‘We’re Working 24/7’: Ukraine Keeps Its War Machine Humming

Russian strikes have taken a toll on Ukraine’s defense industry, but offshoring and the cottage industry are keeping the shells coming.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Old tanks and armored personnel carriers are parked at an armor repair plant in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on Sept. 23, 2014.
Old tanks and armored personnel carriers are parked at an armor repair plant in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on Sept. 23, 2014.
Old tanks and armored personnel carriers are parked at an armor repair plant in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on Sept. 23, 2014. Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia has targeted Ukraine’s defense industry, from tank plants to logistics facilities, with more than 100 missile strikes since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Ukraine’s GDP is set to fall by more than one-third. And all the while, Ukraine has needed to learn how to maintain and service new NATO-grade weapons coming into its arsenal from Western countries.

But nearly seven months after the invasion aimed at toppling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, the country’s defense industry—one of the most robust in the former Soviet Union—has continued to chug along, according to experts and Ukrainian officials. That’s partly by relocating defense production facilities to secure locations, ordering new defense production agreements with European allies like Poland, and the government’s mandated creation of new defense production jobs.

Yuriy Gusev, the head of Ukraine’s state-run weapons manufacturer Ukroboronprom, told Foreign Policy in an interview that Ukraine is working with some companies from abroad to offshore production. But as Kyiv is increasingly given NATO-level weapons—more than $15 billion worth from the United States alone since February (nearly three times last year’s defense budget)—Ukraine is looking to build facilities to service those weapons and increasingly becoming a part of the Western military supply chain.

Russia has targeted Ukraine’s defense industry, from tank plants to logistics facilities, with more than 100 missile strikes since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Ukraine’s GDP is set to fall by more than one-third. And all the while, Ukraine has needed to learn how to maintain and service new NATO-grade weapons coming into its arsenal from Western countries.

But nearly seven months after the invasion aimed at toppling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, the country’s defense industry—one of the most robust in the former Soviet Union—has continued to chug along, according to experts and Ukrainian officials. That’s partly by relocating defense production facilities to secure locations, ordering new defense production agreements with European allies like Poland, and the government’s mandated creation of new defense production jobs.

Yuriy Gusev, the head of Ukraine’s state-run weapons manufacturer Ukroboronprom, told Foreign Policy in an interview that Ukraine is working with some companies from abroad to offshore production. But as Kyiv is increasingly given NATO-level weapons—more than $15 billion worth from the United States alone since February (nearly three times last year’s defense budget)—Ukraine is looking to build facilities to service those weapons and increasingly becoming a part of the Western military supply chain.

“From Feb. 24, we’re working 24/7,” Gusev said. “We have replaced some of our enterprises because of security issues and missile attacks. We’re working with partners to create maintenance and repair facilities for Western weapons and equipment here in Ukraine.” The potential for more maintenance facilities could help incentivize Western nations to send weapons and equipment more quickly to Ukraine, as NATO members have worried about sending things that the war-torn country isn’t easily able to service.

“We hope we will be a part of the production line,” Gusev added, also calling for joint research and development centers with Western companies.

Even with Ukraine under attack, taking some facilities offline, the country has cleverly adapted, using small-scale workshops and offshoring production to avoid Russian strikes. Gusev also said companies have tried to hire more and increase salaries to keep defense workers in their jobs; even in World War II, the United States struggled with absenteeism and worker strikes at many major defense companies.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said Jeb Nadaner, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for industrial policy. “They have very active networks in Europe and even beyond to keep their workshops moving forward.”

During World War II, the United States converted more than 40 percent of its GDP to fight Germany and Japan, and it provided weapons to Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and others through the Lend-Lease program. Even though the Ukrainians are under attack at home and have had a similar percentage of their economic output destroyed by Russian attacks, the mix of older Soviet-era factories allows for quick repairs and modifications. “They have the remnants of an older industrial base,” Nadaner added. “Think New York, New Jersey, 1965. You have smelters. You have people that can fabricate things.”

And as retreating Russian troops have increasingly left more sophisticated weapons behind—including tanks, armored vehicles, and assault rifles—Ukraine has put in place procedures to modify these weapons and use them against their makers. A Ukrainian military official told Foreign Policy last week that Ukraine had captured more than 200 vehicles in its sweep into the Kharkiv region near the Russian border.

“We have special research institutions, which discover all this Russian equipment and weapons, and we have our own design bureaus, which are looking for that military equipment and weapons from Russia,” Gusev said. But he emphasized that the long game for Ukraine is to receive foreign technology transfers, such as from the United States, and to create joint ventures with global defense companies to produce more efficient weapons.

The country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, is also considering a new draft law that would make the defense industry a priority industry in an effort to bring in more investment.

But even with farming out and the potential of foreign help, there are serious threats to keeping production rolling. Damage to Ukraine’s defense industry is just a fraction of the war-torn country’s coming reconstruction bill. Volodymyr Omelyan, a former Ukrainian minister of infrastructure, said the running tally of Russian damage to the country is more than $1 trillion, but he cautioned that the figure was a rough estimate as the fighting continues to wreak havoc on Ukrainian infrastructure.

“We are still able to produce many types of weapons, but definitely under permanent threat of bombing, you cannot make a real production line,” Omelyan said. He added that the Ukrainian government should try to make offshore arrangements with neighboring NATO countries, such as Poland and Slovakia, and with the help of Western countries, produce artillery ammunition and missiles—with the guarantee that those facilities would come back to Ukraine after the war.

One Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about ongoing production efforts, said the government had also begun to emphasize defense production facilities in Ukraine’s western reaches—further away, though not completely out of the way, of possible Russian missile strikes. (Much of the then-Soviet Union moved its industrial base east across the Ural Mountains to keep it out of range of Nazi invaders.) This month, Zelensky said the Turkish firm responsible for making low-cost Bayraktar TB-2 drones that were used extensively against Russian armor early in the war will set up a factory in Ukraine to build unmanned aerial vehicles.

Combined with low-level workshop production, experts believe Ukraine’s defense industry can hold out. “A lot of workshops, a lot of motivation,” Nadaner said. “It’s no substitute for what were giving them, no substitute for us growing our defense budget significantly, … but what they have retained is operating at a much greater production [level] than it did prewar.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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