When five Ukrainian soldiers were recently injured by pro-Russian separatist gun and grenade fire in southeastern Ukraine, the news sparked little official outcry.
Part of the reason for this, despite Ukrainian officials insisting that a ceasefire is in effect in the besieged area known as Donbas, is that small-scale attacks are still ongoing. commonplace in the region. A soldier was killed a week earlier. A soldier was injured the day before.
But the main reason for the silence on an attack that six months or a year ago allegedly sparked outrage is that fears about the resistance of the Ukrainian military have faded. In fact, Ukrainian military experts believe it is now much stronger than it was thought 18 months ago.
Without international arms aid, burdened by a national economy on the verge of collapse for a year and despite being locked in the midst of a civil war where the opposition has the active backing of powerful Russia, Ukraine has managed to build one of the largest standing armies in Europe over the past year and a half.
Ukrainians have almost doubled their military spending and are expected to significantly increase spending next year. Corruption remains a significant problem, with some estimates even now as much as 20 to 25 percent of the budget is wasted. It is still a significant drop. In recent years, it has been estimated that up to 90% of the budget has been stolen.
European experts warn that while what has been accomplished has been impressive, it is unlikely to be sustainable. Ukraine’s new military budget is 5% of gross domestic product, more than double the percentage recommended by NATO and four to five times what many of Ukraine’s neighbors are spending.
“There is no doubt that we have come a long way in a short period of time,” said Serhiy Zhurets, director of the Center for Studies on the Army, Conversion and Disarmament in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. “Maintaining this level of commitment – or going further – means making a choice between education and defense, economy and defense. But at that time, under a clear and persistent threat, it was a decision we had to make. “
To understand how far we’ve come, it’s important to remember where Ukraine was when it started. Shortly after Russia’s “little green men” (Ukrainian euphemism for Russian troops in their Black Sea fleet) seized control of Crimea in March 2014, Ukrainian officials examined the capabilities defensive forces of the country and realized that they had no military option to oppose what they considered an illegal move.
So, although they pledged never to renounce Crimean membership in Ukraine, they did not respond. Instead, the newly formed government realized that it had to scramble quickly to concoct some sort of armed service or risk the entire nation quickly falling under Russian aggression.
In the years leading up to the current crisis, when military officials openly increased their income by selling pieces of Ukraine’s old Soviet arms stockpile, there was a pretty standard rule: the military would provide a estimate of what it would take to modernize the Ukrainian army and the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, would approve a budget of about a tenth of it.
Thus, the requested 2013 budget for 2014 was approximately $ 11.3 billion (at the current exchange rate of approximately $ 5.7 billion). The allocated budget, however, was around $ 1.3 billion, or roughly $ 690 million at today’s exchange rate.
It was the budget as Russian troops took control of Crimea and pro-Russian separatists with Russian military aid began a struggle for control of two Ukrainian states, Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as Donbass.
As the fighting in the Donbass intensified, Ukraine was only able to send volunteer battalions into combat. These volunteers were asked to bring their own uniforms, plus one for someone else if they could afford it, as well as any weapons and ammunition they might have.
Being in the midst of war with Russia, however, prompted the Rada last year to approve a defense budget of around $ 2.2 billion. The budget for next year appears to be around $ 3.8 billion.
Craig Caffrey, military budget analyst at IHS Jane’s, a defense consultancy firm, notes that there are often revisions to Ukrainian defense budgets, “so it’s not set in stone at this point.”
But he expects defense spending to increase, at least in the short term, despite pressure on Ukraine from the International Monetary Fund to reduce its budget deficit.
“Defense is necessarily a priority area right now,” he wrote in an email, “so we certainly expect a significant increase in spending next year.”
Ukraine will not be the only player in the conflict with budgetary problems.
“On the Russian side, their defense budget is also under great pressure,” he wrote. “Military spending there has more than doubled over the past five years, but it is starting to strain public finances. “
Russian defense spending has grown rapidly, up to 26% last year alone. “But we expect this to be the last major increase,” he wrote. “Spending in Russia reached 4.2% of GDP in 2015 and we expect it to gradually decline from this level over the remainder of the decade. “
Dmytro Tymchuk, member of the Rada National Security and Defense Committee and one of Ukraine’s top military experts, is responsible for overseeing Ukrainian defense spending.
Sitting at a table outside the Rada chambers recently, he enthusiastically discussed the country’s newly developed military forces.
“A lot of our equipment is old Soviet-era stuff,” he said. “The factories that make spare parts, or can upgrade them, are in Russia, and we are prohibited from this market. So we had to find ways to bypass the Russian suppliers. We have been quite creative.
He repeated the number of Ukrainian soldiers as others here: 240,000. He noted that at the start of the fighting, Ukraine had a fleet of over 2,500 tanks, but almost none of them was not operational. In fact, when the Ukrainians sought to send tanks to the Donbass, they could only find a few ready for use in combat.
Now, he said, Ukraine has 500 combat-ready tanks and crews to operate them. Broken tanks are being repaired and new ones bought at a breakneck pace.
The state arms factory UkrOboronProm is expected to produce 40 of its Oplot main battle tanks this year, and next year will manufacture 120. This is an increase of 2,300% over the five the plant has. produced last year.
Despite the gains, Mykola Sungurovskyi, director of military programs at the Razumkov Center, a research center in Kiev, believes Ukraine needs to improve its planning if the improvements of the past 18 months are to be sustained.
“The Ministry of Defense is reorganizing itself as it sees fit, while the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are reorganizing themselves in their own way,” he said. “In the end, there is no integration and the system is unusable. We had to change quickly at first, under the constant threat of collapse. But now we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. “
Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond, said there was no reason to question the rate at which the Ukrainian military has improved, especially since it was previously in such a horrible state.
But Ukraine shouldn’t start to feel comfortable with its ability to thwart Russian aggression anytime soon.
“At present, Ukraine is protected not so much by improved military force, but by Russian attention directed elsewhere,” he said.
This story was originally published November 9, 2015 12:41 pm.