Attrition: Rebuilding the Ukrainian Military


February 18, 2019: In early 2014 Russia invaded Ukraine. This began with special operations troops, the so-called “little green men” appearing in Crimea and declaring that they were separatists who wanted to free Crimea from Ukrainian rule. This invasion and the subsequent effort (which stalemated) in eastern Ukraine were in response to the February 2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine where a corrupt president was found to have been bribed by Russia to suppress economic and diplomatic links with the EU (European Union) and the West in general. By March 2014 Russian soldiers had seized control of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which Russia then annexed. During the invasion of Crimea, there was no effective response by the thousands of Ukrainian military personnel stationed there. This caused the Russians to think they might be as successful with this tactic in the two eastern Ukraine provinces that comprise the Donbas industrial region.

In March 2014 Russia found that Donbas was not like Crimea and would not be taken over by some little green men and intimidation of the locals. Donbas had a lot of ethnic Russians but the local Ukrainian Army units were more prepared to resist and they did. This was followed by a major mobilization of the Ukrainian military and development and production of updated Cold War era equipment that were largely built in Ukraine. Russia was not expecting this, nor did they expect so many of the ethnic Russians in the Donbas to favor Ukrainian over Russian rule.

Because of this mobilization Ukraine was able to concentrate a large enough force of infantry, armor and support units in the Donbas to fight the Russian backed rebels. Because so few Donbas residents were pro-Russian the Donbas rebel defenders were increasingly Russian soldiers pretending to be Ukrainian Donbas rebels. Russian advances in Donbas came to a standstill by the end of 2014. The Russian backed force only occupied about half the territory of Donbas and a ceasefire signed in 2015 has kept the front line largely static since then. The Russians keep violating the ceasefire, probing Ukrainian forces seeking a weakness. That has not worked because enough Ukrainians volunteered to join the army or militia units and received enough new equipment from a rapidly mobilized Ukrainian defense industry to contain the Russian backed efforts to advance.

The war has revealed the state of disarray Ukrainian Armed Forces had fallen into since they became independent of Russia in 1991. In early 2016 Ukrainian forces proved to be both untrained and underequipped to confront the Russian created United Armed Forces of Novorossiya in Donbas. That was only the first of many disappointments the Russians encountered in Donbas.

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union and as part of the Soviet Army, Ukraine’s ‘portion’ of the Soviet military, which became independent Ukraine’s Army, was one of the largest and most advanced militaries in the world. While Ukraine reduced the personnel in their post-Soviet military and they held onto all that Soviet era weaponry they inherited and that stuff became a key factor in stopping the Russians.

Since 2014, sporadic fighting has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced 2 million more from an area sliced through by a 500-kilometer long "line of contact". As Russian military supplies continue to enter Ukraine, it becomes harder by the day for Russia to deny that it is providing arms to the rebels. Russian support to the rebels has doubled since the 2015 ceasefire. Russian support for the separatists includes artillery, surveillance UAVs, and armored vehicles that would otherwise be nearly impossible for the rebels to obtain.

Ukraine took advantage of the fact the because of all those Cold War era arms factories and weapons stockpiles they inherited they had, by 2012 become the fourth largest arms exporter in the world. Most of these weapons were Cold War surplus although Ukraine had developed the ability to upgrade and refurbish these 1980s era armored, artillery and other designs.

Neighboring Poland had become a manufacturer of more modern weapons and took the side of Ukraine against their mutual enemy. Poland quickly became one of the largest weapon suppliers to Ukraine. This was also because most Western countries refused to supply Ukraine with weapons because of the fear it would escalate the war, perhaps even beyond Ukraine.

In an effort to sustain operations against rebel Donbas rebels Ukraine was forced to quickly undergo rearmament using existing weapons production capabilities in Ukraine and coordinating repairs and refurbishment of existing equipment. Ukraine did receive help from East European nations that had joined NATO since 1991 and still operated some Russian equipment from the Cold War era. Despite the European Union and United States vigorous rhetoric, they have been supporting Ukraine mostly diplomatically and economically, but their help in modernizing the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been token gestures. Most of the work has been done by the Ukrainians themselves with some help from East European neighbors.

Ukraine focused on the refurbishment of the most modern existing equipment. The Ukrainian Army was already using 250 T-64BM “Bulat” tanks and 350 T-64BV tanks. Ukraine also has 1,000 T-64B tanks in storage. The T-64BM and T-64BV are upgrades of some of the -64Bs placed in storage after 1991. Ukraine had been upgrading 12 to 14 vehicles to the “Bulat” standard each year since 2007. This cost about $600,000 per vehicle. Ukraine was also building the T-84 Oplot-M tank and currently has 16 in service and plans to acquire 160 more. The cost per unit is $3,700,000 but represented a huge achievement for the Ukrainian arms industry as these are very effective tanks that are equipped with state of the art tech.

Ukraine had so many Cold War era Russian tanks in storage that it could rely on these for a steady supply of replacement parts or components for refurbishing the 167 T-80 UD and 1,032 T-72 M1 tanks. Most of these tanks are still in storage. The vast majority of Ukraine’s T-80 and T-72 battle tanks were manufactured in Russia and therefore parts are not available.

Initial battles in Donbas led to heavy losses of the existing the T-64BV, so Ukraine began converting T-64B tanks to the T-64BM variant. Ukraine also began manufacturing key T-72 components and restoring the surplus (and in storage) T-72s to operational status. Ukraine noted that it could do an even better job of these T-72 refurbs and upgrades when they could depend on using components from Western firms. But those sources have been blocked since 2014.

Ukraine continues upgrading its military with locally made equipment. This was not just to deal with the de facto loss of half the territory in Donbas but to prepare for future Russian aggression and to increase Ukrainian exports of “combat proven” weapons. Israel, for example, has purchased Ukrainian EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment capable of detecting the presence and location of Russian air defense systems over a large area. No one else was producing anything like this and Israel needed it to deal with the Iranian and Russian threat in Syria. China is also an export customer as are a number of other nations in Africa and Asia. There is also help coming from outside Ukraine with a growing number of countries are considering selling, or donating, weapons to Ukraine. There are still a lot of older weapon systems and military equipment that has been retired but still usable and easily shipped to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Donbas remains a stalemate and a buffer zone between Ukraine and Russia, which may be wheat Russia wanted in the first place. There are other problems created by this state of war with Russia. NATO rules forbid a nation with such an existing territorial dispute from joining NATO. This is seen as a benefit by Russia, which does not want Ukraine to join NATO. Another former part of the Soviet Union, Georgia in the Caucasus, got caught in the same trap in 2008 when Russia backed rebels in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Since 2015, and in response to the continued Russian attacks, Poland and Western countries have slowly relented on their refusal to provide military assistance. Russia is seen as a persistent and growing threat to all of East Europe and the West. Poland is now selling weapons to Ukraine on commercial terms. While Poland is willing to sell weapons and equipment to Ukraine, it is not ready to provide credit. Ukraine has suffered financial troubles for years even before the 2014 revolution, and the current military conflict has only made the economic problems worse.

Poland was one of the first Western nations to provide “defensive” equipment. In mid-2014, Ukraine bought 6,000 Polish Wz.2005 helmets and 2,000 KWM-2 bulletproof vests for its army reserve forces. In part because this gear was for the “National Guard” which in peacetime is controlled by the Ministry of the Interior and not the Defense Ministry. Russia did not make an issue of this because it was for paramilitary troops who were also fighting in Donbas. The 2014 shipment cost Ukraine $5.75 million dollars. The vests and helmets were equal to the stuff most NATO nations, including the U.S., are using.

In addition to the arms sales from Poland, Ukraine is advancing significantly in the maintenance and development of Ukraine’s arms industry, which keeps the money in Ukraine. Also, Ukraine continues to refurbish and sell surplus equipment and spare parts for equipment that Ukraine is already using. Examples include decommissioned tanks, helicopters, and both transport and combat aircraft. Ukraine will need some of this equipment to monitor and guard key locations in Ukraine such as Mariupol and Odessa as well as the eastern border to Donbas. Once the lines on the map of Ukraine are redrawn, the time will come for the military of Ukraine to return to its Cold War posture of preparing for possible defensive action against an invasion. The only difference is this time; the threat is from the east and not the west. – Ryan Schinault




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