Leonid Ostaltsev is a 35-year-old former soldier who now runs Veterano’s, a popular pizza chain in Ukraine. He fought for his country against separatists and Russian forces, and now says he is looking forward to doing so again. A wall in the Central Kiev branch of his store is covered in military badges and insignia, while on the wall is a map of Ukraine made from used shell casings. His desk is covered with a wide array of modern weapons alongside photos of his children.
“When I went to fight for the army in July 2014, I bought my own uniform, I wore New Balance shoes, and my friends all pitched in to buy me a bulletproof vest, which was in terrible condition,” he said. “In a whole year of military training before the war, I only fired six bullets, twice. The training was so poor that I had to google “how to set up a checkpoint” so that our friends wouldn’t be killed if we were to shoot the enemy. Funny… but not funny. It’s a big difference now.
Earlier this week, the United States said Russia was “on the brink” of a devastating invasion of Ukraine that would include targeting the capital, Kiev, which has a population of around 2.8 million. And early Thursday in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially declared military action in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. The death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands. Already, Russia has officially moved its forces into the occupied territories claimed by the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, tearing up a longstanding peace accord known as the Minsk agreements.
How would the Ukrainian Armed Forces fare now, faced with such an existential threat?
When Russian forces invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, the Ukrainian military was in such a pitiful state that their Western advisers told them to forget about fighting militarily for the peninsula, a decision that still angers many commanders in Ukraine. When war with Russia and its separatist proxies broke out in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, known as Donbas, Ukrainian commanders were caught off guard and initially lost large amounts of territory.
Many soldiers and volunteers had little to no body armor and used outdated soviet era weapons. They had a poorly trained force of around 6,000 combat-ready soldiers. Many of those who fought in the early months of the war were volunteer brigades.
“Our soldiers were cleaners and painters, not soldiers,” says Ostaltsev. “In my country, our government had sold almost everything we had after the fall of the Soviet Union. I was in the regular army for a year, and I know the army that fought against the Russians in 2014. We didn’t know anything. They were men and women in very poor uniforms with no combat experience or useful skills that can help in a battle.
The Donbass separatists, on the other hand, were supported by Russian troops and equipped with modern heavy weapons. These included tanks and ballistic missile systems, such as the The BUK surface-to-air missile launcher that sadly shot down the MH17 passenger plane over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
In February 2015, after a major defeat of Ukrainian forces in Battle of Debaltsevethen-President Petro Poroshenko was forced to agree to the Minsk Accords, which proposed a form of autonomy for separatist-controlled regions that many believe would give Moscow an effective veto over Ukrainian foreign policy decisions.
But eight years of war in the Donbas region has led to a major investment in modernizing Ukraine’s armed forces and a series of reforms to command structures to bring them closer to NATO standards. The soldiers are also much better trainedmany of them having had a baptism of fire in the trenches of the Eastern War.
“Now we are an absolutely different army.” Otsaltseve tells me. “We have something that almost no other army in the world has: we have combat experience and we know what war is like with a stronger enemy, where you have nothing but you have to fight because that this is your homeland.”
Since the outbreak of war, Ukrainians have doubled their defense spending to around 3.4% of GDP and now have perhaps 250,000 military personnel under arms and nearly a million reservists. Russia, on the other hand, has about 900,000 military personnel in all branches of its military. About 200,000 of them were reportedly stationed at the Ukrainian border, waiting for their signal to invade from the Kremlin.
Ukrainian military equipment has also undergone a massive upgrade. Western allies have supplied Ukraine with Javelin man-portable anti-tank missiles as well as shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles.
Perhaps the biggest wild card in the Ukrainian arsenal is their six Bayraktar TB2 combat drone. Azerbaijan used these high-tech drones to crush the under-equipped Armenian army in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. If the coming conflict were limited to the Donbas region, it could mean that the armed forces Ukrainians could be equipped to regain their territory by military means. But they are unlikely to be a game-changer against Russia, whose forces are equipped with short-range air defense, including electronic jamming devices that can cut the link between the controller and the aircraft.
Few Ukrainian or Western military officials think they have a prayer against the Russian military in a war in the open. Justin Bronkan expert from the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, is pessimistic about Ukrainians’ chances in conventional warfare.
“Surround Kiev in 36 to 72 hours is entirely within reach of Russian forces massed around Ukraine,” he said. Popular mechanics earlier this week.
“If you could pit small infantry units against each other, you’d probably get a pretty positive Ukrainian result. But of course, this is not how the Russian armed forces will fight. Where the advantages of the Russian forces lie is mainly in long-range sniper fire, ballistic missiles, infrastructure targets, bombing cities if they wish. Due to the overwhelming advantages of Russian air power, the elite Ukrainian troops on the borders of Donbass will be almost unable to move. According to the first reports Thursday in Ukraine, explosions have already been heard in Kyiv and President Volodymyr Zelensky declares a state of emergency in Ukraine.
“If the Ukrainian forces leave their relatively well-dug and relatively well-concealed positions, they will be completely wiped out by air attacks,” Bronk said.
The glimmer of hope for the defenders is that Ukrainian forces could be much better equipped to fight in cities, which are much more difficult to attack than flat terrain, and where Russian air and long-range missile power will fail them. will not provide the overwhelming advantage of a conventional ground assault campaign.
“To defeat Russia we need missiles, we don’t have enough artillery or rockets,” Ostaltsev said. “If Russia invades our country without air force, it has no chance. If they use it, it will be very bad for us.
Despite this, he shows off his new collection of guns and claims he is ready to fight. “If they want to take the cities, they will have to throw everything away,” he says. “Not just the regular army, the people’s army will be ready to fight them.”
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