The Ukrainian army, a featherweight against the Russian steamroller?

As the United States sounded the alarm on Tuesday, now judging that Russia could attack Ukraine at any time, the memory of the Russian army quickly taking over Ukrainian soldiers in 2014 has rekindled area. However, Kiev has greatly improved its defense capabilities, in particular thanks to the aid of NATO countries. 

Washington, increasingly alarmist, now assures that “Russia can attack Ukraine at any time”. London, more and more concrete, sends military equipment – mainly anti-tank weapons – to Kiev.

The Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, are becoming more insistent as the sound of Russian boots draws nearer across the border. Kiev knocked on the German door in the hope of obtaining military support from Berlin. So far, without success.

A painful military awakening in 2014

There is no doubt that mobilization is accelerating. The Ukrainian camp wants to be ready in case of a Russian attack. Moscow denies, of course, any bellicose inclination in Ukraine and justifies the mobilization of soldiers at the border by the concern of seeing NATO strengthen its positions. But can the Ukrainian army really effectively oppose a Russian force made up, according to American estimates, of around 100,000 troops and tanks on the border, equipped with short-range missiles and supported by the air force?

In 2014, during the annexation of Crimea, Russian soldiers easily passed the Ukrainian obstacle. At the time, “the Ukrainian army was in a rather disastrous state”, recalls Julia Friedrich, specialist in security issues between Russia and Ukraine at the Global Public Policy Institute, a research center based in Berlin, contacted by France 24.

“The events of 2014-2015 were a brutal awakening to reality for Kiev, which then embarked on a vast military reform”, underlines Nicolo Fasola, specialist in security issues in the space of the former Union. Soviet at the University of Birmingham, contacted by France 24.

An effort that initially paid off. The military has grown from around 6,000 troops to nearly 150,000, according to a June 2021 US Congressional Research Service summary. “It now includes tanks, motorized infantry, artillery, missiles and anti-aircraft defense units”, underline the authors of this note.

Kiev has also made a substantial financial effort to modernize its army. The share of the national budget allocated to security has increased from 1.5% of GDP in 2014 to more than 4.1% in 2020, according to official data from the World Bank . This is, compared to national resources, more than most NATO countries and similar to Russia’s military expenditure.

American missiles and Turkish drones

Moreover, Ukraine is no longer alone against Russia. Since 2014, NATO, as an organization, and certain member countries “have provided considerable aid, which is equivalent to around 14 billion dollars”, estimates Nicolo Fasola.

It was mainly the United States that provided equipment, such as radio equipment, military transport trucks and more than 200 Javelin anti-tank missiles. The United Kingdom , Poland and even Lithuania also sent defensive weapons.

Even Turkey came to help Ukraine by selling it its famous Bayraktar TB2 drones. “If the delivery of American Javelin missiles to Kiev has caused a lot of ink to flow, the sale of Turkish drones worries Moscow just as much,” assures the Washington Post . “It is true that these machines proved decisive in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict , but it is difficult to know what impact they could have in a possible conflict with Russia, as the configuration is so different”, specifies Julia Friedrich.

But the modernization of the Ukrainian army does not pass only by the quantitative one. “There has been enormous progress in terms of training and preparation for combat”, assures Gustav Gressel, specialist in Russian military issues at the European Council for International Relations, contacted by France 24. For him, one of the main Achilles’ heels of the Ukrainian defense system came from the military doctrines which had been elaborated by the Russians during the Soviet era. “Moscow therefore knew perfectly well what to expect and could prepare accordingly,” summarizes this expert.

Hence the importance of the training provided by Western instructors in bases such as the NATO training center, established near Lviv, on the Polish border. “This allowed officers and soldiers to unlearn old reflexes that were too predictable for Moscow,” adds Gustav Gressel.

The other asset of the Ukrainian army comes from its soldiers. “Most signed up in 2014-2015. So it’s a voluntary act to defend the homeland, which means they’re highly motivated and have high morale,” said Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation who worked in Ukraine on military reform of the country. country, contacted by France 24. “Between the Javelin missiles, the drones and the morale of the troops, the Ukrainian army has become a formidable adversary”, he adds.

Aviation, poor relation of the Ukrainian army
Especially since these soldiers have all gained experience from the conflict in the Donbass region , where Ukraine has been fighting for more than seven years against Moscow-backed separatists.

The situation in the Donbass is, however, a double-edged sword for Ukraine. “It is a low-intensity conflict, quite close to guerrilla warfare, and this has led the West and Kiev to focus on military doctrines and equipment adapted to this type of confrontation, whereas in the event of attack from Russia, it will probably be very different”, summarizes Nicola Fasola. Concretely, for example, “the Americans provided sniper rifles to the Ukrainian army to counter Russia, which uses the Donbass as a training ground for its own snipers”, emphasizes Gustav Gressel. But this kind of weapons will not be of much use against Russian tanks crossing the border.

The specificity of the clashes in the Donbass, made in particular of skirmishes, did not lead Kiev to use its warplanes either. Ukraine has modernized it very little, and in the opinion of all the experts interviewed by France 24, the air force remains the poor relation of the Ukrainian army. Most bombers or fighters are over 30 years old, the pilots are poorly trained and poorly paid. “That’s why if Russia decides to attack, using its planes correctly, air support should quickly give them a decisive advantage, despite all the modernization of the Ukrainian army”, believes Gustav Gressel. 

Deterrent effect?

“Anyway, it will be very hard for Ukraine and its allies to balance the balance of power if Russia decides to attack”, recognizes Julia Friedrich. Which is not to say that UK equipment deliveries are useless. “They have a strategic and material value”, assures Dumitru Minzarari, specialist in conflicts in Eastern Europe at the German Institute of International Affairs, contacted by France 24. “From a strategic point of view, this indicates that there is a significant possibility that the country providing this military support will decide to become even more involved if an armed conflict breaks out”, underlines this researcher.

Furthermore, “the Ukrainian army can, thanks to this equipment, inflict additional damage on invading Russian forces, which can have a deterrent effect. The anti-tank weapons supplied by the United Kingdom are a good illustration of this: any Russian offensive will necessarily involve the maneuvers of armored vehicles, and if Ukraine has modern armament to counter them, this may lead Moscow to reconsider its assessment of the cost/benefit ratio of an offensive”, concludes Dumitru Minzarari.

This is why Glen Grant, of the Baltic Security Foundation, believes that the most urgent need to provide the Ukrainian army is “anything that can strengthen the mobility and the resistance of the brigades, such as ambulances, transport vehicles, radios. Because the longer Ukraine can prolong the fighting, the bloodier it will be for Russia, which will be all the more dissuasive,” he said. 

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