ACCOUNTING FOR UKRAINE’S IMPRESSIVE STAND
The fourth round of face-to-face cease-fire talks is about to start in Istanbul, Turkey today (March 29) between representatives of Ukraine and Russia. Although there is no telling what will come out of the negotiations, both sides have referred to some possibility of reaching an agreement on a cease-fire.
Three days ago, on March 26, President Joe Biden on a hastily arranged visit to Warsaw said in an address at the Royal Castle: “We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul.” Given that most of the classified intelligence Washington has released concerning Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has proven true, one must pay due attention to how the US is seeing the war evolve.
Despite its superb intelligence capabilities, however, even the US initially was wrong in predicting that Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, would fall in just five days. More than a month into the war, Ukraine is still holding ground, providing a powerful impetus that has dramatically changed the posture toward the war on the part of the international community. Why have the Ukrainians been able to hold out so impressively to this point?
The primary factor must unquestionably be the vigor of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who tirelessly keeps inspiring his people to fight on. With their president demonstrating an unswerving resolve to fight to the end to protect his homeland, Ukrainian men have chosen to go to the battlefield as a matter of course. And Ukrainian women, ready to care for their children and elders, have made the difficult choice between taking shelter abroad and staying put, which has been another form of fighting for their motherland.
Zelensky has issued an appeal to the international community for broad support, arguing that this war is being fought to save not only the Ukrainians but all of mankind. Responding quickly to his pleas, nations from around the world have been sending military equipment to Ukraine. In addition to the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the three Baltic countries, as well as traditionally neutral Sweden and Switzerland have all contributed.
However, Biden reiterated his earlier pledge that US troops in Europe will not directly fight the Russians, stating in the afore-mentioned Warsaw address that American forces “are here to defend NATO allies.” In other words, Ukraine will have to continue to fight by itself. This makes one ponder what makes it possible for the Ukraine Army, which definitely is in an overwhelmingly disadvantageous position to be able to stand up against the Russian Army.
Ukraine’s Formidable Resistance
Put simply, although still insufficient, the Ukrainians have managed to lay the foundation of a solid national defense. “We must pay greater attention to the special zeal the Ukrainian people have shown to defend themselves,” says Katsuhiko Saito, former rear admiral of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces now serving as a policy advisor for the Japan Institute for Space and Security, a private think tank based in Tokyo. Saito feels Ukraine’s national defense system reflects the people’s resolve to protect their homeland.
He points out that Ukraine had a National Guard going back to 1991. After Russia annexed the Crimea Peninsula and began laying hands on the two eastern states of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, Ukraine swiftly started bolstering this National Guard.
In March 2021, Ukraine adopted a new military security strategy, which envisaged the broad involvement of the Ukrainian pubic in homeland defense. To implement the new strategy, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the “law on national resistance” with the overwhelming support of the people. Under this law, the National Guard developed into the “Territorial Defense Forces” (TDF)—the voluntary military reserve component of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Put simply, they represented a new “resistance” force.
In connection with the TDF, the law particularly emphasizes the importance of Ukrainians cooperating with the government in cases of war, decreeing that citizens commit themselves to protecting their homeland. It requires every citizen to strengthen his or her spirit of national defense and make due preparations for national resistance.
Specifically, what does the law expect of citizens in case of a conflict? They must take up arms to defend the territory, protect fellow citizens, and repel the invaders until the Ukrainian Army reaches the combat area. They must also prevent enemies from breaking through national borders and protect crucial infrastructure, such as communication networks, and facilities. The law also stipulates that citizens should cooperate in maintaining public order, conducting reconnaissance, and countering sabotage and intelligence operations of the intruders.
The TDF is positioned as a legitimate military branch on a par with the land, sea, and air forces, the Airborne Mobile Troops, and the Special Warfare Unit, notes Saito. The initial goal was to staff it with 130,000 men and women. The law formally came into effect in January—approximately a month before the Russian Amy launched the full-scale invasion. In that vein, Ukraine had not been “fully prepared” to defend itself at the start of the invasion, as Saito points out.
Ukrainian men are believed to be volunteering for the TDF one after another. Prior to the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government had provided hunting rifles to volunteers but switched to combat rifles on January 27—exactly four weeks before the invasion—as the Russian Army massed its troops along the border.
There has been some criticism in Japan of Zelensky’s announcement that guns would be provided to all Ukrainians willing to fight. The main issue raised was whether it was appropriate to provide weapons to the militia, who are not official military personnel, and have them take part in combat. If captured, they will not be given the rights and medical care ordinary military personnel are entitled to, thus running the risk of being executed as terrorists. But what those critics in Japan fail to realize, notes Saito, is that the TDF is a legitimate branch of the Ukrainian Army, entitling all of its members to the status of a prisoner of war stipulated by international law.
China Intent on Controlling Eurasian Continent
From Saito’s explanations, one comes to realize that Ukraine has been able to hold ground against the Russian Army because the government and the people together have earnestly grappled with national defense issues since the loss of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia, steadily making efforts to prepare for future contingencies. If the people of Ukraine had failed to put up such a gallant fight as they have since February 24, their country would have easily been annexed by Russia, resulting in a complete loss of their motherland. Japan, which has yet to have a serious debate on its national defense and security needs, has much to learn from Ukraine.
I found intriguing what American columnist George Will pointed out in his March 25 Washington Post column regarding a source of Ukraine’s national defense capabilities. Pointing out that Ukraine has been fighting a war against Russian-backed insurgents in its Donbas region since 2014, he noted that the war has produced 900,000 seasoned war veterans. Observed Will: “Putin did not reckon on Ukraine’s ‘900,000-man pool of veterans.’”
As mentioned earlier, ceasefire talks will be resuming in Istanbul today. Xi must be watching with keen interest how the talks will play out. During a news conference at NATO headquarters on March 24, Biden remarked: “When I talked to him (Xi) on the phone six or seven days ago, I made no threats, but I made it clear to him that—made sure he understood the consequences of him helping Russia, as had been reported and as what was expected.”
With or without such “threats” from Biden, Xi has not changed his stance that China’s national interests rest in its solidarity with Russia. In an effort to side with Russia, China persistently blames NATO for expanding eastward and the US for sending massive aid to Ukraine to allegedly start a war against Russia. Earlier this month, Beijing held study meetings for schoolteachers across China, including at the prestigious national Zhejiang University in Xi Hu City, Zhejiang Province. Attendees were instructed to teach Chinese students of all ages that NATO and the US are responsible for the war in Ukraine.
Attracting a weakening Russia to his side, Xi has every intention of superseding the US and putting the Eurasian continent under China’s control. As part of his strategy, Xi will continue to target Japan and Taiwan. The future of Japan will indeed be dark unless we learn from what Ukraine has gone through and make earnest efforts to strengthen our national defense capabilities.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 994 in the April 7, 2022, issue of The