How Ukraine Learned to Fight
Russia’s full-scale war started a year ago. Ukraine’s military started slashing its Soviet roots long before.
Photos by Paula Bronstein for Foreign Policy
Photos by Paula Bronstein for Foreign Policy
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine one year ago, it triggered national mobilization, international outrage, and a once-in-a-generation migration crisis. It also revealed the Ukrainian military’s slow-burn transformation from a Soviet army to a NATO-style outfit able to outfight, outfox, and out-equip its Russian foes.
After Russia’s first invasion in 2014, and during the war in the Donbas that has raged all the way through the ongoing Russian onslaught, Ukraine slowly began to revamp its military organization and doctrine, allowing it to eventually get to grips with its rival.
If the Ukrainian military had a steep learning curve, so did then-U.S. Army Col. Liam Collins. A career special forces officer and Princeton Ph.D. holder who had hopped back and forth between military deployments and academia, Collins was given a month’s notice in 2016 to join Army Gen. John Abizaid as an aide. Abizaid was a retired four-star general brought on by the Pentagon to advise Ukraine’s defense ministry as it reformed the country’s military.
Collins—who had never deployed to the region—did his best to cram in some reading before his first trip to Ukraine. Abizaid, who commanded all U.S. forces in the Middle East during the height of the Iraq War, had some prescient advice: “He said they might be even more Soviet than the Russians,” Collins said. At the time, he didn’t understand what Abizaid meant. But it became clear enough after their first meeting with senior Ukrainian military officials.
“We’re sitting across the table with a bunch of four stars all lined up for the first meeting,” Collins remembered. One of the Ukrainians, Collins said, “opens a book, reads out of it for fifteen minutes, [and] closes the book. There’s no discussion, no questions, nobody else says anything. We walk out of there and I’m like, ‘What the hell was that?’ And [Abizaid] said, ‘That was a Soviet meeting right there.’”
For years, it was an open secret in the Pentagon that corruption was rampant in Ukraine’s military. It only got worse under pro-Russian billionaire president Viktor Yanukovych, who held office from 2010 to 2014. But no one knew how bad the rot really was until an urgent call came from Kyiv in the days after Russia seized and illegally annexed Crimea in March 2014.
“The transitional government came to us and said, ‘Can you give us MREs [Meals, Ready-to-Eat]; can you give us blankets?’” said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration. “The larders were bare. It was shocking to us that the level of corruption extended so far that they were depriving their troops of basic things like blankets and MREs.” Ukrainian babushkas made warm meals for destitute troops. Some soldiers didn’t even have uniforms.
The Ukrainian military had been deliberately hollowed out by a series of leaders including Yanukovych, who had abandoned a lavish state-bought mansion in the Kyiv suburbs as protesters seized control of the Ukrainian capital in February 2014—and as the Kremlin ordered troops onto the Crimean Peninsula.
Lack of supplies wasn’t the only thing hampering the Ukrainian forces. There was also a lack of initiative. Western militaries may be led by high-ranking officers such as colonels and generals, but since the Cold War, the United States has also trained non-commissioned officers such as sergeants, and even enlisted troops, to make tactical decisions on their own in the thick of combat. That style of warfighting was inspired by the 19th- and 20th-century German army’s delegation of decision-making ever downward—and stands in sharp contrast to the rigid top-down style that still prevails in the Russian military.
In Ukraine, though, the idea of delegating command was yet to take hold. The reformist fervor found in Ukraine’s streets hadn’t yet trickled into the military. It was top heavy and junior officers feared that they might take the fall if things went wrong on the battlefield.
Since 1993, the United States had been attempting to train Ukraine’s military with National Guard troops. It was part of a plan to get former Soviet bloc nations ready for possible NATO entry. Western trainers found Ukraine’s non-commissioned officers had been left with surprisingly little room to think—or fight—for themselves.
But the problems went both ways. When it came to Russia’s 2014 invasion, the Obama administration’s fear of Russian retribution limited it from sending Ukraine high-level equipment, so Kyiv had to improvise. Lacking effective air defense or long-range artillery, Ukrainian soldiers were left to fend off deadly drones in the Donbas by shooting their Kalashnikovs in a crossing pattern to try to knock the drones down. To protect themselves, Ukrainian troops built underground bunkers by stacking wood and ammunition pallets topped with mounds of dirt, like a World War I trench.
When Canadian trainers hit the ground in April 2015, NATO countries had little to show for two decades of engagement. “It became very clear that all of the authorities were centralized at a very high level,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Timothy Arsenault, who commanded the second rotation of the Canadian mission, starting in 2016.
A U.S. military advisor [agreed that the military culture was starkly different]. “It was not like working with a NATO military where you can have very open discussions,” the advisor said. “There were about 20 people in the government that had the special permission to provide aid to Ukraine. And the rest of us were basically told, don’t get too cozy with these people.”
“Teach a man to fish”
As the Trump administration took over in 2017, Ukrainian officials worked overtime to butter up their U.S. counterparts. They still wanted the Pentagon’s most advanced weapons to deter another Russian assault. While debate raged within the Trump administration over providing Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, Ukrainian officials invited Ben Hodges, the top U.S. Army general in Europe, to the Soviet-era Malyshev tank factory in Kharkiv.
Once the Soviet Union’s most prolific producer of tanks, the factory featured a shrine to the Red Army’s T-34 tanks of World War II. The tanks sported sloped armor that the Nazi army had struggled to crack. Hodges was impressed to see that new tanks were rolling off the assembly line, even as Ukraine was at war in the east.
“I’m watching them do repairs on battle-damaged tanks and then I notice there’s a long line of brand spanking new tanks,” Hodges said. “And I ask, ‘Are these going to the front?’ They said, ‘No, no, no, these are going to Thailand.’”
Ukrainian industry officials explained that Kyiv couldn’t pay for the tanks. But Hodges was still stunned. “The fact was that Ukraine was clamoring for weapons from the U.S. and they were not even making their own for their own defense,” he said. “So now we’re all playing catch-up.”
By August 2017, Ukrainian troops didn’t need as much Western supervision. That’s when Canadian then-Lt. Col. Kristopher Reeves got to Joint Base Yavoriv, a major military hub just miles from the Polish border. Reeves, whose grandfather left Ukraine at the age of eight for Canada, returned to his ancestral homeland to find the war heating up. Ukrainian troops were losing about a soldier a day in the Donbas from Russian drone attacks and mortar fire.
But it wasn’t hot enough to temper the steel of Ukraine’s military just yet. Ukrainian military planners rotating through Yavoriv would take the day off when they first got to the base. What’s more, they would sometimes show up without enough food, ammunition, or even combat boots to get through training. Some units didn’t even have enough fuel to do the military exercises they’d planned on. During drills, the entire Ukrainian tank fleet would at times be immobilized when the tanks ran out of gas.
“We deliberately did not purchase supplies and give [them] to tactical units at that time,” Reeves said. “We wanted to, you know, teach a man to fish.” Western militaries were trying to function less like schoolteachers and more like a NATO brain trust for Kyiv, mentoring the Ukrainian trainers preparing troops for combat.
At the same time, a slow generational shift that would transform Ukraine’s military had begun. Soviet-era officers were aging out of the force and the organizational structure that had characterized the Ukrainian military since independence began to resemble something that might be more familiar to the Pentagon. Unlike the Soviet-era military districts, which gave a small handful of geographic commanders vast control over the military, now the Ukrainians would have operational posts for north, south, east, and west—akin to the U.S. combatant commands that originated in the 1980s.
Then, in March 2020, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky made the decision to split the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces from the existing general staff. It was an effort to encode NATO’s “Mission Command” style of delegating into the military’s DNA. Zelensky promoted General Valeriy Zaluzhny, from the two-star post of Operational Command North, all the way up to the newly created commander-in-chief position. The move sent shockwaves through the ranks. No one had ever been promoted from so low on the pecking order to the military’s top job.
Many of the new group of leaders in Ukraine’s military, including Zaluzhny, had come up entirely through the post-independence Ukrainian military. They made their names from 2014 onward, during the fighting in the Donbas war. This earned them military honors—and the authority to question the status quo. Zaluzhny’s molding in Western military thinking came early. When Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula, Zaluzhny, who was then a colonel, wrote a thesis at the National Defense University of Ukraine comparing the U.S. and Ukrainian militaries. He concluded that Ukraine’s military paled in comparison to the U.S. armed forces in leader development.
Zaluzhny and his post-independence cohort also initiated a widespread purge of Ukrainian military officers seen as pro-Russian. The United States and NATO countries championed contracts for English-language training for reform-minded officers.
That didn’t mean the Westerners always had the trust of their Ukrainian counterparts. Ukraine shut Western militaries out of Joint Endeavor, their largest national defense exercise, in the country’s southern Mykolaiv region, until September 2021. For a time, the Ukrainian government even classified the number of boots issued to its soldiers from Western trainers.
But Ukraine got geared up, with partners. In September 2021, British paratroopers joined the training mission. Ukraine did start sending units of troops, 250 at a time, to test themselves against NATO’s scorecards at United States-led exercises in Yavoriv, dating back to at least 2018. Sometimes, they could even out-NATO their NATO military counterparts.
When Russia’s full-scale invasion started last year, U.S. troops alone had trained 26,000 Ukrainian officers.
“Trying to swallow a porcupine”
By early 2021, Western trainers in Ukraine were anticipating an invasion. In March, the Kremlin began its largest buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border since the illegal annexation of Crimea seven years earlier, with thousands of forces heading to the border for snap exercises. Canadian Lt. Col. Melanie Lake had arrived just days into the buildup to oversee Operation Unifier, the Canadian training mission in Ukraine.
“From the minute we stepped on the ground, [it was] like, ‘This is happening; this is why we’re here; this is the very real threat that they are dealing with,’” she recalled. “This is a force of upwards of 100,000 forces that’s building up on the border as we speak, and we don’t know what their intentions are.”
Yet Ukrainian troops rotating into Yavoriv weren’t being given accelerated training timelines. The Ukrainian military hadn’t raised their alert levels. They were deliberately not escalating, Lake said, “to not give any excuse that the Russians could use to launch.”
In February 2021, Zelensky approved a plan to allow foreign forces into the country for large-scale drills. This set the stage for seven NATO country exercises. By July, Russia paused the buildup. Troops departed their posts, but left the infrastructure in place to resume the exercises. At the same time, 2,000 British and Ukrainian troops gathered on the country’s southern Mykolaiv coast for a large-scale exercise. The two-week British-designed Cossack Mace drill sought to test the Ukrainians in a war game scenario where Russia seized and controlled more territory.
After the first day of the exercise, Western military officials reviewed drone footage of planning by British troops and Ukrainian forces for a possible Russian assault—like the one that Pentagon military planners thought would characterize a full-scale invasion. The contrast was stark. The British troops were assembled in a tactical formation out in the open, as if they were fighting in Afghanistan. But the Ukrainian forces were spread out. “It took four or five scans of the drone footage to actually pinpoint their forces,” Lake said.
The exercise erased any doubt in her mind that Ukraine would fight with everything it had—and was much better prepared than the first time Russia invaded. “One of my linguists tried to equate it with Russia trying to swallow a porcupine,” she said.
“I didn’t do enough”
If you ask Canadian Lt. Col. Christopher Boileau what he would give the Ukrainian military, it wouldn’t be long-range U.S. missiles, or hand-me-down F-16s. The colonel—leading the latest iteration of Operation Unifier, which is finishing an accelerated training for the first batch of Ukrainian troops on German Leopard tanks—would give the defenders more time.
U.S. Army veteran John Roberts, a trainer who shipped off to Kyiv when it became clear the Ukrainians would stand their ground in early 2022, feels the same way. He recently had a group of freshly trained Ukrainian troops that he was hoping to train for two weeks. He got two days. “I told them directly, ‘Guys, you aren’t ready for anything,’” he recalls. “And two days later, they got pulled to one of the fronts.”
Nearly a year into the full-scale defense of its country, the Ukrainian military is still burning through ammunition, especially artillery shells, at a historic rate. In that way, it’s not so different from its Soviet forebears. But the gap in military might between Russia and Ukraine is still stark. “At best [the Ukrainians are] outgunned on artillery one-to-five,” Roberts said. “We are out-droned, we are out electronic-warfared, and we are out-signal intelligenced.” Roberts is still trying to help the Ukrainians kick bad habits, like pelting each other with airsoft pellets in close range fights on the training ground, something that won’t help them prepare for long-range Russian artillery shells hitting their positions on the battlefield.
But every Ukrainian is their own auto mechanic, Roberts likes to say, and the average untrained soldier is better schooled in stealth tactics than most Americans. Ukraine’s military buildup has swallowed up some of the country’s top tech brains: before the United States began sending NATO-grade artillery pieces in the spring, Ukrainian troops refashioned old Polish and Soviet-era tanks to fire mortars, and they used cheap Chinese drones to target indirect fires.
But the Ukrainians made due. When U.S.-made M777 Howitzer guns finally arrived, they were stripped of firing software and fire control systems under U.S. arms export control rules. Ukrainian troops developed their own software as replacement. At Hostomel, and in other Kyiv suburbs, commanders resorted to YouTube videos to learn how to fire Javelin and Stinger missiles to fend off the aerial assault. And the units that were lucky to have Javelins sometimes conserved their rounds, keeping the Russians at bay with weaker mortar systems.
Reeves, the Canadian officer, spent months soul searching after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Now working for the national operations director of the Canadian Army, he had trouble taking leave, or even a small vacation, last summer. He dresses his family in Ukrainian embroidered shirts, known as vyshyvanka.
“Did we do enough while we were there?” he wondered. “Definitely, I thought about that. And I think the answer is no, I didn’t do enough.”
Correction, March 3, 2023: A caption in a previous version of this article misidentified a weapon. It has been fixed.
Paula Bronstein is a Bangkok-based freelance photojournalist with more than 30 years of experience covering conflicts around the world, including the Rohingya crisis, political turmoil in Thailand, and the wars in Afghanistan and Ukraine. Her work has appeared in many globally recognized publications, and she is the recipient of numerous honors, including the 2022 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award. She was also a finalist for the 2011 Breaking News Photography Pulitzer Prize for her work covering floods in Pakistan. Her internationally acclaimed photography book Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear was published in 2016.
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch
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