Necessary reforms for Ukraine’s military

By Zachary Popovich

On August 6, Russian forces killed four Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region, despite renewed ceasefire agreements. During following discussions between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both sides expressed the need to continue dialogue within international working groups. Make no mistake, Russia will not simply be dissuaded from relinquishing its grip in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine must commit to structural defense reforms accompanied by targeted military hardware investments if it wants any chance of creating a long-term framework for national defense. Through practical aid packages and military collaboration, western partners and the United States can have a significant part to play in increasing Ukraine’s military capacity, effectiveness, and reliability.  

It came at no great shock to witness Russia’s takeover and consolidation of territory in Ukraine at the outbreak of hostilities in 2014. Entrenched corruption and outdated military principles had deflated Ukraine’s defense capabilities–limiting effective responses to deadly incursions. Although Ukraine has taken some measures to combat inefficiencies since then, there is still significant room for improvement. 

At a root level, Ukraine is suffering from its own history. Old, tired Soviet military bureaucracies and command structures have led to incredible levels of distrust between front line soldiers and senior command. Although the Ukrainian military enjoys a high degree of cultural and societal support as an institution, around 80% of trained military personnel still do not renew their contracts. Military leaders must not waste the strategic capital offered by a highly motivated, patriotic citizenry. 

At a time when Ukraine’s military has grown from around 150,000 to 250,000 soldiers, there needs to be a modern command system in place to adequately motivate and manage an emerging modern military. Soviet military principles of force concentration and staff subordination are suppressing the military’s ability to respond to threats and take initiative. Ukraine desperately needs a trained officer class that can be empowered to take action—supported by a senior hierarchy that values the ability to adapt across a flexible front. 

NATO and the U.S. have been active in contributing to Ukraine’s nascent structural reforms. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO had taken part in numerous partnerships with Ukraine to increase military standards and promote interoperability. More recently, NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit produced the Comprehensive Assistance Package—including trust funds to strengthen Ukrainian defense and security industries. 

The U.S. has also contributed to Ukraine’s combat readiness and overall modernization through holistic military-to-military training. American National Guardsmen and special operations forces currently run Ukrainian training facilities, such as the Yavoriv Combat Training Center. Late July 2019 additionally saw the arrival of Ukrainian sailors in the United States learning how to operate two American donated Island Class naval cutters. 

Of course, structural reconfiguration is only half of the battle in improving Ukraine’s security systems. Along with a modern military ethos and structure, Ukraine requires military hardware that will address practical security deficiencies. 

Since 2014, the U.S. has steadily increased lethal aid shipments, including the April 2018 transfer of Javelin missiles and launchers. In June 2019, the Defense Department announced a new $250 million package to provide Ukraine’s military with more military equipment. Although it is important to provide Ukraine with the tools necessary to defend itself, Kyiv and western partners must focus on the specific challenges threatening Ukraine’s security forces.  

Practically, front line Ukrainian soldiers do not require anti-air batteries or modernized ballistic missile capabilities—systems that were pursued by the former Ukrainian administration. These technologies address the wrong threats and would lead to greater Russian involvement without a reliable defensive infrastructure in place. Instead, Ukraine faces tangible threats from Russian equipped—and led–conventional forces by land and sea.  

The strategic focus of the new Ukrainian administration should be placed on investing in reconnaissance hardware, communication equipment, anti-battery radar devices, and other modern assets that will enable soldiers to respond to the hybrid nature of current front-line fighting. 

According to The National Interest’s Mark Episkopos, obtaining capable artillery battery detection technologies along with modernized armored personnel carriers would prove substantial in responding to frequent Russian artillery barrages. 

At sea, Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships in November 2018 solidifies the need for expanded Ukrainian naval capabilities.  Russia’s claims over Crimea and surrounding waters in the Sea of Azov have, and will continue to, put pressure on Ukraine’s ability to maneuver across sovereign territory and strategic ports. Key cities like Mariupol are under threat of being cut off from Ukraine’s navy and stand exposed to potential Russian offensives. 

As on land, Ukraine must take a practical approach to naval defense upgrades. Investments in coastal anti-ship defenses and radar equipment, as well as a commitment to meeting western naval performance standards, will place a heavy cost on future Russian actions. The goal here is not to structure a Ukrainian navy to compete globally with Russia. However, investments in targeted coastal and port defenses would make any hostile force think twice about potential Crimea-style invasions.               

To be clear, the United States and NATO have already shown a commitment to help expand Ukraine’s naval capabilities. July 2019 saw both the Breeze 19 and Sea Breeze 19 Black Sea naval exercises, which brought together a host of NATO and partner navies to evaluate contingencies and strengthen interoperability. Specifically, the Sea Breeze 19 offshoot of these maneuvers gave Ukraine a significant platform to both evaluate their naval capabilities and work alongside a multinational naval contingent. 

These exercises serve not only a symbolic purpose to show the value western militaries place on Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, but also produce tangible improvements in Ukraine’s command systems. Ultimately, Ukraine’s seized territories will not be regained through an all-out offensive or by eliminating all hostile Russian forces—the consequences of which would dramatically escalate a war that has already killed thousands and displaced millions. However, proactive structural reforms will give the Ukrainian military a strong foundation to defend against future attacks and preserve its territorial integrity. Collaboration with western partners must be expanded to gain both necessary institutional support and foreign investment. Equipped with practical hardware, Ukraine’s military can dramatically increase the cost of Russia’s occupation and protect Ukrainian sovereignty long-term.

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Zachary Popovich

Zachary Popovich is a current Master of Public Administration student studying at James Madison University.

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