The Ukrainian armed forces have started switching to NATO standards. Medics, military police, intelligence, and general staff were the first to introduce Western terminology, ranks and equipment. Just six years ago, the Ukrainian army symbolised corruption and underdevelopment. Today, Western analysts see it as an impressive military force.
In the spring of 2014, Russian troops occupied Crimea, and Russian subversives invaded Donbas. Ukraine could only confront them with 6,000 soldiers, or 4% of its 140,000-strong army, which took three months to revitalise. Meanwhile, a volunteer army defended the country, and civilians brought them food, medicine, bulletproof vests, Jeeps, and even armoured vehicles.
The army reforms began in 2015. How much has the Ukrainian army changed?
In 2015, President Petro Poroshenko approved a new military doctrine and national security strategy, with Russia as the main opponent. Ukraine dropped its non-aligned status. The goal of the army reforms was NATO membership, which was even added to the Constitution.
Since 2013, Ukraine’s defence budget has tripled. Military personnel’s salaries have also tripled. Today, junior officers in the Ukrainian army earn about the same as their Belarusian counterparts, but half that of a Russian lieutenant.
Soldiers were given new uniforms. This was how Ukrainian fighters looked in 2013: a late-Soviet-type uniform, bullet-proof vest and machine gun from thirty years ago, World War II backpack and helmet. And this is how they looked in 2015: modern camouflage, Kevlar helmet, body armour, equipment vest, and tactical backpack.
Food has also improved. Before 2016, army canteens were supplied with 40 types of products, while now there are 396.
In May 2014, Kyiv brought back the draft, which had been abolished under Viktor Yanukovych. No conscripts were sent into the ATO zone, and reservists were mobilised instead. Six waves of mobilisation led to an influx of 210,000 troops. Draftees, conscripts, and contracted soldiers helped double the size of the army.
Today, 250,000 people serve in the Ukrainian armed forces, of whom 150,000 have combat experience, but only one-sixth of conscripts are in the army.
Russian aggression forced the army to change its structure. Now there are five types of Ukrainian troops: Ground Forces, the Air Force, the Navy, Paratroops as a separate force, and now there are Special Operations Forces, tasked with intelligence, sabotage, and disinformation.
In November, the forces introduced new ranks based on NATO standards. Warrant officers were replaced by professional sergeants, to command platoons, train young fighters, and assist officers, as in the West.
Ukrainian officers have become more responsive and proactive. The war has taught them not to await orders from above, but to make decisions themselves.
“The 24th Samaro-Ulyanovsk “Berdychivskaya” (awarded the Orders of the October Revolution, Red Banner, Suvorov, and Bohdan Khmelnytsky) Mechanised Brigade”. Similar cumbersome Soviet unit names were discontinued in 2015.
The following year, Soviet stars disappeared from officers’ epaulettes, and were replaced by diamond-shaped ones, as worn by Ukrainian People’s Republic soldiers in the early 20th century. The new parade uniform was also based on traditional UPR and Western army uniforms.
And in October 2018, the Verkhovna Rada approved a military greeting, which also dates back to the times of the UPR – “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!”
Defence plants began operating at the start of the Donbas war, repairing Soviet-era equipment, but also supplying troops with new anti-tank missiles, armoured personnel carriers, tanks, and high-precision missile systems.
Since 2014, the United States has provided Ukraine with 1.6 billion dollars’ worth of military aid. To compare, this is the cost of 250 Abrams tanks, or one-third of Ukraine’s military budget this year.
But before 2018, America was supplying not tanks, but artillery radar, night-vision devices, and medical kits. Yavoriv exercise range near Lviv – where U.S. instructors train Ukrainian soldiers – was modernised using American funds.
Two years ago, Washington agreed to sell Kyiv sniper rifles and 37 Javelin anti-tank missile launchers. The government is now considering buying American fighter jets and helicopters.
Within a few years, Ukraine has managed to increase its defence budget several times and build up an army capable of stopping the Russian war machine. From relics of the USSR, Ukrainian troops have now become a symbol of patriotism and rapprochement with the West. The Ukrainian military is currently the most-respected state institution.
But problems remain – the Ukrainian army receives much less funding than the Russian or neighbouring NATO armies. It needs to replace 30-year-old planes and anti-aircraft systems, as well as warships, half of which were lost in Crimea.
Civil society and officers with war experience are seeking to radically alter the army, but reforms could be delayed by Ukraine’s old sore points – corruption, and the generals’ and politicians’ unwillingness to change.