How Ukraine remade its military
In just eight years, Kyiv took a force that could barely fight and turned into one that could stand down a superpower.
In February 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine for the first time, Kyiv’s armed forces quickly crumbled. Or to be more precise: They would have crumbled, had Ukraine actually fielded a military worthy of the name. On paper, the country’s armed forces were formidable, but on the ground, things were very different. Although the Ukrainian army officially numbered 130,000 troops, a scant 6,000 of them were combat ready. And even those few were woefully undersupplied; in the first days of fighting, Kyiv had to beg Washington for basic gear such as blankets and military field rations (known as MREs or meals ready to eat). According to Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, then Chief of Ukraine’s General Staff, 75% of his military’s equipment was more than 20 years old and obsolete. Of 800 battle tanks, only a dozen were still usable, and even they lacked sufficient fuel or batteries. The air force faced similar problems: Only 15% of Ukraine’s combat aircraft were fit for fighting, and the country was so short on air defenses that soldiers on the eastern front would fire their Kalashnikovs in crisscrossing patterns to try to knock down enemy drones. But at least they were trying. Ukraine’s military was staffed with so many pro-Russian officers at the time that some units defected en masse; a full 70% of those stationed in Crimea swore allegiance to Moscow when it annexed the peninsula that March. (Ukraine also lost 70% of its warships in the process.)
It’s no wonder that Muzhenko described his forces as “an army literally in ruins.” Or that, when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine for a second time eight years later, he so badly underestimated the country’s martial prowess. Indeed, the sorry state of Ukraine’s military in 2014 probably also explains why, on the eve of the second war, so few analysts – including those in the U.S. security services – thought the country had a chance.
In trying to explain how Ukraine has defied their predictions, many experts have pointed to the help the West has lavished on the country. The scale of that aid has indeed been staggering. Since Russian troops crossed the border in February 2022, the United States alone has given Ukraine more than $44 billion in military support, and its allies have kicked in $13 billion more.
Such assistance is clearly part of the explanation for Ukraine’s success – a big and necessary part. But it’s far from a sufficient one. For proof, just consider the fate of the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, both of which also received eye-watering amounts of American support (totaling trillions of dollars by some counts)– and yet both of which disintegrated after U.S. troops and contractors withdrew and the militaries first faced serious opposition on their own.
Those counterexamples raise a critical question: How has Ukraine managed to fight so well when the others (and you can add South Vietnam to the list) failed so dramatically? Understanding the answer, and the lessons it holds, is essential – both for U.S. policymakers, the next time they consider spending billions to prop up an endangered ally, and for the target countries themselves, states such as Taiwan that hope to fend off a powerful neighbor eager to gobble them up.
Things fall apart
To figure out how Ukraine did it – take a puny, broken-down, ex-Soviet military and, in just eight years, turn it into a fighting force capable of standing down one of the world’s biggest armies – it helps to get a fuller understanding of just where Ukraine started. And that requires going all the way back to 1991. That year, when the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine won its independence, it inherited the fourth-largest military in the world, boasting nearly 800,000 personnel, thousands of tanks, and 2,500 nuclear weapons. But it also inherited a problem: Maintaining this huge force was punishingly expensive, and newborn Ukraine was practically broke. Besides that, the Cold War was over and the region was at peace; why, many Ukrainians wondered, did Kyiv even need a military anymore?
The government largely agreed (as did many of its supporters in the United States and Europe), and over the following two-plus decades, successive presidents made a series of sharp cuts to the funding and the size of their forces – in 2013, Kyiv would end conscription altogether. Things got particularly bad in 2008, when the global financial crisis hit Ukraine like a tidal wave. Desperate for cash, Kyiv slashed defense spending to 0.79% of GDP, an all-time low, and began insisting that the military cover some of its own costs. Many of Ukraine’s otherwise idle officers took to private enterprise with gusto, using their troops and equipment for home building and renovations and even auctioning off land owned by the Defense Ministry.
Such activities point to another problem then eating away at Ukraine’s military capacity: corruption. To be fair, the pathology went far beyond the armed services. Following independence, Ukraine had become one of the most corrupt countries on Earth. Some of its leaders had tried to tackle the issue, without much success; others, like the Putin crony Viktor Yanukovych – whose decision to flee the country in 2014 during the Maidan revolution triggered Russia’s invasion – turned graft into an art form. A few months into the war, U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt declared that corruption was as deadly a threat to Ukraine as Russia’s offensive. He wasn’t exaggerating; at the time, theft and profiteering were estimated to be costing the Ukrainian military hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
A tolerance (or enthusiasm) for corruption was just one thing wrong with Ukraine’s military mindset in 2014.
But a tolerance (or enthusiasm) for corruption was just one thing wrong with Ukraine’s military mindset in 2014. While the country had been independent, and nominally democratic, for 23 years, most members of its armed services still thought like their former masters. When the retired U.S. Gen. John Abizaid – whom President Barack Obama appointed to advise the Ukrainians on military reform – hired Special Forces Col. Liam Collins as his aide in 2016, the first thing the general told him was that the Ukrainians were probably more Soviet than the Russians. “I had no idea what he meant,” Collins told me. Then he and Abizaid went to their first meeting with their local counterparts. “We were sitting there with the minister of defense and a bunch of four-star generals. The minister opened a binder, read from it for 15 minutes, closed it, and then they all left the room. No discussion. I turned to Abizaid and said, ‘What the hell was that?’ And he said, ‘That there was a Soviet meeting.’”
Like all militaries shaped by an authoritarian state, Ukraine’s forces were rigid and hierarchical and discouraged independent thinking, especially among the lower ranks. As Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s current Commander-in-Chief, recalls, in those days every officer reigned like “a feudal lord.” Collins jokes that “if you needed a parking pass, you had to get it approved by the defense minister himself.” On the front lines, such strictures meant that if soldiers were sent to stage an ambush on a specific road and found that their enemy had shifted position, the Ukrainian troops would remain in their initial (and now useless) position, afraid to budge without an explicit command from on high. No surprise then that in 2014, the Russians – who’d spent the six years following their bungled 2008 invasion of Georgia revamping their own military – faced little opposition in Crimea and made quick early gains in the Donbas.
Building back better
In 2014, after President Yanukovych fled to Russia and Moscow invaded, Oleksandr Turchynov, an economist, was made Acting President. Then Petro Poroshenko won a hastily organized election in May. Expectations of the chocolate magnate were mixed. The Willy Wonka of Ukraine, as he was known, had bravely stood with – and helped fund – the demonstrators during the revolution, at one point using a bullhorn to call for peace between protesters and the police. But he was also one of Ukraine’s 10 richest people, an oligarch who’d profited from close business ties with Russia and who’d first entered politics as a Yanukovych ally.
Regardless of the doubts about him some Ukrainians may have harbored, President Poroshenko had just inherited a war that his country was losing badly, and that reality had a bracing effect; the new president realized that unless he acted fast, he might not have a country to govern for much longer. During his short tenure, President Turchynov had reinstated conscription in order to start restoring the size of what he called Ukraine’s “helpless” armed forces. President Poroshenko ordered another increase in troop levels (to 250,000 personnel) and in funding; by 2018, the defense budget would exceed 6% of GDP, three times higher than the NATO standard of 2%.
Next, to fully understand the scope of Ukraine’s military problems, he ordered a comprehensive review of its defense forces. The results were alarming. Beyond the obvious – that the armed forces were too small, too weak, badly led, badly trained, and profoundly under-armed – the report highlighted a dispiriting list of additional troubles, including rampant corruption, unpaid troops, a lack of supplies, poor medical care, numerous redundancies, and anemic cyberdefenses. In 2016, having sought and received guidance from senior defense officials from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, and Germany, President Poroshenko rolled out a blueprint for a comprehensive reboot. Titled (in bureaucratic understatement) the “Strategic Defense Bulletin,” the master plan emphasized two key priorities: bringing Ukraine’s military up to NATO standards in just six years, and ensuring civilian control of the country’s national security apparatus.
Understandably worried that increased funding would simply disappear into the pockets of sticky-fingered officers and contractors, President Poroshenko established the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and began a purge of dirty procurement officials. Ukraine’s civil society, still fired up from their people-power revolution, soon joined the fight. Led by a bearded, 32-year-old tech guru named Vasyl Zadvornyy, the activists, working with the government and Transparency International, created ProZorro, an online, open-source procurement system that would scrutinize and publicize government contracts and flag suspicious activity. (The name “ProZorro” means “transparency” in Ukrainian.) Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, soon mandated the platform’s use by all businesses and government agencies, and by 2021, the U.S. government would estimate that the system had saved Ukraine more than $6 billion.
To create a force that could actually fight, the president and his advisers also focused on changing its doctrine – the way troops and officers were taught to think and operate. Realizing, in Collins’ words, that “the speed of modern battle was just too fast for the old Soviet system,” Ukraine’s reformers began pushing a system known in military argot as “Mission Command“. The idea is simple, at least in theory: Instead of forcing troops to act as mindless automatons operated remotely by superior officers, higher-ups set the goals – but then leave it to the people on the ground to decide how best to achieve them.
To create a force that could actually fight, the president and his advisers focused on changing its doctrine – the way it thinks and operates.
To take advantage of such latitude, Ukraine needed something Soviet-style militaries lack, namely a class of professional noncommissioned officers, or NCOs: experienced soldiers (usually corporals and sergeants) given the authority to transmit officers’ commands down to the troops and to reinterpret them in light of what they actually encounter on the quickly changing battlefield. It also needed to start empowering the more junior officers (lieutenants and captains) it already employed. And to ensure civilian control and oversight – a must for any democratic society – President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who took office in May 2019, made Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a young, Western-educated reformer with no experience in uniform, his Defense Minister.
Deciding to make all these changes was hard enough, but actually executing them was a huge and painstaking undertaking – especially given that between 2014 and 2022, more than half of Ukraine’s military was deployed to fight in the Donbas. Recognizing that Ukraine couldn’t do it alone, President Poroshenko once again turned to NATO for help. In 2015, the U.S. Army established a massive training facility in Yavoriv, just 10 miles east of the Polish border. Working there and at other bases in Ukraine and neighboring countries, trainers from at least eight NATO countries would teach a wide variety of skills, including battlefield medicine, drone warfare, modern mission command, and combined arms operations – the difficult art of getting infantry, armor, artillery, and air support to work together on the battlefield, at scale. By 2022, NATO instructors were training 10,000 Ukrainian troops a year; during the eight years between Russia’s invasions, U.S. advisers alone educated some 26,000 Ukrainian officers.
Important as state-of-the-art training is, of course, real-world experience is even better. To that end, during the long years of trench warfare with Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas, the Ukrainians were scrupulous about rotating their troops and officers through the front lines, thereby producing a fighting force that, by 2022, was more battle-hardened than many of its Western instructors. The eastern front was also a good place to determine individual soldiers’ merit, which the Ukrainians began emphasizing when contemplating promotion. Probably the best example of this new approach in action was President Zelenskyy’s decision in March 2020 to make Zaluzhny – then just a two-star general who’d worked his way up from platoon commander – Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief. The move came as a shock to the more staid members of the country’s officer class, especially the three- and four-star generals who’d been passed over for the post. (It also shocked the 48-year-old commander himself, whose response on hearing the news was, “What do you mean?”)But Zaluzhny – whom Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has praised as “– is a committed reformer, dedicated to producing a nimble, Western-oriented, fast-thinking officer corps. After taking office, he quickly began reorienting the army’s training programs and easing out officers seen as rigid, pro-Russian, or Soviet-minded.
Slow but steady
Despite its many impressive efforts, Ukraine’s progress in transforming its military has been inconsistent. Trying to make so many changes so quickly is incredibly difficult. As Jerad Harper and Michael Hunzeker (two academics who are also U.S. military veterans) put it, doing so requires pushing officers to embrace “techniques, skills, and practices that are often radically different from those that got them promoted” in the first place. The challenge was especially tough for older officers who’d come up through the Soviet system. “They weren’t bad people, or bad soldiers,” Collins told me. “But when you’ve been doing something one way for 25 or 30 years and then someone tells you that everything you’ve learned is wrong, it’s hard to accept – it creates a lot of cognitive dissonance.” That helps explain why, according to two former U.S. military trainers in Ukraine, some Ukrainian officers still hold on to Soviet doctrine today and refuse to empower their NCOs. Ukraine also still struggles with combined arms operations – admittedly one of the hardest skills for any military to master. And that shortfall is causing problems in Ukraine’s current counteroffensive. According to the military analyst Franz-Stefan Gady, rather than staging ground attacks under cover from simultaneous bursts of artillery and rocket fire, Ukraine often launches its shells and missiles first, which “telegraphs to the Russians that they’re attacking” before the infantry moves in.
In other areas, reforms have been accomplished only to be reversed a few months or years later. Take civilian oversight. In March 2020, President Zelenskyy replaced Zagorodnyuk with an old-school active-duty general, Andrii Taran. Then there’s corruption. In its latest global ranking, Transparency International placed Ukraine 116 out of 180 countries surveyed. That’s 28 spots higher than its score a decade ago, but still nothing to brag about. Indeed, in January of this year, President Zelenskyy was forced to fire more than a dozen officials – including deputy ministers and prosecutors – for corruption, and in August, the military announced a sweeping investigation of dirty enlistment officers.
None of these shortcomings should take away from Ukraine’s very real accomplishments; a new military culture has emerged and proved itself on the battlefield.
But none of these shortcomings should take away from Ukraine’s very real accomplishments. Despite the presence of some holdouts in the brass, Collins said, “a new culture has emerged” in the military that believes “outcomes are more important than process.” And that culture has shown itself on the battlefield, where Ukraine’s new model army has proved to be remarkably agile and adaptive.
During Moscow’s initial thrust toward Kyiv, for example, the Ukrainians exploited the Russians’ sluggishness by nimbly deploying hit-and-run tactics to ambush Moscow’s slow-moving convoys and disrupt their supply lines. Last year, according to the analysts Margarita Konaev and Owen Daniels, “when Russia shifted the war to the Donbas, where the open terrain and shorter resupply lines seemed more favorable to Moscow, Ukrainian forces were able to evolve,” dropping the asymmetric tactics they’d used around Kyiv and adopting “those suited for fighting a large-scale conventional war.” In September 2022, after feinting south, the Ukrainians swung to the northeast, found weak spots in Russia’s defenses, and punched through, ultimately retaking 3,000 square kilometers.
The Ukrainians have also proved adroit at deploying new equipment and weapons as soon as they get their hands on them. Despite having limited experience with high-tech Western arms, they quickly mastered portable Javelin and Stinger missiles – often thanks to YouTube tutorials – and then did the same with the more complicated High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) when the United States started delivering them in June 2022. The Ukrainians have also taught the world master classes in information operations and cyberdefense – effectively neutralizing Russia’s widely feared hacking skills. And by adopting what one British trainer called a “cyberpunk approach,” the Ukrainians have been extremely effective in developing, acquiring, and deploying drones – including hobbyists’ quadcopters duct-taped to grenades – to counter Russia’s numerical advantages in bodies and air power.
While Ukraine’s military may not yet fully meet NATO standards, it’s come so far that many Western experts now believe that, given enough time and supplies, it can ultimately beat the Russians. That’s all the more impressive considering that Kyiv hasn’t been able to follow some Western best practices. NATO troops would never attempt an operation like Ukraine’s counteroffensive, for example, without first establishing air superiority. Yet that’s just what Washington and its allies are forcing Ukraine to do by slow-walking the provision of sophisticated long-range rocket systems (known as ATACMS) and modern fighter planes such as F-16s.
How to fight a superpower
What lessons should other countries draw from Ukraine’s many accomplishments? Clearly, any state threated by a much larger, richer, and better-armed foe needs generous external support to survive. Yet recent history in the Middle East and Central Asia shows that such support, no matter how lavish, is not enough to guarantee success on its own.
Of course, Ukraine went into this war enjoying other advantages that both Iraq and Afghanistan lacked. The latter two countries are riven by ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divides, whereas Ukraine is a fairly unified state – and President Putin’s aggression only deepened that unity. Unlike Afghanistan, Ukraine also has long had a strong central government and a highly educated population.
But even these factors aren’t enough to explain Ukraine’s accomplishments – after all, they did it little good in 2014. Other unified, highly educated, and centralized states (read: Taiwan) must therefore look deeper if they hope to emulate Ukraine’s achievements.
The best way to understand and summarize Ukraine’s formula is by breaking it down into five discrete elements.
1. Never waste a crisis. In 2016, I published a book that studied how 10 countries around the world had managed to make deep, painful reforms in the face of inertia, gridlock, entrenched interests, and outside threats. In every case, a severe crisis proved to be key. As I wrote then, “In all these episodes, the extremity of the moment played a similar role, pushing those in charge to set aside ordinary politics and conventional policymaking and to think big – very big.” It turns out that nothing concentrates the mind like existential danger. Deadly threats tend to sweep away the institutional and political barriers that block wrenching changes in ordinary times.
Ukraine’s recent history provides many examples of this phenomenon. The country, for example, has struggled with corruption for decades; between 1995 and 2005 alone, it passed or ratified 11 major anticorruption measures. Yet Ukraine made little actual progress with this problem before Russia invaded in 2014.
After President Poroshenko’s initial reforms in this area, Ukraine’s efforts started to flag once again; by 2019, President Poroshenko himself was ensnared in a web of corruption allegations, which helped get President Zelenskyy – a novice political outsider – elected. Yet President Zelenskyy also initially failed to move forcefully enough; for example, he long resisted calls to move against the notorious oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, a former patron of his, before finally permitting the billionaire’s arrest on Sept. 2. As a consequence, by March 2021, the president’s poll numbers had plummeted. But then President Putin inadvertently helped out by invading again, and President Zelenskyy finally got serious and began firing corrupt officials. It may have taken two crises, but Ukraine finally got there.
Something similar happened with democratic control of the military. As mentioned earlier, President Zelenskyy’s first Defense Minister, Zagorodnyuk, was a modernizing civilian, but within a year, the president replaced him with Taran – who proceeded to squash attempts to deepen civilian oversight and reform the military procurement process. One result was that, in 2021, rather than stockpile the very good antitank missiles produced by its defense industry, Ukraine was still exporting most of its output abroad. Only toward the end of that year, when a second Russian invasion started to loom, did President Zelenskyy switch tracks again and replace Taran with a reform-minded lawyer named Oleksii Reznikov.
2. Leadership matters. President Zelenskyy’s stunning transformation from an unpopular lightweight into a Churchillian leader has been discussed endlessly since the start of the war, so there’s no need to add many details here. Yet the importance of his leadership to Ukraine’s military success can’t be overstated. As Gen. Mick Ryan, an Australian army officer who’s writing a book on Ukraine’s military reforms, put it to me, “Some people in the field of international relations disagree that individuals can make a difference in world events. Well, they clearly can. We can see that through history, and we’ve seen that through President Zelenskyy, who not only unified his nation but has been central to gaining support from the United States, Europe, and other nations.” Once again, the contrast with Afghanistan is instructive. On Aug. 15, 2021, following the controversial U.S. withdrawal, Ashraf Ghani – the well-respected, deeply experienced, and Western-educated President of Afghanistan – chose to flee his country in the face of the Taliban’s advance, and the state collapsed hours later. Had President Zelenskyy made a similar decision when Russian paratroopers stormed Kyiv in February 2022, it’s likely that his government and his country would have met a similar end. But President Zelenskyy, of course, didn’t flee. Instead, when the Americans offered to fly him into exile, he famously responded by saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
3. Be a good student. Ever since it gained independence in 1991, Ukraine has welcomed Western aid. But prior to 2014, it often resisted implementing the conditions and advice that came with all that cash. This attitude changed, however, when Russia invaded the country; President Poroshenko soon made adopting NATO standards his military’s top priority. Within a few years, Ukraine was outdoing its teachers in some areas (defense spending, for example) while even teaching its trainers a few things, like how to actually fight the Russians – something no Western country has done in generations. In recent years, Taiwan has followed a similar arc. While welcoming U.S. military support, it has (until recently) resisted certain important changes urged on it by the West – such as prioritizing small, asymmetric weapons systems over expensive, glamorous ones like advanced fighters, which might look impressive but which most experts agree would be little help if China actually invades.
4. It takes a nation. One of the most striking things about Ukraine’s nine-year-long conflict with Russia has been the outsized role played by its civilians, who’ve found countless ways to pitch in. Yet that should come as no surprise. As Ryan put it, “Wars are not military endeavors, they are national endeavors,” so the response has to be similarly expansive. “You need a national approach to fighting, defending, supporting, and surviving,” he said.
Ukraine has embraced this notion wholeheartedly. When the country’s tiny military collapsed in 2014, tens of thousands of civilians took up arms and joined hastily formed militias to replace it. Then and since, Ukrainians who can’t fight have found many other ways to contribute. One is with their wallets. Numerous civic organizations have sprung up to help feed, comfort, supply, and arm the military. A single group, the Come Back Alive Foundation, has raised $163 million for the army, four-fifths of which has come from individual donations of less than $27. Meanwhile, a group called the Hospitallers has trained hundreds of paramedics and sent them to the front to help injured soldiers. (The Ukrainian military still struggles to provide emergency medical care.)
Civilians have also donated their skills to the fight in other ways. Some techies pitched in to help thwart corruption by creating ProZorro, as mentioned earlier. Others have built or repurposed drones, and more than 10,000 people have signed up for a civilian pilot-training program. Still others have fought the Russians online: As of this May, for example, the IT Army of Ukraine, which boasts 180,000 civilian members, had launched more than 600 distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Russian institutions and companies.
5. Help yourself. Part of the secret of Ukraine’s success against Russia has been high morale; the Ukrainians have it, while many of the troops they’re fighting – especially the poorly trained foot soldiers and newly released prisoners used as cannon fodder – simply don’t. Perhaps the most important lesson for Taiwan, however, is that if you aren’t willing to vigorously defend yourself, no one’s likely to do it for you. As Ryan put it, “Ukraine’s demonstration of national will – that if you just give us the weapons, we’ll do the fighting – has been crucial to garnering outside support.” It’s not just will that matters, moreover; it’s competence. Here, things once again come back to Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. political establishment and the public have been deeply scarred by the experience of spending trillions of dollars to support these states, only to see their militaries vanish and much U.S.-supplied materiel end up in the hands of the enemy. (To be fair and to its credit, Iraq has made real progress rebuilding its military since June 2014, when it collapsed during the fight against the Islamic State in Mosul.) As a consequence, continued U.S. assistance to Ukraine now hinges on Kyiv’s success in its counteroffensive; the Biden Administration worries that if the operation fails, support for more aid in Congress and among the U.S. public, which is already dropping, will fall still further.
The implication for Taiwan is very clear. Despite President Joe Biden’s occasional slips, U.S. policy remains deliberately ambiguous on how the United States will respond if China attacks the island. Given that ambiguity, and the underlying ambivalence it reveals, the answer will likely depend on what the Taiwanese do for themselves. “One of the key takeaways from Ukraine,” Collins told me, “is do the Taiwanese have to have the will to fight? That’s the big question that nobody knows the answer to.”
And it will make all the difference.