Ukraine’s military poses a tougher challenge for Russia than in 2014

KYIV — When war between government troops and Russian-backed separatists erupted in eastern Ukraine seven years ago, Ukrainian soldiers fought in tattered sneakers and donated flak jackets while their inexperienced commanders often waffled —sometimes with deadly consequences.

Today, the military is battle-hardened and better equipped, thanks to years of low-intensity conflict and increasing domestic and foreign support. 

But as fears grow of renewed hostilities — bolstered by evidence of what U.S. officials claim is the largest Russian troop buildup since 2014 — experts say Ukraine would still be hard-pressed to beat back a full-scale Russian invasion.

While it could put up enough of a fight to inflict heavy Russian losses, according to Yuriy Butusov, an editor and defense commentator, the Ukrainian military remains hobbled by fundamental organizational difficulties.

“Unfortunately there would be a lot more heroism than professionalism,” he said.

Spending gap

Ukraine spent 3.4 percent of its GDP on defense in 2019, up from 2.2 percent in 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia spent 3.9 percent in 2019. However, the raw numbers are very different. In constant U.S. dollars, Ukraine is spending $5.2 billion, while Russia spends $65 billion.

Last week, General Ruslan Khomchak, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, sought to tamp down concerns over Ukraine’s battle readiness, saying it’s “ready for an adequate response” to various scenarios.

True, today’s comparatively larger and better organized Ukrainian army would no longer need to rely on the hastily-assembled volunteer battalions as it did when Russian troops first poured in to prop up local rebels. And in recent years, Western allies have provided myriad supplies, instructors and weapons that have helped sustain the country’s defense effort.

Currently, the country has around 255,000 active military personnel and another 900,000 reservists, according to the Global Firepower Index; Russia has 1 million active military personnel and another 2 million reservists.

Meanwhile, Ukraine ranks 13th in the world in tanks with 2,430 and seventh in both armored vehicles, at 11,435, and towed artillery at 2,040 pieces. However, Russia is first in tanks, able to call on 13,000, third in armored cars with 27,100 and first in towed artillery with 4,465 guns.

However, Ukraine still relies heavily on Soviet-era tanks, planes and armored cars. It’s also had trouble updating its forces, despite the constant threat from Russia — which, in contrast, has been on an extensive modernization campaign since 2008.

For example, despite exporting an estimated $1 billion in arms last year, Ukraine has failed to acquire or produce certain advanced equipment that would match key Russian capabilities. That includes effective anti-aircraft and anti-rocket systems that could defend against precision attacks on infrastructure and other strategic targets.

Coordinated air and rocket assaults on targets such as bridges, railways and electricity stations could grind the Ukrainian economy to a halt, according to veteran Taras Chmut, head of the Ukrainian Military Center, an NGO in Kyiv. “That means the Russians wouldn’t need to occupy a lot of territory to achieve their objectives,” he said.

Similarly, the Ukrainian air force remains woefully unprepared, Chmut added. Last year, its own commander admitted that its entire fleet would be obsolete within a decade.

Of the lethal gear Ukraine does have, some of its defensive capacity could depend on Russia’s tactics. As POLITICO reported Monday, the scores of U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles in Ukrainian possession would be largely useless in the event of a more covert or lower-scale Russian invasion that didn’t involve armor.

Mykola Sunhurovskyi, a military analyst at the Razumkov Center think tank in Kyiv, says such modern weaponry has made a meaningful difference. But he added that Ukraine would benefit more from technology transfers that would seed knowledge locally and lead to higher-quality homegrown production. 

“We can figure it out ourselves,” says Sunhurovskyi of the underdeveloped defense sector, “but it would take a very long time.”

Corruption is a major impediment, and state defense conglomerate Ukroboronprom has long been considered a hotbed of graft. In a joint statement with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine late last year, the monopoly pledged to help make the defense sector “transparent and accountable.”

Equipment aside, there are also concerns about the professionalism of military personnel.

Upper ranks

Chmut, who served on active duty from 2015-2017, said that the psychological hang-ups commanders had in 2014 about engaging Russian forces is gone — resulting in an army that’s “ready to fight.” But he said motivated and experienced soldiers have been driven away lately by bureaucracy and the diminishing quality of leadership.

Colonel Serhiy Sobko, an outspoken veteran who was awarded the Hero of Ukraine medal for his service, said in an interview last month with Ukrainian media that officers who had either performed poorly in 2014 or avoided combat operations altogether have returned to key leadership positions over the past two years.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for Ukraine to eventually join NATO — although any accession is a very distant prospect.

The military implemented 96 NATO standards in the first 18 months of Zelenskiy’s presidency compared to 196 during the five years of his predecessor’s administration, according to a new paper by the Kyiv-based New Europe Center.

Such standards range from aligning military ranks with NATO member states to adopting guidelines on logistics and planning. The authors described that progress as “positive momentum,” but added that at the current pace it would still take at least 13 years before Ukraine is fully NATO-compatible.

That means such changes would be of little immediate help if Ukraine had to confront a Russian military push.

Others are more pessimistic about the Ukrainian military’s modernization effort.

According to Mykola Vorobiov, a Ukrainian journalist and former researcher at Johns Hopkins University, commanders are often discouraged by the sheer paperwork involved in day-to-day operations, whether it’s responding to a deluge of daily inquiries or accounting for even mundane decisions. 

“Soldiers joke about the fact that the Ukrainian army is turning into the Ukrainian Paper Army,” he said.

Echoing Sobko, Vorobiov added that such levels of red tape — which can also include waiting hours for orders to fire back at enemy forces — hamper otherwise capable commanders.

Amid the increasing fears of escalation in recent weeks, Zelenskiy has sought to cut an image of being a decisive leader. He traveled last week to eastern Ukraine to visit front-line soldiers.

But critics like Butusov, who edits the online news outlet censor.net, says the Ukrainian leadership — partly distracted by a raft of other pressing political issues — remains incapable of taking the long view when it comes to defense.

“Our problem in terms of preparing for war is that we can’t put together a plan of action, we can’t organize the use of resources, and we can’t gather the manpower and intellect for decision-making,” he said.

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