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KYIV – When war between government troops and Russian-backed separatists erupted in eastern Ukraine seven years ago, Ukrainian soldiers fought with ragged sneakers and donated paraphernalia. -balls while their inexperienced commanders often panicked, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Today, the military is seasoned and better equipped, thanks to years of low-intensity conflict and growing domestic and foreign support.
But as fears grow of a resumption of hostilities – bolstered by evidence of what US officials claim is the largest build-up of Russian troops since 2014 – experts say Ukraine would still struggle to repel an invasion Russian on a large scale.
While it could fight enough to inflict heavy casualties on Russia, according to Yuriy Butusov, editor and defense commentator, the Ukrainian military remains hampered by fundamental organizational difficulties.
“Unfortunately, there would be a lot more heroism than professionalism,” he said.
Ukraine spent 3.4% of its GDP on defense in 2019, up from 2.2% in 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia spent 3.9% in 2019. However, the raw numbers are very different. In constant US dollars, Ukraine spends $ 5.2 billion, while Russia spends $ 65 billion.
Last week, General Ruslan Khomchak, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, sought to allay concerns about Ukraine’s combat readiness, saying it is “ready for an adequate response” to various scenarios. .
Certainly, today’s comparatively larger and better organized Ukrainian army would no longer need to rely on hastily assembled battalions of volunteers as it did when Russian troops flocked to the first time to support local rebels. And in recent years, Western allies have provided a myriad of supplies, instructors and weapons that have helped support the country’s defense effort.
Currently, the country has approximately 255,000 active military personnel and 900,000 other reservists, according to the Global Firepower Index; Russia has 1 million active soldiers and 2 million reservists.
Meanwhile, Ukraine ranks 13th in the world for tanks with 2,430 and seventh for two armored vehicles at 11,435 and towed artillery at 2,040 pieces. However, Russia is first in tanks, capable of calling 13,000, third in armored cars with 27,100 and first in towed artillery with 4,465 guns.
However, Ukraine still relies heavily on Soviet-era tanks, airplanes and armored cars. It has also struggled to update its forces, despite the constant threat from Russia – which, by contrast, has been on a massive modernization campaign since 2008.
For example, despite arms exports estimated at $ 1 billion last year, Ukraine has failed to acquire or produce some advanced equipment that would match Russia’s key capabilities. This includes effective anti-aircraft and anti-rocket systems that could defend against precision attacks against infrastructure and other strategic targets.
Airstrikes and coordinated rockets on targets such as bridges, railroads and power plants could cripple Ukraine’s economy, according to veteran Taras Chmut, head of the Ukrainian Military Center, an NGO in Kiev. “This means that the Russians would not need to occupy a lot of territory to achieve their objectives,” he said.
Likewise, the Ukrainian air force remains woefully ill-prepared, Chmut added. Last year, his own commander admitted that his entire fleet would be obsolete within a decade.
Among the deadly equipment Ukraine has, some of its defensive capacity may depend on Russian tactics. As POLITICO reported on Monday, the dozens of U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles in Ukrainian possession would be largely useless in the event of a more covert or smaller-scale Russian invasion not involving armor plating.
Mykola Sunhurovskyi, military analyst at the Razumkov Center think tank in Kiev, says these modern weapons have made a significant difference. But he added that Ukraine would benefit more from technology transfers that would sow knowledge locally and lead to better local production.
“We can find out for ourselves,” Sunhurovskyi says of the underdeveloped defense sector, “but it would take a long time.”
Corruption is a major obstacle and the state defense conglomerate Ukroboronprom has long been seen as a hotbed of corruption. In a joint statement with Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Office late last year, Monopoly pledged to help make the defense sector “transparent and accountable”.
Aside from equipment, the professionalism of military personnel is also of concern.
Chmut, who served on active duty from 2015 to 2017, said commanders’ psychological blockages in 2014 regarding the engagement of Russian forces had disappeared, resulting in an army “ready to fight”. But he said motivated and experienced soldiers have lately been driven out by bureaucracy and the declining quality of leadership.
Col. Serhiy Sobko, an outspoken veteran who received the Hero of Ukraine Medal for his service, said in an interview with Ukrainian media last month that officers who either performed poorly in 2014 or had completely avoided combat operations returned to key leadership positions over the past two years.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on Ukraine to eventually join NATO – although any membership is a very distant prospect.
The military implemented 96 NATO standards in the first 18 months of Zelenskiy’s presidency compared to 196 in the five years of his predecessor’s administration, according to a new document from the Kiev-based New Europe Center. .
These standards range from aligning military ranks with those of NATO member states to adopting guidelines on logistics and planning. The authors called the progress “positive momentum”, but added that at the current rate, it would take at least 13 more years before Ukraine is fully compatible with NATO.
This means that such changes would be of little immediate help if Ukraine were to cope with a Russian military push.
Others are more pessimistic about the Ukrainian army‘s modernization effort.
According to Mykola Vorobiov, a Ukrainian journalist and former Johns Hopkins University researcher, commanders are often put off by the sheer red tape involved in day-to-day operations, whether responding to a deluge of daily requests or reporting on even trivial decisions.
“The soldiers joke that the Ukrainian army is turning into a Ukrainian paper army,” he said.
Echoing Sobko, Vorobiov added that such levels of red tape – which can also include hours of waiting for orders to retaliate against enemy forces – hamper otherwise capable commanders.
Amid mounting fears of escalation in recent weeks, Zelenskiy has sought to cut himself off as a decisive leader. He traveled to eastern Ukraine last week to visit frontline soldiers.
But critics like Butusov, who publishes the online news site censor.net, say Ukraine’s leaders – partly distracted by a series of other pressing political issues – remain unable to take a long-term view on the matter. defense.
“Our problem in terms of preparing for war is that we cannot develop a plan of action, we cannot organize the use of resources, and we cannot bring together manpower and intellect. to make decisions, ”he said. .