Seven years of deadlock: Why Ukraine’s military reforms have gone nowhere, and how the US should respond

Author : Glen Grant

Source : Jamestown Foundation

After seven years of war, the Ukrainian defense system has not reformed
21:25, 2 August 2021

Ukrainian Army
Defense Ministry of Ukraine

“Such education and introduction of new approaches should occur either simultaneously at all levels or starting from the top tier of the chain of command—it will not work otherwise.”[1]

Executive Summary

After seven years of war, the Ukrainian defense system has not reformed. The reasons are extraordinarily complex and intertwined. They range from a lack of political direction; the continued selection of senior officers who are old school “red commanders,” that is, those opposed to NATO and wishing to maintain the Soviet legacy; to the inability or unwillingness of officers to challenge a system marked by outdated or detrimental laws, rules and regulations, since breaking these ensures punishment and career failure.

The United States’ “Gold Standard” assistance of more than $2 billion to Ukraine since the Russian war started has not had any noticeable, let alone quantifiable, return on investment. Indeed, US-driven reforms will not succeed without changes to the style and methods of support. Such a rethink of US military assistance will have to include greater conditionality on the aid, takeover of the program by a single military commander fully focused on reform and spending, and greater emphasis on selecting and training those sent to help after a much deeper study of the existing problems and challenges.

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It is remarkable and stretching credibility that after seven years of war neither the Ukrainian military nor the defense industry has undergone any substantial or lasting reforms. Historically, during the two world wars of the early 20th century, fears of losing created powerful motivations on all sides to adopt changes and innovation in every aspect of defense. These wars drove the creation of new forces, such as the Special Air Service; innovations like the tank, long-range rockets and drones; and, of course, the nuclear bomb. But more than seven years since losing Crimea and fighting having engulfed eastern Donbas, Ukraine has made virtually no more changes than would have occurred naturally by evolution over time or in reaction to Russian attacks. Moreover, even those incremental developments have totally and utterly failed to create a sensible military answer. This sounds inexplicable, but it is completely true.

The following study describes how and why this has happened as well as the reasons it continues to this day. The survey and analysis consists of three main parts. First, the background section covers the war and sets the scene for the huge external support and reform efforts that followed. Then, the paper describes why little reform actually occurred, despite the willingness, high energy and resources of the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to help. Within Ukraine, there has been little or no political direction or support for change, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. The bones and flesh of the military system remain steadfastly Soviet both in approach and methods, underpinned by a strong legacy of Soviet laws, rules and regulations. Secrecy is ubiquitous. The arguably broken system is strongly maintained by officers and staffs averse to change and quick to punish. The procurement system remains steadfastly dysfunctional even though positive changes to the law were supposed to usher in competition and transparency.

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Second, the paper examines why the US’s “Gold Standard” support system does not function as wished. Especially in Ukraine, explanation is needed as to why it is not creating the desired effects. This study, thus, highlights factors such as insufficient understanding of the culture and organization as well as dysfunctions stemming from a lack of conditionality to the aid.

Third, this review suggests how to take US support forward, including recommending assigning a single military commander to the process who will be focused on reform and spending as well as putting a stronger emphasis on selection and training of personnel.

Throughout this paper, it is important to keep in mind that the Ukrainian military, from the political leadership down to the basic soldier, functions as one of the last vestiges of the Communist and Soviet system. The pathologies run deep. It is not representative of the vast body of Ukrainian society but rather should be seen as a historic anomaly in a country that is slowly modernizing.


Ukraine has one of the most complex post-Communist defense and security systems remaining in the former Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact and Yugoslav spaces. While the war and allied support has ensured that Ukrainian frontline soldiers have improved greatly, the defense system itself is clearly and publicly broken at the organizational level—perhaps beyond repair, according to many defense-supporting activists. Prior to 2014, Ukraine’s defense forces were encouraged to be “friends” with their Russian allies, while the Armed Forces themselves was systematically destroyed and emasculated by politicians, including former President Viktor Yanukovych. This occurred through the simple act of removing any parts of the system that could deter or fight Russia. Vast swathes of operational military equipment were sold off or stockpiled, and the most significant units were cut. Typical of these acts was the closing of the newly formed Joint Operations Command Headquarters, which had been created and developed over several years with strong US help and training. It has still not been recreated, despite the war.

Only about 50,000 soldiers could have deployed when the war in Crimea started, in February 2014; but of those, “only about 6,000 were combat ready.”[2] How many were ready and willing to fight is an open question. They were never given fighting orders by the political leadership.[3] Political inaction and a strict military culture of waiting for orders meant the Navy was largely lost by being bottled up in Sevastopol Bay. Many sailors committed treason and went over to work for Russia; some simply resigned. Their personal justifications included the fact that they had been born and raised in Crimea and so had no life elsewhere. Others simply despaired of the Kyiv government.

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The irony is that since then, many of these sailors have been scattered to the four winds of Russia to serve, their ultimate loyalty to Moscow, of course, in doubt. Those who did stay loyal to Ukraine were ostracized by the General Staff in Kyiv and had to find their own accommodation in Kyiv and Odesa—and often new assignments. Many lived several years on ships in Odesa in appalling conditions. To this day, some have not been given accommodations for themselves or families, and many left the Navy early in disgust and despair.

Russia’s invasion of Donbas in April 2014 started slowly, with political agitation by Russian military infiltrators and in a highly confused fashion, all accompanied by a serious Russian international PR campaign suggesting what was occurring was a civil war. The Ukrainian government with a caretaker president, Oleksandr Turchynov, was confused, frightened and slow to act because of its uncertainty over which authorities it possessed. Officials in Kyiv initially called the war an Anti-Terrorist Operation (to this day, the Donbas war area is still called the “ATO” by civil society) and gave the task of managing the situation to the security services.

The security services were quickly overwhelmed, however, as the war became hot with Russian tanks and other weapons appearing. The task then moved to the army, but this was still too small and slow. Acting as taught, the Ukrainian army generals managed their forces centrally right down to platoon level, sometimes even from Kyiv. The weak army had to be quickly reinforced on the front line by national guard and even military police units.

With a few exceptions, the troops were extremely brave but usually overwhelmed by numbers, better equipment and lack of clear orders. The so-called “humanitarian convoys” from Russia were resupplying the Russian troops with ammunition and weapons. The day was saved by a civil society that mobilized. The Ministry of Defense and General Staff hastily created 33 small territorial defense battalions from May to August of 2014. Many other volunteers from Ukraine, the diaspora and others, such as from Georgia, went to the front line in small groups, sometimes with no uniform or weapons. They hoped to find these on arrival. This now national composite force suffered many serious losses of all units including a transport aircraft full of reinforcement parachute soldiers shot down and a unit caught in the open by multi-barrel rocket launchers. Almost without exception, the defeats indicated that both the leadership and units were seriously unprepared for war.

Some public successes also occurred, however, such as the daring 400-kilometer raid behind enemy lines commanded by now–Lieutenant General Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, currently a member of parliament (MP)t.[4] The second battle of Donetsk airport saw nearly four months of public and heroic defense. The forces were eventually defeated, but the extreme bravery shown by the few Ukrainian troops there earned the soldiers a title of respect from their Russian enemy of “Cyborgs.”[5]

The Russian operation effectively ended with two savage defeats of the composite Ukrainian forces at Ilovask in August 2014 and again at Debaltseve in January 2015. In each battle, Ukraine’s troops were surrounded by regular Russian forces. Many Ukrainians died and were captured. Those captured were later killed or tortured by the Russians. Because there are no records of the Ukrainian civilians who deployed to war, the exact numbers killed or missing will likely never be truly known. The two battles forced then-president Petro Poroshenko to sign the Minsk agreements to effectively halt the open warfare.

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The second Minsk agreement, in 2015, saw the war stabilize to trench warfare. This has now dragged on for seven years, with steady and regular Ukrainian casualties. Yet this stability should have been a chance to rebuild society and the Armed Forces. It did not work out like that. The national and senior military leadership never forgave the fact that the military failure was so obvious to all of Ukraine. The consequence was a steady attempt by the government to unravel the social gains made during the Maidan Revolution and to remove the added strength that society had gained from fighting the war. This attack on society included trumped-up charges and prison. One political blogger summarized it thus: “Injustice became the basis of a new political order.[6]

Instead of cleaning out the failed officers from the Armed Forces, as the public expected, Poroshenko left the senior military intact. The response of the senior military leadership was to turn toward NATO in public pronouncements; but instead of engaging in reform, they looked backward and set out to recreate a mirror image of a “small Soviet Army”[7] or a Russian copy. Admiral Ihor Kabanenko, a former deputy defense minister, noted this should have been no surprise as they were “educated on [the] former Soviet System.”[8] Colonel Serhii Sobko, Hero of Ukraine, recently supported this in a TV interview, arguing that the current Ukrainian forces are mentally and physically in a past era.[9] They talk about NATO but, in fact, try to recreate the past. The public face says one thing, but the internal workings are totally another. There has been some change, but Adm. Kabanenko has said often that much of the public face of the senior defense officials really shows skilled use of artifacts, not any desire for modernization. Most non-governmental organizations (NGO) and military observers agree with this idea totally.

Where Are We Today?

So, in seven years of war, defense forces remain unreformed and, in many cases, managerially dysfunctional. As recently as April, there have been public complaints about poor army food,[10] even to the extent of having a special public Parliamentary Defense Committee meeting demanded by MP Solomiia Bobrovska. She had inspected the navy food and found it desperately wanting and a procurement monopoly.[11] Massive overpayments for defense housing projects and many other public exposures, such as poorly managed careers, continue today.[12] Medical support in the military remains dysfunctional, especially dealing with COVID-19. Procurement is simply broken, both within the Ministry of Defense and in dealings with defense firms. Corruption and inefficiency are at the heart of all this.[13] The mess surrounding new weapons and equipment is legion. None of these problems are new. They are repeated regularly, but despite loud pronouncements from the Ministry of Defense and sometimes sackings of staff, nothing seems to change. The usual mantra is that all is OK, we have completed thousands of NATO standards, and reform is going well.

In the military, the system is still full of “red commanders” at every level who punish those with NATO-leaning views.[14] It is, therefore, little surprise that 65 percent soldiers are leaving after their first contract. And although the army is publicly declared to be 250,000 strong, the actual trained fighting force is more like 130,000 and probably less. Many non-fighting soldiers are in the large Soviet legacy training and administrative structures alongside civilians and conscripts who do not deploy to war.

The Illusion of Defense Reform and Reaching NATO Standards

The hardest thing for outside observers to accept is that much of what they read and hear is an illusion created by the government and defense staffs, designed to convince their own countrymen, NATO allies and probably even Russia that reform is underway and that the forces are powerful and strong. Certain change is, of course, happening—there must be after more than half a decade of war. The frontline troops have improved immeasurably. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are considerably better. Some of this is because of war and the natural passage of time, but much is because of the energy and huge resources poured in by the US and NATO allies. And yet, this has not brought Ukraine the operational benefits one might have expected considering the level of the US effort. (For a more detailed description of how SOFs are reforming, see Appendix A.)

Related: Forced volunteer battalion. Why Zelensky needs his own mini-army

But at the same time, volunteer organizations are trying to stave off organizational disaster created by political and military decisions that severely degrade operational effectiveness.[15] For example, the latest naval doctrine to replace that of the US-supported Naval Doctrine 2035 is “harmful and impracticable because it is based on ambitions only and does not take into account the real resources of the state that can be directed to the Navy.”[16] The reality is that any improvement is simply random.

Promotion to senior positions is dominated by loyalty to military and political leaders, (personal, financial and material) or by bribe. Basic training concepts have changed little since Soviet times; and what the West calls “collective training,” in which exercising doctrine, leadership and decision-making dominate, only exists when units deploy on NATO exercises. The system still does not recognize the need or value of this, likely as it has no basis in Soviet thinking and runs against the prevailing centralized culture.

Much of the evidence for this was collected by Come Back Alive,[17] the largest NGO supporting Ukraine’s military forces in financial terms. Team members are mainly former service people who are at the front line weekly. They provide significant support to frontline troops, including weapons sights, drones and training that is not provided by the Armed Forces themselves. They have also recently completed a survey of the army, trying to identify why volunteer (contract) soldiers are leaving in such large numbers. Other evidence comes from senior retired officers, activists and volunteers who work with units, active and reserve military in the system, and a wide range of US officials and military who have been engaged with, or served, in Ukraine.

Before discussing the possible causes of failure to reform, one must understand how this failure manifests itself. Of the hundreds of such cases, two are especially salient: the failure of procurement by the Ministry of Defense and failed artillery reform. The first is causing operational shortages not only within the system itself but also leaving the defense industry with work but no funding.[18] The second failure by the General Staff has left a key part of the system outdated and totally unmodernized. The two, when combined, have ensured that Ukrainian artillery units are completely short of ammunition and frontline troops are at high risk of operational failure.

 Read the original text at The Jamestown Foundation.

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