Ukraine’s Military Has Come a Long Way Since 2014
But so have Russia’s armed forces—making any conflict more of a toss-up than a walkover.
Western officials are unsure whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a final decision to launch another invasion of Ukraine, but they are furiously working to build up a package of responses to deter Russia and bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself—which is already a lot better than it was seven years ago.
When Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 and occupied the Crimean Peninsula, they faced little resistance from a decrepit Ukrainian military—inexperienced, hollowed out by decades of corruption, and lacking the most basic supplies, such as medical kits, boots, and proper helmets. Now, after years of reform and billions of dollars of security assistance from the United States, the Ukrainian military is battle-hardened and highly motivated after seven years of conflict with Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s separatist-held Donbass region.
“It’s certainly not going to be an easy operation. It’s not going to be a quick victorious war [for Russia],” said Andrii Zagorodniuk, who served as Ukraine’s defense minister from 2019 to 2020.
Since 2014, the United States has given $2.5 billion to support the development of the country’s armed forces, including Humvees, patrol boats, radar systems, and anti-tank Javelin missiles. But with Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, U.S. officials are weighing requests by Kyiv for further assistance, including support to plug substantial gaps in the country’s air and naval defense capabilities, as Ukraine’s navy lost 70 percent of its vessels following the occupation of Crimea. This month, U.S. officials were dispatched to Kyiv to asess the country’s air defense needs, a Ukrainian defense official told Foreign Policy.
During a recent visit to Washington, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov also asked if military equipment initially earmarked for Afghanistan could be redirected to Ukraine, including U.S.-owned Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters that are already in the country undergoing repairs.
An aspiring member of NATO—one of the causes of Putin’s ire over the past decade, a theme he and other senior Russian officials have hammered repeatedly this week—Ukraine has sought to bring its military up to the alliance’s standard by bolstering civilian control over the armed forces, strengthening its ability to interoperate with NATO forces, and pursuing broader democratic and security sector reforms.
In September, 6,000 soldiers from more than a dozen countries took part in a Ukrainian-led, U.S.-assisted exercise as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have both ruled out the possibility of intervening militarily to defend Ukraine in the event of a conflict but have warned that Russia would face punishing economic reprisals should it launch an attack.
In some ways, Ukraine has gone further than most NATO members. Since 2013, Ukraine’s military spending has jumped from 1.6 percent as a share of the country’s GDP to just over 4 percent last year, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But it’s all relative. Russia has 900,000 active-duty personnel compared with Ukraine’s 209,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and is vastly outgunned in terms of equipment and aircraft.
“The Russian budget is 11 times bigger than the Ukrainian [budget],” said Zagorodniuk, the former Ukrainian defense minister.
Even while ramping up defense spending, Ukrainian officials have made reforming the country’s sprawling state defense conglomerate, Ukroboronprom, a core part of their anti-corruption strategy. Progress has been mixed. A recent study by Transparency International of the world’s largest arms manufacturers rated the agency very poorly on several anti-corruption and transparency measures.
Other reforms are far from finished. “The Ukrainian military retains some substantial structural deficits, and important parts of it remain unreformed,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian armed forces with the think tank CNA.
One of those deficits is in the air. Ukraine has been slow to build up integrated air defenses and needs help on everything from radars to anti-aircraft missiles to command and control, said Alexander Gray, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council who served as the National Security Council’s chief of staff during the Trump administration. A former senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ukraine also needed to coordinate air defense to discriminate targets and get new coastal defense missiles.
In recent years, the Ukrainian air force has also experienced a huge exodus of experienced pilots, the Kyiv Post reported this summer, with many fed up with what they saw as senseless bureaucracy, low pay, and poor working conditions. Many of Ukraine’s military aircraft, bequeathed from Soviet-era arsenals, are reaching the end of their useful life.
Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration, said Russia is likely to move forward S-400 air defense batteries to complement its advance, creating no-go zones for Ukrainian air power. Making matters worse, Russia could use missiles to knock out Ukraine’s runways, airports, and fighters on the ground, Townsend said.
Near the border, Russia has four brigades manning Iskander ballistic missiles that can reach much of Ukraine, said Rob Lee, an expert on the Russian armed forces and a PhD student at King’s College London. “Ukraine has not had a good reaction. They have no comparable systems in this regard. “
And that’s the problem: while Ukraine has gone to great lengths to strengthen its military, Russia has too. The 2008 war with Georgia brought a rude awakening to Russian military planners as their operations against the much smaller country were ravaged by cases of friendly fire, poor leadership and control, and equipment failures. As of 2009, extensive efforts have been made to overhaul the armed forces, upgrade equipment and switch from a conscript army to a professional force. They also had the opportunity to test these reforms in Syria and Ukraine. A decade-long attempt to modernize Russian weapon systems, which began in 2010, was only partially completed during the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
“The Russian military looks very different today than the military that fought in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015,” said Kofman. “This is a military that has become both bloody and sharpened after a period of stormy reform.”
The Biden government still hopes there will be room for discussion. It is not clear that Putin has decided to invade, officials said despite Russian demands to withdraw US and NATO troops from countries of the former Soviet Union and stop any eastward expansion of the alliance. A senior administrative official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing political talks, said the United States hopes to engage Russia in talks in the NATO-Russia Council, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or the bilateral channel established by to include Biden and Putin this year after their Geneva meeting. The official said Biden had advised Putin directly that coordinated sanctions would be imposed on Russia in the event of an invasion.
Nevertheless, there has been a common refrain among US officials in the last three governments since the entry of Russian units into Donbass in 2014: Russia is less than 3 meters tall. Moscow’s military, which has elite combat units that can withstand conventional fighting for long periods of time, is still exposed to the strains of seven years of fighting in Donbass, according to experts.
Gray, the former NSC official, said Russia is struggling to maintain its armored forces – which would likely serve as a spearhead in any deeper dive into Ukraine – and has a relatively small inventory of tanks and mechanical infantry vehicles. That means Moscow may have to withdraw units from other military theaters, especially if US-provided spears find their target in Russian formations. And the conflict in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijan used commercial drones with hanging ammunition to bring vehicles down from the sky, shows that tanks and armored vehicles may be more vulnerable than ever in combat. And it’s not just new equipment being deployed: some Russian units still have outdated equipment, he said.
“It’s not an easy task for her,” said Gray. “They would go so far as to take part in a conventional, high-intensity invasion.”
A former senior defense official said that while Russia has demonstrated its capabilities in exercises, it has not undertaken a military operation as complex as a deeper invasion of Ukraine since the end of the Cold War.
Cyber security experts have also seen a dramatic increase in Russian hacking attacks on Ukrainian government and civil networks since the beginning of the month, in a possible attempt to prepare the battlefield for invasion. But there are different stages of preparation. The armed forces of Ukraine are battle-tested; all combat-ready troops have already served on the front lines in the simmering conflict in Donbass. After seven years of war, they are also highly motivated. While senior Russian officials have tried to whip up a casus belli and accuse the West of provocation, it is unlikely that this will prove inspiring to their troops.
“The Russian armed forces have no idea why they should take part in this war,” said Zagorodniuk.
How the two militaries will act in the event of war ultimately depends on what type of operation Russia starts and what the Kremlin’s goals are. “All