The United States and its partners can improve regional security and stability in Eastern Europe by supporting the modernization and reform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine more aggressively. Ukraine has suffered from consistent Russian military aggression since Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula and militarily intervened in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in 2014. The overall unpreparedness of the Ukrainian military and its inability to match the capabilities of Russian forces allowed Russian and Russian proxy forces to gain a foothold in eastern Ukraine from which they continue to destabilize the entire country. The Ukrainian armed forces have been partially restructured and strengthened in the face of this constant pressure, enough to stabilize the front lines for a time. They require significantly more support of all varieties, however, if they are to stop the advance of Russia and its proxies permanently, to say nothing of reversing the armed occupation of Ukrainian territory.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine continue to fight Russian troops and proxy forces operating in Ukraine in a war that has claimed approximately 10,000 lives. Ukraine has engaged in an ambitious military reform program to modernize its armed forces and meet standards required for NATO accession by 2020. These reform efforts have seen important successes in recent years, but the Ukrainian military remains vulnerable to conventional and unconventional warfare. U.S. General John Abizaid (former Commander of U.S. Central Command), U.K. General Nick Parker (former Commander of Britain’s Land Forces), and other western military leaders are in Ukraine to support the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s efforts to restructure itself and reform its forces.The U.S., NATO, and individual western states can support these reform efforts and shape the Ukrainian military into a force capable of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty and becoming a key player in Eastern European security.The effectiveness of Ukraine’s land forces has increased due to ongoing reform efforts and two years of combat experience. These forces still suffer from a lack of modern equipment and from an incompletely reformed organizational structure. Ukrainian front-line soldiers have learned much from the protracted conflict and now outmatch separatist forces operating in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has made progress in overcoming the low morale and poor discipline that confronted the Ukrainian Ground Forces Command in the early stages of the conflict. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that conscripts would no longer serve at the front line on November 2, for example. This step is critical in order to improve the effectiveness of Ukraine’s forces in the field and create a more professional army.
Ukrainian forces nevertheless lack experience in counter-insurgency operations, a lacuna which will become an increasingly exploitable vulnerability if they regain control of separatist territory in eastern Ukraine. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are in the midst of a transition from the Soviet structure on which they were based and remain inefficiently-organized. This cumbersome, inefficient, and brittle organization left Ukrainian front line units vulnerable to the rapid advance of Russian and Russian proxy forces throughout the conflict, leading to multiple serious defeats. Ukrainian front-line troops also lack standardized modern weaponry. Ukraine’s defense sector remains highly productive, but the Armed Forces of Ukraine does not have the modern weaponry necessary to allow them to counter Russian military intervention. Russian and pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine continue to use heavy armor and electronic-warfare systems that Ukraine has struggled to counter, leading to some of their most serious defeats in the conflict. Ukrainian forces remain highly vulnerable to conventional military forces as long as they lack the means to counter massed heavy armored formations. Ukrainian Ground Forces will be unable to provide a true deterrent to offensive action by regional aggressors until these problems are addressed.
The Ukrainian Air Force plays a key role in protecting Ukrainian sovereignty but faces capability gaps that undermine its ability to support Ukrainian ground forces in combat or consistently assert sovereignty over Ukrainian airspace. At the outset of the conflict in 2014, the underfunded Ukrainian Air Force used Soviet equipment and was not prepared for major combat operations. It nevertheless played a decisive role in supporting Ukrainian ground forces in early stages of the conflict. The years of neglect took their toll, and Ukraine’s air forces suffered heavy losses during the initial four months of intensive air operations, losing 18 aircraft and helicopters, mostly to man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and heavier anti-aircraft installations. Ukraine ceded its right to conduct air operations in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine on September 19, 2014 in an effort to deescalate the conflict, and the Ukrainian Air Force has not operated against hostile targets since. The Ukrainian Air Force’s high vulnerability to even limited deployments of Russian anti-air systems raises serious concerns about its ability to fight against a conventional combined arms force. Ukraine and its western partners should prioritize supporting the refurbishment of the Ukrainian Air Force in order to allow the Ukrainian Air Force to operate in its own airspace.
The Ukrainian Navy was nearly destroyed by the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and has struggled to reform itself in order to be a force capable of asserting Ukrainian sovereignty. Multiple high-profile defections during the initial stages of the Russian occupation of Crimea weakened the leadership of the Ukrainian navy, which proceeded to lose at least 51 ships, the majority of which were captured by Russia. The current flagship of the Ukrainian Navy, the frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy, along with several patrol boats and cutters, are the only combat-ready vessels available to the Armed Forces of Ukraine as of September 2016.
Ukraine’s loss of its primary naval facilities in Crimea remains the largest hurdle to the reconstitution of the Ukrainian Navy. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak reported on June 28, 2016 that Ukraine had allocated $100 million to construct a new naval base in Odessa to serve as the headquarters for the Ukrainian Navy as well as plans to repair and modernize Ukraine’s remaining vessels. Even when this expansion has been completed and these reforms implemented, Ukraine’s navy would likely face extreme difficulty protecting its key port cities of Odessa and Mariupol against the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
The Ukrainian Navy is currently the weakest navy in the Black Sea region. It is weaker than the Russian Black Sea Fleet as well as the navies of NATO members Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria, though is slightly stronger than the Georgian Coast Guard. It is, and likely will remain in coming years, incapable of asserting Ukrainian sovereignty around the occupied Crimean peninsula or over Ukrainian resource rights on the Black Sea should Russian forces in the region seek to prevent it from doing so. The U.S. has pledged $500 million to support the reformation of the Ukrainian Navy, $30 million of which was delivered in 2016.The reconstruction of the Ukrainian Navy will take time, particularly so long as Ukraine is denied access to its bases in Crimea, and will require continued focus from both Ukraine and its partners if the Ukrainian Navy is to be able to defend Ukraine’s coast and waters.
Ukrainian Special Forces play a key role in countering conventional and unconventional threats to Ukrainian sovereignty, and the effort to reform them has had great success. Much of Russia’s aggressive action in Crimea, Donbas, and elsewhere in Ukraine relied on small groups of special operators or light infantry who infiltrated Ukrainian territory, caused chaos, seized key terrain, and thereby undermined the morale and effectiveness of Ukrainian units ahead of the main body of pro-Russia forces. Ukrainian forces’ initial inability to counter this type of warfare demonstrated the need for a highly-motivated, well-trained special operations force to counter Russian infiltration, reconnaissance, and sabotage teams.Ukraine has therefore prioritized reforming the structure and practices of its special operations forces with support from U.S. and NATO. These reforms, intended to streamline the command structure of Ukrainian special operations units, will play a critical role in Ukrainian efforts to create armed forces capable of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty. President Poroshenko signed a law on July 26, 2016 officially establishing the separate Special Operations Command in the Ukrainian armed forces. Poroshenko noted that “in 2014 special operations forces had nothing except morale” and praised the necessary efforts to reform Ukraine’s special operations capabilities. Ukraine’s Special Operations Command is still nascent, however, and Ukrainian special operations forces have yet to become a fully mature force.
Ukraine has prioritized obtaining NATO assistance in reforming and retraining its armed forces since 2014. Ukraine and NATO’s partnership has existed since Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and improved significantly in recent years. Ukraine expanded its efforts to train with NATO in order to support its armed forces’ initiatives to improve their overall readiness, modernize their training and tactics, support structural reform, and improve interoperability with NATO forces. These ongoing efforts included expanded participation in large-scale NATO exercises, such as Agile Spirit 2015 in Georgia, Sea Breeze 2016 in the Black Sea, Flaming Thunder 2016 in Lithuania and Rapid Trident 2016 in Ukraine. These exercises allow members of Ukraine’s armed services to share best practices across disciplines with their counterparts in NATO. These exercises also give Ukrainian soldiers and officers the opportunity to become more accustomed to Western military practices, on which they are basing many of their reforms. The Armed Forces of Ukraine have shown a strong desire to expand interoperability with western military structures and improve military relationships with NATO in order to counter and deter further Russian aggression.
Ukraine has also made efforts to develop military relationships with individual NATO member states in order to expand its network of partners who support ongoing reform efforts. Since 2014, Ukraine has conducted exercises with many western countries including Poland, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, Turkey, and the UK. Ukrainian forces joined a joint Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade in September 2014 and have since proposed a joint military brigade with Bulgaria and Romania. These multilateral partnerships, combined with ongoing NATO efforts to improve the logistics and standardization of the Ukrainian armed forces, constitute a concerted investment in Ukrainian security by both NATO and Ukraine. The continuation and expansion of these efforts will build on the progress Ukraine has made in reforming its armed forces while using this momentum to further integrate into NATO and Ukraine’s efforts to maintain its sovereignty and counter Russian aggression.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine have made significant strides towards their objective of reforming into a modern military force by 2020, but they continue to face major challenges. As U.S. and Western policymakers consider the most effective path forward for European security, they should focus on supporting the ongoing reformation of the Ukrainian armed forces into a fully professional and modern force that can help maintain stability in Eastern Europe. Ukraine’s partners in the West should prioritize supporting Ukraine’s efforts to complete systemic structural reforms, modernize their military hardware, and rebuild its navy. These efforts will allow Ukraine to defend its sovereignty against regional aggressors and play a greater role in contributing to the security of Europe and the Black Sea Region.
About the Author
Franklin Holcomb is a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). His focuses on Russia’s global policy, particularly with regard to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.