Could the Ukrainian army stop Russia in a war. The answer is no.
In a recent speech at the Ukraine Combat Training Center in Yavoriv, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Ukraine Kristina Kvien warned of the dangers of further military escalation in the current conflict in Donbass. “Let me be perfectly clear – my team at the US Embassy and I know this firsthand – Ukraine has not taken and is not taking provocative measures against the Russia. In fact, Ukraine has shown admirable restraint in the face of Russian intimidation and aggression, ”she said.
But “against the background of Russia’s provocations, it’s important to remember that the Ukraine in 2021 – and the Ukrainian armed forces in 2021 – are very different from those in 2014,” Kvien added. “To better cope with external threats, the Ukrainian armed forces have become a more competent and professional fighting force, one of the most capable combat-ready forces in Europe today – and the United States is proud may our security cooperation efforts have supported this impressive development, ”she said.
Kvien is not alone in her assessment. Western commentators have often noted that the Ukrainian armed forces are better equipped for a full-scale conflict with Russia in 2021 than they were at the start of the Donbass War. But this observation, while popular and partly accurate, lacks crucial context.
In absolute terms, there is no doubt that the Ukrainian military has improved considerably over the past seven years. In 2014, the army faced two main challenges: 1) a largely demoralized and under-trained personnel, and 2) and a relative lack of modernized military equipment, both small arms and larger equipment such as missiles and fighter planes. Ukraine has made great strides in the first area. With the help of Western military advisers and a constant flow of defense spending, Kiev not only restored combat discipline among its troops, but also erected dozens of new brigades. The bulk of the investment went to artillery units, which are a major part of Ukraine’s capabilities against the Russian-backed separatist forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Although there is still a lot of modernization work to be done, Ukraine has made modest progress in several efforts to purchase expensive military equipment. Ukraine’s defense sector is developing the advanced Neptune anti-ship cruise missile system, largely intended to bolster the country’s coastal defenses. Kiev is also investing in a modern military drone force with an ambitious Bayraktar TB2 supply agreement.
But the underlying problem is that military might is relative, not absolute. While it is clear that the Ukrainian armed forces are not what they were in 2014, the same can be said of the Russian troops currently massing on the eastern border of Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. Over the past seven years, the Kremlin has invested relentlessly in a large number of advanced capabilities to which Ukraine still has no clear answer: these include a sophisticated air / missile defense network, some of the world’s most advanced jet fighters and a series of modernized aircraft. infantry fighting vehicles and main battle tanks. Given these trends, it is not at all clear that the balance of relative military power between Russia and Ukraine has changed significantly since the start of the Donbass crisis in 2014.
References to Ukraine’s growing military might, if not properly contextualized, risk obscuring the overall strategic picture: assuming there is no external intervention, it is no less the case today than in 2014 that Kiev is extremely likely to lose a full-fledged war with Russia.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National interest.