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Ukraine’s Military Pulled Itself Out of the Ruins of 2014

U.S. training helps but isn’t the main reason for the transformation.

By , a writer and veteran who covered the war in Ukraine between 2015 and 2017.
Ukrainian troops are trained
Ukrainian troops are trained
Ukrainian infantry and tank crews take part in a training exercise near Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, on May 9. John Moore/Getty Images

Early this March, I and two other U.S. veterans spent 10 days helping to train Ukrainian troops on the ground. I’m just one of many volunteers, many of us former soldiers, who did so. For nearly three decades, the United States and other NATO countries have sent personnel to help train Ukrainian forces, efforts that intensified and crystalized after the loss of Crimea and parts of the Donbas in the 2014 Russian invasion. It would be nice to think, as some have claimed, that Ukraine’s success is due to that training. But the truth is that it probably hasn’t played a decisive role in shaping Ukraine’s remarkable underdog performance against the Russian military.

For many analysts, the focus has been on an army burdened, until recently, by Soviet doctrine. Various articles and op-eds describe a Ukrainian military deeply shaped by the experience of the Soviet Union. To be sure, the senior officers of the 1990s had been soldiers and junior officers in the Soviet army, and many Ukrainians served in Afghanistan. But the crucial difference isn’t between the Soviet era and today. The reforms imposed on the Ukrainian army in the 1990s—and the decisions Ukrainians themselves made after those reforms—led to disaster in 2014.

Between 1991 and 2014, Ukraine’s military was shrunk and systematically robbed of resources until it had almost vanished as a fighting force. In 1991, Ukraine’s military had nearly 800,000 personnel on the books, along with thousands of armored vehicles and tanks. It had 2,500 nuclear weapons and a robust air force with hundreds of planes and bombers. In 1993, the nuclear weapons were given to Russia in exchange for guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty by the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia (formalized in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, now clearly worthless). Once the nukes were gone, other items seemed equally superfluous. Air forces, especially bombers, are expensive. So are big armies, and tanks, and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems. And Ukraine was going through an economic crisis of apocalyptic scale, with its GDP collapsing by nearly half.

Early this March, I and two other U.S. veterans spent 10 days helping to train Ukrainian troops on the ground. I’m just one of many volunteers, many of us former soldiers, who did so. For nearly three decades, the United States and other NATO countries have sent personnel to help train Ukrainian forces, efforts that intensified and crystalized after the loss of Crimea and parts of the Donbas in the 2014 Russian invasion. It would be nice to think, as some have claimed, that Ukraine’s success is due to that training. But the truth is that it probably hasn’t played a decisive role in shaping Ukraine’s remarkable underdog performance against the Russian military.

For many analysts, the focus has been on an army burdened, until recently, by Soviet doctrine. Various articles and op-eds describe a Ukrainian military deeply shaped by the experience of the Soviet Union. To be sure, the senior officers of the 1990s had been soldiers and junior officers in the Soviet army, and many Ukrainians served in Afghanistan. But the crucial difference isn’t between the Soviet era and today. The reforms imposed on the Ukrainian army in the 1990s—and the decisions Ukrainians themselves made after those reforms—led to disaster in 2014.

Between 1991 and 2014, Ukraine’s military was shrunk and systematically robbed of resources until it had almost vanished as a fighting force. In 1991, Ukraine’s military had nearly 800,000 personnel on the books, along with thousands of armored vehicles and tanks. It had 2,500 nuclear weapons and a robust air force with hundreds of planes and bombers. In 1993, the nuclear weapons were given to Russia in exchange for guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty by the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia (formalized in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, now clearly worthless). Once the nukes were gone, other items seemed equally superfluous. Air forces, especially bombers, are expensive. So are big armies, and tanks, and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems. And Ukraine was going through an economic crisis of apocalyptic scale, with its GDP collapsing by nearly half.

So, by 2014, Ukraine’s military was a shadow of its former size and capability. Officially, Ukraine had some 130,000 soldiers in uniform and around 800 tanks when Russia invaded.

What was left of the military had been hollowed out by corruption. Whatever the official totals of soldiers and officers were in Ukraine’s military in March 2014, I have it on good authority from Ukrainian officers that there were just 7,000 soldiers in three brigades that were “combat ready” in terms of training, equipment, and personnel. The 25th, the 93rd, and the 95th brigades were units in any meaningful sense of the word, capable of being assigned tactical objectives and staffed with people able to issue and carry out orders. Of the 800 tanks, I was told by a high-ranking Ukrainian officer in 2016 that a dozen were operational—the dozen used for parades. The rest needed a severe retrofit to make them fit for field action. Many ended up being cannibalized for spare parts to make others whole. Ukraine’s air force was in a similar state of disrepair and neglect.

And the military and intelligence agencies had been staffed by pro-Russian officers and leaders, under the administration of Viktor Yanukovych, further minimizing combat power when applied against Russia. Betrayal by traitors was a huge problem for Ukraine in 2014, with some units defecting outright to Russia.

To summarize: Ukraine’s usable military in March 2014 consisted of about 7,000 soldiers in three brigades, a dozen tanks, and a handful of aircraft, the deployment of which was frustrated in some cases by people acting on behalf of Russia rather than Ukraine. Most units couldn’t fight, and many of their leaders wouldn’t fight—or were fighting for the other side. The weakness of Ukraine’s military was well known to Russian intelligence, and the Kremlin’s decision to invade then was premised on a combination of knowledge of that weakness, plus a calculated—and correct—gamble that the West would not intervene.

But that initial defeat brought immediate lessons for Ukraine. And while Ukrainian soldiers and officers have always been happy to learn and receive aid from others, those were lessons it learned and on which it capitalized itself. From that core of 7,000 or so functional soldiers, the military quickly expanded through April and May, with tens of thousands of Ukrainians being conscripted, mobilized, and volunteering to join and fight. This group included Red Army veterans in their late 40s and 50s, some of whom were veterans of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It also included an inspiringly representative swath of Ukrainians from all walks of life.

In addition to the military’s efforts to replace notional soldiers with real soldiers, and as fighting broke out in the east, Ukraine’s government took a desperate step, one that harked back to the warfare of the past—it authorized the formation of militias, organized and funded by individuals and groups. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians (including far-right extremists, who joined groups such as Azov and Right Sector) joined these groups or supported them with logistics, and some immediately joined the fighting in the east. Whether self-funded or funded by oligarchs, these units were not an official part of Ukraine’s military structure, though they operated alongside Ukrainian military units that began filtering into the Donbas in June 2014.

The militias fought side by side with regular soldiers in harsh battles. Azov rose to prominence through its part in helping to retake the ancient port city of Mariupol in May-June 2014. By the time July and August came around, the military had pushed Russia’s first wave of conscripts and local militias back, but Russia’s military had begun to intervene directly from across the border. Events such as the Battle of Zelenopillya, where Russian artillery targeted Ukrainian formations, became commonplace (though the effects were not—Ukraine learned its lesson there, the lesson being not to gather units in open fields within range of Russian artillery). Unwilling to cross the Russian border to hit back at their opponents, Ukrainian units fought Russian militias and Russian mercenaries while under constant artillery fire.

From September 2014 to February 2015, the war entered a new phase, as regular Russian soldiers and units entered Ukraine’s east and inflicted defeats on Ukrainian operations, composed of militias and the military, in Ilovaisk, at Donetsk Airport, and at Debaltseve. A cease-fire was brokered on terms very favorable to Russia, preserving the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, and Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Ukraine started to dig in to face new attacks, while Russia consolidated its gains—and then went back to business as usual with European and American partners willing to turn a blind eye to the invasion.

One area where the West was quick to help Ukraine was in offering more and greater training opportunities from active-duty military units. The first thing I did in June 2015 when I arrived in Ukraine was embed with the 173rd Airborne, my old unit, which was training Ukrainian militias cycling back from the new front lines. I wrote about what I saw there in Forbes: essentially, that the Ukrainians enjoyed the opportunity to train hard but were teaching U.S. paratroopers, sergeants, and officers more about war than they were learning.

Other veterans of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq corroborated my observations: Our focus on counterinsurgency had allowed our basic warfighting skills to atrophy. The 173rd leadership was quietly thrilled to have an opportunity to learn about fighting tanks, being shelled by heavy artillery, and facing tactical challenges unseen by U.S. forces at a grand scale since Vietnam. I saw something similar take place during a joint training exercise in Romania in 2017, where the Ukrainian soldiers present were, again, the stars of the show. My assessment—that it was the United States that was unprepared for war with Russia, not Ukraine—was shared internally at this time by junior and mid-level leaders within the U.S. military itself, as evidenced by a paper circulated within the 173rd and other units and reported on by Wesley Morgan for Politico.

When I spoke to both Ukrainian regulars and militia soldiers in the following years, they agreed that the experience of 2014-15 had been crucial to Ukraine’s understanding of itself as a nation and for the military’s understanding of its capabilities and deficiencies. Others have had similar conversations. The traitors who had been part of Ukraine’s military and intelligence apparatus were fired or fled to Russia, and the soldiers and officers who joined the Ukrainian military in 2014 were promoted based on their competence on the battlefield, rather than on patronage or connections, as had previously been the case. War helped separate the wheat from the chaff—and made military corruption no longer something that one could turn a blind eye to but a threat to national survival and the survival of one’s comrades.

This meritocratic process was even more conspicuous in the militias, which adopted military hierarchies without any of the traditions or institutional baggage that usually interferes. It was entirely common to find platoon leaders and company commanders in 2015 in the militias who had started out as privates in 2014 and rose quickly through the ranks by virtue of their skill and energy. When, in 2015, most of the militias were wrapped into the military or the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ National Guard (for technical legal reasons, there were parallel military organizations created under Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Internal Affairs to deal with what, for reasons of diplomatic expediency, was then classified as an internal conflict), it was a further infusion of meritocratic, bottom-up units led by trustworthy and combat-experienced leaders into the military’s broader structure.

So, by the end of 2015, as Ukraine’s military continued to fill its capacity on paper and expand, about half of all its forces had been exposed to, or were actively running, an innovative and meritocratic military culture of a type unknown under the top-heavy Soviet system (a system that lacks an empowered professional corps of noncommissioned officers, or NCOs). Certainly, efforts to train Ukrainian units to adopt more Western models, including an NCO corps, have been useful in reinforcing lessons learned at the front. But Ukrainians, not Western trainers, have been responsible for transforming their army.

“The Ukrainian army has achieved some success with professional NCO establishment due to an early push of reforms and the dynamic of war, where a lack of officers bolstered NCO opportunities to step forward,” a Ukrainian general wrote to me on May 8 when asked for an assessment of Ukraine’s military versus that of the United States. “However, NATO standards have not been achieved yet.”

The general went on to explain that the Russian military had yet to begin any systemic effort to stand up a professional NCO corps and attributed some battlefield success to the advantage Ukraine enjoyed from deliberately transitioning authority and trust from officers to NCOs and decentralizing battlefield decision-making.

There are other areas where U.S. and NATO training has provided Ukrainians with a meaningful advantage, especially in the use of weaponry. While Ukrainians could probably have figured out the transport, prep, and operation of Stingers, Javelins, Carl Gustafs, and the other weapons the United States and NATO have provided to Ukraine, training expedited the process dramatically.

And while Ukraine was already in the process of standing up a more Western-style approach to special operations when Russia invaded in 2014, Western aid afterward helped greatly. I have reliable information from direct participants that partnering and training with U.S. special operations forces over the following eight years transformed the Ukrainian approach to that way of warfare, by improving their selection process, access to equipment, and establishing training that has become more rigorous and helped Ukraine approach the level of professionalization of elite U.S. units. While difficult to gauge while the war is ongoing, some successes of Ukrainian special operations are likely due to a commitment to the Western way of designing and training teams.

Ukraine’s military has been a hospitable place for training because its leaders hit on a similar structure and sense of purpose to U.S. and NATO armies organically in 2014-15. If they hadn’t, Ukraine would have ceased to exist. Offering them assistance and helping them to codify mechanisms by which to reinforce that culture is useful and good, but it is not correct to attribute Ukraine’s extraordinary battlefield accomplishments solely or even primarily to Western training. Those accomplishments belong to the brave men and women of Ukraine’s military and also in part to a Ukrainian public and civil society that are proving themselves to be democratic, humanistic, and deserving of Western support.

Adrian Bonenberger is a writer and veteran who covered the war in Ukraine between 2015 and 2017. He is the author of The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories From War, a collection of short fiction.

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