The fighting in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) has been continuous since April 2014, despite a February 2015 ceasefire agreement. That ceasefire was supposed to lead to a resolution of this conflict but failed to do so and intensified in 2022 when Russian invaded.
The Donbas fighting led to reforms in the Ukrainian military that played a major role in stopping the 2022 invasion meant to conquer all of Ukraine.
Russia used irregular warfare to take Crimea in 2014 and parts of Donbas a few months later. Russian used special operations forces and lots of money to grab territory failed in Donbas after working in Crimea and a 2008 operation in Georgia. The Russian 2014 attacks quickly transformed the disarray of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as untrained and under-equipped as they really were, into a potent fighting force as a surge of Ukrainian nationalism and improvisation mobilized a force that stopped the advance in Donbas. In addition to thousands of combat and support volunteers, the government mobilized the local defense industries to supply weapons, ammo and equipment the Ukrainian forces needed. This was helped by the fact that Ukraine still had conscription. Most males 18 years and older had some military experience. Despite the surge in patriotism during 2015, some 50 percent of men drafted that year refused to show up. At the same time up to 16,000 Ukrainian troops in Donbas area deserted. This lack of faith in the traditional Ukrainian military was justified because of its outdated military bureaucracy and culture that emphasized large numbers of unwilling troops forced to do whatever they were told. It soon became obvious in Donbas that a flexible approach to warfare was needed, one that motivated volunteer soldiers. That was a refreshing change for the Ukrainian military. Since independence in 1991 Ukrainians were not enthusiastic about military service. After their conscript service, less than 20 percent of the conscripts showed any interest in making a career in the military. This was often for financial reasons, not just lack of enthusiasm for the Ukrainian military.
Change was needed and Ukrainian military leaders realized that. In 2006, military training in Ukraine was focused on developing mobility and combat readiness and participating in international exercises. This was all about a Ukrainian attempt to reform its military and reequip its forces to defend against any future threat from an increasingly hostile Russia. But the plan came at the worst possible time as the 2008 financial crisis not only made the implementation of the reforms impossible for the military but resulted in a Ukrainian military unable to maintain current levels of training and equipment. Unit training declined because units equipped with tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC)s halted most training because the military could not afford fuel. This had a similar impact on aircraft training as the average number of flight hours per pilot fell by half. The result is that Ukrainian pilots entered the 2014 war with badly degraded skills. Very few pilots were qualified to fly at night or in bad weather or to carry out strikes against ground targets. Using all resources available once the Donbas war began, the Ukrainian armed forces partially recovered soon after the war started. But combat ready forces were still well below the pre-2008 strength. In early 2014 Ukraine only had 6,000 combat-ready soldiers out of its 130,000 active military personnel.
Ukraine got some foreign help. By early 2015 Ukraine, the U.S., Britain and Canada established JMTG-U (Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine) and set up three new training sites in Ukraine. To prevent the loss of more territory, Ukraine was in desperate need of updated weapons and equipment. Fortunately, Ukraine was the place where the pre-1991 Soviet Union concentrated most of its reserves of weapons and equipment during the Cold War, for battles with NATO that never happened. Ukraine also contained a large proportion of the Soviet factories producing military equipment and these as well as all those stored weapons became Ukrainian when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Ukraine became independent. The corruption in Ukraine did not help because some of the best weapons were sold off and much of the money stolen by government officials, rather than used for the defense of Ukraine. By 2016, due to much improved training, 77 percent of its 260,000 active military personnel (75 percent of then conscripts) were combat ready. Ukraine’s troops had also received more modern tanks, APCs, and many other types of combat equipment.
The Russian-backed Donbas rebels, calling themselves the United Armed Forces of Novorossiya, consisted of many different armed groups that were run by the Donetsk Operational Command. This headquarters was established by Russia in May 2016. While the rebels were primarily militia, they eventually formed two tank battalions and several other specialized units while the rest were light infantry. Eventually, rebels formed two corps headquarters, one for DPR and one for LNR. The rebel militias initially used only equipment that was produced in Ukraine prior to 2014. By the end of 2014 that changed and the rebels began using weapons that were not available in Ukraine. This eventually included Russian military equipment that had never been exported.
The DPR received more of these obviously Russian made weapons, including late model MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems) and tanks. Despite this Russia continued to deny supplying arms to the rebels, despite Ukrainian forces capturing some of it and publishing photos. A growing number of “rebels” were also captured who admitted they were Russian soldiers. Among such obviously Russian equipment encountered (and sometimes captured from the rebels) were armored vehicles modified with Russian components. These included T-72B3 and T-72BA tanks, BTR-82AM infantry fighting vehicles, BPM-97 armored personnel carriers, Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems, GAZ Vodnik multipurpose vehicles, late model MT-LB (M1970) Multi-Purpose Tracked Vehicles, MRO-A self-contained, disposable single shot 72.5 mm rocket launchers, Kornet anti-tank missiles, ASVK anti-materiel rifles, and VSS sniper rifles. The conflict in Donbas was notable for the large number and multiple types of armored vehicles operated by the rebels. Still, there was no evidence that the rebels had established facilities to repair or upgrade so many vehicles.
While Ukrainian forces were resolute and brave in halting the Russian supported rebels, it was obvious that Ukraine would have to be supplied with more effective weapons and equipment to deal with the increasing quantities of artillery, armored vehicles and electronic warfare gear the rebels were receiving from Russia. Before 2014 the Ukrainian government refused to upgrade and expand the domestic arms industry because of the expense and opposition from corrupt procurement bureaucrats. The upsurge in patriotism in Ukraine during 2014, which also surprised the Russians, enabled Ukraine to quickly and effectively enact production and procurement reforms. This was remarkably effective and by mid-2015 the Russian backed rebels, despite all their new weapons and seeming endless supplies of ammo, were confronted with a stalemate that has become a military buffer zone between Ukraine and Russia. The focus of this rearmament process was the utilization of the existing weapons infrastructure within Ukraine and conducting repairs and refurbishment of existing equipment. By February 2018 the Ukrainian Armed Forces were larger and better equipped than ever before. At that point, Ukraine had 200,000 active-duty military personnel. This included successfully integrating most of the volunteer territorial defense battalions into the armed forces.
There were also developments on the diplomatic front that discouraged the Russians. In February 2019, amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution went into force, confirming Ukraine’s intentions to become a member of both the European Union (EU) and NATO. In preparation for joining NATO, Ukraine is advancing significantly in the maintenance and development of Ukraine’s internal arms industry (keeping the money circulating in Ukraine) and donating or selling surplus equipment and spare parts to users of Soviet manufactured equipment that Ukraine is already using. Examples include decommissioned tanks, helicopters, and both transport and combat aircraft. In addition to tanks, Ukraine is also developing new equipment such as the BTR-4 APC, with serial production set to begin in 2019. Since the beginning of fighting in Donbas, BTR-4s have been successfully deployed by the Ukrainian ground forces and have proven to be highly effective on the battlefield. The new APC has a BM-7 Parus turret with a 30 mm automatic cannon, Baryer anti-tank guided missile system, 30 mm automatic grenade launcher, and 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun. Fire control is digitized and the APC is capable of destroying enemy armored vehicles at a range of 5 km. The new BTR-4 has a new engine and drive system as well.
In April 2019, with a total of 250,000 personnel, Ukraine’s military forces were the third largest in Europe. Those forces were primarily composed of ethnic Ukrainians, making the military more cohesive than the general population. The Ukrainian military was now mostly a volunteer force, mainly because everyone is now convinced of the benefits of having highly motivated recruits rather than a lot of unenthusiastic conscripts. This large force was necessary to monitor and guard key locations in Ukraine such as the eastern border to Donbas, access from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait to the port of Mariupol, and to defend the Ukrainian Navy base in Odessa.
An increasingly capable military was a high priority for Ukraine as Russia attempts to incorporate the rebel-controlled half of Donbass into Russia. Russia saw that merger blocked as long as the Ukrainian military remained capable of opposing such a move by force. Rebel-controlled Donbas will essentially become a buffer zone between Ukraine and Russia. This “buffer zone” will remain territory that is officially part of Ukraine and may disqualify Ukraine from joining NATO. This was clearly the strategy of Russia from the beginning. The existence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova should have been indicators of this. Russia took extreme measures to change this by invading all of Ukraine in 2022.