Rebranding the army

Time for a new military ideology

The advantage over the enemy in the wars of a modern globalized world is gained not only by the brutal force of weapons and the existing and potential strength margin of an economy. Such things as channels of informational advantage and impact, as well as the ideological platform on which the state and its army rest, are assuming great importance. That Ukraine lacks an ideological and value-related component in state formation was a subject of debates even before it gained independence. This point is still topical. Yet, perhaps owing to the events in the past few years, we have not only admitted an ideological vacuum but have begun at last to do some real things. There are a lot of them. One of them is an idea, revolutionary in essence but absolutely evolutionary by the mechanism of implementation, which historian Vasyl Pavlov properly called “historical rebranding” of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Mr. Pavlov is now an advisor to the deputy head of the Presidential Administration and is mainly busy making virtually tectonic shifts in the military-historical science and the sphere I would call practical ideology of Ukrainian safety.


The researcher is convinced that the utilitarian sense the ideology of military history is that it is supposed to determine the reference grid of the “friend-foe” system for the future generations of an entire nation – especially for the class whose profession is to defend political sovereignty. In pursuit of this goal, work continued in the summer and fall of 2017 to frame a modern concept of Ukraine’s military history. But laying the conceptual groundwork is a job half done. We need specialists to coordinate strategic evolution as a systemic phenomenon. Otherwise, all the work and efforts of any reform team, particularly in the defense sector, will be nothing but Sisyphean. It is a task for decades to come, and it is unlikely that graduates of Soviet military-political educational institutions will be able to adequately fulfill it, for many of them had the manipulative “Leninist” ideologemes planted in them in the already independent Ukraine. It is also a question of new societal traditions. I mean that some people are trying to turn October 14, Defender of Ukraine Day, into sort of an analogue of what we annually saw on February 23 until recently. It is an anti-Ukrainian approach indeed.

The plan of pursuing the Strategy of National Patriotic Education, approved by the government on October 18 last year, is a partial answer to the question “Who will be doing this?” Yesterday’s schoolchildren and now cadets of military (and not only) colleges will be forming the country’s agenda tomorrow according to the military-historical calendar full of universally-known Ukrainian ideological markers which must finally supersede the Soviet imperial ones.

Photo by Artem SLIPACHUK, The Day

“We are gradually improving our military-historical calendar,” Vasyl Pavlov says. “It shows clearly that Soviet Russia attacked the UNR on December 4, 1917, and Ukraine fought against the Bolshevik empire until November 23, 1921. This is why the Red Army should be considered as one that occupied Ukraine. Therefore, the whole period from 1921 to 1991 is occupation of Ukraine by Soviet Russia. Accordingly, the service of Ukrainians in the USSR’s army is service in an occupational army. Likewise, they served in the armies of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, Poland, and in the Wehrmacht. Once we admit in no uncertain terms that we had and still have the same enemy, this will raise a number of markers and the question: ‘How can they be produced?’ There are endless options. For example, one of the buildings of the current Defense Ministry housed the Vladimir Cadet Corps in 1853-1917. There was a large number of interesting figures among the graduates. Let us single out the key personalities, such as Yevgraf Kruten, a military theoretician, founder of the fighting aviation tactics and political writer. He was the third most important ace in the Russian Empire, the author of the world’s first dog-fight manual. Military theoretician Major-General Vsevolod Petriv, Chief of the UNR Army General Staff, also studied here, as did Marko Bezruchko, the future Commander of the 6th Sich Division of the UNR Army, which fought in the vanguard of the Polish-Ukrainian forces that seized Kyiv in May 1920. In 1931-35 he headed the Ukrainian Military-Historical Association in Warsaw and published Za Derzhavnist, a collection of military-historical memoirs.

There is a monument to Andrii Nilus, the first commandant of the Sergey Military Artillery School, at the Odesa Military Academy, but very few know that the general later commanded the artillery of Hetman Skoropadsky’s army. This kind of explanations should be given about every institution and military unit. How many Ukrainians know that Petro Bolbocean, who liberated Left-Bank Ukraine and Crimea, studied at the Chuhuiv Military School? In the same building, the Kharkiv Suvorov School (later Kyivan) was founded in 1943. But Bolbocean grew up as Ukrainian and fought for Ukraine! Likewise, Skoropadsky studied at the Page Corps, but his family upbringing resulted in him becoming the leader of the Ukrainian State.


Fate decreed that future enemies studied shoulder to shoulder at military institutions. It is the tragedy of stateless nations, not only Ukraine. Oddly enough, this happened again in the years of independence – some former cadets are now on the opposite sides of the line of disengagement. Taking into account the whole period of the 18th century to 1991, Ukrainians only fought for their own interests between 1917 and 1921 and partly in 1939-54. Otherwise, they fought for the interests of alien armies.

At the turn of the 20th century, the frantic activation of nongovernmental organizations evoked a sincere and deliberate response of “stateless” Ukrainians, such as Yevhen Konovalets and Myron Tarnavsky, who were brought up on the principles of national identity in the society they lived in. Among those organizations, there was “Prosvita” in Dnieper Ukraine and “Sich,” “Sokil,” “Plast,” etc., in Western Ukraine. This Ukrainian national renaissance in 1917 resulted in the emergence of an enormous number of people who were prepared to die for an allegedly nonexistent state. The Soviet empire, which immediately turned into an occupation machine, failed to stem this tide for almost four years.

Petro POROSHENKO, President of Ukraine, ( The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Kruty is a memorable day for every Ukrainian patriot and particularly for people who have associated their lives with the Armed Forces. The courageous heroes, who answered the call to defend Kyiv from the onslaught of Red Russians, had undergone a young fighter’s crash course on the premises of the First Ukrainian Youth School, now the Military Institute of Telecommunications and Informatization. The institute rightly deserves the distinction of being named after the Heroes of Kruty. I am convinced that those who study now, as well as those who have already graduated from it and serve in the Ukrainian army, will be proud of it.

“If we had begun to systemically form identity in the early 1990, we would have had no major foreign and domestic threats to statehood until this day,” the researcher says. The first thing Russia did when it entered Crimea and the Donbas was destroy Ukrainian history schoolbooks. I am convinced that our history manuals for the 10th and 11th grades in fact formed the young cohort of volunteers ready to offer resistance. Now, another excursus into the past… Look at the great importance the UPA attached to the ideological question! Imagine the conditions in which it fought – they were incomparably worse than those in which we live. In spite of difficult conditions, UPA field schools taught a subject called ‘History of the Ukrainian Army.’ The SBU archive has textbooks and lecture notes. We are not discussing their actual content or methodological level. And here is a simple question: ‘Which of the contemporary military educational institutions teach the history of the Ukrainian army?’ The answer is: in none of them, except for the National Academy of Land Forces, where this course was introduced recently. These graduates will only see service in four years’ time, but what awaits them is the great mission of participating in a radical ideological restructuring of the army. So there will be no result as soon as tomorrow. It will take time and effort to form influence groups as a product of the annual intensive training of officers and soldiers in ideological matters. But, as a research testifies, there is a tremendous potential in this aspect.”


“Could you tell us about the way new honorary titles are being assigned to military units? I know that you are a direct participant in this work,” I ask my interlocutor.

“The process is underway, albeit slowly,” Pavlov answers. “For example, I had a meeting with activists of the 24th Mechanized Brigade a few weeks after it was named for King Daniel last year on Independence Day. I immediately noticed how proud the military were of becoming royal infantry. It is an identity formed inside the brigade. Yes, it sounds unusual; it’s so much different from the way units have been named in the past 100 years or so. They also received as unique sleeve patch, much to the pleasure of officers and soldiers. They are proud that the count of the unit’s new history starts precisely from them. As soon as this brand, full of unique insignia, was formed, the brigade began to forget its “Red-Banner” background. The same applies to the glorious 72nd Brigade, now named after Black Zaporozhians. Of course, servicemen have to ‘digest’ all of these initiatives and get used to the new things – flags, chevrons, slogans, etc. This will go on until we completely rebrand the army. For example, an independent regiment of the Special Operation Forces is going to be assigned the honorary title of Prince Sviatoslav the Brave. Also important in this matter is the destiny of the bill on legal succession of Ukraine to the UNR submitted to the Verkhovna Rada on January 22.”

In the historian’s view, our military history needs to be popularized much better. For even among the military, very few know the true story of Ukrainian paratroopers in 2014-17. Just a few tank men will say that that the first Ukrainian combat tank was the T-12 made in 1924 in Kharkiv. Ukrainian winners in the contemporary war are still insufficiently heroized. This is what we call ideological work – any niche that we don’t fill will be filled by the enemy. And if we do not explain our military history, foreigners will explain it to us.

It is equally worthwhile to explain the sense of innovations, which are the result of changed ideological mainstreams in the state. Pavlov notes that, before rebranding Ukrainian paratroopers as the Airborne Assault Troops, one should have conducted an explanatory campaign to improve the ideological groundwork.

“Before the paratroopers took off blue berets in November and put on the ‘maroon,’ we tried to explain the essence of changes in units. This often took the shape of a heated debate,” the historian confesses. “We twice had a ‘battle of arguments’ in a battalion of the 95th Brigade. At the first meeting, we literally cursed one another, but at the second, the older soldiers said to the younger ones: ‘Let’s keep silent and listen to them.’ The younger ones ‘woke up’ slowly and showed interest in our ideas. They talked very long. Although everyone stood his ground, it is good that the conversation took place at all. Then I visited the field, where the brigade was stationed, for a week, and we talked again. And the more I explained the ideological essence of the rebranding, the more often I heard: ‘Why haven’t you discussed it with us before?’ There were similar discussions in other airborne units. Of course, there were also conflicts. One soldier said he would never take off the blue beret. Several other soldiers supported him. It turned out that the guy had been taken prisoner and tortured because of that beret. What is to be done? What is to be done with the horror and personal pride of a person who was able to hold it all out, get back to the ranks, and go on fighting? This should also be taken into account. We need a strategic communication between society and the army. We must give our newly-established assault units a new ideology that uses correct symbols. This also applies to new initiation rites. For example, the haidamaky used to bless combat knives and sabers on the Motronynsky pond bank. It is almost a sacred place for the Ukrainian winner.”

The following units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine have been awarded honorary titles in the past three years:


•  the 90th Independent Airmobile Battalion of the 81st Independent Airmobile Brigade was named after Hero of Ukraine Ivan Zubkov;

•  the 299th Tactical Aviation Brigade was named after the outstanding Ukrainian military pilot Vasyl Nikiforov;

•  the An-30 airplane, hull No. 86, of the 15th Transport Aviation Brigade was named after Hero of Ukraine, Colonel Kostiantyn Mohylko, a military pilot who died in the line of duty in the ATO zone;

•  the An-26 airplane, hull No. 35, of the 456th Transport Aviation Brigade, was named after Hero of Ukraine, Lieutenant-Colonel Dmytro Maiboroda, a military pilot who died in the line of duty in the ATO zone.


•  the Su-27 airplane, hull No. 50, of the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade, was named after Vasyl Nikiforov;

•  the IL-76MD airplane, hull No. 76683, of the 25th Transport Aviation Brigade, was named after Lieutenant-Colonel Oleksandr Bielyi, a Ukrainian pilot who died in the line of duty in the ATO zone;

•  a middle-size landing ship of the 5th Surface Ships Brigade was named after Captain 1st Rank Yurii Olefirenko, commandant of the 73rd Maritime Center of Special Operations, who died heroically in the ATO zone.


•  the 72nd Independent Mechanized Brigade was named after Black Zaporozhians;

•  the 24th Independent Mechanized Brigade was named after King Daniel;

•  the 16th Independent Brigade of Army Aviation was named “Brody”;

•  the 1st Independent Armored Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was named “Siverska”;

•  the 48th Engineers Brigade was named “Kamianets-Podilska.”


•  the Military Institute of Telecommunications and Informatization was named after the Heroes of Kruty.

Still under discussion is the naming of President of Ukraine’s Independent Regiment after Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the 58th Independent Motorized Infantry Brigade after Hetman Vyhovsky, and the 59th Independent Mechanized Infantry Brigade after Yevhen Konovalets.

Hennadii Karpiuk is a military journalist