Ukraine’s Military Reform and the Conflict in the East


One of the key challenges of military reform for any military organisation is the question ‘are we preparing for the right war?’ In my article ‘”The War We Want; The War That We Get”: Ukraine’s Military Reform and the Conflict in the East’, I examine this issue in the context of Ukrainian efforts before and after the start of the conflict in the Donbas.

Prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the emergence of conflict in the east of Ukraine, the Ukrainian military were engaged in a process of military reform. This process was influenced heavily by the so-called ‘transformation paradigm’: a model of war articulated by the US that identified future military effectiveness with such concepts as agility, concentration, digitisation, and information. However, by 2014 it had become increasingly evident that the Ukrainian government had been trying to adopt a model of warfare that was beyond the capability of the Ukrainian state to deliver and which did not fit the reality of the war that Ukraine’s armed forces actually had to face. By 2015 it had become increasingly clear that the war in the east was not the rapid and mobile warfare that the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) had been conceptually and structurally preparing for, at least in theory, since 2006. In my article, I examine how the UAF have been forced to adopt a new model of military reform – resuscitation – a process of recreating older approaches which, in the context of actual combat in the Donbas, is better suited to the nature of the conflict than continued attempts to replicate aspects of the transformation model. The key aspects of the resuscitation of the UAF have included: the reintroduction of mass; organic ‘bottom-up’ innovation; and the utilisation of what were, in effect, pre-modern methods of mobilisation.

In terms of mass, for example, the Ukrainian military reversed the previous process of professionalisation because the forces produced were simply too small for what had become an increasingly attritional struggle. Instead, the fighting in the Donbas had demonstrated the importance of mass, reserves and the need for a large stockpile of military hardware. The reintroduction of conscription in May 2014 and an increase in the size of the armed forces to 250,000 reflected a recognition that, as noted by the Ukrainian Minister of Defence, a small ‘contract army would never be able to win’ the war in the east.

Organic, bottom-up innovation has been evident in particular in the way Ukraine has funded the war. Through crowd-funding initiatives, Ukrainian civil society emerged as a key player in financing and supplying the Ukrainian military. Ukrainian civil society has in turn been supported by hundreds of thousands of diaspora Ukrainians. Using these networks, money and supplies have been reaching the military via Facebook groups, websites, text messages and volunteer organisations. Online groups such as the Wings of Phoenix whose mission is to equip, uniform, protect and improve the Ukrainian Army have delivered thousands of helmets, bulletproof vests, hundreds of radio sets and weapon sights to the Ukrainian military units on the front line.

Finally, the processes by which Ukraine’s fighting forces initially were generated could hardly be further from the transformation ideal. Instead, some of the most effective forces were raised, equipped and paid on behalf of the state by local notables – in particular oligarchs. In April 2014 the Ukrainian government launched the anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine and, due to the inability of the regular military to mobilise sufficient forces, almost 50 volunteer battalions were set up, comprising almost 10,000 fighters. Throughout 2014 and into 2015 these volunteer battalions played a vital role in containing the separatists. Lightly armed, under-equipped and with little training, the rapidly and often haphazardly formed volunteer battalions became powerful forces in the struggle against the Russian backed separatists. Volunteer battalions performed a range of tasks from police functions to combat operations and came from a variety of ethnic, professional and political backgrounds. But these volunteer forces have also raised controversies surrounding control, accountability, and their political allegiances.

Despite the ongoing conflict and the adoption in practice of a process of resuscitation, the Ukrainian government remains committed, at least in the long term, to developing a professional military. However, the Donbas conflict has cruelly exposed the limitations in Ukraine’s attempts to imitate the transformation paradigm and raises important questions regarding whether or not this is actually the best model for Ukraine in the future. Political and economic conditions inside Ukraine from 2006-2014 made it impossible to implement military reform in a sustained or coherent way. Indeed, during this period, Ukraine’s armed forces became less, not more, potent. The weaknesses of this reform process were brutally exposed in the earliest stages of the Donbas conflict when Ukraine could deploy only very limited forces. From 2015 onwards, the Ukrainian military has become more effective. This effectiveness, however, has been the result of embracing a return to mass and positional warfare. At the same time, whilst there have been very innovative developments in terms of the use of the internet and the engagement of civil society, this has been the result of a bottom-up process prompted by the perceived inadequacy of the government’s ability to run the war. Indeed, aspects of the Ukrainian war effort have been almost medieval in character, in terms of the raising of armed units on behalf of the state by local authorities and political entrepreneurs.

The example provided by Ukraine’s war in the Donbas region raises two issues of more general relevance. First, is it wise for so many nations to try to imitate the approach to war adopted by the US? As the Ukrainian example demonstrates, local political, military, economic, and social contexts can constrain decisively the ability of a state to realise the ambitious precepts of the transformation paradigm. Reflecting on the weaknesses of the Egyptian army in the years prior to the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War, the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat mused that ‘We will simply have to use our talents and our planning to compensate’. It might well be that some states would be better focused on more modest military reform programmes that better reflect the particular conditions that they face. Second, can we presume that, just because we would like to fight in a particular way, that the conditions of a particular conflict will allow us to do so? The attritional character of the Donbas conflict poses serious questions about the resilience of many European armies. If the wars that we must fight in the future are not the short wars of manoeuvre that we want, then will ‘de-massified’ militaries have the resilience to cope?

Image: Ukrainian army troops receive ammunition, with a Ukrainian flag in the back, in a field on the outskirts of Izyum, Eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, April 15, 2014 (AP), via ABC30.

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