of human rights and the rule of law in the centre of the Ukrainian security sector, it has a real chance to contribute to a stronger Ukraine.

Security Sector Reform Osteuropa Menschenrechte

Oleksiy Melnyk

Oleksiy Melnyk is Co-director of the Foreign Relations and International Security Programmes at Razumkov Centre in Kyiv, Ukraine. His areas of research are national security and defence governance and reforms, international security, conflict management, and peacekeeping.