Ukraine’s army vastly improved but can't win from Russia

The Kremlin denies any plans to attack Ukraine, but policymakers in Kyiv and Washington say the Russian military’s buildup near Ukraine’s borders suggests otherwise. Some experts in the West argue that the Ukrainian Army might be able to withstand a Russian onslaught, if it receives all feasible support from NATO. Dmitry Kuznets for the Russian website Meduza explains what is the condition of the Ukrainian army. It is far more combat-ready than in 20214, but no competitor to the Russians.

zelensky aan frontPresident Zelensky visits troops on the frontline (picture Ukrainian presidential administration)

by Dmitry Kuznets

In the past seven years, Ukraine has spent more on its military than any country in the former Soviet Union except Russia. It now has the second largest army in the region, an experienced army reserve, a new command-and-control system, and a significant share of its arsenal comprises modern weapons. This would likely be sufficient to resist any assaults by the two 'corps' of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and even the handful of battalion tactical groups from the Russian army that have been 'assigned' to the region.

During the last active phase of the war, the Ukrainian military twice suffered brutal defeat against a relatively small adversary, first outside Ilovaisk in August 2014 and then near Debaltseve in January and February 2015. Military leaders in Kyiv estimate that Ukrainian troops encountered six Russian battalion tactical groups, or about 4,000 soldiers. Today, this would be too few men to overcome Ukraine’s armed forces.

oekraine leger 4 defensiePictures Ukrainian ministry of Defense

Ukraine now has the second largest army in the region, an experienced army reserve, a new command-and-control system and modern weapons

Ukrainian army has grown stronger

  • As is required for any country participating in NATO operations, Kyiv has implemented the so-called J Structure, forming special groups tasked with intelligence, logistics, defense planning, and more. It’s unclear how suited this structure is to Ukraine’s military, but it’s clearly superior to the old Soviet-style command-and-control structure on which Ukraine relied in 2014 and 2015, which made it impossible for Kyiv to manage its troops effectively.
  • Active troops have been trained under a new system that is based on combat experience. Additionally, troops regularly undergo training operations at the line of contact in the Donbas, opposite the separatists. Kyiv has dramatically expanded how much it spends on these exercises, and military instructors from NATO member states are also on the ground, helping to prepare soldiers. (Moscow has demanded an end to this practice.)
  • Ukraine now has new means of reconnaissance and target designation that it lacked in 2014 and 2015: a large fleet of modern unmanned aerial drones, counter-battery radars (which can locate the origin of artillery projectiles), and more. Kyiv is also now receiving intelligence data from NATO members that recently started deploying advanced battlefield reconnaissance and target designation equipment over Ukraine, including the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft.
  • To complement its new targeting capacity, the Ukrainian military has also started manufacturing new precision-guided munitions.
  • Kyiv has largely replaced its small, inefficient fleet of military aircraft (in 2014, this was first and foremost Ukraine’s Mi-24 helicopters and Su-25 jets) with TB2 combat UAVs from the Turkish manufacturer Bayraktar. This weapon (along with other UAVs) was arguably the pillar of Azerbaijan’s decisive victory in the 2020 war for control of Nagorno Karabakh. Ukraine has already bought 48 Turkish UAVs (apparently more than Azerbaijan, which used less than 20 of these machines in Karabakh). Kyiv has also ordered another 24 Turkish UAVs and recently signed a contract for licensed domestic production of the Bayraktar TB2.
  • Ukrainian combat units now have a large supply of modern, portable anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). First, there’s the American FGM-148 Javelin. So far, Kyiv has received roughly 47 launchers from the United States and an unknown number from Estonia, as well as 180 missiles. Second, Ukraine has 200 launchers and thousands of missiles for its own Stugna-P system. In 2014 and 2015, the Ukrainian infantry packed far less firepower.

All this should be enough for Ukrainian troops to withstand another military operation designed 'to force negotiations' (like the one Moscow executed in 2014 and 2015). Given the risk of military defeat and the high political price (the West has threatened to treat even a 'small war' as harshly as a full-scale invasion), it’s nearly impossible that the local 'corps' in the Donbas, acting with Russian support, would attempt another small operation in 2022.

oekraine troepen bij avdejevka in donbasUkrainian troops at Avdeyevka in Donbas

Not strong enough

In their annual assessment of the military capabilities and defense economics of countries worldwide in 2021, experts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) concluded that upgrading Ukraine’s armed forces to modern weapons has been only partially successful. In some areas, obsolete Soviet equipment is still all Kyiv has. In other words, Ukraine hasn’t recovered completely from the cataclysms of the 1990s and early 2000s, when its military shed much of its soldiers and weapons and combat training declined severely.

But in some areas, obsolete Soviet equipment is still all Kyiv has

Kyiv has struggled to institute reforms with multiple aims:

  • Synchronizing its army organization principles with NATO countries,
  • Quickly raising the operational capabilities of its troops at the line of contact with Russian-backed forces in the Donbas, and
  • Creating an army that can withstand a Russian invasion.

Ukraine lacks the resources to achieve all these goals at once. IISS experts say the government in Kyiv decided in 2020 to prioritize raising the operational capabilities of its troops along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine, leading to accelerated purchases of Turkish UAVs and similar steps.

Especially clear during the 2020 economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Ukraine has also struggled to build a territorial force reserve.

  • Ukraine’s current reserve of combat units, comprising veterans of the 2014–2015 battles, is ready to reinforce troops in the east if the government declares martial law (reservists belong to specific units so the military can boost these formations to wartime strength if necessary). There’s also a reserve of volunteers that can reinforce paramilitary groups.
  • But forming a reserve deeper in the country, in case of mass mobilization, has proved more difficult. Currently, Ukraine has territorial defense brigades that it started building in 2018. In peacetime, these groups have a handful of officers and contract reservists who undergo periodic training. In wartime, the military would form full-fledged brigades from these formations. Ukraine doesn’t have enough reservists, however, and it’s had problems with their equipment and training, says IISS.
oekraine leger min.defensie 2(picture Ukrainian ministry of Defense)

'You have a Ukrainian land army that has gotten much better, much more capable...

The biggest drawback of reallocating Ukraine’s resources to units fighting in the Donbas has been underinvestment in the country’s aviation, air defense, and navy. These shortcomings could prove critical if Russia executes a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, says retired U.S. Air Force General and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove. 'You have a Ukrainian land army that has gotten much better, much more capable,' Breedlove told NBC News last week, before adding, 'But the Russians would own the air and the sea.'

...but the Russians would own the air and the sea'

  • Ukraine’s Air Force and Army Aviation suffered heavy losses in 2014 while inflicting relatively minor damage.
  • Without counting the UAVs, Ukraine’s readiness to contest the air hasn’t improved much since 2014. The same is true of Ukrainian pilots: their annual average flight time is half that of Russian pilots. Additionally, most Russian pilots now have practical experience in combat operations over Syria. Given the absolute superiority of Russian aviation and air defense (if Moscow decides to deploy its Air Force openly), the combat value of Ukraine’s new Turkish UAVs is questionable.

  • Ukraine’s Navy (which was decimated after Kyiv’s loss of its bases in Crimea) now consists mainly of Coast Guard cutters received from the United States and other Western countries. This 'mosquito fleet' poses no threat to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Yes, Ukraine has ordered four missile-armed corvette warships from Turkey, but the first of these vessels won’t be available until 2023.
  • Air defense is another weakness, says the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Late last year, Ukraine reportedly studied ways to obtain new weapons (including a request to the United States for Patriot PAC-3 air-defense systems), but Kyiv’s only realistic means of strengthening its air defenses remains its stockpiles of old Soviet systems on standby since the 2000s.

Consequently, Ukraine would be virtually defenseless against airstrikes and missile attacks by Russia, say Western military analysts.

oekraine leger 1 min.defensie(Picture Ukrainian ministry of Defense)

How invasion might unfold

Back in 2015, Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) expert Mikhail Barabanov said a military operation to 'force Ukraine to peace' might involve airstrikes and missile attacks against Ukraine’s control centers, followed by an invasion of Russian troops converging on the main Ukrainian formations in the Donbas. (Russian forces would attack from Rostov-on-Don and move through Mariupol before turning north, and from north of Kharkiv before turning southeast.)

Barabanov said Moscow could deliver another blow 'through the Sumy and Chernihiv regions, headed directly at Kyiv (but without actually entering Ukraine’s capital) to paralyze completely the enemy’s will to resist and force him to gather all reserves for a hurried defense of Kyiv'. The goal of this operation would be to encircle and destroy all Ukrainian military forces east of the Dnieper, effectively ending the organized resistance of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.

Ukraine would be virtually defenseless against airstrikes and missile attacks by Russia

In January 2022, CAST reposted Barabanov’s article on its website, explaining that the text 'remains relevant in almost every way and retains its value as a prediction'.

American experts, including retired army generals, have come to similar conclusions, arguing that Moscow might first encircle Ukraine’s Armed Forces in the east, thereby eliminating the country’s military potential. The goal of such an operation would not be the occupation of major cities or the seizure of territory. Alternatively, Moscow could use its navy to blockade Ukrainian ports while executing a series of small attacks along the line of contact in the Donbas, continuing these actions until the West makes significant concessions to Russia.

oekraine leger defensie 3(Picture Ukrainian ministry of Defense

Scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) mapped an analogous scenario where Russia encircles the Ukrainian Army and then strangles the nation’s economy by restricting access to its biggest cities — all without occupying or seizing additional Ukrainian soil. Moscow’s troops would likely advance along railways in eastern Ukraine in order to avoid supply difficulties, write the experts at CSIS.

A strategy of 'punishment' without occupation could allow the Kremlin to avoid a costly protracted war against Ukrainian resistance fighters. This strategy has an important limitation, however: the cost of attacking Ukraine (in the form of significantly escalated sanctions by the West) could prove to be too great to justify a military campaign that promises no material compensation.

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