Turn the Ukrainian army into a Swiss one?

The existing architecture of the national security system has a fundamental flaw that prevents from even theoretical provision of an adequate response to the current and potential challenges

The Red Alliance


Mid-August was marked by a series of statements by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. These statement signal a fundamental change in the system of manning the armed forces and, in a broader perspective, vision of the entire defense doctrine.

The system of basic military training is declared to be mandatory and should cover all reservists, that is, effectively a major part of the adult population, including both men and women. Citizens who have passed such training should form a people’s militia, which, in turn, should serve as the basis for a national territorial defense system. Finally, the authorities voiced the aim to create guerrilla, sabotage and intelligence networks on the basis of volunteer corps in cases of external aggression. All these steps, taken cumulatively, comprise the elements of a comprehensive reform, a model set by the organization of the Swiss Armed Forces.

This is not the first attempt undertaken by Ukrainian authorities to solve the problem of mobilizing population in the event of hostilities. In mid-March 2014, in the midst of a military confrontation on the Crimean peninsula, several working groups were created at the request of Andrii Parubiy, the former secretary of the NSDC (National Security and Defense Council). The experts were required to prepare a regulatory framework and trigger the establishment of the mass mobilization system. Specific forms of this system were to be clarified in the working process.

The author participated in one of these groups, which developed the project of Ukrainian Army Reserve. The working group proposed a framework governing territorial defense forces in different states and developed a holistic view on the matter. Based on this experience and knowledge, author offers his assessment of the ideas expressed by Ministry of Defense leadership.

To begin with, none of the recommendations prepared by these working groups has materialized. Moreover, the whole range of related laws, statutes, regulations, and curricula have never seen the light of the day. As a result, the structure that could be described as competent militia and territorial defense system has been absent for already more then five months. We have to admit that this failure is not an accident. There is a range of factors that preclude from success in this field, including the recent initiatives of Ukraine’s military leadership.

The problem’s structure

The existing architecture of the national security system has a fundamental flaw that prevents from even theoretical provision of an adequate response to the current and potential challenges. The flaw is that the current system of national security is fully controlled and managed by the state. All of its elements with no exceptions, including the Ministry of Interior, the Armed Forces, the Security Service and other special services, various kinds of advisory and expert bodies, recently established volunteer battalions and battalions of the territorial forces, are under operational management of and directly accountable to the central government. Simply put, all the state and public institutions are built in the management structure of the executive power, which in Ukraine is characterized by highest degree of centralization, inefficiency and inability to adapt. By virtue of the over-centralization, the system is poorly controlled and barely functional. In addition, there is a problem with loyalty of the major elements within the system, especially in legitimacy crisis among state leadership, which is clearly revealed by the events in Ukraine’s East.

In general, the current system is unable to ensure the creation of massive decentralized structures capable of facing the challenges in deployment of guerrilla troops, maintaining order in cases of military emergency or in any other emergency instances. All the authorities’ initiatives (with no exceptions) still derive from the very same flawed paradigm. In the government version, the system of territorial defense and citizens’ voluntary armed groups aiming to solve pending tasks is organized and run directly by the state. The experience of such countries as Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Russia, cannot be regarded as relevant for Ukraine. The reason is that their national model of people’s militia and territorial defense is based on two premises, namely the presence of a functioning state and unconditional citizens’ trust in it. It is needless to make a note on the current situation in Ukraine in respect of these two matters.

Swiss experience

Attempts to instill the Swiss model of military development in Ukraine have very little chance of success. Armed forces are uniquely placed among other public institutions, being a replica, a reflection of the main society’s characteristics, and reproduce its basic features. Meanwhile it is difficult to imagine two states having more dissimilarities than modern Switzerland and Ukraine.

Firstly, Switzerland is one of the richest societies in the world. Accordingly, it can provide almost every adult citizen with regular, sufficiently intensive and prolonged training.

Three million citizens, including men and women aged 16 to 49 years, take military training. For the first ten years of service in the reserve, duration of annual meeting constitutes three weeks. It should be note, that the preparation of a modern soldier (even in the cases of most common military specialties) is very expensive. This may be explained by the use of expensive materials, technologies that are extremely costly to operate, the need of a large-scale collective training for the so-called rallying the troops.

Modern Swiss society has a high degree of social homogeneity; inequality is not as overwhelming as it is in Ukraine. It is not surprising that social elite is present at military trainings and subordinates to the general rules. This is the key difference between Swiss and de facto stratified Ukrainian society, obsessed with status and obtrusive demonstration of its attributes.

Finally, Switzerland is perhaps the last example of an actual, non-declarative democracy in Europe. A unique feature of the Swiss political system is multilevel referenda system that allows the Swiss citizens to directly participate in politics. One can say that the citizens of Switzerland are the state itself. This situation is unique even in Europe and also is exactly the opposite of what occurs in Ukraine, where the overly centralized unitary state mastered all the social institutions, including even the local governance.

The differences in political and administrative structure, cultural and language policies between two countries are huge. On the one hand, there is an actual confederation of several dozen self-governing cantons with four national languages (including rare Romansh), and on the other hand there is a state, which deems any attempt to discuss the possibility of changing the principles of the state governance or state language status as high treason and aiding an enemy.


Events of the spring and summer of 2014 clearly demonstrated that the Ukrainian state and its government, regardless of political views, are hostile to any attempt of creating paramilitary, and especially armed groups that are not in their direct supervision, irrespective of motivation of these attempts and their urgent character. Neither military nor political, nor any other expediency is sufficient. As such, it is hard to expect cooperation and support from authorities in the establishment of a trained national militia. At best, these units can expect to be ignored by and on occasional doles from the authorities, as in case with volunteer groups.

One might ask what has caused the interest of statesmen to the idea of a people’s militia, why Swiss experience of military construction has attracted their attention? It should be noted that what it involves is the radical change of the existing concept. Over the last ten years Ukraine adhered to the concept of a compact professional army as an alternative to the massive regular army of the Soviet type. During these years universal draft has been abandoned, the vast majority of military schools have been closed, the number of officers and NCO corps has been drastically reduced, and Ukrainian armed forces have transitioned to a brigade model of organization. Reforms proposed by the Minister of Defense imply a radical shift in policy. There must be very good reasons for such an extreme maneuver.

In this case, one may suspect that there is a substitution of long-term tactical goals with short-term ones. Politicians usually come up with ideas of creating a national militia, training of guerrilla groups in times of military-political crisis. Country’s leadership was stunned to discover that it lacks reserves, first time in March, taking into account the occupation of the Crimea and the threat of entry of “green men” into Ukraine’s mainland, and then in August after escalation of Russian aggression into a new phase and open participation of the Russian armed force in the military conflict. The reserves are needed to strengthen the Ukrainian Armed Forces on the front and organize additional lines of defense in the event the enemy penetrates into the interior of Ukraine.

The ideas of territorial defense deployment and national militia arise as a consequence of country’s principal authorities’ panic, the feverish search for readily available and inexpensive, preferably free resources to plug holes. Unfortunately, the real attitude of military leadership to the problems of territorial defense is not only inconsistent, but also irresponsible, if not criminal. This became evident in the fate of the so-called territorial defense battalions, which began to emerge across the country this spring. These formations were presented as a worthy alternative for those who, due to personal circumstances, were not ready to leave their families and take part in hostilities. As the authorities communicated, these formations were assigned as an auxiliary military service in the regions where they live, which would release regular military personnel. In fact, these battalions were sent to the front, for which their personnel was not ready either mentally, or physically, or in terms of training.

With regard to the national militia as a voluntary organization of armed citizens, nothing has been actually done in this field since March. The reasons are clear:  the state has a mortal fear of organized and armed people.

There are only two ways out. In the least probable case, the country’s leadership finds the strength to overcome fear and apprehension, while state apparatus comes up with a sufficient number of competent staff capable of organizing the system of the national militia and territorial defense. The second option is to ensure that the society runs these processes themselves. This is not a trivial task, but at least it seems to be solvable.

It should be understood that our situation is our situation. While there is no direct analogue in the experience of other countries, we can still learn from other countries. In particular, the experience of the American National Guard State Duty and State defense forces seems useful. Ukraine has the most complex structure of the system of territorial defense, which includes components subordinate to local governments. In any case, we should design the institutions of our society on our own. Only then, we can get the people’s militia as an institutional organic element of Ukrainian society, its continuation and an embodiment of its spirit.


The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations