Home / Articles / The Ukrainian Military: From Degradation to Renewal
In August 2015, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense officially launched a comprehensive effort to overhaul the country’s armed forces as conflict razed through the country’s Donbas region. Three years later, fighting capabilities have reached their highest levels since independence in 1991. Yet, Ukraine’s security problem persists, as its military potential remains vastly inferior to that of its primary adversary: Russia. This deficiency would not be so great had Ukraine not renounced its nuclear weapons in 1996 under the Budapest Memorandum’s security guarantees—or if the country had a clear prospect of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, as neither of these options exists today, Ukraine must rely on its own conventional forces.
In 2014, the Ukrainian army began to recover from a state of complete degradation that followed the Soviet collapse. This weak starting point explains why the army’s current level, which has been achieved with international support, should be considered a significant success. However, the military reform is far from complete, and the problems faced while reforming the armed forces, such as (1) the poor quality of management (the Soviet-style management), (2) corruption, and (3) the lack of adequate funding, do not allow anyone to be absolutely certain of success of the reforms.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited one of the largest armies in Europe. Its armed forces had 780,000 troops, 6,500 tanks, 1,100 combat aircraft, and more than 500 ships. With 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles and over 1,000 tactical nuclear weapons, the country possessed the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, behind only the United States and Russia. At the time, Ukrainian officials saw this vast military as superfluous. NATO had turned from an adversary to a partner, and the Soviet Union’s peaceful dissolution made armed conflict with Russia less likely. Ukraine suffered a deep economic crisis and could not afford to support such a large military. So when the country embarked on its first armed forces reform in the 1990s—aimed at adapting the Soviet military into a modern force—the first order of business was the reduction of military structures and personnel and, under international pressure, the renunciation of nuclear weapons.
War with Russia naturally elevated Ukraine’s military goals, demonstrating the need for an army capable of not only participating in peacekeeping and counter-terrorist operations, but also of restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas and effectively defending the territory of Ukraine. New reforms began promptly in 2014. Unlike previous endeavors, these reforms feature a different set of tasks, a more systematic approach, and closer cooperation with Western partners. The army is being reformed to NATO standards with the assistance of Alliance instructors. Above all, they are taking place in the context of an armed conflict. This conflict, of course, presents a powerful incentive for change and provides combat experience to inform the army’s re-organization and the training of future officers. At the same time, it also hinders the speed of reform implementation. But after 2015, the intensity of hostilities in the east of Ukraine decreased allowing for sharp focus on reform.
Although we often refer to this process as “reform,” it would be more accurate to speak of the creation of a new military. Changes have taken place in all spheres—from strategic defense documents to management to logistics. Most significantly, Ukraine has officially declared NATO membership a strategic state goal, thus abandoning its two-decades-long multi-vector policy of cooperation with both NATO and Russia. It has altered the management of its armed forces—i.e., personnel training, logistics, and medical support—accordingly to achieve compatibility with NATO member states.
The government has also increased its budget for the military, which is receiving more funds than at any time since independence. Whereas in 2013 Ukraine’s military budget amounted to approximately 1.9 billion dollars, in 2015, it was 3.1 billion dollars. Of course, it is hard to say that any amount of funding is sufficient when facing Russia. Nonetheless, funds are flowing not only toward the maintenance of the armed forces, but also toward the development of new capabilities.
Increased funding has helped Ukraine significantly boost both the volume and combat-readiness of its troops. Since 2013, the number of military personnel has risen 36% to 250,000. This is particularly notable as the Ukrainian army gradually abandons its unpopular draft and moves to a contract service model. According to official plans (it was approved in 2017), by 2020, up to 80% of servicemen will be professional soldiers. At the same time, the Ukrainian military has also begun conducting numerous exercises with the support of foreign states to enhance the level of combat training of personnel. In 2016 alone, the Ukrainian military held nearly 900 exercises, including those with international participation. For comparison, in 2009, zero full-scale multinational military exercises in the territory of Ukraine were conducted due to lack of funding. Thus, in case of resumption of the active phase of hostilities in the Donbas, the Ukrainian army will be more effective than in 2014 because of the combination of its own combat experience and the technologies and experience of the military from NATO countries.
Last, the military has created units for information and psychological special operations and has reformed its territorial defense system. Today, in each region of the state, formed units of territorial defense are based on reservists, volunteers, and demobilized soldiers. By the end of this year, these units will be reorganized into battalions and consolidated into brigades, which will be managed by the command of the Land Forces of the Armed Forces of the Ukraine. The next stage will be the training of brigades in accordance with the standards of the NATO. The government also plans to establish a military police force, which should be created this year with Canadian support. Its tasks will include ensuring law and order among servicemen and preventing and detecting crimes committed by servicemen, for which it will be given the right to conduct pre-trial investigations. Also, this year, the President of Ukraine has described plans to establish a military court as an addition to the police force and the military prosecutor’s office. With these changes, the army is becoming more modern and better equipped to deal with the challenges it faces.
Many countries have provided Ukraine with material and technical support and assisted in training military and medical personnel. In this effort, the United States has played a special role. It has provided military specialists, billions in financial aid, and non-lethal armament such as communication equipment and radars. In early March, the U.S. extended its commitment to Ukraine a step further, approving the sale of the Javelin anti-tank missile system. On April 30, the first of these U.S.-made missiles arrived in the country. As a result, these changes have had significant political effects. For the Ukraine, the opportunity to purchase the Javelin is a sign that the army reform is moving in the right direction. The military effect is more limited in view of the small number of anti-tank missile systems (210 missiles and 37 launchers) that Ukraine has at present. Nevertheless, at least the Ukrainian military has the opportunity to seize new type of weapons.
The Tasks Ahead
The process of comprehensive military overhaul, slated for completion in 2020, remains ongoing. The reforms have been some of the most successful since the country’s independence. Ukraine has finally produced a battle-worthy army. But it needs to purchase additional new equipment and to implement changes efficiently.
The task of re-equipping the army with modern technology remains a critical issue. Throughout the conflict, Ukraine has maximized the Soviet technology at its disposal. Yet, given this equipment’s outdated nature, the supply of weapons from the West—communications, counterbattery radar, and night vision devices—is vital. While these supplies significantly strengthen the Ukrainian army, the strategic problem of weapons modernization remains unresolved. Ukraine will ultimately have to purchase new weapons in significant quantities. As the country’s economic situation remains bleak, it does not currently have the funds to do so.
The alternative is to produce modernized weapons domestically. This task is not easy either. Historically, Ukraine’s military industry was closely linked with Russia. The disruption of ties with Russia has thus forced Ukraine to look for military-industrial partners elsewhere, yet little progress has been made. Due to the war, Ukraine stopped military-technical cooperation with Russia in June 2014. In 2014, the Head of the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade, Dmitry Manturov, estimated the total volume of Russian military and civil orders placed at Ukrainian enterprises at $15 billion or 8.2 percent of Ukrainian GDP. Ukraine has not issued its own estimate of the value of lost military contracts, but they are clearly substantial. As compensation, Ukrainian military-industrial firms began to receive support from the state. Yet, the government’s financial capabilities are limited, and there is not sufficient money to upgrade equipment and invest in the development of new technologies.
This is why military-technical assistance provided to Ukraine by NATO countries is so important. Ukraine’s main needs remain anti-tank systems, reconnaissance, and communication equipment that would be effective in electronic warfare, counterbattery radar, and night-vision devices. Ukraine also needs to rebuild its navy and coastal defense system in addition to its aviation and air defense systems. Ukraine will only be able to acquire all the gear it needs with Western help.
However, the success of military reform depends on the ability of the Ukrainian authorities not only to find financing for military reforms but—more importantly—to implement them effectively. Implementing changes to the military faces usual challenges of Ukrainian reform: pushback from conservatives, corruption, and a lack of public and parliamentary control.
Western assistance will be crucial in the question of financing, but not necessarily on the question of implementation. Sometimes, NATO countries struggle to understand how equipment will be used under Ukrainian conditions. For example, 130 Humvee military vehicles were delivered to Ukraine, but spare parts and tires were not delivered. As a result, Ukraine struggled to repair the vehicles, and their use was limited. Moreover, Ukraine and the West often have a different understanding of what tasks the Ukrainian army should undertake. The West is guided in its assistance by the fact that the primary task of the Ukrainian army is to repel aggression. Meanwhile, Ukraine sees the tasks as being more extensive, including the restoration of territorial integrity.
Yet, even with optimal Western support, Ukraine faces other challenges in implementing reforms. One is the approaches, practices, and mindset of the Ukrainian military, especially senior officers who were trained in the Soviet era. The management in the army remains largely Soviet-style, based on control and punishment without support for independence and initiative. This style discourages trained personnel from staying in the military. Thus, according to recent data, a year after the training supported by the United States and Canada, about 80 percent of the trained military personnel leave the army. This statistic negates the ongoing work of improving staff training. Better managerial practices are needed to retain specialists.
Indeed, it would be naive to believe that it is possible to modernize the Ukrainian military without reform in other spheres of Ukraine’s government. Military reform will only succeed if Ukraine finds ways to limit corruption, develop a more democratic political system, and respect civil rights, especially linguistic and cultural rights of national minorities. Ukraine’s military reform effort is ultimately not only a question of modernizing its equipment. Modernizing and improving the management of Ukraine’s military is ultimately a more important—if more challenging—determinant of the success of military reform.